Real Property Law

Interview with CLA Executive Director Ona Dosumnu

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CLA Executive Director Ona Dosumnu
CLA Executive Director Ona Dosumnu

I want to welcome Ona Dosumnu, the new Executive Director of the CLA, who Roland Brandel has said is a superlative and proven leader. We are really excited to have you on board. Ona, you are going through couple of moves here in the last few months? How is the personal move going?

Thanks, J.R. I’ve settled into my new home nicely and am really enjoying Sacramento so far. Thanks to Amazon Prime, I had everything I needed to be comfortable in my apartment already delivered when I got there.

Did you move from D.C. to San Francisco and then to Sacramento?

No, I didn’t have to move twice. As some of our members may know, we just moved into CLA’s Sacramento headquarters on January 15, but we had temporary space in the same building, which we used to interview candidates and for meetings. I worked from that space, from home and one day I even worked from the office of one of our members, CLA Vice Chair, Chip Wilkins. I’m really happy for us to be moved in at the new space, though.

It sounds like you must have been living out of Airbnb’s for the last month. Has that all settled down?

I was actually pretty efficient about finding an apartment, so there wasn’t too much AirBnB’ing. That said, when I came in December to finalize my housing arrangements, I stayed in an AirBnB right around the corner from the place we ultimately rented and it was a great chance to get to know my new neighborhood.

Now, tell me about moving of the offices. What has been challenging about that move?

The move has been very exciting. Our Associate Executive Director, Tricia Horan, and her team did an extraordinary job with everything. Of course, there are still punch-list items to fix in the new space and we’re still figuring some things out but, on balance, the logistics were pretty smooth.

The really exciting part of the move was welcoming so many new team members to CLA! We spent most of Tuesday, January 15, orienting staff and getting to know one another. The positive energy and buzz was palpable and contagious.

The new CLA Executive Team
Top row (right to left): Saul Bercovitch and Tej Baath
Bottom row (right to left): Linda Geery, Tricia Horan, Ona Dosunmu, Ellen Miller
The new CLA Executive Team
Top row (right to left): Saul Bercovitch and Tej Baath
Bottom row (right to left): Linda Geery, Tricia Horan, Ona Dosunmu, Ellen Miller

How much of the staff is staying with the CLA? 

As with so many things, it depends on how you count. Fully half of the team is new and if you count people who joined after CLA became CLA, such as Ellen Miller, and people who were temps that we decided to keep, I’m guessing that 60-75% of the team is new.

Are there unexpected costs and expenses because our infrastructure came from the state bar?

I think the key word in your question is “unexpected.” We are still getting invoices and determining what unanticipated needs we might have, so I expect there to be some such costs but as I mentioned, on balance, the move was incredibly well-managed, so I don’t expect a lot that wasn’t anticipated.

Any other move challenges?

Sure, but they’re pretty small in the scheme of things. I realized today that because my office has one glass wall, I’m going to need a headset and a white noise machine if I don’t want everyone around me to hear every call I make. (I’m pretty loud.)

Two main things were brought up when you were hired as goals: grow our membership and expand our member benefits.

What are some ideas the CLA is considering to grow our membership? Are we expanding beyond attorneys?

To start, we have a lot of active, licensed attorneys in California who aren’t members yet. We also want to convert our unpaid CYLA members into paying Section members. We are taking a close look at options for structuring membership and dues. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows bar associations because many are revamping their membership approaches and options. The A.B.A., for example, will be moving from something like 157 price points to 5 price points. Our Director of Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives, Ellen Miller, has done a great deal of research on the membership structures of other bar associations around the country. Members will be hearing more about this over the coming months.

In terms of non-attorney members, we already have some. For example, some Environmental Law Section members are consultants. I would be surprised if we ever grew to have very many non-attorney members but having some individuals from related industries, like e-discovery companies, is nice.

Is it also a matter of invigorating our existing membership? What is CLA looking at to invigorate the membership?

It’s really both. I really think the new people coming in to the profession are the future of CLA, so anything we can do to engage the CYLA folks is critical. One of the key new members of my senior executive team is Tej Baath. Tej is our Director of Marketing and Membership. He has a great background in digital and online marketing. I’m confident that he’s going to be able to effectively tap in to the younger generation and meet them where they are, which is online and on social media.

For example, in our section, the real property section, the majority of our members are in the Los Angeles area, so we are trying to hold more LA-centric CLE’s and social events. Any ideas like that being considered?

I’m always a fan of social and networking events! We are exploring a variety of ways to engage members including networking and social events.

What are your most important new hires?

Great question. I have told the team that one of the most critical factors for CLA’s success is having the right people in the right positions. As I mentioned, we just onboarded 15 new team members and among the “old” staff, many have only been with CLA for a few months. Except for one new Section Coordinator, I think we’re going to pause on new hires until we’ve absorbed the people who just started this week and until we have a chance to see how everyone is working out.

What are the most pressing openings or new hires?

Everyone on the team is important and everyone contributes but the Section Coordinators are particularly critical in terms of partnering with the Sections to help them with their events, meetings and MCLE programs. And the key open position on my senior executive team was the Director of Marketing and Membership. That role has now been filled by Tej. 

Ona Dosunmu working on iPad.
Ona Dosunmu working on iPad.

Who can I call when I have a complaint?


I really do want to hear from members and while I can’t promise that I can fix every complaint that’s brought to me, I can promise to try. We’re very committed to trying to get to “yes” and to having a pro-active, member-service oriented, “can-do” approach. My phone number is 916-516-1702.

I’m really curious to hear about your experiences with the Brookings Institution. I read somewhere you helped establish an overseas center for Brookings in New Delhi, India?

Yes, I did. And what an experience that was! Any members who have worked in India know it can be a quite challenging legal and cultural environment in which to do business but I also found it quite rewarding.

What were the challenges with that?

You know, you would think that because we’re both English speaking common-law countries that it should be seamless but it’s considerably different than say, working in Canada, where I’ve also set up an entity, largely because of the dramatic cultural, historical and political differences. I really love India and hope to take an extended trip to experience the country beyond New Delhi and the Taj Mahal.

Did anything from that experience change how you live or think?

That’s a profound question. I’m sure it did in many ways that I’m not even aware of. In other ways, perhaps I was better equipped for some of the cultural differences than others. I’m married to a Nigerian immigrant and traveled to Nigeria when our children were young. I’ve also spent a lot of time among Nigerians in the D.C. area. If your interactions with Nigerians tend to be with the educated elite, which is often the case— then you might expect Nigerian culture to be similar to U.S. culture but it’s not at all. That doesn’t answer your question but it does tell you a little bit about me. I really value diversity and try hard to build bridges across cultural differences. I think that’s an important skill. 

What were some other rewarding projects you did at Brookings?

While it certainly wasn’t “rewarding” while we were experiencing it, I learned a great deal from Brookings being the target of two New York Times investigative journalism pieces. I learned that I’m good with “crisis communications,” that I can think beyond the immediate issue to possible long-term implications and that I can help those around me remain calm and approach things a bit more dispassionately—something that’s hard to do when you believe you’re being unfairly attacked.

You were general counsel at Brookings and are a member of the D.C. Bar, tell me about your different roles as an attorney during your career?

So I began my professional life as a real estate attorney and morphed into a transactional lawyer with an emphasis on energy-industry transactions and project finance. When I left private practice, I went to Brookings to help manage one of its research programs. While there, one thing led to another and I became Brookings’s first General Counsel. Building the legal function for the organization from the ground up and building my team was incredibly rewarding. While in-house at Brookings, I was very active and held a number of volunteer roles in the Association of Corporate Counsel, which was also quite rewarding. It also means that I know what it’s like to be a volunteer leader in a bar association. As I told the board and the search committee when they interviewed me, I’ve done pretty much everything there is to do in a bar association except run it, so the opportunity to serve the volunteer leaders of CLA as Executive Director is a career highlight!

Ona Dosunmu
Ona Dosunmu

What was or has been your favorite part of being an attorney?

My favorite part of being an attorney is working with others and helping to solve their problems.

What was or has been your most challenging part about being an attorney?

As a former “big law” transactional attorney and a former in-house lawyer, I think one of the most challenging parts of the job arose when there were no good options or when, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find a way to accomplish an objective. I think I would have a much different answer if I practiced family law or criminal law but the stakes for my clients were never life or death.

Did the D.C. Bar do anything interesting?

I think the D.C. Bar is quite interesting and I know they’re watching what’s happening in California carefully. I think there are some things that the D.C. Bar does well that we might explore–bearing in mind the differences between a city-wide unified bar and a statewide voluntary bar. One area in which the D.C. bar excels, which we might want to consider adapting for California down the line, is the resources they make available to solo and small firms to help them run their businesses. 

Any stories to share on that front with people we may know about on the national front?

Funny you should ask. As it turns out, one of my outside counsel friends took me to lunch to celebrate landing the CLA Executive Director job and we saw Justice Elena Kagan as we left the restaurant. Not long after that, another friend took me to dinner to celebrate and I saw Nancy Pelosi on the way out of the restaurant.

Did you rub shoulders with Barack Obama at one point? What was that like?

To say we “rubbed shoulders” would be a stretch but he did come to give a speech at Brookings and I was in the audience. Does that count?

Where were you born and raised, D.C.?

I was actually born and spent my childhood in Michigan. I was born in a place called Muskegon and later moved to the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph area, which is a lovely place to vacation in the summer and great place to be from.

Do you have other ties to California? What are they?

You’re not the first to ask what my tie to California is but the truth is that I came for CLA. I believe that the potential for CLA is so great and the chance to be part of building it so incredible that I couldn’t say no.

Tell me about your time at Howard.

Howard was a great experience. For those who may not know, Howard is an “HBCU,” which stands for “historically black college or university”. We Howard alums would say it’s the best, most prestigious and most important HBCU but of course we’re biased. I learned and grew so much during my time there. I was active in student government and got my first taste of leadership—something I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to do had I attended another university.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

Who inspires you from the Howard walk of fame?

That’s an easy one—the great Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Have met people like Kamala Harris? Any stories to share?

I’ve not yet had the opportunity to meet Senator Kamala Harris. As a Howard Alum, I think I can nonetheless claim her as one of my own and I share Californians pride in Senator Harris.

Why journalism? Did you want to be a writer?

Doesn’t everyone want to be a writer at some point?

Actually, the truth is much less interesting (though I do dream of writing a novel one day). Parental pressure is the real answer. My mother was a housewife, a school teacher and later, after my father died, a single mother. She did an incredible job raising my three siblings and me but she wasn’t very sophisticated. I wanted to major in political science or history. She thought journalism would give me more job security. Little did she know . . .

OK, hard question here. What do you think about the state of journalism in our modern words of blogs, twitter, facebook, etc? Is there a true assault on the truth?

Wow. Another deep question. Yes. I do think there’s been an erosion of truth as a value. I think it’s related to the devaluation of expertise and the assault on institutions. I think these phenomena are all related and are all bad for democracy. Our society is too complex, fast-paced, technologically dependent and inter-dependent for us not to have a shared understanding of reality.

What inspired you about sociology in college?

Procrastination. I didn’t have a full-time, permanent job so staying in school studying a social science I enjoyed seemed like an interesting option at the time.

Ona Dosumnu at CLA orientation.
Ona Dosumnu at CLA orientation

Undergrad or Law School, which is better? Why?

That’s a tough one. In some ways Howard had the most profound impact on me in terms of developing an international outlook, learning about Black history and culture and developing great friendships. But I owe my livelihood to Georgetown, which is where I went to law school.

So your facebook profile has you with a photo of what looks like a triathlon number on. Is that or was that a big part of your life?

I wish I could say “is but the truth is more like “was”. My last major race was the Steelhead Half-Ironman in Benton Harbor Michigan, which I finished in 2016. Since then I’ve torn my meniscus and gained a few (dozen) pounds. That said, I just got my bike from D.C. and I look forward to at least returning to cycling and maybe joining a Masters Swim program.

What do you do to help balance your life with work?

Hopefully, cycling. I also enjoy food, wine, action-adventure movies and live music. I try to get to a yoga class once a week and I try to meditate, though that hasn’t become a habit yet.

What are some things our group can do to promote diversity with the African American and Hispanic communities?

I’m so glad you brought that up. Diversity is a high priority for CLA—it’s mission-critical. Building relationships and being good partners with some of the ethnic bars is a basic starting place. Personally, I’d like to see each Section’s Executive Committee reach out directly to groups that are under-represented on their Ex Com to invite applications. Bar relations and diversity is part of Ellen’s portfolio and I know she’s looking to work with each Section on these issues.

Is there something or are their plans to help promote more diversity among attorneys here in California? How can our group or everyday attorneys make a difference?

Again, this is part of Ellen Miller ’s portfolio. It’s also something about which I’m quite passionate. Diversity was part of my portfolio at Brookings and something I’ve worked on in various ways throughout my professional career. I think we have to start very early by exposing young people to the profession and we don’t have to re-invent the proverbial wheel in this regard. There are already programs that get lawyers into classrooms. I think one way CLA can help is by providing volunteers to efforts already underway by other organizations.

How about wellness? Can the CLA make a difference beyond drastic problems with substance abuse and create a more healthy bar? What are some ideas the CLA is examining?

Attorney wellness or well-being is an important topic and one that many bar associations are embracing. You and I have talked about this before. My own view is that CLA should offer resources to people in crisis. But also we owe it to our members and to the legal community to offer resources to help attorneys develop and maintain health, well-being and equilibrium so, hopefully, fewer find themselves in crisis. This is something I’m actively working on and it has generated a fair amount of interest among our members and friends.

If you were to make a goal for our real estate executive committee, what would you suggest?

I’m not going to impinge on Section autonomy by suggesting a goal for your Ex Com but if you really twisted my arm, I’d encourage you to find ways to engage CYLA. Newer lawyers are the future of the organization.

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