It is my particular pleasure to introduce this week’s attorney in the spotlight, Mr. Charles Baxley, Partner of Baxley, Pratt & Wells, of Lugoff, South Carolina, the law firm he began over 40 years ago. Not only has Mr. Baxley served his community as an attorney, but also as a judge, a captain in the Air Force reserves, a decorated volunteer with the Boy Scouts, the chairman of the local school board, and as a college professor.
Charles continues to hold a pilot’s license and has been a long-time and well-known local historian whose focus largely centers on the Southern Campaigns of the Revolutionary War. He currently chairs South Carolina’s commission tasked by the governor and general Assembly with organizing the celebration for the state’s 250th birthday and victory in the American Revolution.
MG: What has been a recurring or persistent problem while managing your law firm?
CB: I would say the hardest thing is trying to manage people in a positive, humane and real way. There have been times where an employee’s personal life became very stressful for them. In time, it greatly affected their attitude, the office and their work. I had to speak with them about those hard things plenty of times; it’s the hardest thing to do. And so, dealing with the human equation and employees is very, very hard. Even when you determine it’s a shoe that no longer fits, you still like the people and you know (letting them go) is profoundly impactful.
MG: Yes, but, if you addressed performance issues, head-on by having discussions early and often with those employees… their choices have brought you to the “breaking point.” Eventually, if the problems persist, it’s no longer a fair exchange of “goods for services,” don’t you think?
CB: Well, and in a small town you’ve got to really be careful. There’s no bright line on where that (breaking point) is exactly. You’ve got to live with your decision and your actions because it’s going to be talked about. And even if you hear somebody saying something outrageously wrong (about the situation), you can’t say anything. You can’t talk about what really happened. (Letting someone go) is harmful to all concerned. You have got to work hard to avoid those situations in the first place. But, in the end, you put your clients first and then the well-being of the firm. If you sink the ship over allowing someone’s issues to persist, then you’ve done everyone no favor at all.
Managing people is always difficult. There’s no clear right or wrong answers to managing. For every nit you pick on somebody else, they can pick the nit on you, too. Do you know what a nit is? (Laughing)
MG: As in nit-picking? Is it like a bed-bug?
CB: (Laughing) It’s the larva stage of lice you remove with those fine-toothed combs. So when someone says, “Keep your nitpicking hands off of me,” they’re referring to lice! (Laughing)
MG: No one ever says that to me (I deadpan). I am just kidding! Do you enjoy old colloquialisms and have any business related ones to share?
CB: (Laughing) I must; I use them all the time! Let’s see, my mother said all the time, “Charles, you get more flies with honey than vinegar.” And, that’s a good one. Oh, and, this one from manufacturing, “Fill the mill; Enrich the mix.” That’s about getting enough business and pushing for full production. Once you get to full utilization, then you can enrich the mix – reinvest in the business and processes and focus on finding the higher-value projects.
MG: Ahhh, yes. In sales we say, “Sell big; Live big.” Thanks!
MG: What advice would you give an attorney who just passed the bar? And, advice then at the 10 year mark and/or at the 20 year mark?
CB: Let’s see…(laughing) You’ve asked me hard questions here, Meg. I’m into humor at this point in my life…not (reflecting on) and talking about miserable, hard things!
MG: Yeah, but, I have got to learn from you. That’s why I keep peppering you with more questions!
CB: Well, okay, and you know this already and don’t even need to ask me, you know…Somebody straight out of law school knows nothing (about being an attorney). They’ve got to learn how to practice. Philosophy and theory you learn in law school are important. But, knowledge and experience are two very different things. So, I advise brand new attorneys to go find the very best team that does stuff you’re interested in and go work for them so you can learn under them on the job.
For instance, if you want to try cases, go to work for the public defender’s office, legal aid, insurance defense, or worker’s comp defense firm where you’re in court, trying cases – not just processing cases – but, actually trying them…there’s no better way to learn than trying lots of cases to get comfortable on your feet in front of a jury. People who do that well can make an extremely good living.
MG: So, you are saying practice is the key.
CB: Well, yes, but specifically volume. Working for a big, white collar defense firm, you may learn from some of the best attorneys but will only have a limited number of cases at one time. Yes, they go to trial, but if you’re a prosecutor or you’re a public defender, you may have over a hundred cases at a time. There you can get all the courtroom experience you want.
MG: And, an attorney at the 10 year mark?
CB: Hopefully, (in the first 10 years) they have learned about the practice of law. It’s about economics, working with and for human beings, and learning the technical knowledge and skills needed to be successful. So, at about that (10 year) point, I worked to find ways to add to my knowledge in areas I knew I wanted to expand. Attend national continuing education courses on specific practice areas.
For trial lawyers, the American Trial Lawyers Association offered a series of Advanced Practice courses which were excellent and included segments taught by some masters of trial work. They recorded us in mock-trial presentations, technology which was new at that time, and really helped refine things. We focused on studying those skills as opposed to just focusing on getting ready for trial in a real, particular case. We were able to step back and learn…look at our techniques, compare them with others, and challenge ourselves, “How could I do this better.” And, talking to other attorneys attending the courses who were at similar stages in their lives was also really helpful. The civil defense bar also enjoys the same national and regional advanced practice training.