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A Good Impression
When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird as a kid, I thought that Harper Lee must have known my Uncle Jum when she came up with Atticus Finch. In fact, I didn’t see that much remarkable about Atticus upon first reading, since I assumed his conduct was the norm. A close family friend since I was a little girl, Jim Guenther has practiced law in Nashville for more than 54 years. We call him Uncle, even though he is no actual relation, because our families are close and he took a special interest in me. We call him Jum because he has the endearing quality of pronouncing his name funny so that it comes out a little sideways.
My Uncle Jum is the reason why I never understood the premise behind mean lawyer jokes. They just didn’t make sense based on my experience with him, a kind, thoughtful and balanced person who laughs with his eyes, is not harsh and does not rattle easily. He has never once given me the impression that my questions or opinions were ridiculous.
Knowing him made me want to be like him, which made me think I wanted to be a lawyer. With this in mind, I soldiered through two years of high school Latin. Although I can still sing the Latin version of “Jingle Bells,” it soon became obvious that the law was not to be my career path. I’m a pretty good speller from it, though, so I don’t count the Latin years as a total loss. During that time I worked after school answering the telephone at Rutherford, Crockett & Guenther in downtown Nashville, where I saw how a law firm works. I also learned how hard being a receptionist is and that that probably wasn’t for me, either.
Uncle Jum, whose firm is now Guenther, Jordan & Price, can take any complicated legal subject and explain it so anybody can understand and without making them feel stupid, a talent he has had to use with me many times. So in the course of my job as editor of this magazine, when I run into a lawyer who does this well — and there are a lot of you — I recognize and appreciate it. (I also can identify those who do not take the time to explain things properly to the commoner, and there are a lot of you, too.) As a profession, lawyers talk about promoting civility as if it’s a huge hurdle. It’s not rocket science. Start by being nice and treating people like you would want to be treated.
Jason Rogers, a former law partner of Jum’s, confirms my girlhood impressions and later suspicions that these qualities are not something he kept just for home use, but something he carried into the workplace. Jason says that Jum has many long-term clients who are loyal to him, which he points out is exceptional in an era with such intense competition for the business of large institutions and businesses. These entities tend to jump around among lawyers, he says, crediting Jum’s loyal client base to the quality of work, his easy way of relating to non-lawyers and his commitment to keep his fees reasonably priced.
“He is cool in a crisis,” Jason says, which is something he doesn’t have to tell me. I’ve seen him operate — in many a tense church council meeting, and notably once 27 years ago as he carted my determined but very sick father, who was burning up with fever, to the church and tended to him until it was time for Dad to walk me down the aisle and perform my wedding. Peering into the makeshift bride’s room where I waited, wondering if I would be getting married that day after all, he said calmly, “Your daddy’s here now.”
Right then I knew everything was going to be all right.
Jason has his own memories. “I have seen him in situations when emotions are flying and hyperbole is extreme,” he says. “His words and demeanor always help take things down a few notches and implicitly calls people to their better selves.”
He’s right. I’ve seen that, too.
I tell you these details of my background so you might see where you fit into this story — and also because I love my Uncle Jum and want to write about him.
When I first got the job at the Tennessee Bar Association, I was surprised by some peoples’ reactions. Many of them became stoic, their faces smoothing into a pained look. “Oh, no,” they would say. “You work with … lawyers? How awful is that?” Still today I’ll get the occasional conspiratorial smile as they laugh and suggest I could go on that show, “Dirty Jobs”. (People think they are hilarious but generally, they are not.)
I forget that everyone doesn’t have the benefit of knowing my Uncle Jum.
The Profession’s Image Depends on You
People tend to react to lawyers in general based on interactions with them in particular. In these 25 years working with the bar I have glimpsed up-close what those joke-telling lawyer-bashers might mean, but only once or twice. Overwhelmingly you have proven to me that this profession is noble and important. You have shown me what a profession should look and be like, that the Rule of Law is worth defending and explaining, and that getting a fair crack at justice really should be available to everyone. You are smart people who often disagree, but who want to do the right thing. It is expected that you give your time and educated talents to help others, often for free, and you do that a lot.
Research has shown that slick PR campaigns don’t change the public’s impression of the legal profession very well. No, that generally has to be done one person at a time — by choosing right actions, kindness, civility, and by explaining things clearly to clients and other non-lawyers. Uncle Jum didn’t do what he did — what he does — because someone was making him or because he wanted me or anyone else to think he was a Great Lawyer. I imagine he learned how to Act Right while he was a boy, but has perfected it in the practice of law, as our beloved yet fictional Atticus did.
Everyone is not as lucky as I have been to have an Uncle Jum, or to be a person with qualities like him. But be aware that you likely have a little girl, or someone, in your life right now who is watching you closely. Not only will your actions influence her, they are creating an impression of an entire profession. So please use your powers wisely.
SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal. Follow her on Twitter @TennesseeBarJournal.