Art Havighorst II began his legal career at the law firm of Shanley & Fisher (n/ka/ Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP) in 1988 and remained with the firm in its Commercial Litigation practice group for over seven years before transitioning to his first in-house counsel position at V.S. Hovnanian Group. It was only a little over a year ago that Art left that company to become the General Counsel and VP of Administration and Operations for Safari Telecom, a telecommunications company based in Riverdale, NJ. Read on to find out whether Art’s decision to become a litigator cured the ‘acting bug’ he faced and how he enjoys spending his time outside the office.
What inspired you to go to law school?
It’s interesting, actually. I grew up in New York City where there were a number of specialized high schools. I was accepted to Stuyvesant, a math and science school, and also the High School of Performing Arts. At that time, I was interested in acting but as I thought about a future I realized it might not be so easy to pay the bills. The thought of waiting tables for years to make money was not appealing, so I decided being a lawyer might be a good alternative and chose to go to Stuyvesant. I grew up watching Perry Mason and all the courtroom drama shows with my mother, and realized that litigating draws on some of the same skills you need as an actor. Being on your feet and arguing a motion, answering the judge’s questions and dealing with cross examination during a trial involves a lot of improvisation, memory and persuasion. So, in all honesty, my initial decision to go to law school was more about curing my acting bug than a love for the law.
You loved litigating in the courtroom. As an in-house lawyer you rarely find yourself in a courtroom. Knowing this, how difficult was the decision to leave the law firm?
Being in a courtroom is the one thing I will always miss about being a litigator, but there were too many parts of private practice I didn’t like. Cases were going to court less and less. Around my fifth year at Shanley & Fisher I was doing mostly securities litigation which involved mostly arbitration. My wife was offered a huge opportunity in Ohio so we decided to take a risk and move there. I decided to try something new instead of pursing another law firm position. Interestingly, four months after our move to Ohio she was transferred back to New Jersey. When we returned, I chose to try in-house practice and took a position at Hovnanian.
Are there any particularly memorable matters or cases you worked on while at the firm?
I recall two really interesting pro bono matters. The first was a case that involved an appeal by inmates at New Jersey’s maximum security prison in Trenton. The DA thought the appeal was simply our clients’ attempt to stage a jail break. There were sharp shooters on the rooftop of the courthouse and it was pretty crazy. In the end, we weren’t successful but it was memorable – we kept the jury out for a couple of days -- and because it was so out of the realm of the typical matters I worked on. The other case that comes to mind is a capital murder death penalty case in Alabama. Everyone who worked on that case got a first-hand look at how our public defense system can so inadequately represent an indigent defendant’s interests, and his life. It was unbelievable how poorly the public defender handled the case; barely any investigation nor meaningful interviews of witnesses. Unfortunately nothing rose to a level where we could get the sentence overturned on appeal. It was heart breaking. I thoroughly enjoyed the work I did at the firm but those two matters really stand out for me. I also have fond memories of working with excellent lawyers who were also great people. I got to witness, and be a part of, great lawyering working at the firm.
Can you describe your current role of as General Counsel at Safari Telecom?
I actually spend the majority of my time on business functions as opposed to purely legal. I touch on everything across the company including financial, administrative and operational matters and am directly responsible for all of the company’s customer support. Safari Telecom is a great company, with a powerful vision and mission, and we do some very interesting work. We handle all the broadband and telecom for a host of major corporations (including many law firms) and we have a whole niche industry called the “events division” where we do very high profile but temporary events. For example, we provide all the broadband and telecom for major golf events, such as the Ryder Cup, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. Our clients love the experience we bring, because if we can handle a huge outdoor event where conditions and requirements change constantly, their office environment benefits greatly from our team’s knowledge base.
Before joining Safari Telecom in June 2013, you served as Vice President and General Counsel of V.S. Hovnanian Group, a residential real estate development and construction company, for over 15 years. What was the adjustment like to a new company in a new industry?
The residential real estate market in New Jersey had been declining for some time and I didn’t see any signs that it would be reviving anytime soon. Honestly, the work also became very rote and I enjoyed the planning aspects of development much more than the legal issues. The position at Safari offered a chance to learn a new industry, which is a powerful motivator for me, and the opportunity to do a lot of the things I love on the business side. The people I work with now, from the clients to coworkers, are just great and I’m really looking forward to the next decade or so. Safari has about 45 employees and we are continuing to grow.
What has been the most satisfying or rewarding thing you’ve worked on since joining the company?
The answer does not involve my legal background at all. One of the first things I was asked to do was get my hands around the company’s older, outdated software, determine and implement a new solution. The existing software was not supported anymore, and it took forever to train new employees because it was not intuitive at all. They had tried to implement new software over the years but each time people would resist and complain and then it would be dropped. I am not the most technologically savvy person, but I welcomed the challenge. Within six months of my starting at the company, we had the new operating and accounting software up and running and it was a relatively seamless transition. It was completely outside of my comfort zone but it was absolutely critical if we were going to be able to move the company forward and grow. The old software was taking a whole lot of energy and resources out of the company, and that time is now being put to far better use.
Do you have any advice for young associates?
I have three pieces of advice. First, keep learning and expanding your horizons. Embrace change and understand that the world is not standing still while you are at your computer toiling away. You can’t get so bogged down and myopic in the law that you forget about all the changes going on around you. Probably the most important thing over the next decade will be to become a “first adopter” with technology, and really understand the software you use – how to use it efficiently to save your time and your client’s money.
Second, constantly be thinking about your life. Take time every day for you. Exercise. Don’t eat out of the vending machine. Life is very, very fleeting. There’s no reason to be miserable. Make changes when you know you should.
Finally, learn the name of every single person at the firm who works in facilities, the mailroom, IT and administration, and be their friend. Understand what they do because they’re the ones that make your jobs a whole lot easier. They make sure your computer is working and the lights are on in your office when you need to be there. And never, ever, think you are above anyone else because you’re not.
Outside of work you are involved in a number of volunteer activities particularly with the town of Lake Luzerne in upstate New York. Why Lake Luzerne?
My involvement is really about community and establishing a sense of purpose. My wife, daughter and I live in Basking Ridge, New Jersey which is wonderful but there’s not a lot of diversity here. Lake Luzerne is very different from suburban NJ. The background and everyday existence for the children that grow up there is very unlike what most kids in Basking Ridge experience. We spend most weekends in Lake Luzerne and we really appreciate that my daughter gets to be around peers who have dramatically different life experiences. I have more free time on the weekends and I believe I can make a greater impact when I volunteer there than I could at home. There are many more people in Basking Ridge who are available and able to help with non-profit organizations and other causes.
Tell us about some of the volunteer activities you participate in.
I am the president of our local lake association and one recent thing that took up a lot of my time was securing a permit with the Adirondack Park Agency to use a herbicide in the lake to kill invasive plant species. Invasive plants are a huge problem for lakes, because they crowd out the native plants and ruin the habitats for animal life. The APA had never allowed chemicals to be used within the park. We successfully navigated the permit process, and convinced the various activist groups to not oppose or litigate. It was a very successful implementation and now there are other lakes in the Adirondacks that are seeking to use chemicals as well, and the APA is implementing regulations to allow chemicals under the right circumstances.
The other thing that I love to do in Lake Luzerne is teach adoptive skiing to children with physical and cognitive disabilities, at the Double H Ranch. I tend to spend most time with kids who don’t have use of their legs and arms, and I teach them how to ski using mono-skis or bi-skis. The place is really magical; everyone is so supportive and all the activities are done at no cost to the families. One day at Double H puts everything else back into the proper perspective for me. I understand true strength when I see what these families are capable of handling on a daily basis.