Henry E. Reaves, III, launched the Reaves Law Firm, PLLC in 2011. A Memphis native, Reaves enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after high school, specializing in military intelligence. He served from 1998 to 2002 and received the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, the Air Force Achievement Medal, and was recognized for his contributions to Operation Enduring Freedom. From there, he attended Indiana University School of Law and worked for two years before starting his own law firm.
From his early days as a solo attorney, the firm has continued to grow and build a reputation. He has recorded significant legal victories, including jury verdicts of $1.8 million and $1.3 million. Overall, his clients have recovered millions of dollars in settlements and verdicts. Reaves says his goal for the firm is to provide service to the community in every possible way.
MEG GARAVAGLIA: Do you now, or perhaps did you in the beginning, enjoy managing your law firm as opposed to doing other things?
HENRY REAVES: I have ADHD, and this is the first job (as an entrepreneur) where I’ve had the freedom to jump around and work on different aspects of the job — management, trials, marketing, etc. In that sense, I definitely enjoy the management aspect. I really like people and trying to find ways to motivate them. But even more so, I like managing and creating processes.
MG: I would say that a lot of salespeople have it, too! (Laughing – since I am in Sales.) I often hear that the details of managing large teams plus practicing law can be particularly difficult for attorneys with ADHD. So, I’m glad to hear you enjoy it. How is it that you enjoy it?
HR: It’s like solving a puzzle: let’s identify the problem. What are we trying to fix? What is the root cause of why we’re having negative outcomes? What actions can we implement? In what order can we do things to prevent (problems) from happening again? I enjoy systems and processes, and they allow us to maintain growth. For us, growth was like a rocket taking off. I went from three, four, or five people calling a month to 70 or 80 people a month. Last month, we signed over 200 people. So we’ve had to add a lot of processes and systems to manage that growth.
MG: That is huge. How did your firm achieve that type of growth?
HR: I try to read a lot. I like to read about some of the main actors of the past, CEOs like Lee Iacocca, or subjects like Lean theory. Because of the way my mind naturally works, we ended up gravitating towards a management system called EOS about three years ago. It has really helped us. We went to the National Trial Lawyers Conference in Miami two years ago, and we linked up with another law firm that was also using EOS. They had a management consultation aspect and used a management structure called Fireproof. So we’ve been working with that law firm for the last two years. They help us with our quarterly and yearly planning. That’s helped us a lot.
MG: That is great. After you get the plan of action, how do you guys pull the trigger on that and implement it?
HR: As we’ve grown, I’ve gained more self-awareness. The more I find out about my personal limitations, the stronger we get as a company. If I’m not good at something, I can go and find someone who’s great at it and sit them in that seat. With the way we’re set up now, I serve as a visionary, and I have (on my team) an integrator. I can have the ideas or the vision, give it to my integrator, and let my integrator figure out the best way to implement it and the timing within which it should be implemented.
MG: At what point did you realize the integrator role needed to be in place? How long were you in practice before you filled that role?
HR: It was after our first big settlement in 2013. We needed a good process once we started marketing because the jump in growth had a direct correlation with the marketing we did. And once we started marketing, the marketing dollars went up. We started out spending $500 a month, but eventually we were spending $30,000, $40,000, or $50,000. That’s what necessitated the chain — when we started making those investments in marketing. The call volume followed shortly thereafter.
MG: Now that you have those systems in place, what would you say is the hardest part of your job these days as the leader?
HR: The hardest part is that we were on a jet ski and now we’re more on a cruise ship. It’s harder to shift directions, to pivot, to make moves. Before, if I identified something that wasn’t working and needed to change, I’d talk to two or three people, and — boom — we’d fix it. But now, every change has to come from the top down, and it takes a while. It takes training. There are people who work for me who I’ve never met. When we started, it was very family-oriented, where everyone knew everyone. But now there are different departments, and they have their own leads and ad departments. I don’t know everyone on a level that I knew everybody before, and everybody doesn’t know me on that level today.
MG: Does that affect your culture? Do you get concerned about that?
HR: Oh, I think it definitely affects the culture. Prior to COVID, I was able to counteract some of that. It wasn’t as bad because I was in the office. Even if I wasn’t in a department, I was walking around the office every day, saying hello and shaking hands. I’d give fist bumps to everybody in our office every day. So I would get to know people — not always the people in the intake department because it was in a different building, but I would see everybody else. But we’ve been remote for over a year now due to COVID, so I have people who’ve been working for me for eight, nine, 10, or 11 months who I’ve never met in person. We’ve Zoomed and talked on the phone, but we haven’t gone to lunch together or happy hour; I can’t come into their office and talk for 30 minutes about the Walking Dead or last weekend’s game.
MG: Why do you think it’s important to have that connection? There’s a school of thought that people should own their business but not run it. They want someone else to run it. Do you aspire to that, or do you think it’s a bunk theory?
HR: I definitely want to be 100% involved, but a lot of times, entrepreneurs need to check their egos at the doors. There might be someone better at running your business. I’m not necessarily going to make myself the CFO, COO, or CEO just because it’s my business. If there’s a CEO who’s been at a Fortune 500 company and has turned it into a billion-dollar company, and he’d like to be the CEO at Reaves Law Firm, I’ll bring him on and give him a seat. At the end of the day, all I really want to do is try cases.
MG: That’s rare. A lot of attorneys want to quit trying cases.
HR: The art of a trial takes every single bit of (my) energy to focus, and that’s the only thing that matters in the world for however long the trial is. You form these bonds with your attorneys, who are going through it with you. You’re going to war together. And we have trials in different places, so we’ll go to the (rented) house, stay at the house, bond, and earn each other’s trust. Another thing about doing trials is that it kind of accomplishes everything I want to do in the business. It’s marketing. If I get big verdicts, I can use those for marketing. It’s a revenue-creating activity. So I’m out here, actually getting money for the firm. And then at the same time, it’s a great training opportunity because I’m training whatever lawyers I have with me. You are exactly right that a lot of lawyers are trying to get away from trying cases. So when other lawyers have a big case going to trial, they’re looking for an attorney to take it on. People will just bring you cases to try.
MG: So honing that craft is always valuable.
HR: Definitely. When I first started my practice, I was open to a little bit of everything. The first jury trial that I had was an attempted murder. And I won. My first time. It was for a college student in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He had no record. He wanted to be a patent attorney. He worked on the border and came to Memphis. He went to a party, ended up getting jumped by five or six guys, had a blade in his pocket and swung the blade. And, he cut a couple of people. So they charged him with attempted murder. When we wouldn’t take the plea bargain at first, they charged him with aggravated assault or something like that. I said we’ll take a plea if it could be a misdemeanor and not a felony, but they wanted to give him a felony. I said, “No, we can’t take that. We will probably have to go to trial.” The prosecutor got mad and charged him with attempted murder. So we went to trial, and we got “Not Guilty” on attempted murder, and it was a hung jury on the assault charge. So they brought it back six months later, tried it again, and got an outright acquittal. He got to go home with his mother, and that was the most satisfying thing. There’s never been that much pressure on me again, where I felt someone is innocent and their entire life is on the line, because now I’m just dealing with money.
MG: Did you consider being a criminal defense attorney?
HR: No. I did two criminal defense trials — attempted murder and aggravated assault. It was two years’ worth of work, and I made like $7,500. I can take on a fender bender case and be done in four or five weeks. So it’s just an economic decision.
MG: What drives you? I know you played some sports so maybe you are competitive? Or, is it that you just really enjoy taking care of the little guy, the underdog? What are your thoughts?
HR: Our slogan is, “Let us be your voice.” I know what that’s like because I was on the other side, and I know what happens. Poor people, or people who don’t have a legal background, are getting exploited by insurance companies all day, every day. It just satisfies my soul to be there for them and stop that from happening. And if I can’t stop it from happening, at least I’ll fight with them and we’ll both get beat up. I’m not going to let them get beat up by themselves.
MG: Do you retain that perspective in managing your business, in taking care of your people?
HR: Yes. I look at it realistically. Everybody’s most valuable asset is their time. You have employees who are giving you their time — they are literally giving you their life, years of it, to help you build your dream, your vision. So I definitely feel that we should be servant leaders. I want to take care of my people. I want them to love me. I want them to feel that they’re loved by me, and that will allow them to also extend that love to our clients.
MG: How do you balance that with data and metrics?
HR: I’m not part of a lot of our decisions about data, metrics, and performance. I have to remove myself from it because I know that I’ve had blind spots that rely on data. There are objective measurements that must be met, and as long as employees are meeting those — and they’re doing it now — I don’t have to worry about it. If someone is taking advantage and not working, the data and metrics will show it. Numbers don’t lie.
MG: How did you get so wise? You are not an old man. How old were you when you started your practice?
HR: No, I just turned 40. I started my practice in about 2011, so I’d just turned 31. I think I have just enough confidence to believe in myself, but also enough humility to learn from my mistakes.
MG: How do you retain that? Is it a spiritual thing? Do you have mentors and people you try to emulate?
HR: A lot of it stems from a spiritual place, in my relationship with Christ. But it’s also just realistic. I’ve made so many mistakes and learned from those mistakes. When I was younger, even before I got out of law school, I remember I took a test and didn’t like my score because I got a B-minus on it. I was so upset, but I didn’t even go to my professor and sit down and ask what happened or what I could do better. By doing that, I missed out on an opportunity to improve myself. After I pondered that, I realized I should’ve just humbled myself, asked the questions I had, and figured out what I wanted to do. So now, if I make mistakes, I just try to make sure I learn something from them.
MG: Where do you think you get your humility? It comes through loud and clear.
HR: My mother was one of nine children in Mississippi. My grandma Francy had nine kids from six or seven different fathers. They made their living working in the fields, picking cabbage and stuff like that. My mom was fresh from Mississippi when she married my father. She didn’t have a college education. So she was completely dependent on my father. So when my father had his battle with crack, my mom became a single mother. She showed me that you just have to do whatever you need to do to get it done. You’re not better than anybody, and no one’s better than you. I saw my mom standing in line at Commodity Foods and Toys For Tots, getting stuff out of the trash pile, yard sale hunting and going to thrift stores — basically doing whatever it took to get it done. So she instilled that determination in me. No job was ever below me. How could I not be humble? Am I going to think that I’m better than people now because I have some type of financial success? That doesn’t make sense to me. I know the depths of where we’ve been and where God has brought us from.
MG: This is a tough question to ask because I don’t want to ask any questions that are out of bounds – but does fear of failure drive you? I read about your childhood. I know for me – I grew up pretty poor as one of six kids, and my dad was a meat cutter for A&P (before opening his own store later in life). Finances – and our home – were always tense and stressful, and I just didn’t want my kids to go through that. I made a decision that things were going to be different with my own family. And that’s always been a driver for me. Can you speak to that type of motivation?
HR: That was a driver for me – for quite some time. I had a lot of fear for a while. But, then I had a breakthrough moment where I realized, ultimately, there are certain things I can control, but that I’m not in control. Once I realized the only thing I can actually control are my actions, then fear and worry became a wasted emotion. They didn’t provide anything for me. So now I have less of a fear of failure. If you would’ve told me when I was 20 years old, “These are all the things you’ll get to do. You’ll get to see the world and do this” — that can’t be taken back from me. I know that I survived when I was broke; my wife and I survived on little to nothing. So I know we can do it — we’ve already lived that life. We made it through. I have a bigger fear of mediocrity than of failure. When you’re African-American and you have a business, the sad reality is that you don’t just represent, say, Henry Reaves. You represent the whole of Black law firms. So if my lawyers and I are sub-par, we won’t be viewed as just having an off-day. They’ll say, “ Well, you shouldn’t have gone to a Black law firm.” Every Black business lives with that reality. They can choose to accept that pressure or not. I choose to accept it and acknowledge it, and because of that, I try to do twice as much so I can appear to be half as good.
MG: Wow. That’s really powerful, Henry, thanks. When you communicate with your staff, how do you flush out what it is you’re trying to communicate? We have a lot of attorneys who struggle with communicating specifics and delegating because everybody comes to the table with assumptions. Has that ever been an issue for you? I have two clients right now who are really struggling. They’re both married to attorneys, and I think they forget that the rest of the people in the world aren’t attorneys. Do you have any insight?
HR: I think one of the biggest insights is the value of self-awareness. If you know yourself, your communication style, and your shortcomings, then you really need to get to know the person you’re communicating with as well. The more you know about the people you’re trying to talk to, the better you’ll be able to successfully communicate with them.
MG: What would you say is the best advice your mom, your grandparents, or someone close to you instilled in you? My mom used to say, “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar.” Does anything like that stick out for you?
HR: One of the biggest things my father instilled in me is that “can’t” is a bad word. We were not allowed to say, “I can’t.” At that time, I thought it was rough. I wanted to play football when I was in fourth or fifth grade, and he would wake me up at four o’clock in the morning to run the fields — stuff like that. He was instilling a sense of perseverance in me. My grandmother is very religious, and she taught me a lot about integrity and how your reputation is worth more than gold. That was some life-saving stuff because I grew up in the middle of the crack epidemic, and I could have gone down the wrong path. But my grandma kept me on the right track.
MG: Why did you become an attorney?
HR: I have a cousin who had a pearl white Lexus. It was a GS300 or something like that. The other people in the neighborhood who had money were the drug dealers, and they were driving Chevys. So it was on a completely different level of money. He showed me, as a young boy watching Matlock with my grandma, that it was possible. It stuck with me.
When I got out of the Air Force to go to law school, I ended up working longer than I expected. But the triggering event that brought me back to law school was when I was selling cars. A guy walked in and said, “You know me?” And I said, “I don’t know you, sir.” He said this was going to be the easiest sale ever. We walked through the (dealership), and he asked me about this Suburban — the torque and seating capacity. He was just driven. We went back into the building and he said, “You still don’t know me?” There was a telephone book sitting on the table. He flipped the telephone book over and pointed to himself. He was the lawyer advertised on the telephone book. And he bought that car from me that day. Now, he’s my competition. So, years ago, I sold my competition a Suburban that I think he might still have. So, after that, I went off to law school in California.
MG: That is such a great story. When you did business development, initially you stood at the bottom of the escalator at the Courthouse scouting for clients. I love business development, and like you said, it sometimes takes just checking your ego, getting it done, and putting yourself out there so that you can learn where you can be of service to people. What would you tell a junior attorney who is looking to grow their practice and working on business development?
HR: Just put yourself in control of the things you can control. There are lots of things you cannot control, like the pace of things, but don’t get overwhelmed and frustrated by them. Just hyper-focus on the things you can control, take every step and measure that you can to place yourself in the best position for success, and work harder than everybody else.
MG: Is that your key to success? I know you must have scored really well on your Air Force testing to secure the job that you had as an Imagery Interpreter which suggests you are very smart. So, maybe going to law school, practicing law – comes rather easily to you…?
HR: I didn’t know I was smart at first. I was in San Diego, and I tested into the gifted and talented class, and a teacher told me I was. I was surprised because I didn’t do a lot of my homework, so I didn’t have straight A’s. I got C’s.
MG: When you got into the Air Force program, did it build a foundation for being very comfortable with technology?
HR: I didn’t have a particular job when I went in. I took the test and signed up for the Air Force, and everyone in bootcamp was asking if I was going to be a cop. When you come in (undeclared) “Open/General,” that’s usually the job they give you, which is not a desirable job. You have to stand out in the elements for something like eight hours a day, and it wasn’t a good quality of life. But I scored high, so it turned out great for me.
MG: What is the biggest pitfall you see junior attorneys make, either in your firm or just in general?
HR: I think, for junior attorneys or employees period, one of the biggest flaws that they can make is if they ever put themselves in a position where they feel the employer needs to prove themselves to the employee. If they have the mindset where they’re not in the position they want or getting the pay they want, they reduce their effort. That’s going to be detrimental to them. Instead, they need to give it everything they’ve got. Then, ultimately, they’ll end up getting what they want. It’s your job to show that you are a crucial and central piece of their organization. Your rewards will flow from that.
I guess I’m toward the end of the older generation. The younger generation is more willing to say, “You know what? It’s not cool to work 60 hours a week for 30 or 40 years.” They’re talking about quality of life in their first and second year. And we, in the older generation, come in and tell them to pay their dues. It’s very different, and maybe they’re smarter than we were. They’re not going to take all the bull-crap that we went through.
MG: How have you learned to work with your ADHD and still be successful?
HR: It’s all about self-awareness and knowing my limitations. When I was an insurance attorney, I had to sit down, focus, and bill hours. It was completely detrimental. But now, because of my life experience, ADHD has actually become a superpower. Now, I can jump from one thing to another and be completely lost in it. Being an entrepreneur is like Adderall. I have the freedom to choose what I want to work on — like management? Processes and systems? Marketing? Working each (case) file? Spend time talking to my staff and building relationships? I’m not boxed in. I don’t have to make myself do what my body doesn’t naturally want to do, which is to sit down and focus on one task. The only thing that my mind and my body will let me do that with is trials.