Dave Wachtel realized early in his career that he wanted to develop a practice aligned with his beliefs: supporting individuals and important causes, and providing good value to clients. He has since built a prominent employment practice, representing employees who have been harassed or wrongfully dismissed and advising progressive nonprofit organizations on employment law and employment policy.
He and his firm go head-to-head with lawyers for federal agencies and major companies. An engaged problem-solver, he seeks to uncover every last fact in a case that might help right wrongs done to his clients. Wachtel is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law and a partner at Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold, PLLC in Washington, D.C.
Lawdragon: Can you describe your career path?
Dave Wachtel: Like almost every other high school student in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, I worked in restaurants. That continued into college a little bit. Towards the end of college, I found what might have been my first responsibility greater than bringing a customer a timely salad. I spent most of a year as a field organizer for a presidential campaign. Now, when I’m not representing individual employees, I advise campaign organizations, so that part of my work has come full circle.
I worked my way through law school at the University of Texas. Since then, I’ve been in private practice. Before I joined Trister Ross, I spent 12 years at Rose & Rose and 10 years at Bernabei & Wachtel, both firms that practiced employment law, almost always representing employees.
LD: How did you choose the University of Texas for law school?
DW: I was living through another cold winter in Chicago. It was a lot warmer in Austin, Texas. UT also was then, as it is now, the best value in American legal education. It had a national reputation and an outstanding faculty.
LD: How did you first become interested in employment law?
DW: I was hired by an international firm before I finished law school. But after a few years doing corporate and environmental work, I knew I was going to be more driven to work for people than for corporations. I joined Rose & Rose, a public interest litigation firm. David Rose was the founding partner. He had been the first Section Chief for Employment in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. Right after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Attorney General assigned Mr. Rose to enforce Title VII, this new law against employment discrimination. About 25 years later, I started learning to litigate Title VII cases from Mr. Rose.
LD: What kinds of matters does your firm handle for employees now?
DW: I can divide most of the individual employment law matters we handle into four categories. In chronological order: First, we negotiate employment agreements. Most employees do not have individual agreements, but when they do, the agreements are almost always written by the employer’s lawyer. Making these agreement as fair and clear as possible requires strong drafting skills, problem solving, and knowledge of the laws governing non-compete and non-solicit agreements.
Second, we advise clients with ongoing problems at work, like harassment, lack of accommodation for disability, or an internal investigation.
Third, we represent people who have just lost their jobs, usually negotiating more favorable severance agreements. Often, these negotiations involve impressing on the employer that our client’s legal rights have been violated. Most of these discussions are confidential, partly for the protection of our client’s professional reputation. We’ve also handled higher profile matters involving workers terminated for preventing threats to public safety or reporting financial misconduct.
Fourth, when situations cannot be resolved at work or shortly after a client is terminated, we litigate for individuals in front of government agencies and courts.
LD: What pro bono activities are you involved in?
DW: Among other things, I’ve participated in the U.S. District Court mediation program, first as volunteer appointed counsel and lately as a volunteer mediator.
LD: What do you find satisfying about representing employees?
DW: Helping people. Getting to know the people I’m helping. Negotiating and other kinds of problem solving. New clients and new problems coming in all the time. Constantly re-engineering and strategizing to provide clients with as much value as possible.
LD: Is there a matter in your career that stands out as particularly memorable?
DW: One of the most memorable started at Rose & Rose sometime in the year 2000. I got a cold call from a potential client. He had been denied a civilian job with the United States Department of the Navy because of his medical history, which years earlier had led to his discharge from the uniformed military. He had found medication that was controlling his illness. As a contractor’s employee, he had safely performed the same work he wanted to do as a regular Navy employee.
The Navy offered him a job but then revoked the offer when they found out he had been diagnosed with this illness. They did not pay attention to the way he was managing his illness and the evidence that he could do the job.
After an initial loss and an appeal, in 2006, the Office of Federal Operations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed with us. Without going to trial, my client was awarded six years of back pay plus damages.
LD: What makes that case memorable?
DW: The odds. The client did not have resources. He could not find a lawyer to take his case in his home state. The resounding way he won. Winning at EEOC and winning for an employee without going to trial are both rare. We did both in the same case.
LD: Could you describe for our readers some of your other major career successes?
DW: From 1995 to 2001, at Rose & Rose, I worked closely with Dave Rose representing more than a dozen mid-level managers over the age of 40 who had lost their jobs in mass layoffs by subsidiaries of Ameritech Corporation. In Adams et al. v. Ameritech Corporation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the employees could prove age discrimination by pointing to significant disparities between the termination rates of older and younger employees.
LD: Have you handled other age discrimination cases?
DW: About 12 years later, I had a different kind of memorable case. It started just before a hurricane. I filed the complaint early because we were about to lose power. Our client was a nuclear engineer who had been passed over for promotion at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in favor of a younger candidate who was not a nuclear engineer. Initially, the federal government opposed our effort to have a trial in federal court, because our client had represented himself, unsuccessfully, in a hearing at the EEOC. We defeated that government motion, basically persuading the court our client deserved to try his case again with an attorney. Then in discovery, we learned that the NRC had a “succession plan” in which retirement-eligible employees, like our client, were not considered part of their units’ “depth” or future plans. In February 2015, after trial in front of a judge, we obtained full relief for our client, including promotion.
LD: You also recently handled an interesting case for an ATF employee. Can you tell us about that?
DW: We represented a female agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF. Despite being an outstanding agent who had served the country at the sites of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Newtown shooting, and the Boston Marathon bombing, two of my client’s supervisors subjected her to a stream of abuse, mocking her based on her gender. We worked on the case for three or four years. At the start, the main remedy ATF offered for the harassment was to transfer my client, which probably would have hurt her career. Near the end, the central adjudicative office of the Department of Justice issued a 43-page decision, and we prevailed on every claim made.
LD: What were some challenges inherent in this case?
DW: We represented an active law enforcement officer so we had to walk a line, being as professional as possible while showing that we would not be backing down.
LD: Do you think the result had a larger impact in the agency?
DW: My client thought so at the time. She said we sent a message to other women in federal law enforcement that, if they fight for their rights, they can be vindicated. It’s obviously still a struggle.
LD: Over your career, what lessons have you learned? How have you evolved as a litigator?
DW: Most cases settle. It took me a while to realize that the key to negotiating settlements is to be myself.
I don’t come off as the nastiest guy on the block, and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, I’ve been suing the federal government, large organizations, and other difficult defendants for almost my whole career.
I think some potential clients try to find their lawyers by googling “lawyer pit bull.” I tell these clients I can do a lot more than a pit bull. I’m calm, strategic, and analytical. I’m more disciplined and detail-oriented than a pit bull. More diplomatic. But when the circumstances really call for it , I bite someone.
LD: A few years ago, you joined Trister Ross, which is not a typical employment law firm. Tell us about that decision.
DW: Most of the lawyers here represent progressive nonprofit organizations. Their clients needed advice on employment law compliance and resolving occasional disputes.
Trister Ross was an unusual opportunity because most employment lawyers represent either employees or management. Because Trister Ross has a civil rights history, I can do both here. I spend about two thirds of my time now on individual plaintiff cases and the other third advising organizations.
That gives me a lot of insight into how employers see employment law problems. Recently, that insight has been magnified by volunteer mediation I’m doing for the federal court.
LD: Can you describe your practice model?
DW: Trister Ross partners have freedom to shape their practices. So my models for this practice aren’t just lawyers and law firms. I had spent enough time thinking about lawyers and law firms. I refocused on friends in other kinds of businesses who care about their crafts and give value to their customers.
One business model comes from an organic farm. The farmer used to be a chef, became an organic farmer, wrote his own cookbook and digs his vegetables out of the ground. He spends every Saturday talking to his customers and he still gets his hands dirty.
Another friend of mine who was a carpenter told me “as soon as you get more than three people on a job, you’re just a jerk with a clipboard.”
So what I do here is put their life lessons into my law practice. I believe we can deliver the best value for our employment law clients by staying grounded and keeping the caseload at a size where I can apply my experience and creativity to add value at every phase of the legal work.
LD: Do you do anything for fun when you’re outside the office?
DW: I like to cook and listen to music. I run a lot. I’ve run 25 marathons and some 50-kilometer trail races. I guess you could call that fun.
About the author: Alison Preece (email@example.com) is an Associate Editor at Lawdragon, with a focus on Lawyer Limelights and interview features. She has nine years of experience in strategic communications and content marketing for top-tier law firms, along with nonprofits and arts organizations. She is based in Brooklyn.