A Salute to 'Short-Building' Lawyers

Lawyers, like kids, say the darndest things. During one of our TBA House of Delegates meetings, one of the House members explained to me that country lawyers call city lawyers like me, "tall building lawyers," meaning of course, that we practice law in tall buildings and implying, quite accurately, that we tall-building lawyers have gaps the size of Humvees in our understanding of the everyday life of small-town lawyers.

For example, the night after the January Pro Bono Awards Luncheon, when we honored 39 firms that had adopted written pro bono plans, a self-styled country lawyer said to me, "I don't have a written pro bono plan. My pro bono plan is resisting the temptation to lock the door." It's true, even though my dad and my dad's dad grew up in Crockett County and even though I worked in my Grandma LaVerne's pecan grove for part of many summers when I was growing up, there is a lot that I could learn about the challenges faced by short-building lawyers.

For one thing, it is very difficult for a small number of lawyers in a county or judicial district to deal with the burdens of appointed criminal cases and to meet the tremendous needs for pro bono volunteers in their counties and districts. Public defenders quickly develop conflicts of interest and the burdens of an appointed criminal case can materially impact the ability of a country lawyer to make a living.
Short-building lawyers also have to worry about "

  • how to combat the TV advertisers
  • all the ways the recession has impacted rural areas more profoundly
  • whether their clients can pay what it costs to provide first-class service
  • how to find top-notch help in small towns and how to keep it
  • how to keep your game face on 24/7, even when you are at Kroger
  • how to return all calls instantly and deal with the walk-ins
  • how to handle a divorce or write a will when you know everybody in the family and everybody in the family knows you and every action has a ripple effect in someone's life
  • how to balance the need to do public service work and take care of staff and family
  • what do you do on your first death penalty case when your client wants death
  • should you really call an expert about the significance of the spots on a Holstein calf.

Sometimes it helps if a TBA president just says out loud how much we all appreciate small-town lawyers, and that we know that you face challenges that others in our profession do not face, and that many of the resources and privileges that we take for granted in the cities are not so easy to come by everywhere. Our best estimate is that 35 to 40 percent of the TBA's membership is located outside of the major cities. We should never forget, as former TBA President Larry Wilks taught us in 2006, to "Serve Every Lawyer Every Day."

That having been said, I think that it is also important for our profession to remain unified. We should never forget that there are core values that should bind all lawyers together.

These values include, but are not limited to:

  • A belief that our dealings with one another and with courts must reflect honesty and integrity.
  • A belief that although we owe our clients the duty of zealous representation, we can do so and be professionally courteous and civil to our colleagues at the same time.
  • An insistence on judges who are learned in the law, fair in the application of the law, hardworking, and free from bias or influence.
  • A belief in the rule of law " the notion that no one is above the law and that the law should be applied the same to the least of these as it is to those with power and influence.
  • A belief that the criminally accused is entitled to effective assistance of counsel.
  • A belief in equal access to justice. We believe that every Tennessean deserves their day in court. If at all possible, everyone should be represented by counsel in civil as well as criminal matters.
  • A belief in the value of a quality legal education. We expect that our law schools will impart the legal knowledge necessary for a foundation in the law as well as the research, writing, analytical, and advocacy skills that will be critical throughout a young lawyer's professional life. We expect our law schools to teach law students the ethical rules that govern our conduct.

These are not just the values of tall-building lawyers, or short-building lawyers, or plaintiff's lawyers or defense lawyers, or litigators, or intellectual property lawyers, or tax lawyers, or in-house corporate lawyers, or members of the judiciary. These are not just West Tennessee values or Middle Tennessee values or East Tennessee values. These are not just the values of young lawyers or senior practitioners.

These are the core values of our profession. We must remain united around them and unwavering in our defense of them. The Tennessee Bar Association welcomes, and strives to serve, and yes, needs each and every Tennessee lawyer. And, we must remember that, whether we practice in a small office in Bristol or a tall building in Memphis, the values that bind us together are a thousand times stronger than our differences.