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Michael A. DeMayo is the CEO of the Law Offices of Michael A. DeMayo.
Michael started the firm in September 1992. Since that time, DeMayo Law Offices has represented over 81,000 individual clients and obtained settlements and verdicts on behalf of their clients totaling in excess of $840,000,000.00. They currently have a staff of about 120 people.
Last week, I drove over to the Law Offices of Michael A. DeMayo on East Morehead and sat down with Michael at the conference room table in his 3rd-floor office. I grilled him with questions for an hour, and then we chatted about entrepreneurship and fatherhood for another 30 minutes.
I found Michael to be one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. Sure, he was clearly driven, confident and intense — but he was also real and he knew how to immediately connect on a personal level.
Michael’s the type of guy you want on your side. Which of course, makes sense.
33 questions with Michael A. DeMayo, one of the country’s top lawyers
What type of phone do you have?
My IT director had to take my Blackberry away from me a number of years ago, under protest, but since then I am current on all the iPhone releases. I’m often old-school when it comes to technology. He said to me, “Mr. DeMayo, there will no longer be any technical support for your Blackberry and all the other lawyers in the law firm have already gone with iPhones.”
What type of computer do you have?
I’ve got an HP with dual monitors. At home, I use a Mac and my iPad.
What do you use as a to-do list?
She is my executive assistant, Jeannine Walsh. I don’t do any of my own scheduling, appointments or travel.
Every week I get a calendar from Jeannine with what I have to do and when I have to do it. This includes both personal and business. Every day at the start of the day, I get my “to-do list” for the day for both personal and business. On the weekends, I will get a list of things to do.
I’m a single father raising four teenagers alone, so my life and schedule require coordination and time management or there is chaos.
What are your social media habits?
I have four active and precocious teenagers. I’m on Instagram and Snapchat because they are on these apps. Every once in a while, they’ll show me something on Vine and Musical.ly. I’m active and participate on Instagram and Facebook.
I recently forced my kids to befriend me on Snapchat… or whatever the terminology is to be linked. I was taught the basics of Snapchat by a college-age attorney’s daughter at a legal seminar who took pity on me because my kids don’t want me to learn and refused to teach me. It’s not intuitive. I have 21 friends, including my kids, on Snapchat.
You will find that your children dictate and shape your life in many ways. They dictate your friends and your social media habits and what you do on the weekends.
Explain the difference between your law practice and the typical big firms around Charlotte?
Every case I handle on contingency. We do not charge by the hour like most attorneys. The agreement is very simple: If I don’t win your case, you don’t owe me anything for my efforts.
I’m a very different animal than 90+ percent of all law firms.
The moral of the story is I better win and I better win a lot, otherwise we are not in business.
Do you have a lot of people asking you legal questions all the time?
All the time — but law, like medicine, is specialized.
If it’s personal injury, wrongful death, worker’s comp or a mass torts case, I’m your man. I am an expert in all of those case types. If on the other hand, you come to me with a speeding ticket or a corporate dispute or any other legal issue, it’s like going to a heart doctor when your feet hurt. I am neither qualified nor will I answer since it is outside my area of expertise.
What was it like to start your own firm?
I opened up my own law practice against everyone’s advice. I only had a year and a half of experience under my belt as a lawyer.
I started my practice with a total of $25,000. $5,000 I had saved. $5,000 borrowed from my father. $5,000 borrowed from my North Carolina “mother.” And two $5,000 credit card advances.
I had one employee. I had sourced her through vocational rehab and the deal was that I had to pay 50% of her salary. She was making a total of $24,000 a year. Every month, my goal was to make the nut of $1,000 — her salary. Anything extra was gravy.
In law school, they don’t teach you how to open a business.
I was in default on my student loans. Every month, they would call me and demand payment. I would say, “I own a Honda Accord. If you repossess that, you will never get paid because there is no way for me to get to my office and to look at my two phone lines and pray that they ring.”
How long did it take for you to feel like your firm was going to make it?
A year and a half was when I had enough money to write one check and I paid off all my student loans. I started to take a salary. I thought, “You know what? This law firm thing might actually work.”
It felt great to be out of debt and have essentially a clean slate.
What everyday thing are you really good at?
I’m very good with our clients.
Have you had people call you an “ambulance chaser” and stuff like that?
I’ll never forget, I was at a party when I first moved to Charlotte and somebody made the joke like – “Oh, haha, you’re an ambulance chaser” — denigrating what I did — and I literally got in their face and said, “Excuse me, but I help injured people battle billion dollar insurance companies for a living, what do you do so I can make fun of it?”
They backed off and I did as well, but I decided my reputation and position in our community was not going to be dictated by preconceived negative stereotypes. My firm and I were going to be different. We’re involved, engaged and active in the community we serve.
What’s your sleep routine?
Not very good. I generally go to bed around 12:30 a.m. and I get up around 6:30 a.m.
It’s not uncommon for me to work some strange hours. If you’re a new employee at our firm and you’re going to directly interface with me, someone will warn you that it’s not uncommon to get a string of emails from me at 3 a.m. in the morning. Sometimes I just can’t sleep, so I get up and I generate work.
We tell employees two things: Number one, there is no expectation that you answer MAD’s (my initials) emails immediately; and number two, understand that he works on a different schedule. Sometimes I will get a burst of ideas or energy. It’s not uncommon for me to send 30 or 40 emails in one period.
How do you spend the first hour of your day, starting from when you wake up?
I don’t drink coffee, my energy is natural.
Generally, what I will do is I’ll look at any emails that came in overnight. I’m then focused on getting four teenagers to school with everything they will need and planning for pickups.
I have a trainer that comes three times a week at 7:45 a.m and I hit with a tennis pro one day a week.
What do you eat for breakfast?
For a long time, I was eating two hard boiled eggs and about four pieces of turkey bacon. Now, I’m on a new kick where it’s egg whites with some sort of vegetable and/or a Juice Plus+ shake.
How long is your commute and what do you typically do to pass the time?
12 minutes. I do calls. If I have time, I’ll make two or three. Usually it’s just one.
What do you actually do?
I am the CEO, which means I am involved with the people that run the law firm day to day. I still, believe it or not, have a caseload, because I still like to work on cases. And I meet with clients.
We do a lot of disbursements, where we give them settlements and I try to meet with most clients. I feel like if they’re hiring my law firm, they should get to see me. We often tell the client, “Your job is to get better, our job is to do everything else.”
What’s the best thing about your job?
I help people every day. I get to help real people with injuries and problems.
Why didn’t you join a big firm?
My second summer while in law school at Chapel Hill after working at an international corporate law firm, I literally said to myself, “I hate this.” I did not become a lawyer to work for some big corporation and always say “No.” No, we are not responsible; no, you were not hurt; no, there is no insurance coverage. I never met any clients that clerkship. They would give you the file and you already knew what you had to do.
All of my friends told me my third year in law school that I was insane. Instead of these large firms, I went to go to work for a small personal injury law firm here in Charlotte. I worked for them for about a year and a half. I was making $35,000 a year.
What’s different about your business?
I’m not selling a product. I’m selling a service, my reputation and my ability to get you the best results.
At the end of the day, we don’t try to provide excellent service, we try to provide exceptional, can’t-live-without-us service. If anybody is ever in an accident, we don’t even want you thinking about anyone but LOMAD [Law Offices of Michael A. DeMayo] and referring them to us.
Ironically, we spend millions of dollars on advertising, but on average 48% to 53% of our new clients come to us as a result of referrals from past clients. So that means we are doing a great job and we always want to continue providing those same results and service.
If you weren’t doing your current job, what would you be doing?
Something interfacing with people and something mentally challenging.
I’m not happy if I do not have 10 balls up in the air at the same time. The ideal situation is one where I have a lot of people contact and can provide solutions. I enjoy helping people.
What unusual work habits do you have?
Everything I do is abnormal. Most CEOs with a law firm the size of ours don’t have an active caseload. Most CEOs with a law firm the size of ours don’t meet with the clients. They’re just involved with the marketing and the entrepreneurial business side. But I feel like what got us here is very simple and basic, and sometimes that can be the secret to your success. I started my firm over 25 years ago with a very simple vision statement — “Put the clients’ interests first and everything else will follow.” That has served me well over the years.
I feel like you’re famous in Charlotte. Do you feel like you’ve reached celebrity status in our city?
I am frequently recognized and there is a shy or impressed reaction from the other person.
Whenever I go somewhere in the community, if they don’t recognize the face, the second they see the name on the credit card, the comment I usually get is “Oh, are you any connection to Michael A. DeMayo?” I’ll usually joke and play along and say something like, “Yeah, I know him pretty well. In fact, I’m pretty connected to him. I see him every day in the mirror.” They will laugh and then usually want to shake my hand or take a picture with me.
The extreme is sometimes if they are young, they will ask for an autograph. I tell them it isn’t worth anything.
As far as I am concerned I am definitely not a celebrity and if ever I have any doubts about that fact, I need only consult my four children and they’ll tell you how far removed I am from anything that even resembles a celebrity.
What simple advice do you have for young people just starting their careers?
Do what you love.
If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, life is too short to be miserable. If you don’t get up every morning excited about what you do and feel like you’re going to get your batteries recharged, then do something else. It may not pay what you want and it may not be the “prestigious” job that everyone has told you that you need to aspire to and be doing, but happiness is greatly underrated.
Also, always give it your best effort, no matter what the job.
How do you approach time management?
Lots and lots of lists. I start my day every morning with a list of items that I want to accomplish. At the end of the day, look at your list.
Always be prioritizing. Do what is most important next. Now the question is, how do you determine what is most important? Often, you’ll have four or five pressing priorities. If you’re working for someone else, go ask and don’t assume.
What practical advice do you have for young lawyers?
I advise young lawyers to carve out hours of each day to do certain things.
If you’ve got to do litigation work, carve out hours for that work product. If you need to talk to clients, think logically about when you’re going to talk to them — it’s typically 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. when they’re home. If you have to talk to insurance companies or defense lawyers, when are they most likely to be in the office? Plan your day. People that just call and leave 10 messages with no planning and thought are not planning their day properly.
What’s the secret to your success?
I treat every client like they’re family. At the end of the day, the client is going to know whether you care or not.
If I set reasonable expectations and consistently exceed them, that person is a client for life and a friend for life who will go out of their way to make sure that you’re successful.
How did you develop your confidence in public speaking and debate?
It was sheer hunger and necessity. My dad was a teacher and my mom was a social worker. I was a latchkey kid. I had an unusual childhood. I went to a Jesuit high school in D.C. The idea of becoming a lawyer came from a Jesuit priest. Sophomore year of high school, he said, “Son, you would argue with a brick wall and win. You should be a lawyer.”
When I went to Wake Forest for undergrad, I was a student defender and I had quite the reputation of getting everybody off or greatly reducing their punishment. I didn’t have any legal training, I was just tenacious advocating for the student.
I really became good at selling myself when I opened my business and I was — literally and figuratively — hungry.
There is nothing that beats hungry for motivation and success.
What’s a purchase of less than $100 that’s most improved your work output or life?
An app called Notebook Pro. What it does is simulate legal pads. I used to carry around hundreds of legal pads on different subjects. Now when people talk to me, I can open up that app. I take a lot of notes.
Aren’t people asking you for money all the time? How do you politely say no?
We have an annual charitable budget. It’s usually around $300,000 or $350,000.
At the beginning of the year, we allocate it to all the charities I deem appropriate. I am a big believer in education. So when somebody asks, we politely say, “We already planned our gifts for the year, but if you leave us that information, we’ll take a look at it for next year.”
What restaurants do you visit frequently?
We’re very boring and predictable. If it’s not in our SouthPark bubble near the house, then it’s probably one of Frank Scibelli’s restaurants.
We’re at Yafo, Cowfish or Paco’s Tacos all the time. My kids could eat Mexican every day for the rest of their lives. For an elegant meal, we’ll usually go to Del Frisco’s or Ruth’s Chris.
What is something people don’t realize about Charlotte?
Charlotte is still, at its roots, a small Southern town. Everybody knows your business and if they don’t know your business, they’ll make it up.
What’s been your best investment?
Commercial real estate. Hands down.
The other best investment is in myself and our law firm. I’m part of a couple of industry groups that are geographically exclusive with the 800-pound gorillas in my industry across the country. We get together twice a year and we share marketing, management and business ideas. It gives you perspective and resources. We measure ourselves against national standards.
Given that you started with nothing, how have you changed with all your success?
I drive a nicer car, I go on nicer vacations and live in a much nicer house, but my lifestyle isn’t all that different from when I was in law school.
I also don’t worry as much on how I’m going to pay for things, but the reality is that you are who you are as a core human being throughout life and your values and morals don’t change.
Nobody is more important than anybody else. When I’m looking to do business with someone, I don’t care how they treat me, I’m looking at how they treat the waiter. If they treat the waiter like crap, I’m not going to have anything to do with them.
I help real, normal people for a living, so naturally those are the people I like to hang out with. It doesn’t matter if you make a lot of money or don’t make a lot of money, if you’re a good human being, and we have things in common, odds are we are probably friends.
What other Charlottean would you like to answer these questions?
Scott Smith, CEO of Sonic Automotive.