Martin Chitwood – Partner at Chitwood Harley Harnes LLP

In my experience ensuring that large tasks are conceptualized at an early stage almost always improves product quality.

Martin Chitwood has served as lead or co-lead counsel in more than 40 class actions nationwide and has been instrumental in recovering billions of dollars for investors and other class members. In a lead article in February 2004, the Atlanta Journal/Constitution stated that Mr. Chitwood “is considered the plaintiffs’ lawyer in the state of Georgia.” Recently, Mr. Chitwood served as co-lead counsel in both the BankAmerica securities litigation in the Eastern District of Missouri in which $490 million was recovered for investors and in the Oxford Health securities litigation in the Southern District of New York which resulted in a $300 million recovery for investors – when these cases were resolved in 2003 they were the second and fifth largest recoveries, respectively, since the enactment of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (the “PSLRA”). Mr. Chitwood has also served as lead trial counsel in approximately 25 jury trials and has written and argued numerous appeals.

Mr. Chitwood has served by appointment as a Special Assistant Attorney General for the state of Georgia to represent Georgia state pension funds in securities class actions and has also served as lead counsel in securities class actions for pension funds of numerous other states. He is one of a select few attorneys who have served as lead counsel for private mutual funds that have been appointed as lead plaintiffs in securities class action litigation. Also, Mr. Chitwood is Vice President, Co-Chair of Securities, and a director of the National Association of Securities and Consumer Law Attorneys (NASCAT) and a director of the Committee to Support the Antitrust Laws (COSAL). He is recognized as a leader in the field of corporate governance reform.

Mr. Chitwood has participated as a panelist in many professional seminars, and he authored “The Effects of the English Common Law on the Development of Commonwealth West African Legal Systems,” published by the University of Georgia Press in 1976. Mr. Chitwood is also the author of papers on various aspects of securities and antitrust litigation, including:”
“The Securities Reform Act of 1995: Its Effects on Litigation and Capital Formation” – published in Calendar Call, Vol. II, Winter 1996, No. 4
“Federal Preemption of State Securities Laws: Uniform Standards or Misguided ‘Reform’?” – published in Calendar Call, Vol. III, Spring 1998, No.1
“Litigating the Class Action Lawsuit in Georgia” – published by the National Business Institute in 1998
Additionally, he authored multiple articles published by the Institute for Continuing Legal Education (“ICLE”) in Georgia and has presented these articles at ICLE seminars, including:
“Securities Class Actions: The Plaintiffs’ Perspective” – 1997
“Class Actions and Antitrust Enforcement” – 1998
“The Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 – A Synopsis” – 1999
2000 and 2001 Updates to the “Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995”
“Investor Communications During Litigation: Ethical Problems, Procedural Issues and PSLRA Requirements in Communicating with Investors When Litigation Is Pending” – 2001

Martin Chitwood attended the University of Georgia, where he received his A.B., M.A., and J.D. degrees, the last in 1973. He is admitted to practice before all Georgia state trial and appellate courts, the United States District Courts for the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Georgia, and the Second and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeals. He is a member of the Atlanta and American Bar Associations, the State Bar of Georgia, the Federal Bar Association, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, and the Lawyers’ Club of Atlanta, where he serves on the Rules, Practice, and Judiciary Committee. He is also a Life Fellow of the Lawyers Foundation of Georgia. Mr. Chitwood is a member of the Securities Litigation Committee of the Litigation Section of the ABA and the Antitrust and General Practice and Trial Section of the Georgia Bar.

During the Vietnam Conflict, Mr. Chitwood was assigned to the Fifth Special Forces Group (Abn) and served as the commanding officer of a Special Forces A-Team. He received a Top Secret security clearance with Special Access from the Department of Defense. In addition, Mr. Chitwood was awarded both the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm by the Government of South Vietnam, and the Air Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Parachute Badge and Vietnam Jump Wings by the Department of the Army.

Mr. Chitwood co-produced and wrote the story for “Unconquered,” a CBS movie of the week that first aired in January 1989. “Unconquered” was chosen as a Best of Category for 1989 by TV Guide. Martin Chitwood is a member of the Writers’ Guild of America.

Where did the idea for Chitwood Harley Harnes, LLP come from?

My first employment as an attorney was with an Atlanta law firm that specialized in defending policyholders against claims on behalf of insurance companies. As a result of this employment, I learned the basic skills to be a litigator. However, I did not think defending insurance companies would be a sufficiently stimulating and profitable career choice, and I began to look for a different area of practice that could allow me to meet my personal and financial goals. I have always had an interest in securities and financial matters, and I hoped for an opportunity in that practice area. Serendipitously, I was retained to be local counsel in Atlanta for a securities matter brought by a large New York class-action firm, and as I worked on that case I realized this was the practice area I wanted to pursue. In 1991, I started my own firm dedicated to securities and antitrust class action litigation. An associate in my prior firm, who was several years my junior, came with me to start the new firm that is the successor to my current firm, Chitwood Harley Harnes, LLP.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

As the senior attorney in a pyramidal law firm, I am a litigation manager, and I believe my primary responsibility is to ensure quality control. When my firm was first starting out, I could be hands-on in every development in all our cases. However, as my firm grew it became too large for me to be involved in all the important decisions in our cases, and the volume of work dictated that a single person could not review the entire firm’s work product. Nevertheless, I have found it possible to ensure that all the work that needs to be done is being done and that those working on important cases are thinking ahead and planning for problems that might arise.

How do you bring ideas to life?

For me, the most effective way to accomplish this has been to call regular meetings of the persons working on each case. When I call such meetings, I usually include not only the senior attorneys but also the junior attorneys, including the most junior associates. In addition, I include the paralegals if they are sufficiently integrated into the case. During these meetings I have found it is important to start by asking what is the current status of the cases and to follow up with very specific questions about important aspects of the status. Once the group has agreed on a current assessment of the case, the next questions I ask usually have to do with what is coming up on the schedule. Of course, I also ask which person or persons in the group is going to be responsible for each of the things that are coming up, and how he or she plans to handle them. Asking how he or she plans to handle these issues usually forces a discussion that allows others in the group to participate and leads to the development of a consensus plan for addressing upcoming needs and deadlines. Such early development of plans also allows for quicker recognition of the resources and time that will be needed. In my experience ensuring that large tasks are conceptualized at an early stage almost always improves product quality.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

As in many other fields, I believe automation is the most exciting trend in the legal profession. Many in the legal profession have been concerned because they believe automation may ultimately lead to the law being applied mechanistically which could then lead to a decline in the role of attorneys and the importance of law as a profession. Many have also been concerned that automation may lead to law firms without staffs. However, automation can lead to advantages, including increased efficiencies and better work products. Legal research has been on a path toward automation since online research first lead to increased efficiencies more than 25 years ago, and more recently document reviews have become more automated. Predictive coding through which attorneys assign metrics to document inquiries allows software to identify the documents most likely to be useful from within large document database. This process greatly reduces a number of time attorneys and their staffs must spend reviewing documents manually. Many predict that in the not too distant future computers will not only do almost all of the research, they will also write memoranda and briefs. While some may argue this is not a good development for the legal profession, I believe it can make the legal profession more cost efficient, thus making legal services accessible to a greater percentage of the population. If so, automation can be good for society, and I believe the legal profession should embrace it.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I believe entrepreneurial managers must have a vision for what they want their business to become, and they must be willing to sacrifice short-term gains in order to obtain longer-term goals consistent with their vision. After I started my firm in 1991, we were reinvesting all of our profits into the business, and since the business was growing annually, there was a need to reinvest increasingly more each year. As a result, our reinvestment needs to be matched our profits for the first several years, and we were not able to take any significant money away from the firm. We were in practice for several years before we were able to regularly take enough money away from the firm to provide ourselves with a reasonable standard of living. During that several year stretch, there were many years when I wondered if the sacrifices were worth it. Also, I wondered if we would ever make enough money to make up for the sacrifices we had made. What kept me going was that the business and paper profits (profits before reinvestment) were growing each year, and I could see the time was coming when we could have very substantial profits beyond what we would have to reinvest.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I have been very lucky in my professional career to have a great job.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

When someone makes the decision to leave secure employment and start his own business, he should anticipate there will be increasing demands on his time, and concomitantly his time will become more valuable. When most of us are young and working on salary, we usually handle most of our personal matters ourselves. We may take our own dry cleaning, wash our own cars, and prepare our own tax returns. However, once we start our own business, it may no longer make economic sense for us to do these things for ourselves, even if we have less to spend for these things to be done for us.

As I transitioned from being a partner in an established law firm to starting my own, I was slow to accept the necessity to spend more money in order to have more time for my new venture. I was conscious that I would likely have less to spend during the startup period, and I continued to handle too many of my personal matters myself. However, by continuing to handle these matters myself, I sacrificed some valuable time that would have been more profitably spent on my new business. If I were to start over again, I would hire a personal assistant from the beginning, and I would also take advantage of more efficiencies, even though they may come at a higher price; for instance, paying for a more expensive hotel because it’s located nearer where your meeting will occur.

In addition to providing more time for your business, hiring an assistant and taking advantage of more efficiencies may allow you to stay more focused and rested, which may allow you to more effectively meet the stern challenges that starting a new business presents.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

As an entrepreneur, I believe it is necessary to constantly monitor and ensure the commitment of your employees to the success of your business. In order for any business to be successful, it’s necessary for its employees to work to promote the success of the business. I have found that for most employees to have a strong commitment to the success of the business at least three things are required: (1) they must believe in what the business does (e.g. they must believe it provides a good product or a valuable service), (2) they must respect its leadership, and (3) they must feel comfortable working with their co-workers.

I believe every business has a personality. If a business is small, its personality emanates from its owner or manager. If the business is large enough to have sections or groups, every section or group may have its own personality. I also believe that in order for an employee to enjoy working in a company, section or group, that employee must feel comfortable being a part of the group personality they are working within. I have found that persons who work within a group whose members share common ideas and attitudes are usually more committed to group goals, and are often willing to work with greater zeal and for longer periods than groups who don’t share common ideas and attitudes. Therefore, when hiring someone for a business, I believe it is important to consider whether they will fit into the group personality that has been developed by the persons with whom they will work most closely. Of course, conducting a successful interview to determine whether a prospective employee will feel comfortable with the group norms requires that the interviewers understand the group personality and the characteristics that contribute to it. Therefore, I believe that persons who are a part of or are close to the group in which the interviewee would work should always be a part of the interview process. In a small business, that group should include the owner or manager. In a larger business, the interviewers should include someone from the section or group within which the person being interviewed would work.

When my firm was first beginning to grow, I was part of conducting every interview for potential employees. As my firm grew larger and my work commitments became greater, I wasn’t always a part of the first interview, but I nevertheless made it a practice to meet and have a conversation with any interviewee we were considering hiring. It was through this process that I tried to ensure that anyone we hired would feel comfortable working within the personality of the group and would have the potential to be a long-term employee who would work to promote the success of the business.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

always try to answer my clients’ difficult questions. In large case litigation, our clients are almost always sophisticated, and they often ask penetrating questions. I have found that many of these questions deal with prospective matters for which there is no obvious answer. In my experience, I have found that many attorneys often find a way to avoid responding to these types of questions because answering them usually requires consideration of a several step process, and they don’t want to either think it through or admit that they don’t already know the answer. However, I make it a practice not to avoid a client’s questions simply because it is difficult to provide answers.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

The toughest decisions for a plaintiffs’ class action firm are what cases to take. The largest cases may provide the best opportunity, but they can also cause the firm the largest losses. Before undertaking a securities class-action case, the firm must evaluate every possible consequence of the case. Usually, many hours of research and discussion are necessary before a reasonable decision can be made.

The toughest decision I have had to make in the last few months is whether to take or turn down a potentially large case. In this instance, I turned down the case on behalf of the firm, and another firm is prosecuting it on behalf of a class. I will watch the progress of the case over the next several months or years to see if I saved or cost my firm millions of dollars.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I frequently use online legal research services like Lexis and Westlaw.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I am excited about my recently published book, The Influence of the English Common Law on the Law of Commonwealth West Africa, now available on Amazon.