How did you get interested in the kind of law you are practicing?
As an undergraduate at UGA, I majored in International Business. Coming out of business school I was initially torn between pursuing an MBA or getting a J.D. The professor of my undergraduate international legal studies class was Jere Morehead (who is now President of UGA). He helped to explain the ways in which I could combine my interests in business and law and encouraged me to go into law. He also encouraged me to participate in the moot court program at the UGA law school. Over time I found that employment law and litigation was a perfect blend of my interests that helps me to counsel companies on managing their workforce and compliance with employment laws while also litigating and going to trial when needed.
What was your career path?
I went straight from undergrad to law school. My wife likes to tell people that I only went to law school because I wanted to live in Athens for 7 years straight. I am not saying she is correct (but I’m also not saying she’s wrong). I initially began working in downtown Atlanta at a smaller litigation firm and started doing employment law there. I began as an associate at SGR in 1997 and have been with the Firm ever since.
What is a typical day like for you?
My practice is a unique combination of client counseling (trying to prevent claims and problems) and litigation (over things that already happened). On a daily (hourly!) basis, I am in discussions with clients about things they can do to comply with employment laws, avoid claims, and handle unique or touchy situations when they arise. While many companies have dedicated Human Resources departments and/or in-house counsel, most of them benefit from being able to reach out and seek guidance in real time when an unusual question arises, such as an employee claim of harassment against management or a need to accommodate an employee’s medical limitations. When claims are filed, such as EEOC Charges or litigation, I defend companies on those matters. I will also represent individual executives on matters such as restrictive covenant matters, employment agreements, or separation agreements. So a typical day involves elements of all of the above.
Tell us about one of your favorite experiences since you started working for SGR.
It is hard to pick one experience over the past 22 years, but I would say one that stands out is the work I have been able to do with the TV show The Walking Dead. The production has had a few employment-related issues arise over the past several years, and that has given me the opportunity to visit the studio several times, to tour some of the iconic sets and filming locations, and to be around some of the actors, directors, and producers of the show (a show I already loved anyway). It’s not every day that you can talk about legal issues with a show’s producers while simultaneously having to step aside to let a herd of zombie extras walk by.
Do you have any advice for young attorneys or alums who are interested in following a similar career path?
I think young attorneys can benefit from specializing in a particular practice area. Being a generalist or “utility infielder” can be beneficial in your early years. But over time I think it is best to find a particular practice area that interests you, and that you are good at, and then become known as a go-to person in that area. Also, I think it is important to not simply know the nuts-and-bolts of the law in your specialty area (that’s a given), but also to keep your fingers on the pulse of the industry as a whole and what trends and concerns are on the minds of people in the field (not just lawyers) who work in that area. I try to go to several human resources seminars each year to keep up with trends and technologies that HR representatives are dealing with every day. Even though I don’t get CLE credit for it, it’s good to stay abreast of how the market views things like the use of technology in hiring or employee wellness programs. Plus, when you go to industry events like that, you tend to meet people that can be of help down the line.
Can you provide us with any tips on networking effectively in the legal market?
Years ago a more seasoned attorney speaking at a lunch-and-learn event discussed the things he had done to successfully market his practice and network. His primary piece of advice sounded so simple and axiomatic that it almost went unnoticed, and yet it has stuck with me for all these years. That tip was that you have to actively, and consciously, make an effort to get out there and attend events where you will meet people. Often it is too easy to head home after work and spend the night watching Netflix. Believe me, I do my share of that, but it is important to find as many functions and events as you can and just go. And once you are at an event, remember that you do not need to feel that you are only marketing yourself and your own personal practice, but also the skills and expertise of your firm as a whole.
What would you tell a young associate on the path toward partnership? What can they do to stand out from their peers?
Be known as a go-to person. And that can manifest itself in a couple of different ways. First, be known as somebody who is always willing to jump in and assist on a project, whether it’s a new lawsuit or an M&A deal. Some younger attorneys tend to take more of a sit-back-and-wait-for-someone-to-seek-me-out approach. I think that more successful associates tend to seek out work and make it known to other attorneys in their section and firm that they want to work on additional matters. Second, be known as somebody who knows the law and the subject matter of their practice area. People do not want to feel like you will have to reinvent the wheel each time they give you a project, so do what you need to (even in your own, limited free time) to read up on applicable rules, court decisions, jury verdicts, business journals and the like so that you can minimize the chance that you have that deer-in-the-headlights look when a client or another attorney in your firm talks with you about their issue.
Lastly, mindfully try to help others around you succeed. Partners do not tend to have favorable impressions of a young associate who just did the minimum on a project, turned it back in, and faded off into the background. Partners are impressed, however, when an associate anticipates the needs of the case or deal, and the personal preferences and needs of the person they are working with. For example, there is a memorable distinction between an associate who simply emails a document back to someone versus the associate who goes to see them in person and tells them, “I know you asked me to do X, and here it is, but I also thought it might be helpful if you had XYZ, so I went ahead and put together a binder for you with those materials. And I know you like to spread things out when you look over them, so I reserved a conference room for you.” Big. Difference.
What are some things you do to market yourself as a lawyer?
There clearly is no singular magic pill to business development. I think it is important to do a number of different things. I do a lot of public speaking, such as presenting at CLE seminars and employment industry functions. Our employment practice group puts out a large number of Client Alerts to help our clients stay abreast of recent developments and to let them know we know the area. I also stay active on LinkedIn and commend others on their professional accomplishments. As mentioned above, I try to attend many different types of professional functions, such as Chamber of Commerce meetings, trade industry seminars, and employment industry events. Lastly, never underestimate the importance of staying in touch with your school friends, your neighbors, and even the other parents of your children’s friends. I’ve had many clients over the years who I initially met on the sidelines of my kids’ soccer games. You just never know where that next call will come from.
Matt Clarke has significant experience in employment law, encompassing employment discrimination and litigation, employment contracts, employee handbooks and policies, termination and separations, hiring practices, wage and hour issues, unemployment compensation and other aspects of the employer/employee relationship governed by state and federal laws.