Presidential Profile: Sheff in double time

Issue September 2013 By Jason M. Scally

Douglas K. Sheff is a drummer, but no one could ever accuse him of just marking time.

"I do everything double," says Sheff, whose style of drumming involves hitting twice on the down stroke. "I can get two for the price of one and create a fuller sound."

Sheff, the new president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, has taken a similar approach to his profession, combining his deep commitment to client service with his strong dedication to the bar to forge a fuller -- and more fulfilling -- career as a lawyer.

A senior partner at Sheff Law, Sheff is nationally renowned in the areas of personal injury, wrongful death, construction site, trucking and brain injury litigation. For nearly 30 years, he has forcefully advocated for working families through his own personal injury practice, using the civil justice system to recover millions of dollars for injured clients and improve public safety.

With a majority of his cases received through attorney referrals, Sheff's results for his clients have often come with a two-fold benefit. "The best checks I write are those to referral counsel," he says. "I regard it not only as an investment in my firm, but a reinvestment in the legal community."

Sheff is committed to being "the trusted lawyer of the trusted lawyer," and he has frequently embraced the call from fellow lawyers to serve as an advocate for the profession, as well as the justice system. He is the first attorney in Massachusetts to serve as president of the MBA, president of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys (MATA), governor of the American Association of Justice (AAJ) and trustee of the AAJ's National College of Advocacy.

Sheff has enjoyed many successes, but he is most proud of the ones that have brought the most bang for the buck, especially those that led to improvements in public safety. In one case, Sheff's $7 million recovery for a family of a worker killed in an explosion led Exxon, which was not a party in the case, to make safety improvements to its facilities worldwide. Through his bar work, Sheff founded the MBA's Workplace Safety Task Force, which, along with a coalition, just last year successfully spearheaded a new worker safety law that provides essential protections to more than 100,000 temporary workers in the commonwealth each year.

As Sheff often says, "We do the most good as lawyers when we help those whom we do not represent."

MBA members can expect Sheff to approach his year as MBA president with the same up-tempo rhythm that has driven him throughout his career, as he focuses on three initiatives: the Working Families Initiative, Consumer Law Initiative, and Justice for All Initiative. And, like his drumming, Sheff expects to deliver something twice as nice - providing service to the community while also showcasing the positive work that lawyers do for others.

"I can't think of a better ambassador to deliver the ambitious programs aimed at serving the public and promoting the positive image of lawyers," says MBA Chief Legal Counsel Martin W. Healy. "Always leading by example, Doug Sheff shows the value that lawyers bring to our communities every day."

Different drummer

Looking back on his career, Sheff says becoming a trial lawyer was, in many ways, a natural progression from his love of the drums, which began at age 4. He learned early on that there was gratification from being heard and seen by other people. "I got addicted to that, and I like to perform," he says. "Every trial lawyer has a little of that in them."

Sheff says the lessons learned as a percussionist still guide many aspects of his work each day. "Drumming has a rhythm and a cadence to it that I find helpful in the course of a presentation, a talk or an argument," he says.

The same can be said about Sheff's other outside interests in language, writing and sports competitions. Sheff is also an avid martial artist and practitioner of Tai Chi, which he'll use even on breaks when he's in court. "It gets me centered," he says. And being an accomplished traveler who has been to more than 50 countries "definitely helps me understand the cultures of witnesses, or how to relate to a client's family," he says.

Having a life outside the profession provides an important contrast, says Sheff. "You can't be a great trial lawyer if you don't have experiences somewhere else," he says. "When you go into a courtroom, you have so much more you can represent a client with if you're well rounded."

'Chick' off the old block

A lot of who Sheff is as a lawyer can be traced to his father, Irving "Chick" Sheff. A well-respected, tenacious advocate who was passionate about representing working families, Chick was also widely regarded as one of the classiest and best-dressed lawyers in Boston.

Chick founded his own firm more than 60 years ago, and worked with his son up until he passed away in 2007. Through his own work representing union and non-union workers, Sheff continues to build upon his father's legacy of protecting the workplace. "He was a mentor and a father, and my best friend," says Sheff. "I miss him."

Sheff drew much inspiration from his father, but perhaps Chick's greatest gift was allowing his son to find his own way. As Sheff told Trial magazine in 1997: "He always allowed me choice, autonomy and respect. I'll always be grateful for that and recommend a similar approach to any parent of an aspiring lawyer."

Those closest to Sheff see many similarities between father and son, but also how Sheff has forged his own impressive identity.

"Doug is a Chick off the old block, an utter gentleman," says MBA President-elect Marsha V. Kazarosian with pun intended. "He's very much like, yet still very much different from, his father. Both are superb lawyers, but they have different styles."

Kazarosian says "committed," "ingenious" and "perfectionist" are some of the first words that come to mind when she thinks of Sheff, who is also a close friend. "He has to have every single angle considered and covered," she says.

"When he's in, he's all in," Kazarosian adds." He'll give you the shirt off his back and you wouldn't even have to ask for it. If he's representing you, he's the kind of person you want."

Donald Grady, Sheff's longtime law partner who worked with both father and son, makes similar observations. He adds: "Chick could really see an issue, and Doug inherited that. But Doug takes that to another level. He is able to see through or around an issue probably better than anybody I know."

Sheff's abilities as a trial lawyer are an inevitable by-product of the meticulous and innovative approach he brings to his work. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his work on behalf of victims of traumatic brain injury (TBI). A nationally recognized authority on TBI, Sheff has been a pioneer in developing methods of demonstrating traumatic brain injury, integrating cutting edge medical resources, the latest technology and renowned experts from around the country to help clients and educate attorneys and the public. Sheff is passionate advocate for those with "invisible injuries."

Sheff also has deep experience on product liability cases, where his latest focus has been in the field of mass tort. Representing consumers from around the country, it's an area that allows Sheff's firm to help many victims of a defective product or drug through a single case.

Like he does in his practice, Sheff brings an almost scientific-approach to people, as well. He is a staunch believer in the value of focus groups as a way to understand juries- especially in the absence of voir dire. Sheff is often asked to run other lawyers' focus groups, Grady says, adding that Sheff is good at using them to determine not only how one person might react to a situation, but also how a collective group of people might react to a situation.

Sheff is particularly gifted at connecting with his clients, many of whom come to Sheff in pain or in tough situations. "Our clients come from all walks of life and different backgrounds," says Grady. "He's good at knowing when they need hand-holding and when they need to be guided."

Family matters

Sheff's passion for helping working families is not surprising given the importance of family in his own life, even beyond his father. The middle of three children, Sheff shares a special connection with his siblings, his older sister, Jody, an Emmy-winning film producer in New York. and his younger brother, Tom, who hosts his own cable TV show and is an ardent supporter of individual's rights.

In addition to the influence of his father, close friends see a lot of Sheff's mother, Maxine, in him. "They're a lot alike," says Grady, who has known the Sheff family for more than 20 years. "Some of Doug's mental toughness comes from his mom. Both are very dedicated. They see a path and want it to happen."

Loyalty is another trait Sheff shares with his mother, and it may be the most important reason so many of the organizations Sheff belongs to have chosen him to lead. "He stands behind the people he works with and those who work for him," says Grady. "That's really important in any partnership to know he's got your back."

There is no closer partnership than family, and, having grown up in the law, Sheff says lawyers are almost like extended relatives. "I'm at home when I'm with lawyers," says Sheff. "Lawyers are the finest people I know, and I do relate to them as family."

Sheff's high regard for lawyers is why he has been so compelled to give back through active leadership in the bar. As MBA president, he expects to do even more -- double, he might say -- as he works to improve the public image of lawyers as part of his ambitious agenda. It's a tall task, but close friends and colleagues say Sheff is more than up to it.

"The amount of energy Doug brings is tremendous," says Grady. "Most people want to go home after a day's work. He's ready to start a second day."