Ben C. Adams
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
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Finding the knack for leading his peers early on, Ben Adams has been a natural fit as Chairman and CEO of one of the largest law firms in the country. Despite notable accolades both independently and company-wide, Adams still maintains, “I’m just a regular guy.”
CEO of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC since 2003, Adams was recently named “Most Innovative Managing Partner” by Law360 in 2012, a distinction only given to 10 individual lawyers across the country for their ability to establish successful culture in their practices. Similarly, the 120-year-old firm ranked 45th on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” marking the company’s fourth consecutive year on the list, again speaking volumes about the company culture and atmosphere. Baker Donelson is one of three Tennessee companies on the list and is the highest-ranked company in the state for the third consecutive year.
With the largest part of the criteria for the Fortune distinction based on anonymous surveys from employees within the company, Adams can’t help but be pleased. “Not only is it very fulfilling that your people like working here so much, they’re so proud of it, but also winning that award is great from an internal perspective, and from a recruiting perspective, and probably most importantly, once you’re on it, you don’t want to not be on it,” says Adams. “So, you’re very intentional about how you keep improving your culture so that you can stay there. And I like the pressure that it puts on us to pay attention. While nonetheless admitting that it’s very fortunate that we’ve made it four times [in a row], I’m sure sooner or later we’ll stumble, but we can learn from that.”
That go-getter mentality has always been the driving force behind Adams’ endeavors even from an early age. “I don’t know how to do very much in life, but I have a particular gift for managing people,” says Adams. “I would say by the end of high school it was very clear to me. I had those kind of experiences and opportunities and seized them and learned a lot about myself from that. I’ve always been oriented toward business or law, and I ended up being a business lawyer. I’ve always been very involved in running organizations my whole life. I tend to get passionate about things, and end up running them.”
A native Memphian, Adams credits much of his character to the education and support he received from his teachers at Memphis University School. The son of successful lawyer and co-founder of one of Baker Donelson’s predecessor firms, Heiskell Donelson, Adams says his father’s passion definitely affected his decision to enter the field. “I grew up in this world,” says Adams. “I joined the firm [what was then Heiskell Donelson] in 1981, and we probably had around 25 lawyers when I joined. That firm has been the driving firm of our growth that became Baker Donelson which is now 640 lawyers spread all over the Southeast and Washington, D.C.”
When the firm was smaller, Adams was able to practice nearly full-time and manage basically on the side. But with the significant growth of Baker Donelson over the past few years, the managing roles have also expanded to occupy a more significant portion of time.
“We’re 1,200 employees in 18 offices across the Southeast and Washington, D.C.; so, that’s really more managing a business [rather than his former role as managing partner when the firm was smaller],” says Adams.
“My world is sort of a cross between running a big company and working for all of my partners. The way I describe [my job] is to manage and lead my partners while they feel I’m serving them. If they don’t feel like I’m there to support them and serve them, they’re not going to follow my lead. My partners are all very talented, smart, independent, opinionated people; that’s why they’re my partners. I’m accountable to them, but I also need to lead them, and manage them, and serve them. It’s a very horizontal organization compared to most large businesses.”
Adams and Baker Donelson’s COO, Jerry Stauffer, located at the Chattanooga office, split up responsibilities. Adams divides his daily activities into four main areas — lateral recruiting, or talking to potential partners and considering growth opportunities in new markets; big picture financial issues; strategic initiatives including planning and implementation; and culture.
“With 640 lawyers and 300 partners, 200 of which are equity partners, it’s a lot of talent, and they want to be heard. It’s important that they’re heard, but we’re still a big company and we have to run it like one.” This is precisely why culture is so important to Adams.
“Private practice is very demanding in the 24/7 world that we’re in now, and the high time demands make things very stressful. It’s important that we make the work environment as positive as we can for us to be as effective and serve our clients. We need great teamwork to provide great service,” says Adams. “In nine years we’ve grown from 270 to 640 lawyers and new markets. It’s important that we glue all of those people together so that they feel like they’re part of one firm, and we function as one firm.”
While Adams’ passion for business occupies his 9 to 5, his greatest passion is for furthering the city of Memphis. “I’m passionate about all things Memphis. We have so much going for us, and we have such authenticity. And while nothing’s easy here, it’s built brick by brick, but it’s getting built. And I’m proud of all the things happening. I’m all about celebrating Memphis while not being naive about its weaknesses. I think the Grizzlies are the personification for this town; the grit and grind. We’re sort of the opposite of Hollywood; it’s not easy and it’s not flashy, but it’s fulfilling.”
Adams names the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis and Memphis University School as his two longest-standing community passions. As a current board member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis, he is a firm believer in its positive impact on the city. Involved with the organization for more than 30 years, he feels strongly that the organization is vital for the city of Memphis to succeed.
He says, “We have to empower our disadvantaged inner-city kids and give them opportunities to become productive, contributing citizens. That’s their whole mission. One of my passions is to help the disadvantaged, and my other is MUS because of the impact they had on my own development and because they are the preeminent institution for developing leaders for the future. Many MUS grads come back and are heavily involved in Memphis. So, I consider it a tremendous resource for Memphis, as it was for me.”
Other civic activities include being on the board of Elmwood Cemetery, which Adams calls “Memphis history,” the board of Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Vice-Chairman of Memphis Tomorrow, and Chair of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.
“Memphis Tomorrow is a collection of CEOs of large businesses in town, and we collaborate on different ways we can help Memphis improve and thrive. They work with other partner agencies in a behind-the-scenes effort to further their five main initiatives. Because of my passion to reduce crime, I spend most of my time on the crime side [in his role as chair].”
Though his free time might be few and far between, he does make room for outdoor recreation, quality time with his wife of 32 years, and catching up with his three grown children and young granddaughter.
“I play golf, badly, but I enjoy it. And I take walks with my wife. Besides those two things, I pretty much revolve my life around doing all this civic stuff. I find all that very fulfilling and fun.”