Asking for a Friend: Cameron Hawkins and the Defense Side of the Law

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Transcript

Jeff Butler:

Today, we’ll talk with my friend, Cameron Hawkins about his law practice. Now Cameron and I have known each other a long time. We went to law school together from 2005 to 2008 and have kept in touch since then. Like me and like our firm, he does trial work. Which is to say he does his work in trial courts in Atlanta, Georgia and the surrounding area. But unlike us, he does some defense work. Our shop does purely plaintiff’s work, So personal injury from the side of the claimant or the person who’s been hurt. And Cameron does some of that, but he also handles some work from the other side. So he does some defense work for some companies and some organizations here in town.

Now Cameron and I became buddies in law school. But there was a time where, when we first met and got to know each other, I wasn’t so sure about it. In fact, I was a little pissed off and I’ll tell you why. We had, in our law school, a closing argument competition. Where all the students, all 200 of us competed to give the best closing argument. And I was doing really well in this competition, I made it to the last four. But in, I guess it’s the semi-finals, when we were down to four people, I lost. And then Cameron came through and won the whole thing. And I was pretty jealous about that. But later we hung out and I got to know him. He’s a good guy, a good man, and a good lawyer. So I’m happy to know him, I’m happy to interview him.

But I do want to point out that even today, 2022, this is now, I mean, I don’t know, 15 or so years after the fact. He’s still bragging about it on his webpage. Look at this, won multiple competitions in his law school career. Come on Cameron, you beat me once, we can move on. Welcome to asking for a friend. I’m Jeff Butler. This is my good buddy, cameron Hawkins. We were in law school together and our careers sort since then have been different, but I guess maybe more similar than different, in that we’ve both done trial work. I do plaintiff’s work and Cameron does some of that and some defense work.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. That’s right. Majority of my practice is folks on the defense side. So representing companies and individuals who are being sued or who have caused injury. And so if they need some legal help, I help those folks out.

Jeff Butler:

Tell me about your firm. Where are you? What’s your name? How big are you?

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. So my firm is called Edwards & Hawkins. We are a boutique firm, a small civil litigation shop in downtown Atlanta. We’re in the Hurt building. We have four lawyers and about four or five support staff that help us. So we opened up officially in 2018, but 2019 is when we really had our kickoff.

Jeff Butler:

And so I want to focus on the defense work. If I run around, and I’m jay walking, and the officer gives me a ticket, are you the man to call?

Cameron Hawkins:

No. Well, I tell my friends look, call me for anything. But unfortunately that’s not the kind of case that we handle. So you need a criminal lawyer to take that criminal matter. And I know some good criminal lawyers, so give me a call anyway. But no, that is not the kind of case that we take. So I like to say, if it goes to court and it’s not criminal, then that’s the kind of work that we should take.

Jeff Butler:

You call it civil work?

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. Civil work. That’s right. That’s right. Civil defense, civil litigation.

Jeff Butler:

So if I get sued for money. If I’m running a company and my company gets sued, someone wants money from the company or from the insurance company, I suppose you would handle a case like that?

Cameron Hawkins:

Absolutely. And so we represent companies of all sizes. I’d say our largest client is Marta, the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. And we also represent several night clubs, businesses, business owners. Particularly people who have lots of automobiles on the road. So if you have a bus company, or a limousine company, or a little bit of trucking company, or something like that, then those are the people we represent. And also, on occasion, we find that we represent individuals on the defense side. If they’ve been sued and someone is looking to sue them for an injury or something happened on their property, a premise liability defense. So we do a good bit of that work also.

Jeff Butler:

So let’s run through some factual scenarios, I guess you’d call it, where you would be equipped to handle. So I’m running a business, I run a limousine company or a small trucking company. My driver’s involved in a crash, someone says that we should pay them a lot of money. Something you do?

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right, absolutely. Yeah. So, that’s one I do. And so it would depend on the nature and the size of the company. And so in that instance, sometimes you would have an insurance company and they would assign you a lawyer. And so sometimes that lawyer is the person who would represent you. But often people will reach out to me in my firm to represent them in a personal position of that. So you’re my personal lawyer, you do my defense work outside of what the insurance company does, and I’ll kind of supplementing or assisting that insurance defense work.

Jeff Butler:

So I could have two lawyers then?

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. Absolutely. You can have five lawyers if you want. But yeah, absolutely. So there’s a thing called the tripartite relationship between the actual person who is being sued, the insurance company who is paying, and the attorney who has represented them. So it’s kind of this tripartite relationship, which makes it a little interesting because the insurance company is paying the lawyer, but you’re paying them to represent the person. And so sometimes issues or questions come up about whose loyalty does the lawyer belong to? The person who’s paying the bill or the person you’re supposed to represent. And so the legal answer is supposed to be the person, you represent the client. But as we all know, there’s some practical considerations that go into that too.

Jeff Butler:

You told me once somebody’s buttering your bread.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. Somebody can butter your bread, you got to be aware of who’s buttering the bread. But again, at the same time, you’re there to represent the people. And an overwhelming majority of the time when I’ve been in those situations, you really do focus on representing the person to make sure they’re getting the best representation possible. And quite frankly, for the better companies, the better I do that job and represent the person, the more the insurance company, they’re happier anyway. Because I’m doing a good job representing and defending them. Yeah, they’re happy anyway. But in my world I don’t do a lot of insurance defense. In fact, our firm at the current moment does no insurance defense. So we represent companies who are either self-insured or not insured at all. And so they just pay us directly. So I don’t really have that a lot in my personal practice.

Jeff Butler:

Yeah. Well, I mean you’re supposed to be working for the person who’s paying you. Which is, I mean I would argue simpler.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. That’s right. So it’s a cleaner thing. And I have less conflicts when I don’t represent an insurance company per se.

Jeff Butler:

So let’s look at this, pretend I’m out driving and I crash into someone or I’m involved in a wreck. And either someone sends me a letter, a demand letter being like Butler, pay us all this money, or I’m worried they’re about to. So in that circumstance, my insurance company would usually assign a lawyer for me?

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right.

Jeff Butler:

But I might hire you if I’m worried about what?

Cameron Hawkins:

So, if you are generally worried that the lawyer who’s assigned your case might not be communicating properly. That’s a huge issue in our industry is that lawyers aren’t effectively communicating with people. Or they might not trust that lawyer, or they might have questions to the lawyer and they’re just not getting satisfactory answers. So then I’ll be brought in as personal counsel to make sure that the person is either properly updated, that they have somebody at the table, if you will, that they trust and understand. And who you can communicate a little bit better with certain individuals. And so I do a good bit of that work to represent people on the personal side. Or they might have personal assets that are being exposed. And so the insurance company will represent them for the insurance limits. But sometimes it goes above and beyond that, well who’s going to protect me and my assets? Well, I will.

Jeff Butler:

So for a high net worth person, say I’m running around it’s a bad wreck, someone was really seriously hurt. And I have $250,000 in liability coverage. That’s all the insurance company wants to pay.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right.

Jeff Butler:

So who looks out for me after that?

Cameron Hawkins:

So depends on the size of the wreck, depends on the person. But you’re right. These high net worth individuals are aware of their worth. And so there’s a variety of situations that could happen. You could have UM coverage, so uninsured or underinsured coverage on top of what the initial policy limit is. Or you might have an umbrella policy, which again, high net worth individuals have a policy above and beyond what the initial policy is.

Or you might just, sometimes people go after your personal assets. And so while you can’t take someone’s home or their car, if you have other assets that can be leveraged in litigation or in a lawsuit, depending on how bad the wreck is, you might have to pay. But someone has to help navigate that. Help people navigate through that process, help them understand what their risk is, help them understand where their exposure is. And that’s the kind of work I do.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. I think you mentioned that you and your firm represent some restaurants and nightclubs?

Cameron Hawkins:

Correct?

Jeff Butler:

In what kind of cases?

Cameron Hawkins:

So some of the nightclubs, some people might have a little too much to drink and they leave and there could be what we call a dram shop action, where after you had too much to drink, you leave and get in an accident. And now they want to sue the restaurateur where you were at. Or someone might get shot in the club or fight in the club or the restaurant, and that could lead to some liability. Or a slip and fall in the bathroom. So anything involving the premise or anything that comes out of it, particularly when alcohol is involved, there tend to be other issues that can arise.

Jeff Butler:

I’ve seen some of them.

Cameron Hawkins:

Yeah. Yeah. You’ve heard about a couple of those.

Jeff Butler:

Might have been there for a couple.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. That’s right. And so you need somebody who really understands. Right.

Jeff Butler:

Yeah.

Cameron Hawkins:

Yeah.

Jeff Butler:

You understand?

Cameron Hawkins:

I’ve heard stories, so yeah. That’s exactly. So that’ll be the kind of work we’ll do to represent them or defend them and those kind of actions.

Jeff Butler:

Yeah. Okay. I wanted to ask you about this. So let’s pretend that I don’t own this company, but I work there and somehow I get dragged into litigation or a case. Maybe the company’s getting sued because of something I supposedly did or maybe I just saw it. How might I be involved? And are you going to help me?

Cameron Hawkins:

Yeah, absolutely. So depends on the nature of your involvement. So for example, for the limo example that we brought up earlier. If you were the driver acting within the course and the scope of your employment at the time, the law basically kind of treats you as one and the same. As the company and the individual limo driver, if you will. And so I would represent both of them, if you were actually the one involved in the accident. If you were a witness and you just work at the company, well then depending on the scope of the representation, I can either represent you directly to help again, navigate you through that process.

Or a lot of times, if the company has hired me, then you just become a friendly witness, if you will. And I kind of help you understand the process, help you understand what’s coming. Guide you through the litigation process, what you can expect at a deposition, or at a court hearing, or something like that. So it kind of depends on the nature and the scope of it. But typically a lot of times, for the companies that have drivers, I would represent the company and the driver who may have been at fault for the incident.

Jeff Butler:

Yeah. Okay. So I can see a couple, if I’m thinking of myself in a time that I might need some civil defense work as part of what you do. I can think of a couple things that might come up. Go back to a car crash. Cause everyone kind of familiar with that idea and sees the example. I could see where I might be in a crash and they’re blaming me, but it’s not my darn fault. The other guy ran the red light, but I could also see, okay, I just screwed up. I wasn’t paying attention. I was fiddling with my phone and I did it, I ran through the stop sign and hit somebody. Which kinds of those could you help with?

Cameron Hawkins:

Yeah. Both of those. Right. That’s exactly kind of work we do. I think a lot of what my job is, is to help evaluate the nature of a claim. Right?

Jeff Butler:

What does that mean? Evaluate?

Cameron Hawkins:

Right. Yeah. So there are a lot of factors that companies look into, and you as an individual, if you were sued as an individual, should look at. So let’s go back to this demand letter. So someone sends a demand letter and they say…

Jeff Butler:

You pay me money letter.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. You pay me money. I have been in an accident, it was your fault. And I got this treatment for this amount of money. And I deserve to be compensated for the treatment, the medical bills, and the pain and suffering that you caused. Right. All right, great. So now let’s look at that. First thing I do when I’m evaluating claim, is, were you really at fault? Was it someone else’s fault? Did someone push you into that person and that’s what caused your car to hit their car? Was the light yellow? Was it red? Was it green? So there’s a liability kind of analysis. Are we really at fault?

Then there’s also an analysis of how bad the damage was. The pay me money demand letter says you owe me a million dollars. And I look at the pictures and the car looks like an accordion. Well then we probably need to talk about settlement. We probably need to see what we can do to minimize the risk or exposure to an individual or a company at that time. I’ve also seen million dollar demands where I look at the pictures and the bumper barely has a scratch in it. And so at that point, we need to evaluate that too. Okay. So yes, you were at fault. Yes, you might have been negligent for the accident. But definitely don’t think that’s a million dollar claim.

And so you need help understanding where those strengths and weaknesses are of the claim. And so that’s a lot of what I do, particularly on the company side. They want to know. Cause I mean, companies make widgets. The company is there to do whatever business that they are in. And so a lot of them view lawyers as either a cost center or a no center. I asked my lawyer and they told me no. Or I keep paying all these lawyers, all this money and they’re interrupting my business. Well, what we’re doing is helping to understand how much a case should pay. Is it meritorious? Is it not? Is it serious to this degree that you should pay this money? Or should you just pay this money? So those are all the things that I evaluate for individuals and companies on the defense side.

Jeff Butler:

Yeah. I guess if you’re representing a company, it’s go about your business, make widgets, serve meals, serve drinks. And let me handle the litigation side. You’ll deal with the lawyer like me.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right.

Jeff Butler:

Plaintiff’s work.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. So like I say, I take their pain, right? There’s a pain point with companies and it usually boils down to time or money. A CEO says I spend a bunch of time responding to these demand letters, or responding to the opposing council, or producing these documents. And I’m tired of it, Cameron. Can you fix this? Yes, I can. Give it to me, I’ll take care of it. Or it’s a time pain. And so you spend a bunch of time doing it or you spend a bunch of money doing it. And usually they kind of go insane. You’re stopping the widget production.

And I think that’s one of the things that separates my firm and the services we offer on the defense side is I really take the time to understand the business, right? Because a lot of good lawyers out there and a lot of people can defend your company in your case. But who understands what you’re doing? Who understands how this is going to affect your bottom line? Who understands what the stakeholders are and what they’re saying? Because it’s not just the company, the company’s made of people. There’s a board of directors, there’s a CEO, there’s a president. And each of them have different pressures.

And the better that I, as a kind of a corporate defense guy, understand what those pressures are, the better I can service that client. Same with people. Some people say, Hey, look, I got all the money in the world, I just want this to go away quickly. Well then I need to know that. Some individuals told me and say, look, I don’t have a lot of money and I need this thing settled. I was in the wrong, but I need this thing settled or to go away as cheaply as possible. And other people are like, I don’t care, I wasn’t at fault, fight this thing, tooth and nail all the way to the end. But I have to take the time to understand what is the goal before we go down this road. And I think I spend a lot of time doing that.

Jeff Butler:

Working with your actual client, that’s right. Plenty of lawyers who seem to forget that.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. People get caught up in the legal ease of it. And that’s great, I’m glad you know the law. But what does your client want? If they want me to aggressively litigate, well then I’m filing a bunch of motions, I’m going to fight tooth and nail, I’m going to do all of this. But understand that there might be budget concerns with that. Some of my smaller companies I represent say, look, hey man, I got only X amount of money to throw at this thing, make it go away. And so then at that point I evaluate with an eye towards settlement. Let’s pay a little more upfront, stop the fees, kind of stop the bleeding. It all depends on what the client wants. And that’s what it goes back to is client service. So if you’re servicing the client right, usually good things happen.

Jeff Butler:

I wanted to ask you one more thing. Serving clients is a good segue to it. What’s your practice with regard to keeping clients updated? Whether they’re companies or individuals.

Cameron Hawkins:

So on the company side, I put a lot of time into creating what I call milestones in my business about where the case is at. And at certain milestones, I like to update and inform my clients. So are we done with the written discovery period or the oral discovery period? Have we taken a depo? Well then I’ll send my client an update letter sometimes. Or are we on a trial calendar? Well then I need to evaluate this case. Or are we going to go to mediation? So there are certain things that are built into, particularly in litigation, once you’re in lit, that I like to update my corporate clients. And at a minimum, I do kind of a bimonthly update letter on here’s the status of your case, here’s what I’m working on, here’s what I’m thinking about doing. So I do that because again, most companies are cost conscious and so they want to know what’s the bottom line.

When I’m representing an individual, and as you know, one of the biggest complaints in our profession as a whole is the lack of communication of people. In fact, a lot of the work that I’ll get from individuals is, Hey, I’ve reached out to this insurance company, they told me I had this fancy lawyer at this big firm, I can’t get ahold of the guy. I get the same paralegal calling me, and he, or she can’t answer my questions. Cameron, can you get in here and find out what’s going on? And so a lot of that again is rooted in the fact that I like to communicate with my clients.

And so I do a lot of letters. I do a lot of writing, kind of status letters, update letters. But I’m old fashioned, man. I’ll just go pick up the old phone and say, Hey man, here’s where we’re at. Here’s what we got going on. How do you feel about this? Here’s what I’m thinking strategy wise. Here’s how much longer I think this is going to take. And I find that just a lot of people, my experience teaches me that people can take a lot as long as they know what’s coming. No surprises. Don’t surprise anybody. Don’t have your client drop a bombshell on them at the last minute. If people are updated along the way, usually they can take it.

Jeff Butler:

If there’s bad news, give it to me straight.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. Straight no chaser, man, that’s the way.

Jeff Butler:

Straight no chaser.

Cameron Hawkins:

Straight no chaser, man. That’s right. That’s the way to do it. Yeah. Give it to them raw.

Jeff Butler:

All right, man. Well, communication’s key.

Cameron Hawkins:

That’s right. That’s right. Imagine that.

Jeff Butler:

Thank you for coming in.

Cameron Hawkins:

Absolutely, man.

Jeff Butler:

Good to see you.

Cameron Hawkins:

Good to see you.

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