You need to take care of your people, including yourself. Practicing law can be emotionally and mentally demanding. Taking time off to recalibrate is essential. Sometimes you need to step away to see the bigger picture and to give your brain (and sometimes your feelings) time to re-set. The same goes for staff. We strive to provide quality legal representation and we can’t do that if we’re burned out.
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Falen O. Cox.
Falen Cox is a personal injury attorney and law firm partner with over 10 years of litigation experience. Her firm, Cox, Rodman, & Middleton is located in historic Savannah, Georgia. She has won numerous awards related to her legal advocacy and community involvement.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
Thank you for having me. Yes, actually. I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since 3rd grade. My 3rd grade teacher, Ms. Sidwell, first opened my mind to the possibility that I could become an attorney; though I watched and admired Claire Huxtable’s character on The Cosby show, I didn’t know any lawyers and had, prior to that conversation with Ms. Sidwell, only wanted to be things that I saw (e.g. a teacher, school counselor, actress, etc.). I’ve always loved reading and writing, and I’ve always been outspoken and even then, loved negotiating to try and get my way…Ms. Sidwell recognized these traits and planted the seed. I latched on to what Ms. Sidwell said because I admired her, and as I got older realized that it was a good fit for me.
I always knew that whatever type of law I practiced that I wanted to interact with the public; regular people — no corporate law and mergers and acquisitions for me (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’m from a blue-collar family: my mom had a few credits from beauty school and my dad has a bachelor’s degree, but I didn’t come from money or from a legal dynasty. I wanted to work with people who were like people I grew up around. After representing indigent defendants in the Major Crimes Division, I opened a firm and decided to shift gears to plaintiff’s personal injury. Now, I help people who have injured by the negligence of others. While it’s different than criminal defense substantively, it’s pretty much the same in that my clients are regular people who need my help.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
My practice is plaintiff’s personal injury meaning that I represent people who have been injured by the negligence of others. Most of my clients have been injured in car accidents or by professionals (medical and legal malpractice specifically). Every now and then we may represent someone in a premises liability case (e.g., negligent security, negligent hiring, etc.). The nitty gritty of my job includes communicating with clients, gathering evidence to support his/her claim, communicating with insurance companies and treatment providers, reviewing medical records and bills, negotiating with insurance companies and treatment providers, asking and answering questions from the other side (written, verbal, in pleadings, depositions, and trial etc.), asking questions of medical treatment providers, LOTS of research and LOTS of writing. My favorite part, though, is going before a jury and asking them to decide the tough questions; it’s one of the only ways that most people ever see our legal system up close. Even though some potential jurors aren’t always enthusiastic about serving, every juror I’ve spoken to after has felt sense of civic pride after serving no matter the type of case or the verdict; I like being part of that.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Courage: I’ve always been courageous. My early life was a bit chaotic and I had to adapt to different situations and environments frequently and sometimes without advanced notice. As a result, I’ve always been willing to give things a try. For example, I moved to Savannah after law school almost site unseen. Prior to the interview I had never been to Savannah and when I moved here for work I did not know anyone; my closest family is 4 hours away in Atlanta and all of my immediate family is in Alabama. I am still fearful of some things and am still scared when I do many things, however, I am usually able to push through the fear.
Front-loading: I am a front load worker. That means that I will usually do most of the hard work in the beginning with an attention to detail. Most of my victories have been pre-trial. I’ve won motions that were dispositive of cases because I spent lots of time dissecting a case at the beginning; I’ve had cases outright dismissed as a criminal defense attorney because I’ve investigated before we ever got to a trial. Usually, before I get to the halfway point of a case, I’ve talked to witnesses, taken pictures, consulted with other professionals, and gotten the documentation that I need; this makes it easier to negotiate, and also lets the other side know that I’m prepared. If we can’t come to a resolution, then my front-loading means that I’ve got very little left to do to be ready for trial; I can spend that time fine-tuning. I once represented a family member who lost a loved one do to medical negligence. I chose to associate with an extremely capable co-counsel for assistance. Most cases, including this one, are mediated prior to trial (that’s a non-adversarial process where both parties come together with a mediator in hopes of reaching a resolution). My co-counsel and I had prepared so well for mediation (animations, models, etc.) that we were able to get what we were asking for right there, that day! Sure, we could have waited to get those things until we were closer to trial since they weren’t necessary for mediation. However, having them there, at such an early state, let the opposing party know that we were prepared, and we were able to demonstrate exactly what we were prepared to show in a less adversarial environment. That move saved us months, if not years, of litigation since it ended up not being necessary.
Love of learning: I have always loved to read and learn. As an attorney I learn so much about so many different things. I’m always sure to tell my clients that I’m an attorney, not a physician and that they should, of course, follow the advice of medical professionals. However, I’ve learned so much about so many different treatment providers, procedures, diagnoses, air bags, engineering, insurance, healthcare, etc. as an attorney. It’s important that I understand all of these things so that I may accurately assess my client’s position, the defense, and be able to examine and cross-examine subject matter experts. This love of learning also assists with the front-loading mentioned earlier — during my preparation I am actively and intently looking to learn about factors that influence my client’s position. For me, a good treatise is just as good as some romance novels.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
Absolutely. I like to think of my success as a combination of me, other people propelling me, luck, and God. For instance, like I mentioned I’ve always loved to read, write, and learn. Those loves are innate and aren’t the result of anything special that I’ve done, it’s just a gift like some people can sing or add fractions (I can’t, lol). So, my love of reading, writing, and learning I think of as blessings from God, luck in that it’s helpful to my career, and the result of other people propelling me forward because those loves were nurtured and encourage by my family and teachers. I’m lucky to have been randomly assigned to Ms. Sidwell’s class, I’ve been lucky to have had an amazing former boss, Michael Edwards, who believed in me, and I’ve been lucky to continue to meet people who have shared what they know with me. For as much as I value preparation, I also believe that luck (and un-luck) and grace can tip scales and take you places you never prepared to be.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
Yes and No. I went to inner-city public school — Fairfield City School District. My school was a Title I school meaning that most of us were poor. Despite not always having the resources we needed, we had some amazing teachers, administrators, and staff. I wasn’t the best student from about 6–12th grade, but my teachers encouraged me and told me that I was smart and capable even when my grades didn’t reflect my ability. So, in a way I think my primary education both hindered and helped my success. I didn’t go to a top tier law school. However, I believe that I received a very good education. I think the trajectory of my career might be different had I attended a top tier firm, but I am not sure if that would have been a good fit for me. Sure, I might have been more outwardly successful, but I’m not sure if I would have felt as fulfilled and successful in other areas of my life. Going to a top-tier school is important if your goal is to follow the trajectory that a top-tier school allows. Lawyers who dream of working with Fortune 500 companies, high level government agencies, or who want high profile government appointments or political office should absolutely try their best to get into a top-tier law school. While law school is law school, the connections and the access that top-tier law schools provide for would-be law students looking to succeed in those fields can’t be matched by a lower tiered school.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
If I could go back to my 20-year-old self, I’d tell her to go to the school that gives you the most scholarship money. I’d tell her to first think about the lifestyle she wants to live and to then pick a practice area/career that supports that lifestyle instead of trying to make her practice area/career fit her lifestyle. I would tell her to make sure that she makes the drive home for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, high school tailgates, and BBQs since her friends and family are getting older and not all of them will still be with her when she finally “gets time.” If I could do anything differently, it would have been to leave my first job earlier. While I absolutely loved the job and the people, I think I might have grown more had I had more varied experiences.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
I know that it sounds cheesy, but my primary drive is to lift the invisible burdens from the shoulders of my clients and their families. Nobody wants to need a personal injury attorney; I meet clients who are hurting and worried; they worry about whether they’re strong enough to lift their toddler out of the stroller, what happens if they can’t stand for their 12-hour shifts, and whether their loved one died soon. The attorney-client relationship is intimate. I’m driven to answer those questions for them, to worry so that they don’t have to, and to get them as close to where they were before as possible, and in cases where that’s not possible to help them secure a down payment for their new life. I’m driven and motivated to grow my business for those reasons as well. Personally, I hope that if I’m able to do these things our firm will grow and that I’ll be able to eventually enjoy long vacations, more time with family, and help our staff grow to their fullest potential.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
There are always so many projects. Currently, most of the projects are boring office administration (retirement plans, hiring an associate, implementing a new text message feature, etc.). Outside of cases, most of my projects are around creating processes, adjusting processes, and making sure that they’re being used. We’ve recently automated some of the intake process and clients have been really receptive since it allows them to complete forms on their time and not necessarily when we are open (and they don’t have to miss work). So, nothing interesting or exciting, but instead slow and steady.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
I’m not quite sure if I’m going anywhere. I’ve enjoyed this practice and this firm much more than I ever thought I would. Being any type of lawyer anywhere is tough, but this tough is “mine.” In my next chapter, I’d like to focus my cases to more serious injuries and more medical malpractice; I’ve got a Continuing Legal Education seminar for medical malpractice on my calendar this month. I see our firm expanding to additional locations within Georgia and regionally.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
Most successful: My most successful war story involves helping a family who lost a loved one due to medical negligence. While there is nothing I can do to bring back a loved one or ease the grief that comes along with such a loss, what I can do is try and make sure that the loss is not in vain. In our legal system the most common ways to do that is with money and changed behavior. The outcome of that case helped to change policies at the medical facility, made sure that the full college education for every grandchild was paid in full, and the spouse never had work again.
Funniest: I started practicing as soon as I passed the bar; here I was a young (25), black woman taking on the world. I had a client who was not thrilled with how slowly the wheels of justice turn. I asked her to come in so that we could talk in person to see if there was anything we could do to move things along or issues that could be addressed in the meantime. She came with a family member. At this point, all of our contact had been via phone/mail for various reasons. At the time of our appointment, the conference room was occupied so I met with them in my office. Though they seemed a bit skeptical, by the end of the meeting, they understood why we had to wait and had some resources to assist in the meantime. I excused myself to get something off of the copier, and when I approached my office, I heard my client say, “I thought I was going to meet with the lawyer today; I drove all the way down here to talk to the intern. She’s going to be a good lawyer though, at least she got a plan, my lawyer doesn’t even have a plan.” I walked in and just laughed. I assured her that I was in fact that lawyer, then she asked why I didn’t have my degree on the wall (I was fresh out of law school and framing is expensive!) and we laughed together. I got my degree framed and hung the next week. Though it is a funny story, I think it speaks to what people think a lawyer “looks like” and I’ve been happy to help dispel those types of stereotypes ever since.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
I am currently working onsite; our office is small with just 5 employees. We have worked remotely, and that went well. Almost everything we do is on the cloud so it’s easy to work from anywhere. The way law offices operate has changed during the pandemic. While most of our client meetings and consultation used to be face to face, the vast majority are now over telephone or video conference. For some reason virtual meetings feel more seamless; I can have multiple virtual meetings without my energy level decreasing. It works better for most clients too; they don’t have to take off work or rush here during the lunch hour; a 30-minute conversation is now a 30-minute conversation instead of a 40-minute round trip commute, a 30-minute conversation and searching for parking. My preference is slightly on-site, but I love that I’ve learned how to work from home and would extend the option of hybrid to an employee if s/he preferred.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
Going virtual is the biggest way its changed. In addition to law firms, almost every other part of the legal industry has adjusted as well. Courts are holding virtual appearances, and most of us hope that at least some of them will continue to be virtual. It really takes a toll on your to-do list when you have to drive down to the courthouse, pay for parking, go through security, and sit for 30 minutes to an hour waiting on your case to be called to say, “Your Honor, we’d like to be set for trial”, get back in your car and drive back to the office. Since COVID I’ve had my first virtual mediation (I do prefer in-person), and first virtual deposition (no preference). Court clerks’ offices are adjusting as well as court reporters, we’re all in little Brady Bunch like squares getting the work done. Law has always been a profession where it’s been really important to have “boots on the ground.” COVID has showed us that its not always necessary, especially for practice areas that have little to no court appearance requirements. For instance, there’s no reason for a client to pass up on hiring the best estate planning attorney in the state because the lawyer’s office is 2 hours away; COVID has shown that it can be done, and I think it’s going to be for the betterment of the profession and the clients.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
Yes. The vast majority of our clients come through referrals and reputation; both are a result of the work we do and the connections we make in the greater and legal communities. The importance has not changed. The method has added a prong via social media, but it hasn’t replaced old fashion in person networking.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
I’m not the best person to answer that honestly, as I haven’t done a great job with leveraging social media myself. I’m a private person so it’s been difficult for me to create a social media persona. I’ve seen other attorneys do it well. Their posts are frequent, include videos and pictures. The best social media attorneys are also always aware of the newest platform; I’ve seen some great TikTok videos, but that really isn’t my style. We’ve just hired a social media coordinator who we’re hoping will help us do a better job with social media. She’s already told us that we’ve got to post more pictures and videos and, in my head, I’m hoping I have a good hair day.
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
1) You need to be compassionate. It’s important to be compassionate because clients are experiencing uncertainty and feeling helpless when they come to me. Some clients are facing invasive surgical interventions, others are trying to figure out how to operate in their own lives with a permanent physical disability, and others are grieving the loss of a loved one. One of my primary jobs is making sure that client trust me — I understand that the legal process isn’t familiar to them and in most cases isn’t pleasant — if given the choice, my clients would much rather be doing almost anything else than be a plaintiff in a lawsuit; my clients are my clients out of necessity. Being compassionate allows me to practice from a position of client-centeredness; this is the client’s case and while I’m the conductor, the client is the one who chooses the destination. Examples of compassion in my firm include explaining to an elderly client who doesn’t use email often that the dot in .com is a period and not “d-o-t” without getting frustrated; it’s praying with clients who want to pray the day before they go in for a surgical procedure; it’s telling them to let me keep pushing through litigation because I know the settlement being offered doesn’t fairly compensate them.
2) You need good support staff and processes. I can’t stress this enough. My assistant keeps me straight; there is not way I’d be able to do as much as I do as well as I do it without her help. In personal injury we interact with lots of other people from insurance agents to records clerks. Thankfully, we’ve been able to implement processes that helps to streamline our work to make sure that things don’t slip through the cracks. My assistant makes sure I don’t forget to call people back, that I see the new fax that just came in while I was on a call, and even makes sure that I eat lunch some days. My advice is to get as much good help as you can as soon as you can.
3) You need to be prepared and ready to fight. No all disputes can be resolved through negotiation, mediation, and agreement; in those instances, you have to be willing, and dare I say — looking forward to fighting. One of the biggest disservices I can do is undervalue my clients’ case. I want to make sure that my client gets every single thing s/he is entitled to and I don’t pull back from that unless my client tells me they want me to. For example, I represented a client on a case where the other driver’s insurance limits were 25,000.00 dollars, but the client had uninsured motorist coverage on the car she was driving with 50,000 dollars limits and there was another policy with 100,000 dollars limits that I believed was in play. The insurance company said the 100,000 dollars policy was off the table. It had been more than a year and my client was tired, and almost ready to give up. Long story short, my client agreed to let me continue to fight for the 100,000 dollars policy and we got it. So, you have to know when to fight; when to push your client to let you fight, but still remember that the client ultimately decides when the fight is over.
4) You need to love learning. There is always so much to learn in personal injury law. Depending on the type of case so many other disciplines intersect. For instance, in a simple car accident case you have to know tort law (duty, breach, causation, damages) but to know an understand it you also have to know a bit of traffic law (did the driver have a duty to stop), a little bit about insurance and contract law (what does the policy say) a little bit about physics and medicine (was the impact forceful enough to cause the injuries my clients suffered; was the treatment he received consistent with the types of injuries he has), and a little bit about math. It’s the lawyer who has to explain to a jury why the procedure was necessary and why it costs what it costs. Part of loving learning is knowing how and when to ask for help — lean on other attorneys who have already fought battles.
5) You need to take care of your people, including yourself. Practicing law can be emotionally and mentally demanding. Taking time off to recalibrate is essential. Sometimes you need to step away to see the bigger picture and to give your brain (and sometimes your feelings) time to re-set. The same goes for staff. We strive to provide quality legal representation and we can’t do that if we’re burned out. As an owner of the firm, I am my firm’s biggest asset and I need to make sure that I protect myself from mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion just like I make sure I protect the rest of the company’s assets. Thankfully, because we’ve got great staff and strong processes, we have very few “emergencies” that need immediate attention. As the old saying goes, “it you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I’m definitely a member of the Bey-Hive so I have to go with Beyonce.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!