From the moment when I marked the date of the interview on my calendar, I looked forward to meeting with Charles Casteel. He is one of those living legends in the Denver legal community whose presence can be felt as soon as he enters a room. True to form, Charles did not disappoint. Get ready for some knowledge and inspiration!
HARDY: Charles, thanks for being here with me today. Would you please tell our Docket audience about your background and experience?
CASTEEL: I went to engineering school, was a civil engineer and practiced for one year in California. That became a little sedentary, and I decided law school was going to be my focus. I’ve been at Davis Graham & Stubbs since I left law school in 1975. After three years of practice, I took a two-year hiatus and went to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the criminal division. I prosecuted for two years, and that was a career changer for me. That’s when I finally got my sea legs and figured out my direction. I transformed from a bag carrier to someone who had some tools himself.
HARDY: How did you become president of the Denver Bar Association in 1988?
CASTEEL: Probably like many other bar presidents, I started out at a local bar association. I was active in the Sam Cary Bar Association right out of law school. I was its president and active with the issues that were affecting minority attorneys at that time. But I also got involved in committee work at the DBA; that led to a Board of Trustees appointment, and that led to a second vice president appointment. And, lo and behold to my surprise, one day the nominating committee asked me if I would be willing to serve as DBA president.
HARDY: What was it like to be the first African-American president of the DBA?
CASTEEL: That has to be responded to with context. At the time, there was a lot of movement afoot throughout a lot of communities to integrate. In law firms, there was also a lot of activity along this line. In fact, I came into Davis Graham & Stubbs as part of that kind of a focus. And when I was nominated for the DBA presidency, I think there was a lot of excitement in the legal community. I felt honored and proud of the legal community for taking that step. Now, having said that, as with any position, we take those positions on as individuals. We do what we do because it’s something we feel we’d like to do or feel strongly about or enjoy doing. And when we do them, we don’t necessarily do them with an African-American hat on; we do them as any other person does them. When we take on these positions, we want to do the best we can. We want to make changes; we want to do everything. I had awareness during all this that people were greeting me and receiving me as the first African-American president, but that didn’t change my agenda for the DBA. My focus was on what’s in the best interest of the DBA, who can I put together to get something done, and how do I effectively apply myself to take charge or to do the job of a president in that position.
HARDY: Did you face any particular challenges as a minority president?
CASTEEL: More so when I was the president of the Sam Cary Bar Association than of the DBA. There were some issues that came up in the presidency of the Sam Cary Bar that required me to take positions that challenged some pretty high-profile professionals here in the city in terms of some of their attitudes and perspectives. I didn’t have to do that at the DBA. I don’t remember any issue that came up that made me feel that there was discrimination or something that I had to deal with. And with the DBA itself, there was never an issue. I was just another DBA president.
HARDY: In your view, how has the DBA changed since you were president?
CASTEEL: There are a lot of internal things that have changed in terms of administration and sophistication. Just like everything else in society, the computer age has impacted the way people view and see value in the DBA. But I don’t know that its importance has changed. I think it is very important that we have a group who can speak for us in certain contexts and present an image for lawyers as a whole in this community, and the DBA allows leaders to do that.
HARDY: How has the practice of law changed since you started practicing law 42 years ago?
CASTEEL: When I came to Davis Graham & Stubbs, there was an aura of camaraderie that was built around the prestige of practicing law. I felt that a lot more in the early years than I do now. The transformation into more of a business perspective for the practice of law has meant that although the positions we have are prestigious, that aura is not as significant as it once was. It’s now more about getting the job done. The people haven’t changed. They’re all good, decent people in this practice, particularly at my firm, but the collegiality of being part of something special that I felt when I came in, I don’t know if that is still there at the same level.
HARDY: I count myself as the third African-American president of the DBA behind yourself and Hubert Farbes, and the second Asian-American president behind Paul Chan. Nearly 30 years have passed since you were the first African-American president. Do you think the Denver legal community has made progress in terms of diversity and inclusion?
CASTEEL: Well, I have seen an ebb and flow of the consciousness about the injustice of discrimination. Have we made progress? Of course, compared to 10 years before I came into the practice. But there’s room for a lot more progress. I’m not one to cast stones at what’s been done or not done. I’m one to say let’s keep our efforts on track — keep the consciousness level where it needs to be and keep the pressure on those who are making decisions so that they will see the value of what diversity and inclusion do for our community and decision-making in general. Diversity adds so much value. A monolithic perspective is just so limited.
HARDY: As a more senior lawyer now, what advice would you give to your contemporaries?
CASTEEL: Do not be afraid in the practice of law to be an individual, to be exactly who you are. When I came into this law firm, I had an Afro that was five inches, and I had lapels that were wide. And that was me. That was who I was, and I was accepted. It surprised me how accepting people were of someone who looked and had a cultural background that was different. And I never shied away from that. And to this day, I may not have the Afro, but I’m still Charles. I’m going to be who I am in whatever context — whether it’s with clients or anyone else. I’m not going to try to conform to what I think I ought to be. I see a lot of practitioners over time doing that, for instance, in the courtroom when they think they need to deliver a closing argument in a certain forceful way. No, that’s not them. Be who you are in whatever context you’re in, and you’ll enjoy what you’re doing.
HARDY: Maybe you have a very similar answer, but what advice would you give to the newer members of the DBA?
CASTEEL: Just a small adjustment on that. I’d say the business aspect of the practice is there. Learn it. Be proficient in it. If you are not successful in it, you’re not going to be successful, so be successful in it. But relegate it to its proper level. Don’t prioritize that and let the business aspect be all that you are. There is a professional aspect to this practice of law. There is a relationship aspect. There is a people aspect. There is a service aspect to it that is equally as important. Let’s not get too far into the spectrum of making this an income-producing avocation. This is a profession. There is a lot of stature that comes with that — a lot of prestige, a lot of honor. Enjoy that.
HARDY: Beyond practicing law, tell us what you enjoy doing.
CASTEEL: I learned about 20 years ago to meditate, and it is now a way of life for me. I love it. I do it daily. I practice with a group. I find a lot of joy in developing that part of my being, if you will. And I’ll call that a spiritual part of my being. I enjoy concerts. I love live music. I go around the country now. I’ve been to Lollapalooza with all the young kids; I’ve been to the New Orleans Jazz Festival five or six times. I went to Chicago just to see The Weeknd. And I love the family that I have. I have some young kids and grandkids I absolutely adore. And I also enjoy the work I do working with others. I enjoy the talent that I see around me. I enjoy the interaction that I have with young folks, young attorneys. And I enjoy the practice of law now because of that.
HARDY: Is there something you wish I would have asked you?
CASTEEL: This is a closing. I appreciate, Franz, what you are doing. It’s uplifting that you even called me and said you wanted to sit down and talk to me. I see you as the kind of leader and the kind of attorney who inspires me. You’re young and you have a broader view. It’s a community-related view. I’m grateful to have had this chance to sit down and talk with you. I really am. You are inspiring. D