Celebrating 50 years in the practice of HR law, David R. Knowles of Cleveland’s Wegman Hessler Valore still embraces the constant of change

Tuesday May 14, 2024 Published in Corporate and Business, Labor & Employment
A business law attorney, David Knowles celebrates 50 years specializing in HR law with Wegman Hessler business law firm in Ohio.

As he drives to Wegman Hessler Valore’s Cleveland area headquarters, David R. Knowles reflects on a city that has undergone enormous transformation during his tenure there. The factories that once belched smoke have given way to sleek shopping centers and corporate campuses; the downtown streets that emptied after 5 p.m. bustle late into the night with restaurant and theatergoers. And once inside the office walls, the yellowed law books have given way to the glow of computer screens, and client meetings are as likely to happen via Zoom as across the conference table.

Celebrating 50 years as an attorney this month, Knowles has had a front-row seat to a half-century of change in both his hometown and chosen profession. Labor and employment law has been the one constant of his career, starting when a co-op job in a personnel department as an undergrad at Cleveland State University piqued his interest in its legal complexities.

“I realized the significance that the law had regarding that field,” Knowles said, gazing out at the clouded sky framed by a windowsill. “I then decided that I would go to law school.”

After earning his J.D. from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in 1973 and being admitted to the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA) in 1974, he embarked on a distinguished career representing employers in thorny union negotiations, discrimination claims, OSHA citations and more. The OSBA has certified him as a specialist in the area, an accolade fewer than 200 attorneys statewide can claim.

Though his hair has whitened, and his role has shifted to Of Counsel, Knowles still arrives at the office eager to dive into the latest developments in his field. He dismisses the notion of doing anything else with a wave of his hand.

“I like the idea of learning and trying to understand new things and why things are changing,” he explained. “Seeing the newness of different projects that people are working on – what it means, how it may come out. That’s what I’m interested in.”

It’s an interest that demands flexibility, a willingness to discard old assumptions and practices in favor of innovation. Early in his career, Knowles might disappear into the stacks of the law library for days to research an arcane point of case law; now the answer is a few keystrokes away. The intimacy of face-to-face negotiation has ceded ground to the efficiency of email, a mixed blessing in his view.

“I miss some of that [personal interaction], but again, that’s part of the change we have to embrace,” he said with a philosophical shrug.

The advice he wishes to impart on younger attorneys can be summed in a single word: Adaptability, citing John F. Kennedy’s maxim that “Change is the law of life.” A voracious reader of history, he takes the long view of cultural shifts.

“Whether it’s change in the law, change in practice and procedures, change in the attorneys you work with – all of those things continue to develop and be modified and adjust over the years,” he said. “It seems very difficult, but when you look back you say there was a purpose for it.”

Knowles credits his own successful navigation of the decades to a few simple habits:

  • Keeping daily and monthly to-do lists to stay on track amid competing priorities,
  • Following through, and doing what you say,
  • Maintaining open communication with clients, colleagues, and legal adversaries alike, and
  • Taking time to unplug, which for him means long weekends boating on Lake Erie, a pastime he took up as a child on family vacations to Marblehead and Catawba Island.

If his to-do list is shorter these days than at the height of his career, Knowles has no complaints. He is content, he says. The role of an active Of Counsel suits him, especially with the support of those who work with him at Wegman Hessler Valore.

“I’ve always relied on the other people in the firm. That’s what makes this firm so valuable,” he said. “As long as I’m not in the way too much, I like to stay involved.”

Colleagues say his leadership is as valuable as ever. Knowles attributes that to his passion for learning, increasingly evident as he successfully navigates a legal landscape that looks so different from the one he entered 50 years ago.

“David sets the example for being both a great attorney and a fantastic partner,” said Managing Partner Nathan Hessler. “Personally, I’ve learned a lot from him. There have been a lot of changes in employment law during his career, and he has been able to provide good counsel to a large subset of our clients, helping guide them through it all. He has such great knowledge on so many areas of employment law as well as the details of HR matters to do it correctly. You just have to be 100% immersed to get it right, and that’s what David has done for 50 years.”

When asked to share his secret to his successful career, Knowles said that it’s important to simply stay curious – to wake up each morning eager to find out what’s around the next bend.

“You just have to keep looking ahead,” he said, eyes straying to the window and to the landscape beyond. “Never believe you’ve seen it all. You haven’t.”

Wegman Hessler Valore specializes in business law for business leaders, applying legal discipline to solve business problems to help leaders run smarter. For over 50 years, this Cleveland law firm has provided full-service strategic legal counsel for closely held businesses, corporations, and individuals. Practice areas include: business law; municipal law; litigation; corporate governance; estate planning and wealth protection; intellectual property; family law for business owners; HR and employee matters; commercial real estate; business acquisition, and more. Get in touch to learn more.

Visit wegmanlaw.com or call us at (216) 642-3342.

Copyright © Wegman Hessler Valore. This information is for educational purposes. It does not reflect an attorney-client relationship with the author(s) or the firm. This information should not be used as a substitute for professional legal advice in specific situations.

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