We continue our monthly feature, “Upfront & Personal”, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.
Chris Young, General Counsel for Ironclad, a digital contracting platform, recently spoke to Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about leading by inspiration and how certain moments define you.
Rose Ors: What childhood memory brings you joy?
Chris Young: One of my favorite childhood memories is walking with my father through what I thought at the time was an enchanted forest. On the way home from preschool, my father and I would walk by a golf course that had a creek alongside it, draped by oak trees. We would go into that enchanted forest and look in the creek for crawdads, tadpoles, and frogs.
This is one of my favorite memories because it involves my father, who died when I was 21. It also reminds me that rich memories don’t have to cost a lot of money. We enjoy traveling in Europe with our sons, and I wonder if those trips are going to become their walk in an enchanted forest.
Rose Ors: What life moments have defined you?
Chris Young: The first defining moment was the death of my father. He was my best friend.
My father lived a life very different from my own. While he and my mother gave me a comfortable and secure life, his was neither of those things. He was from Watts. He ran away from a difficult home at age 12, joined a gang, and became a gang leader. He was incarcerated up until his early 30s. He never attended high school, but while in prison taught himself to read and write. Once out, he enrolled in community college through an educational opportunity program. He ultimately earned a master’s degree and, because he loved children, worked the rest of his life as a preschool teacher.
My father was a wise man, eerily so. He knew the way he had lived his life in his youth had taken a huge toll on his body and believed he would die relatively young. As a result, he was very intentional about his presence in my life. He spent as much time with me as possible — taking me to and from school every day and to and from every one of my football, basketball, and baseball practices and games. He wanted to teach me as much as he could about life, as early as possible. He was a father who showered his son with as much care and attention as he could.
My father’s death left me with this lasting impression that we have a finite amount of time on Earth. He taught me that what really matters is how we treat people, the impact we have on them, and the memories we create. He was focused on creating wonderful memories.
Speaking of memories, my father also gave me something very tangible to remind me of him. On my 24th birthday, my mother gave me a little package and said, “This is special. Something your father wanted me to give you when you were ready.” It turns out it was a cassette tape on which my father had recorded himself the night I was born. In his recording, he told me about his life and shared his predictions about what he thought my life would be like. What was incredible was that by the time I heard the tape, many of his predictions were starting to materialize. Like I said, he was eerily wise.
Rose Ors: Any other defining moments?
Chris Young: The births of my two sons have also been defining moments. When my older son was born five years ago, I had to decide whether being the father I aspired to be was important enough to consider making a career change. I decided that it was and left Keker, Van Nest & Peters, a law firm that I love to this day, to join a friend in building a startup company. While startups are demanding — and the one I joined was no exception — it gave me far more control of how and when I got my work done.
The birth of my second son provided an entirely different kind of defining moment. He was born prematurely and had to be taken into neonatal intensive care. His mother was recovering from the delivery and it fell on me to be with him while as he struggled to live outside the womb. I was with him in the infant intensive care unit and monitored — along with the nurses — his heart rate and oxygen intake. I remember this as if it happened today. I reached out to hold his tiny hand and that simple gesture caused his heart rate to stabilize and his breathing to relax — it was like a scene from a movie.
And, of course, another defining moment was marrying my partner in life. She has helped me become a better person. Her incredible kindness, calm, and understanding have nourished me and our family. She is able to remind me pretty regularly about the true value of life.
Rose Ors: In your career, you’ve left law firms you loved to take on an adventure.
Chris Young: That’s true. After graduating from Berkeley Law in 2005, I joined Morrison & Foerster. I loved working at MoFo primarily because I had an amazing assignment that lasted my entire first year. I co-led a pro bono case that challenged the constitutional integrity of the California High School Exit Exam. When that case essentially settled, I moved on to other corporate matters at the firm.
I left the firm because I had the chance to join the Obama campaign — specifically to serve as the deputy finance director for Northern California. The campaign was a wonderful and exhilarating journey for me. I got to know the president. I got to know Michelle. This experience was also life changing because I was on the campaign trail when I met and fell in love with my wife.
Rose Ors: Let’s pivot to your role today. How do you describe your leadership style?
Chris Young: I truly believe you are what you do, not what you say. So, I try to lead by doing more and talking less. I also believe that leading through inspiration is a far better way to lead than through fear.
I try to inspire the people I lead to build their careers around what they love to do and value in life. I also try to instill in them a greater sense of personal confidence so that they not only take on more calculated risks, but enjoy the process more.
Rose Ors: What person, living or dead, would you be thrilled to have over for dinner?
Chris Young: This is a tough way to close the interview because now I have to go to a meeting with tears in my eyes. It would be my father — just my father.