It is Woven Legal’s special pleasure to introduce its readers to Jeff Daxe, a seasoned Employment attorney and Partner with the prestigious Marietta, GA-based law firm of Moore Ingram Johnson and Steele. His prime areas of concentration are employment law and business litigation, as well as HR Consulting. In this interview, Jeff kindly shared tips on his approach to practicing law, building strong teams, communicating effectively, and optimizing productivity.
MG: There seems to be a consistent thread in your life, Jeff Daxe: relationships of longevity. In this day and age, relationships with duration – personal or professional – can be pretty rare. You have served at MIJS for 20+ years, have had a long, successful marriage with three kids, and you have had the same paralegal for 20 years.
JD: (Smiling) Angela (Angela Flowers, Jeff’s paralegal) recently celebrated her 20th year with MIJS. And, yes, I’ve been married for 21+ years. I started with Moore Ingram Johnson & Steele in 1997 and got married in May of 2000. Angela joined MIJS in August of the following year.
MG: I believe I met you in 2009 (during my ten years as a sales rep promoting Litigation and e-Discovery Services in Atlanta) when calling on MIJS. I loved talking with Angela back then so when trying to draft questions for this interview, I again thought to call her but wasn’t sure if she was still working there or still supporting you. I called the firm, was promptly put through to Angela’s office, and she picked right up! As always, she was delightful, helpful, and direct. I’m grateful she remembered me and, after we briefly caught up, I asked if she would consider contributing any insight or details about you or your practice as preparation for this interview. She hesitated before respectfully replying, “No, thank you.” I admit…I laughed out loud! I knew it was immediately in the protection of you. She always impressed me and reconfirmed it at that moment. She did add that after speaking with you, and if you requested it, I should get back to her.
JD: Well, just as when (law firms) are asked about client information, she and I both have a natural inclination and hesitancy to share information. Her initial reluctance is simply another example of that. But, no, otherwise, I’m an open book, so holding back is completely contrary to my personality.
In fact, I sometimes don’t understand people that won’t reveal “everything” immediately. In addition, I don’t sugarcoat things. Often, I will tell prospects, “Here’s how I see it: If you want somebody else to take a look at it, fine, go right ahead. This is just my view.” And many times, I’m a tad more pessimistic than the other lawyer—and in those circumstances, sometimes I will tell the prospect who wants a lawyer with a rosier outlook, “If you don’t like my view, you should find somebody else.”
MG: This candor has clearly served you well throughout your career as an attorney, a Partner, and in the firm. What is your secret for your long and fruitful client relationships? Do you have tips for creating and keeping these relationships?
JD: I think it is funny that you asked that question because I try to avoid “long, fruitful client relationships” because no one wants to be sued more than once! Also, if I can help a client draft a handbook, a policy manual, or an employment contract, good drafting will hopefully keep the client out of court in the future—meaning there is no need for them to call me again!
MG: Can you elaborate?
JD: Many clients come to me because they are being sued, but they did not, initially, come to me for consultative work; for instance, I did not draft their handbooks or contracts. Had I done their preliminary HR work, I pride myself on solving problems before they occur, and ideally, doing a lot of consulting versus defending lawsuits.
The best-case litigation scenario in my practice is to defend the first lawsuit and then provide advice to avoid future complaints being filed and promote insurance protection against future incidents. I work to address those potential problems on the front end. When clients approach me with a lawsuit, I let them know, “I understand you got sued and, yes, I can help you defend it. But the first thing you need to do is send it to your insurance carrier. I think you probably have coverage for this.” If it turns out they didn’t (have insurance), the next time, they will. The least beneficial thing for my clients is to need to hire me twice.
MG: How often do clients ignore your advice or fail to implement the changes for which you advised them – then return to your office and ask you to handle their litigation?
JD: I’ve never once handled the same client’s employment litigation twice. I have never had a client need to be defended twice for the same issue.
MG: So, it may take a little bit of pain or a lot of pain depending on the suit, but you are able to influence them?
JD: At the very least, they get insurance. They either don’t have the problem, or they get insurance.
MG: But doesn’t that make it harder to continuously fill your pipeline? From what you described, your existing clients will hopefully never call back! (Laughing incredulously)
JD: My defense work is similar to that of a divorce lawyer: How many times do you want to handle the same client’s divorce? Just like them, I don’t want your divorce more than once.
MG: Okay, now that makes sense.
MG: As you know, we’re in law firm staffing. But, with some frequency, attorneys come to us to find a qualified Virtual Legal Professional (VLP) to support them. But they also admit to not establishing long-standing relationships with their paralegals as you and Angela have. What tips could you give others to develop a successful, productive relationship with a paralegal or legal assistant?
JD: I’ve told Angela, as well as all the associates I’ve hired, my goal is for them to learn from me. I make sure they understand what I do and why, and why it is important. If I can show (a task or a process) to them once, then they should be able to repeat it. But what if the facts are slightly different? If you do not understand the “why,” you could repeat something that should not be repeated. On the other hand, if you understand the “why,” hopefully, you will also know enough not to repeat it in a situation where it is not justified.
Teaching what I’m doing and explaining the “why,” and then giving my staff and associates control to handle it the next time an instance arises – to assess whether the same thing should be done the second time – is how I encourage learning. I ask them, “Since we have seen it once, should we do the same thing again? Or does this differentiate itself enough that you think we should try something different? And if so, what is your approach?” So, giving them the ability to learn and then apply what they learn is important. In addition, when they come to me for advice, I provide my suggestion and ask if they agree. I use that technique all the time. Instead of somebody saying, “Jeff, what’s the answer?” I say, “Tell me what you think the answer is, and then I’ll let you know whether I agree with you.” I want to encourage them to research it and provide support for their position. Then I can say, “Yes, that’s a good idea. Let’s go ahead.” Or, I might say, “No, that’s an immaterial difference. We should do what we did the first time.” The more times a person confronts different situations and has to apply what they have already learned, their experience and skillset suddenly grow. And the next time if I am not around, they have a better roadmap for how it should be handled.
MG: It sounds like experiential training.
JD: Yes. For example, I might say, “I’ll give you forms, but you have to figure out why you want to use one versus the other. Then, I need you to tell me why you chose that one versus the other. At that point, I’ll tell you which one I would choose—but this method requires critical thinking at each step.”
MG: Do you let them go down the wrong path on occasion as part of the lesson?
JD: If somebody I’m training goes down a rabbit hole they shouldn’t have gone down, I am very comfortable knocking those hours off any client bill. For instance, a key issue yesterday concerned how to calculate a deadline. And there was a rule in state court that’s different from the rule in federal court. And I was told here’s the deadline, and here’s the rule that applies. And I said, well, that would be great, but for the fact that we’re in federal court where that rule doesn’t apply—that time was not misspent because it is a great lesson—but it will not be billed to the client.
MG: What attributes do you believe other attorneys should look for when choosing their own paralegal? For instance, what characteristics does Angela possess that continue to make her such a good fit to serve you successfully all these years?
JD: Two things about Angela immediately stand out. The first is her willingness to learn whatever is necessary. Angela is the person in the office that all the other legal assistants look to for guidance and direction. Whatever it is, Angela knows the answer. My practice has provided her with experience in every court – federal and state – plus in almost every practice area. There are times when I am working on a case, and I know there are specific similarities to a previous case – perhaps decades ago. I can ask Angela, and she’ll help me find it. She remembers the name and details of the case.
Because she is looked up to by all the other staff members, and she has been for a decade, I think it is a testament to her that she keeps her skill set sharp. It’s varied, and she knows how to do everything. If I need her to look up something on Westlaw, she can do that. If it’s Lexis, she can do that. Angela is good with technology, and her overall scope of knowledge is broad. In fact, a colleague recently called me to ask, “Hey, can I buy a few hours of Angela’s time so she can teach my assistant how to do a federal e-filing?” I said, “No, you can’t pay for a couple of hours with Angela,” but we did work something out where, during some downtime, Angela was able to sit with my colleague’s assistant to teach PACER to her. So even people from outside the office recognize her abilities. So, this is a big thing: Angela has never shied away from learning or experiencing new things which help her in her job. And she retains new information quickly, which I have come to rely on.
The second thing is Angela does not freeze up under stress. For example, I’ll have a client come in at 4:00 pm on a Friday and say, “Hey, this answer is due at 5:00 pm today. Can you help me?” My answer is, ‘Yes, we will get an answer filed in the next 59 minutes.’ Angela shifts into action and gets everything started. I know other attorneys couldn’t do this because they don’t have a teammate as I have in Angela. Angela rises to those occasions and hammers it out and gets it done where others cannot. Understandably, something that we have 59 minutes to accomplish will look differently than something we had 30 days to work with; but the goal is to meet the deadline. We will meet that deadline where many other people would not even take on the client because they could not meet the deadline. Angela doesn’t get frazzled.
MG: Wow! What I know to be true is that effective leaders create an environment where their support personnel can serve successfully. What choices do you make that create this type of environment?
JD: I learned that standing over someone’s shoulder doesn’t make them more productive. There is no increased efficiency or accuracy with me standing over Angela. Once, she looked at me over her shoulder and said “This ain’t going to get done any faster with you right there.” I learned that lesson!
MG: I appreciate her frankness! And, I know Angela has a great sense of humor, too.
MG: As you and I have discussed before at our Chamber of Commerce Mastermind Group, I recently heard that every successful relationship – be it business or personal – is made up of a “How” and a “Wow.” For instance, in marriage, I tend to have BIG, FUN ideas on vacations or home renovations. I often grandly announce a WOW! Fortunately, my husband, the “How,” in our relationship, listens and asks the necessary critical questions. Between Angela and you, which one is the “How” and which one is the “Wow?”
JD: Angela is the ‘Wow.” She is the first person my clients talk to. I do some pro bono work, so she handles all my incoming calls and mostly knows how to treat callers. For instance, I am such a stickler for the conflict rules, so when John Doe calls our office and says, “I want to sue somebody,” or “I just got sued,” my response has to be, “Don’t tell me anything about (the case) until we run a conflict check. As soon as we know there is no conflict, my assistant Angela will be in touch.” And I promptly end the call. When we have that answer, Angela then is the first person that a prospective client speaks to. She has good judgment and can be a cheerleader when it’s helpful or necessary. Still, generally speaking, she also doesn’t set unrealistic expectations and knows there are limits to what I can accomplish.
With some callers, it’s a time-related question: “Hey, can you read this hundred-page contract and give me some advice?” Angela can set a client’s expectations early on – communicating achievable deadlines and protecting my time. This is a big part of being good at what we do.
MG: When you were an associate, at what point did you learn not to over-promise or under-value your work? Or, were you always good at saying what needs to be said in business?
JD: The difference here is when you’re a young associate, usually the person you’re giving your answers to isn’t the firm’s client. Instead, as a new associate, your “client” is likely the partner or senior associate with whom you’re working. There’s obviously a difference in communicating internally with our team versus speaking with clients. It took time to learn when dealing with longtime clients, letting them know we’re committed to doing what we can. For example, honoring a client’s direction might be to follow a path with only a 10% chance of success, yet they want to push forward. It took me a while to realize that just because my perspective believes something only has a 10% chance of success doesn’t mean it’s not going to work and shouldn’t be attempted when the client wants to go for it.
MG: Some attorneys won’t take those cases because it could result in a loss or, “damage to their record.”
JD: No one knows anyone’s record. People see ads for these guys on billboards that say, “I got my client $20 million in settlements!” Well, if all the facts were reviewed, maybe there should have been $40 million in settlements. How can anyone know without examining the facts? The “win” for one side you might read about in the paper may not tell the whole story and may be taken out of context, spun to create publicity or buzz. No, I don’t worry about how it will look because almost no one will ever see it. And no outsider really knows how to assess those outcomes.
MG: In our Mastermind group, I noticed you get teased about your high level of productivity. What is your particular method for achieving high productivity? Do you follow a book or a methodology?
JD: I have used the same Franklin Planner since college in 1990 (pointing to a bookshelf with brown leather planners from years past).
MG: You use Franklin Covey. That is pretty cool – although I don’t see that much these days. How do you handle emails?
JD: More than a decade ago, when our IT compliance manager attended a seminar hosted by our legal insurance company, she learned that a lawyer’s overflowing inbox was the most significant cause of legal malpractice.
MG: You are talking about a retention policy – a topic I’ve mentioned to many clients in hopes of mitigating costs to collect and process unnecessary Terabytes of data if or when litigation occurs.
JD: Our IT compliance manager said she learned that if a lawyer has more than 50 emails in their inbox, then they are a disaster waiting to happen. She told all of us to get down below 50. It took a while because I had thousands at the time. Our IT Compliance manager explained that you might otherwise see an email and click it; but, you won’t take any of the action items it necessitates. It sits in your inbox.
Furthermore, often you are checking emails on your phone rather than focusing solely on your desktop. The next time you look for that email, it’s no longer bolded because you’ve already looked at it and it gets buried, and all of a sudden, you miss something. Ultimately, the advice was to not have a single email in your inbox that does not require action. Those (less than 50) emails then become a to-do list.
MG: Do you take immediate action from an email, or do you task it in your planner instead?
JD: Even though an email is an interruption, I usually attend to it. If I see it, I often open it; once I open an email, I change my attention from what I am doing to focusing on the email. I take any action steps required in the email and then get back to what I was doing. Surprisingly, I am more productive with that kind of interruption – addressing it with my full attention. But I do try to limit interruptions. For example, I generally don’t answer incoming calls (instead, Angela helps me schedule responsive calls).
MG: Is that how you approach your practice? It seems like you are very clear that you can be of greatest service to your clients when you are making determinations, driving a plan devised from your knowledge and experience after being presented with a problem.
JD: I get more enjoyment – it is certainly more fun – to help map out the strategy and have the client approve the plan. After the approval, effectuating the strategy I helped to create is most enjoyable. However, I don’t know that I’m more effective in doing it this way versus moving forward with the client’s strategy. Both approaches have the desired outcome, so that is the goal.
Also, regarding productivity, I will say that I am more effective in focusing on case strategy in the morning. I am best able to accommodate working on my clients’ needs in the morning. Whereas in the afternoon, I schedule a time to take new client calls.
Another bit on how I structure work, I prioritize my current clients’ needs over the needs of a potential new client. I know many lawyers have it the other way around because they want to get more clients. And, although I understand to some degree that I might lose an opportunity if I don’t answer that prospect call right away, it’s not reasonable for a client to have their work interrupted for me to take a call from a prospect. At the same time, I respond to all prospects, just not while in the midst of client work.
MG: I see you as more of the architect of the prevention plan instead of going to trial. Is that correct?
JD: I think, for the most part, you’re a failure if you end up in a trial. If a lawyer prefers trial, they are less likely to try all the pre-trial strategies that can keep the client from a haphazard, emotionally and financially draining outcome. If my client gets sued, I am trying to figure out if there is a way of achieving a resolution that works before I file the answer. I am thinking, “Is there a way of filing a motion that makes this suit go away immediately?” If not (laughing!), is there a way of filing a motion that makes the other side think it’s going to go away immediately so that we could then have a serious negotiation? If not, I’m thinking, “What can I do in the discovery that is designed to get answers and move the case forward rapidly, productively, and towards a resolution?” All of these things I consider are designed never to see the expense of a trial.
Let’s assume that my client gets sued for some bad HR infraction, and it turns out they’re at fault. Maybe they didn’t have a policy, or perhaps they had a bad manager who ignored a complaint. If that is indeed what occurred, then I am going to suggest to my client, “What can be done to make it go away as quickly as possible to move on?” Then I’ll advise them on better policies and procedures for the future. From my experience, I let them know this case will only worsen as it ages. It’s not like fine wine.
On the other hand, if you’ve got (opposing counsel) dead-to-rights and it’s a frivolous case, and there are many great reasons to defend that matter – perhaps so that this suit doesn’t inspire frivolous copycat litigation – that is a great reason to have insurance, so the insurance carrier pays a lawyer to fight the good fight, instead of my client paying me.
MG: Do you do any insurance defense?
JD: Not really. Employment law insurance policies (EPLI) came into vogue about 15 years ago. They are much more popular now than they were even then. And there are insurance defense firms – in fact, Atlanta has a corner on the market for (insurance defense) employment litigation firms – where they have whole departments dedicated to particular types of employment suits: discrimination, sexual harassment, etc. So, it became clear early on that my services would be better utilized with companies that either declined insurance or didn’t know to secure a commercial insurance policy and are now faced with a complaint filed against them.
MG: Some clients share with us that they struggle with delegation. Do you have any tips for attorneys who either micromanage their paralegals or fail to delegate, deciding instead just to do the task themselves?
JD: Certainly, it’s important to ensure communications are clear. When I give an assignment, I ask for confirmation that it was received, like, “Yes, understood. I’ll get this done.” If I send a deadline via Outlook and someone on our team accepts the deadline or responds to my to-do list email by replying, “Yep, got it,” all of a sudden, there’s a commitment there. Ideally, if that employee had a question, they needed to bring it to me before they replied, “Yep, got it,” because I just gave them the responsibility. They just took it off my plate. So, that’s one way of ensuring there’s a documented method of communication because after the process has been started, no one likes a missed deadline. And, providing an excuse such as, “Oh, I didn’t understand,” is not okay. If you didn’t understand, you should never have accepted the task or assignment without obtaining clarification. This expectation and accountability eliminate many problems which could arise from miscommunications.
MG: I have read that productivity is at its highest when closely linked to passion. This seems to be true for you! How do you maintain that type of passion and energy for your work?
JD: One thing that really keeps me energetic in the practice of law is that I’ve got this pretty unique practice area. I have plaintiff’s cases, defense cases, cases in arbitration, cases in federal court, and cases in other states. I’m defending a nationwide retail chain right now in opioid litigation. I defended a large auto manufacturer in a class-action lawsuit. It always strikes me as a bit funny that some of the country’s biggest lawsuits end up here in Cobb county. And, I think what makes Angela excited about her work is that rarely are two days the same. For me, every day is unique, which means every day is unique for her, too. I’m familiar with colleagues who have a niche practice area, which means their cases are pretty much the same day after day. Their work is rather rote, and although there are some unique aspects to specific portions, there’s really not a variety. Angela and I both thrive on variety.
MG: The quote from your mijs.com website, which I really enjoyed, was your Grandfather’s recipe for good living. Can you share here what that recipe was and discuss why it was meaningful to you?
JD: Yes. It was a sheet of paper that was folded in an index card box full of recipes. My Grandfather was an amateur chef and had gone to the Ritz Carlton culinary school in New York City in the 1930s or ’40s. He had all these recipes stored in a box, and this was mixed in with all the others. So, I took it out and had it framed: it’s a “recipe for good living: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.”