For most people, it wouldn't be easy to walk away from a great job with a large firm, then launch your own company, knowing you will be working harder than ever but, on the flip side, calling your own shots.
But that's precisely what Jess Davis did in 2007, partnering with fellow attorney Chad Adams to form the Atlanta-based personal injury practice Davis Adams. Thus far, the duo has recovered more than $40 million for clients in various litigation areas, with medical negligence currently among the most active cases.
Eight years into the practice, Davis is experiencing a homecoming of sorts. The Columbus native, 46, who grew up in the Lakebottom Park area and graduated from Columbus State University, is opening an office inside the Corporate Center on 12th Street in downtown Columbus.
His return to the city will mark a personal milestone, with Davis becoming a third-generation attorney in his family. His late grandfather, J. Alvan Davis, was a Superior Court judge for years, while his late great-grandfather, Solan Davis, was a Municipal Court judge for decades.
Never miss a local story.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Davis, who plans to split his time between Atlanta and Columbus, with hopes of having a downtown loft condo at some point, about his job, its challenges and his profession's reputation for being ambulance chasers.
This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
How and why did you decide to go it alone with your law partner?
My partner and I left Alston & Bird, which is a big Atlanta national firm. In 2007, as we were all trying to work our way up and make partner, we went to lunch one day and looked at each other and I said, "This isn't for me." At a firm like that you're representing one big company suing another big company and, at the end of the day, that's what you've done, is you've helped a big company.
I'm glad there are lawyers that do that, but it wasn't very fulfilling. It was hard to feel like your time and effort and energy and passion and all of the hours actually did anything for anyone. That's when we decided to walk back to the office and go in and tell our bosses that we weren't going to stay any longer. Then we opened our shop.
That's heading into the recession. Did that affect your mind-set?
The honest answer is I don't think we were smart enough to know what we were walking into. We knew what we wanted to do. And, for me, it was really simple. My first child was 2 years old at the time, my oldest son, and on Halloween I got a work project at about 6 o'clock that night. I was going to come home; That was going to be the first year that we dressed him up and took him trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. I was excited about that.
But someone dropped something on my desk and said it needs to be done tonight. I knew it didn't need to be done that night. But I didn't have any choice in the matter and I didn't control my time and I wasn't my own boss. So I stayed and got the project done and when I got home my son was through trick-or-treating and he was sitting inside. So I did two things. One was I put him back in his costume and said we're doing it again, and we walked around the neighborhood. I just wasn't going to miss that.
Later that night, I put him into bed and told my wife, I'm not doing that again. I'm not going to be in a situation where I'm doing work that I don't enjoy and I don't even have the ability to control my time. And that was it. Shortly after that was when my law partner, Chad Adams, and I went to lunch and made the decision.
I work longer and harder now than I ever did before, but it's work that I enjoy, it's work that I believe in and that I feel strongly about, and we help people. At the end of a case, we give them a check that allows them to have some financial security or buy a house that's maybe equipped to handle handicap needs if they've had some catastrophic injury. I feel good about that.
And I control when I do that. I can go coach little league in the afternoon and come back to the office at night. That's kind of how we ended up where we are.
Have your cases encompassed every type of subject matter? Are you seeing more of one thing than another?
It's a little bit of everything. One of our biggest cases had to do with miscalculation of pension benefits in Fulton County. Another of our cases had to do with a dangerous woodworking mill product that killed a man. Many of our big cases have had to do with medical negligence. Some have had to do with car wrecks. It really is all over the board.
Is there a particular type of case you enjoy doing more than others?
You know, it's not the type of case, it's the client. That's what drives the enjoyment factor. Hopefully, we're picking good clients who we feel like are deserving and someone we want to fight for. Now sometimes you get into the middle of a case and you see a different side of a person. But the cases that we enjoy are the cases where you have a good client who just didn't do anything wrong. They were where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to do, and they suffered something terrible, maybe an amputation.
Sometimes it's the loss of a child and those are the most emotionally draining cases. I've never encountered anything in dealing with clients that quite impacts them like losing a child. When you come across clients like that, it becomes personal. You want to win for them, and you care about them, and you sometimes spend two or three years together. You've seen their lives change and it just becomes very personal. When those cases are over and, hopefully, the case is won, you see that family start to put the pieces together, start to at least close the book as best they can after a tragedy. Hey, money doesn't fix everything; money doesn't fix most things, really. But it's just knowing that they demanded some accountability, knowing that they pushed the process to a conclusion and got answers that maybe they hadn't received before. It does sound hokey, but those are the days that I go home and feel like, OK, my job matters.
Are you handling any major cases now?
A lot of the major stuff that we're seeing right now are medical negligence cases. We have sort of developed a reputation for doing a good job with medical negligence cases. In a general personal injury world, those are viewed as particularly complex and expensive and time consuming, and obviously medicine-intensive. For a lot of personal injury lawyers, those are just not very appealing cases to take.
The laws of Georgia are very difficult. You hear about frivolous lawsuits against doctors. The truth is you can't stay in business filing frivolous lawsuits against doctors. As a trial lawyer, you would go out of business very quickly. So they're hard cases and we've developed a reputation for doing very well in those cases, so we tend to see a lot of those.
With an aging population, are nursing home and assisted living cases more prevalent?
Probably. I'll tell you a trend that we have noticed with medicine generally, and that would include nursing homes and assisted living facilities: Medicine is being pushed more and more into a profit-driven model. Almost every doctor that I deal with, whether as a defendant or one of my own experts, what they'll tell you is: I wish I could spend more time with patients. I wish I had more time to practice medicine the way it should be practiced. But my bills are getting scrutinized and insurance companies are making it more difficult for me to be the type of doctor I want to be.
As medicine and business continue to merge, you see the business side of medicine pushing for efficiency and profit margin, and you see doctors pushing for the best care. Those two things don't necessarily live nicely together. So as the whole health-care world continues to shake out and we see changes implemented -- the more profitability becomes an important part of health care -- the more difficult it becomes for doctors to focus on the care as opposed to the profit. That just creates a lot of cases. It just does. I wish we saw fewer of them.
And I don't blame the doctors. I blame the insurance companies, honestly. In doing this for a long time, I have yet to meet a doctor -- and this is true -- I have yet to meet a doctor in a deposition or in a case where I thought you're just not very good or caring or you're not very qualified or you don't seem to really have your patients' interests at heart. It's just never the case.
Normally when I meet doctors, even the ones I think have committed a negligent act, I think you're doing your best. You seem like a good, caring person.
Basically people go into medicine because they care about people and most doctors don't just say I thought it would be a way to make a living. They're interested in providing care. But they get squeezed by insurance companies and that makes their life difficult.
What was it like growing up in Columbus? Were you born at The Medical Center?
I was born at The Medical Center. My family's from Columbus, going back a very long way. I actually grew up in the house that my great-grandparents built. My grandparents lived in it and then my dad raised me there. It's right next to Lakebottom Park, on 13th Street.
I spent my days going to Wynnton School and walking down to Lakebottom Park and taking my bike down to the park after school, playing football on the big grassy fields, trying to dam up the creek or just hanging out with my friends. That was my childhood and I loved it, and then went to Richards Junior High. Columbus is a great place to grow up. I loved growing up there.
Are you a Columbus High grad?
I wanted to be a basketball player and there was no market for a 5'10" guard who couldn't shoot well from the outside at Columbus High. So I ended up going to a school that's not even there anymore. It was called Christian Heritage Academy. It was a little school over near Pacelli. But it focused pretty heavily on basketball and had some really good basketball teams. I had a great experience there, and I actually stayed in Columbus for college and went to Columbus State and didn't end up leaving Columbus until I graduated from there.
Your grandfather and great-grandfather were both judges. What are your memories from them?
Maybe this is just a grandson remembering his grandfather larger than life. But there was a time when being a Superior Court judge, you were sort of a community leader and you commented on everything. I have newspaper articles where the headline of the Ledger would be Judge Davis comments on local high school construction. He didn't have anything to do with it. It's just the judge had something to say about it and it was kind of news.
But I just remember him being larger than life, person that everyone respected and everyone knew him and everyone would tell me how proud I should be to be his grandson. I was at a Columbus Bar Association luncheon about a month ago, and most of the lawyers over 60 came up to me and said, well, tell me a story about him.
My great-grandfather I did not know. He predeceased me. But I always had in the back of mind, even when we established the practice in Atlanta,of continuing that presence in Columbus of not only being a lawyer, but hopefully of doing it the right way and carrying on his name. I feel some obligation, I guess it's just desire, to be there in Columbus, to have a significant presence there.
That begs the question. Would you want to be a judge someday?
I don't think so. I enjoy being an advocate, and while I would like to think that I can be fair and impartial and exercise good judgment with a pretty nice temperament, my natural leaning is toward passion and making a case and kind of going all in on one side.
I think it's just the nature of what I do for a living right now. As plaintiff lawyers, we're always pushing the ball uphill. That's the way we view it. It's like pushing a rock up a hill. It does not move itself. Nothing happens from my side unless you push that rock up the hill. The defense is just pushing the rock back down the hill or they're happy to let the rock stay where it is.
So you really have to come to the office everyday and think, how do I advance the ball, respectively, with these cases today. And that level of energy and passion, I don't know that it lends itself to stepping back and being a judge. But who knows?
So you'll be spending plenty of time here in your hometown?
This week I'll be there more than I'm here (in Atlanta). I frankly anticipate that my dilemma will soon be that my work in Columbus is going to require a near constant presence. I'll have to figure out how to juggle that.
I think after seven years, our presence in the Atlanta market is strong. We see a lot of cases. I serve in a lot of different leadership positions, and I think we have something now that is big and strong enough to take and put it in another market. I think, up until now, I felt like that it still needed nurturing and growth and care. It still does and it always will, and will change. We certainly haven't made the last tweaks.
Coming into the Columbus market with Jim Butler, a major successful personal injury attorney, does that enter into your thought process at all?
Not at all. I know Jim and all of the guys that work at that firm, and they do great work. I would say they primarily do a little bit different work than we do. They have had a lot of success with auto defect-type cases and that's not work that we focus on. But I like and respect those guys. And there are others. There's Neal Pope, there's Jason Branch, there's Morris Mullin. Columbus has an inordinate amount of good trial lawyers.
I think the best way to put it is anytime you see a recruit signed with Georgia, a high school football player, the question is always: Did you worry about the players already there? Did you worry about playing time? The answer from the good players is always, I can't worry about that.
I know I'm good at what I do. I know I'm going to work hard. And I'm confident that we'll do well.
What's a typical day like for you as a personal injury attorney?
A normal day involves a heavy mixture of marketing and getting out and meeting people to make sure the world knows who you are and what you're doing. For instance, this morning I had a breakfast meeting with another lawyer. This is a lawyer who routinely refers cases to me and it was just to catch up and see how he's doing and to make sure I'm staying on his radar ... So we do a lot of marketing and a lot of staying in front of people and letting them know who we are and that we appreciate their business and we value that relationship.
Then I come into the office and, as you probably experience, too, I might have 40 emails by 9 a.m. Some of those are from clients wanting an update. Some of them are from other lawyers about cases. So it's a lot of email, honestly.
Then there are phone calls with expert witnesses that take a lot of time. In just about all of our cases we have to hire doctors to help us understand injuries in medicine. For instance, if you have a client with a brain injury, you need a good neurologist to help you understand what that (X-ray or CT) image is showing. You can't do a good job as a personal injury lawyer unless you understand the injury. A lot of personal injury lawyers are good at understanding the accident, how the car flipped over or that sort of thing. But we take pride in understanding the injury, and that means a lot of time on the phone with doctors. So that's a good chunk of the day.
I'll also be out meeting with clients. We tend to do most of those meetings in the client's home. We don't generally ask them to come to our office. We say, what's most convenient to you, especially if you're injured.
And it's just a mix of things. I do a lot of leadership things. I'll be at the Georgia Trial Lawyers executive committee meeting from 3 o'clock this afternoon to probably 7 o'clock tonight. There's some leadership credential things and making sure that we're helping lead the profession and things like that.
What's the toughest aspect of your job?
There are two. One is that there are a lot of personal injury lawyers that do it the right way ... Jim Butler, Neal Pope, Jason Branch and others in Columbus who are in this business to right wrongs. And, yes, it's a business. And, yes, it generates money, and that's obvious. But when you sit down with those of us who do this for the right reasons, it's heartening to know that there are so many of us who really feel like it's an important job.
The flip side to that is there are other law firms who now have a presence in Columbus, too. I won't name names, but they don't, in my opinion, view their obligation to do the best job for the client as seriously as they should. It's more about money; it's more about marketing and advertising and collecting cases and resolving them quickly.
That leads to my second problem and that is every time you introduce yourself at a cocktail party and somebody asks what do you do, I don't say I'm a lawyer. I say I'm a personal injury lawyer, because I'm not trying to run from that.
But the first thing you get is always a joke: Well, I heard about the hot coffee. Or there goes an ambulance, aren't you going to go chase it? That sort of thing.
That reputation in some respects is unfair and in some respects it has been earned, unfortunately. So it's trying to combat the notion that we, as trial lawyers, are only in it for money and that we abuse the justice system is probably the hardest part when, in fact, most of us care deeply about the justice system. We want to see it run the right way. We want to see it fair for everybody.
Any other interesting aspects of your job?
There was a cap on what's called non-economic damages, which is just another way of saying pain and suffering. The legislature capped non-economic damages several years ago and our Supreme Court has now thrown that cap out. But there's this notion that pain and suffering is sort of this joke almost, that it's some concept of greedy people sitting around their houses who refuse to work and try to come up with ways to take money from hard-working business owners.
My wife, for instance, right now she stays home with our kids. She doesn't have an income from outside of our home. Now, she works as hard as anyone that I know with three small kids at home. But if something happened to her and she were killed, then pain and suffering and sort of the value of her life is all that's left. Let's say there are no medical bills related to her passing away, and there's no lost income related to her passing away. That doesn't mean that her life didn't have tremendous value.
But we're constantly pushing back on this notion of frivolous lawsuits and garbage lawsuits and you hear things like jackpot justice and lottery lawsuits. I'm just telling you, from someone who does it all day, every day, these cases are not easy. Insurance companies are not paying people who file frivolous lawsuits. That's just fiction. They're going to trial and they are winning ... You cannot stay in business as a personal injury lawyer unless you're doing it well and picking good cases.
Finally, is there anything else you may have wanted to be in life, a business executive, an astronaut? Or is this it?
This is the only thing I've ever wanted to be, and I think that it goes back to my grandfather. He was my first larger-than-life hero. Then I realized that going back to my days at Wynnton School, I was always the guy that other kids would come to and ask me to write notes to another girl. They would say something like, Jess, I really like Katie, I don't know exactly what to say. Would you write a good note for me? I was ghost-writing fourth-grade love notes and, at that point, I realized that I had some talent for making a case for something.
Then my dad could tell you that I've always been a prolific arguer and that anytime he would tell me to do something I would typically have a response and a counter-proposal. So at some point, people began saying, I think you're probably going to be a lawyer.
Most days I love what I do. I feel good about it, especially if we can do something to help change somebody's life. There are not a lot of jobs where that's true. With most companies, you can do a good job and help build the business and whatever service or product you're providing.
But to hand a check -- and this happened last year -- to hand a check to a single mom whose husband has left her, who has lost a leg, who can't do most things that an able-bodied parent can do, who's really facing an uncertain future ... when you hand a check for more than $1 million to that person after you have just worked yourself into the dirt to win a case, and that mom says: Kids, we're going to buy a house. Kids, you know those camps you wanted to go to this summer, you're going. I don't know what more I could want than that. It's just a great feeling.
Name: Jesse "Jess" A. Davis III
Current residence: Atlanta and Columbus
Education: 1988 graduate of Christian Heritage Academy in Columbus; earned bachelor's degree in political science and government from Columbus State University in 1992; and graduated from Mercer University's Walter F. George School of Law in 2004
Previous jobs: Political aide/consultant in Washington, D.C., and in Georgia (1992-2000); and an attorney with Alston & Bird in Atlanta (2004-2007)
Family: Wife, Kristen, and three children -- sons, Bennett and Noah, and daughter, Eliza
Leisure time: When he's not at the office, he's with his family, almost always coaching little league baseball, fishing or watching gymnastics
Of note: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he traveled to New Orleans to help rescue stranded animals. From that experience was born the Animal Rescue Legal Foundation, which provides pro bono legal services to animal rescue organizations throughout Georgia