Jack White

The Ministry of Law

After four years at West Point and five years on Active Duty in the U.S. Army, Jack White found himself at a crossroads—he knew he wanted to continue his education. What form that would take was the pivotal question. Already an ordained minister, would he continue on to Divinity School or would he apply to law school, following in the footsteps of his preacher-turned-lawyer father?

The decision was not an easy one. Jack had grown up in the church, given his first sermon before he was even a teenager, and, for most of his life, knew Sunday only as “The Lord’s Day.” “I toiled over this decision for a while,” Jack recalls. “Ultimately, where I arrived is that the law is my ministry. That is where I get my joy. It informs why I practice law, the type of law I practice, the manner in which I select and embrace clients, and how I practice. Part of what my clients pay for is for me to take the burden that is on their shoulders, to lift it, and to put it on mine. That’s my way of ministering. That’s why I do what I do.”

“‘The greatest sermon is not what you say or do in the pulpit. The greatest sermon is what happens away from any church.’”

A few years later, Jack was clerking for Federal Appellate Judge Samuel Alito, who went on to be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. There he witnessed the commitment and dedication the profession of law required, and vowed to devote himself to his clients and ministry. “I was working ungodly hours, and one weekend afternoon I go in to work at the Judge’s chambers,” remembers Jack. “Judge Alito was in his chambers, too, on a Sunday afternoon. I didn’t want to bother him, but at one point we both ended up at the printer, so I casually inquired, ‘Sir, it’s Sunday. Why are you here?’ And, he replied, ‘Jack, that thirty minutes of oral argument might be the most important thirty minutes of those litigants’ lives. They deserve a few minutes of my time on Sunday.’ And that stuck with me—he wasn’t at risk of losing his job; federal judges enjoy lifetime appointments. He had nothing to lose by being a little more relaxed with his devotion. But, because he knew how important it was to someone else, he would not. I never forget that. That informs my practice today.”

Jack’s devotion to his clients, and his commitment to treating his practice as his ministry, has brought him to a place of great professional success and personal satisfaction. Today, he is a Partner at Fluet, Huber + Hoang PLLC (FH+H), a growing firm with over thirty lawyers and a tremendous array of talent. “What we have become is a one-stop shop for companies in growth,” explains Jack. “So if you are thinking about forming a company, that’s us. Or setting up your corporate organization, that’s us. Employment matters, from commencement and termination, to policies and practices, to identifying the best types of employment relationships. We work with entities engaged in international business; we assist companies with export compliance. We assist companies with intellectual property and branding issues. And, we walk with companies through consummation of the business life cycle, which is often a sale or other form of exit. We handle a wide variety of M&A activities. So, what we’ve built is a one-stop shop for growing businesses.”

The firm’s named Partners, Joe Fluet, Jennifer Huber, and Jack’s West Point classmate France Hoang, each came out of large, prominent, national law firms before setting off on their own. Jack, too, came to the firm with an impressive resume that boasted experience with large national firms. “All of them had military backgrounds or ties,” says Jack. “So, they had a vision. From the outset, there was a focus on providing quality service to companies and entities operating in the national defense and government contracting sector. That vision benefitted from skill sets developed in larger national firms. A few years after the firm was up and running, I got a call. It was France Hoang, and he says to me, ‘Jack, how would you like to take a big cut in pay?’”

Jack flew out to visit the firm, and was intrigued by the idea of joining a company so new. “I’d spent my career in large national firms where the client is sometimes a number,” admits Jack. “So I came in and I saw a lot that we could do, most of which we are now doing.” Today, Jack leads FH+H’s employment practice, as well as serving as outside general counsel to a variety of companies during their growth and development.

“We have a client right now who is a good example of what we do,” describes Jack, “a gentleman who owns a professional services company. He built up his practice over the past 35-40 years, and it is an exemplary practice. At this juncture, he is thinking of exiting. Now, that’s not just the sale of a company-that’s his baby. He built it from nothing. So, it requires a different level of attention and we can help with that. Of course, we can help with the legal and regulatory requirements, but the personal component of this transaction is also important. Some employees have been with this owner for decades; he’s not going to let them flounder. They matter to him, so they matter to us. He wants any employees who may stay behind when he leaves to have excellent benefits, because he is a good and honorable man. Now, some attorneys don’t focus on those types of factors, but they matter to us.”

Back when Jack was a young minister in Georgia, he received advice from an older mentor that stuck with him. Jack was not yet married, did not yet have children, and was not yet sure what career path he planned to pursue. “A lot of life, I had not yet lived,” recalls Jack. “He said to me, ‘The greatest sermon is not what you say or do in the pulpit. The greatest sermon is what happens away from any church.’ And I think for me that is true. The greatest sermons are not what I do when I open up the Word and preach scripture to people. The greatest sermons are when I am dealing with clients, advocating on behalf of a client, or interacting with opposing counsel.”

The White family valued education highly; so highly, in fact, that it seems one of Jack’s parents was always in school.

Growing up the son of a pastor-turned lawyer-turned pastor again, Jack had plenty of exposure to both. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, California to two parents who grew up in the segregated South. His father is from Louisiana, his mother South Carolina, and both had been subjected to a great deal of racism. Jack’s maternal grandfather, in fact, died of injuries sustained from a KKK beating after several hospitals refused to admit him. “Their lives were riddled with experiences that made them cautious in their interactions,” says Jack somberly. “But, their solution was not to be angry or to become resentful, it was to perform and achieve.”

The White family valued education highly; so highly, in fact, that it seems one of Jack’s parents was always in school. When Jack was born, his mother was putting his father through law school. A few years later, his father was in practice while his mother attended graduate school. After that, his father got an MBA, and following the MBA, his mother went back for her Ed.D. Jack and his younger sister were pushed academically, almost to a fault. They barely participated in extra-curriculars, with athletics and socializing falling by the wayside in favor of constant studying. The kids were even forbidden from holding jobs, although Jack thought he found away around his parents’ rules with his tutoring business.

In secret, Jack began offering tutoring to struggling students in his school, accepting payment in cash or whatever the other kids might have to offer; he’d take gifts, sneakers, or any kind of “in kind” payment in exchange for his lessons. But many years later, Jack discovered he hadn’t been keeping a secret from his parents after all; it was the other way around. His father confessed that, as a school board member, if he heard about a struggling student, he would often refer their parents to Jack. “The whole time I thought I was getting one over,” marvels Jack, “and my father was feeding me business!” Jack’s father later shared that he was unwilling to penalize the very ingenuity that would later lead Jack to professional success.

In LA, the family lived in suburban neighborhoods, eager to access the best schools and opportunities, but Jack’s parents were careful to surround their children with exposure to their own culture as well. Their friends were other successful African-American couples and families who served as a reminder that he could grow up to be anything; a lawyer, a doctor, a professor, a businessman. They also attended predominately black churches, and Jack’s father continued to preach from time to time, even after leaving the ministry for the law. Jack himself learned how to deliver sermons at an early age, speaking from the pulpit and receiving praise from the congregation for his ability to move them.

Still, attending a majority-white school presented challenges. Jack recalls that, after he won an election for Student Body President, some students egged his house, screaming racial slurs and insults he had only previously heard on TV. Still, he kept his head up and continued to achieve—through his early completion of high school at a young age.

During his last year of high school, Jack won a national high school oratorical contest sponsored by the American Legion. Thousands of students from all across the country participated, and Jack was flown out with a handful of others for the finals in Boise, Idaho. “I know how busy my parents were,” says Jack. “At the time, I knew it academically, but looking back I appreciate it even more. But, when I was at the finals in Boise, I looked up and my father was there. In the midst of all of life’s demands, my father showed up. To this day, I have no idea how he did it. He just showed up. And, that mattered to me. The lesson I took out of that is, presence matters. I remember that with my own kids.” Today, Jack is a member of the American Legion, and, coming full circle, even gets to judge the competition sometimes.

After he won the top prize, Jack received a phone call. “It’s the President,” said the receptionist at his hotel. “The President of what?” asked Jack. As it turned out, it was President George H.W. Bush on the phone, calling to congratulate young Jack on his performance. This too, left a lasting impression. “From that call, I learned, you’re never too busy to do what’s important,” reflects Jack, “I’m very careful never to say to anyone, I’m too busy. I will say, ‘I regret that I failed to give this the attention it deserved, and I will correct that.’”

Their friends were other successful African-American couples and families who served as a reminder that he could grow up to be anything; a lawyer, a doctor, a professor, a businessman.

By this time, Jack already had his heart set on attending one of the service academies. Of his desire to serve, Jack says, “I had travelled to other countries, primarily through the church. My father did missionary work. And, even considering the historic flaws of our great nation, it remains a great nation. Take all of the failures, at least we have made promises on paper, as part of our Constitution. We are not doing everything we should do as a nation all of the time. But, the commitment is there. So, I wanted to serve. I believed at my core that it would be a good foundation for everything else that I wanted to do.”

Jack’s time at West Point was tough, but rewarding. He made lifelong friends, many of whom he spends time with to this day, and describes himself as something of a “goody-goody” who held the rare distinction of never being disciplined. After graduation he spent five years on Active Duty, including a couple of years overseas in the Republic of Korea. There, he recalls serving as a Headquarters Company Executive Officer and learning an important lesson about leadership. “One of the things that I did was, I got licensed on every vehicle my soldiers had to drive,” remembers Jack. “It ticked off my Commander because a young officer had no business operating those vehicles. But, I didn’t want to ask any of my soldiers to do anything that I could not do myself.”

This is a leadership philosophy Jack follows to this day, insisting on learning even the most minute details of the office. “When I came to FH+H from Texas, I was sight unseen. I looked good on paper,” he explains, “but they didn’t know me. So, during my first year, everything that anybody else in the office did, I did. I took their positions, I wrote my own motions. I learned how to work the copy machine, I sent my own faxes. Anything anybody else did, I wanted to be able to do it. That’s something I learned in Korea.”

When Jack was stationed at Ft. Stewart, Georgia, he went through the process of becoming ordained and began ministering. It was at the end of his time on active duty that he came upon the crossroads, and chose to attend Pepperdine Law School in California. It was there he met his wife, Liz, who was a little behind him. “She is a good woman,” smiles Jack. “She was unimpressed by stuff that is fluff, stuff other people get impressed with. I was Editor-in-Chief of the Law Review, and she was like, ‘So?’ That was healthy for me. Also, I am very linear, and Liz lives life like she’s walking through a field of daisies. But, that’s why it works.”

Although Jack had left active duty, and, as a reservist, had only planned to commit one weekend a month to the Army, he was just beginning his 2L year when 9/11 happened. Suddenly, his commitments were overwhelming; he was in uniform 4-5 days a week. “I think it pushed me harder,” reflects Jack, “and I think that might be part of the reason that I perform well.”

Despite this challenge, he thrived academically. At his graduation, his mother gave him a pen, a burgundy Montblanc that he carries everywhere to this day, referring to it as his prize possession. “My mother had this saying, a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. ‘Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.’ She always treated me—always—like she knew what I was going to be.”

Jack had no trouble quickly finding a position at a prominent firm. However, he was interested in clerking, in seeing the law from the judge’s perspective. He flew to meet with several judges, but none made such an impression as then Judge Alito on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Although it was Columbus Day and the offices were closed, Judge Alito—of Italian descent—had come into his chambers to speak with Jack anyway. Not only that, he spoke with Jack at length, treating him as an important guest. After the meeting, Jack called the other judges he had planned to meet with and cancelled the interviews. He knew he had to clerk for Alito.

“To this day, I have no idea how he did it. He just showed up. And, that mattered to me.”

After a year clerking for then-Judge Alito, he returned to big law in San Francisco, only to find himself called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee as Alito went through the confirmation process to become a U. S. Supreme Court Justice. Shortly after his confirmation, Justice Alito called Jack. He invited Jack to clerk for him at the Supreme Court. Jack told Justice Alito he had to check with Liz; the young couple had just bought a house, and she was pregnant. Liz, ever supportive, asked him why he hadn’t accepted right away, and Jack called back to accept. At the Supreme Court, Jack found that the scope of his work was far greater than it had ever been before; instead of deciding cases, the Court was deciding issues. Jack worked himself to the bone, gaining valuable insight for his career.

After another year clerking for Justice Alito, Jack again returned to big law, and was practicing in Houston, Texas, when he received the fateful call from his old West Point classmate France Hoang.

As a leader, Jack emphasizes empathy, and perspective, above all else. It’s crucial to be able to see situations from another’s point of view: from the client’s, from opposing counsel’s, from the judge’s. “I think as a leader, before anything, you have to be able to get a picture of what your constituents, or what the people you serve are seeing,” reflects Jack. “So you can either describe your perspective and persuade, or bring them over so that they can see what you see. I respect that tremendously from people who are leading me. Bring me over.”

To young people entering the working world today, Jack reminds them not to take anything for granted. “Every day matters,” counsels Jack. “You’re writing your resume every day. And it’s not just in years, it’s in days. I think of life that way, because all I’m given is today. I keep a list every day, of things that are important. Today, one of those things is, attend my son’s basketball game. The odd thing is, he performs better when I show up, I don’t have to say a word, but if I’m there, he plays better. So I’ve got to get there. Because every day matters.”

Jack has worked to build a life consistent with his values of empathy, of showing up, of leading with compassion. He’s built a law practice that embodies his mission to minister to his clients. And he’s brought his faith with him every step of the way. “You could ask me what I’ll be doing in ten or twenty years. Even in five years, only God knows. I know what I think I want, but you’ve heard the old joke ‘If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.’ What I know is that today, I am where I’m supposed to be.”

Jack White

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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