It started with a bet. Jess Hart was a young attorney on the losing end of a wager, which mandated he attend classes he always thought was for girls in spandex: yoga. But in a (supine) twist, it didn’t take long for him to grow fond of the practice as he searched for ways to cope with the pressures of a legal career and other challenges he faced outside of billable hours.
“Yoga is a way to balance my type A personality toward the relaxed person I’d rather be,” says Hart, who’s since been teaching the practice for fifteen years. “Another thing that draws me toward it is my desire to help others. It’s a useful tool that allows me to touch lives with a focus on improving our experiences as humans.”
Hart’s employees at wpg might not see him performing poses during work hours, but they certainly reap the benefits of the stabilizing practice through their interactions with the leader. The associate general counsel and vice president of legal leasing has had to bring a level of balance amid seismic shifts in the company since March 2022.
In that time, Hart’s department went from housing eleven attorneys to just four. His responsibilities grew in tandem with those changes, pushing him to implement new legal software that reduces production times in addition to relying on top talent in his department more than ever. While he hasn’t been able to be a spiritual guide to them like he is to his yoga students, he still takes a people-first approach as his team adapts to higher volumes of work and responsibility.
“Wpg has gone through a lot of difficult events over the years and has seen a lot changes, so I have a team of people who are regularly afraid,” Hart explains. “Much of my job is bringing them into a state of steadiness and reassuring them that all they have to do is put one foot in front of the other, take the next step [and] the next breath, and take it a day at a time to get through it together.”
Oftentimes that means empowering team members to grow and make decisions through training initiatives. Finding time to do that has been a challenge for Hart, whose plate is filled with new responsibilities of his own, but he doesn’t hesitate to make himself available.
“The objective is to take who we have, upgrade their skill set, push them, stretch them, and give them the ability to make their own determinations. I give them as much time as I can afford because I’m committed to them and I believe in them,” Hart says. “Not too long ago, I had fourteen direct reports and now I have three, so I focus on them and allow them to be leaders who can then develop our other teammates.”
Yoga isn’t the only force in Hart’s life that taught him to effectively adapt to change. His résumé reveals a career journey filled with pivots. Hart was a philosophy major in college, which he chose because “nothing else challenged him” and it motivated him. His girlfriend at the time recommended that he take the LSAT and give law a chance. After a night of poker, he showed up, took the test, and went on to earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of Akron.
From there, he started as an attorney at Karberg & Associates, where he worked for two years before the Great Recession hit and forced him out of a job. He ended up serving as a solo practitioner in Ohio, an ESL teacher in Riker’s Island for incarcerated teens, a bar manager in Florida, and a beverage director at Big Time restaurant group. In 2017, he returned to the law, going on to serve as a solo practice attorney in Ohio before going in-house at Signet Jewelers and now at wpg, where he started in 2019.
Hart’s colleagues are impressed by his drive, resilience, and authenticity. “I met Jess negotiating a lease for a client with Jess on the other side on the deal. I was immediately impressed by his skill as a lawyer, but also his friendly and funny personality,” recounts Alicia E. Zambelli, partner at Walter Haverfield. “I am not surprised that Jess has continued to succeed despite turmoil. I am extremely excited to now work with Jess and his team as outside counsel for wpg.”
That turmoil is no exaggeration. At certain points in Hart’s journey, he was jobless, homeless, and unsure what the future had in store for him. Moments like that further engrained in him a need to apply himself as if he was passionate about whatever he turned his attention toward.
“The period of time when I was without a home especially made me realize that my job was not just my job, but it was my source,” Hart says. “I need to honor it as if it’s a part of myself.”
That ties into advice he gives to young attorneys and professionals who want to see success and fulfillment in their lives. “Know what you are and prioritize that,” Hart says. “Carve out time to feel nurtured so that when you’re working you can go hard.”
Another nugget of advice: don’t be afraid. “We all wear a mask of confidence, when in fact nobody has the answers, especially in the legal field,” he acknowledges. “We can just convince you that we do.”