Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 35, Number 2

Managing Partner

For King & Spalding's Robert D. Hays, Jr., law is a service industry

by Grace Renshaw Robert D. Hays, Jr.

Robert Hays identified the area of products liability as a business opportunity for Atlanta-based King & Spalding "before specialization or products liability were cool."

Hays credits his interest in litigation to a torts class at VULS, taught by Dean John Wade. "I liked the substantive area a great deal, having had the venerable Dean Wade as my torts professor," he recalls. "He was the leading thinker in this area at a crucial time in its development as a body of law that would go on to have a material impact on business and society."

By the late 1980s, Hays realized that if King & Spalding developed the depth to address all aspects of product liability litigation, the firm would be in a strong position to serve companies with high volumes of work, deep pockets and an ongoing need for legal services, creating a dependable source of future business. "As product liability and mass tort litigation began to increase," he says, "many corporations were faced with large, substantial and repetitive legal demands."

That insight proved prescient. The products liability practice Hays launched with five other K&S attorneys in 1990, which he has headed since 1995, now numbers more than 100 lawyers. The Tort & Environment Litigation Group is now the firm's largest specialty group and was recently named one of the top three product liability practices in the nation by The American Lawyer. And Hays, who joined K&S immediately after graduating from Vanderbilt Law School, became his firm's chairman on January 1, at the relatively young age of 47. Another VULS alumnus, Andrew Bayman, '89, stepped into Hays' former position as head of the Tort & Environmental Litigation Group.

Today, Hays prides himself that the group he helped start 15 years ago can address the complete spectrum of issues raised by products liability, including risk management and prophylactic measures to reduce a client's potential exposure, regulatory compliance, and trial practice and settlement. Hays has learned through experience that attention to small details can make a critical difference. "Often, the issues we address involve intricate details of product design," Hays says. "Some of the highest profile cases we've seen - cases dealing with breast implants, silicosis and pharmaceuticals that resulted in hundreds of millions of exposure - arose out of an absolutely miniscule issue."

Hays' eagerness to take on the role of managing partner may spring from his long-standing interest in the business of law, but he earned his stripes in the courtroom, taking an active role in building the products liability group's reputation. In fact, he acknowledges that one of the reasons he chose to focus on products liability was that "it offered far and away the most trial opportunities of any practice group." Over the past 15 years, he has served as lead counsel for clients such as General Motors, UPS, Merck, Shell, Schering-Plough, GlaxoSmithKline, The Home Depot, ExxonMobil and The CocaCola Co.

He emphasizes that he doesn't measure his success by his wins. "If you've never lost a case, you've never really tried a case," Hays says. "Loss and failure are not the same, and clients respect that. Learning that lesson has allowed me to be willing to advise a client to go through the process and give it our best shot when that's the right thing to do."

But his successes include some spectacular courtroom victories that have solidified King & Spalding's reputation as one of the world's foremost products liability firms. The jury verdict he won in Nichols v. General Motors Corporation was selected by National Law Journal as one of the Top 10 Defense Verdicts of the Year in 2003, and he recently won a highly publicized 11th Circuit appeal that upheld another jury verdict he had previously won and made important law in the area of preemption. Through an appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, Hays also helped reverse a record $122 million verdict against GM in Jernigan v. General Motors, a case in which the plaintiff alleged that his injuries in a car crash resulted from an unsafe design. The case was remanded back to the trial court and subsequently settled.

Hays takes the helm of a firm that, with 830 attorneys, is more than seven times larger than it was when he joined it fresh out of law school in 1983. Total firm revenues have also increased. Noting that King & Spalding's phenomenal growth has mirrored that of some of its most notable Atlanta-based clients, including CocaCola, SunTrust Banks and The Home Depot, Hays credits his firm's rapid growth to being in the right place at the right time as well as to its recognition of the business and trial opportunities afforded by specializing. "This part of the country became the epicenter for high-stake products liability work," he says. "This is where it began."

Hays plans to guide King & Spalding's careful expansion while continuing to stress high-level specialization as an essential business strategy. "Even as recently as 10 years ago, the common notion was that all attorneys do the same thing, and that some are better than others at some jobs," he says. "But some areas of practice are very sophisticated and demanding, and clients are looking for firms that are making a strategic, thoughtful, committed effort to increase the sophistication of their practice to do the very best legal work - a firm that can perform sophisticated legal services other firms cannot."

Hays also notes that the global economy has increased the need for firms to provide seamless coordination of legal services that address a broad spectrum of client matters. "Too many lawyers, in my judgment, forget that we're a service industry," he says. "Today, clients just aren't interested in going to 20 different law firms to handle a couple of transactions. They want to work with a firm that understands their industry and culture and that's capable of partnering with them to address all of their legal issues. If you want to represent the companies with the most sophisticated legal problems, you have to offer global scope and diversification."

In 2003, King & Spalding opened an office in London where 20 attorneys are now based. The firm's New York office, established in 1990, is now its second largest, with approximately 170 attorneys, and its Washington, D.C., and Houston offices are expanding.

King & Spalding's growth and emphasis on specialization correlates directly with the fact that legal clients are demanding more responsive service and greater efficiency than ever before, according to Hays. "In the 1980s, you didn't have to be as efficient as a practitioner, nor did you have to account for your fees in terms of the value proposition," he says. "But whether you're operating a law firm or a three-person hot dog stand, you're operating a business, and you have to deal with economic realities like what you pay for your space and your healthcare arrangements, the tax ramifications of certain moves you make as a business, how you generate fees, how you convert fees to profits and invest them, and how you attract more talent." Firms that consciously make good business decisions regarding their own operations are, Hays contends, better able to help their clients do the same.

While Hays acknowledges that management duties will command much of his time, he plans to continue to try cases for select clients, including GM. Having served on King & Spalding's 10-member policy committee since 1999, Hays believes that in his new job he will be able to apply the skills he gained running the tort litigation group on a broader scale. Developing the tort group's talent—including recruiting, training and encouraging attorneys, which he identifies as his biggest challenge as the group's leader—is also the biggest challenge all law firms face. In new recruits, he now looks for an ingrained understanding of the business and economic realities of the legal profession. "You're working for the client, not the law firm," he says, "and you're billing out at X dollars an hour. Every hour when you put your pen down, you need to ask, what value did you deliver?"

As managing partner, Hays hopes to guide King & Spalding through a period of unprecedented growth while preserving "a culture that is important to our firm—and that we believe gives us a competitive edge—of collegiality, teamwork and collaboration."

While he acknowledges that "doing that at the same time his firm is growing in leaps and bounds is a challenge," he points out that trial litigation is an excellent training group for dealing with change.

"The ability to think on your feet and adapt is crucial in the trial environment, because nothing ever happens the way you think it will," he says. "You have to respond on your feet in real time."

Profile: Robert D. Hays, Jr., '83

Robert Hays was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he graduated summa cum laude and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. At Vanderbilt Law School, he was a Patrick Wilson Scholar and was selected for the Vanderbilt Law Review.
A King & Spalding lifer, Hays joined the firm, which is now more than seven times larger than when he joined, in 1983. With 830 attorneys based at its Atlanta headquarters and offices in New York, Houston, Washington, D.C., and London, K&S now represents half of the companies currently listed in the Fortune 100 and was ranked among the top 10 firms representing Fortune 250 companies in a Corporate Counsel survey published in September 2005.
Hays' wife, Jennifer Gimel Hays, was a litigator at Alston & Bird before leaving practice to care for sons Robert and Richard, now 9 and 12. Brother Richard Hays, '86, heads the Trial Practice Group and serves on the Management Committee of Atlanta-based Alston and Bird.
Immediate Challenges
King & Spalding has moved from its longtime home in downtown Atlanta to new offices in the city's midtown area. Hays is also exploring ways to "leverage technology to serve our clients."
Long-term Challenge
"Clients are narrowing the number of law firms that they use. The surviving firms will be those that deliver value."
"Globalization has occurred rapidly, but the U.S. is one of the pervasive legal influences in the developed world, and the majority of legal work involves U.S. law."
Hays' term as managing partner is three years. Recent managing partners have served two terms.
Professional Mantras:
"We're a service industry like anyone else."
"You have to have a strategic focus matched with marketplace demand."
"Loss and failure are not the same."
"If you are risk-averse, you're in the wrong business."