The Ups and Downs of a Tall-Building Lawyer

My good friend Paul Summers, former Tennessee Attorney General and appellate judge, once told me there are two types of lawyers in Tennessee: tall-building lawyers and courthouse square lawyers. The tall building lawyers are city lawyers who work in skyscrapers. The courthouse-square lawyers are generally country lawyers whose offices are conveniently located just across the street from the courthouse.

While I’m a courthouse-square lawyer at heart, in reality I’m a tall building lawyer. My firm’s offices are located on the 29th floor of One Commerce Square, a tall building in downtown Memphis that overlooks the Mississippi River to the west and two great Memphis landmarks to the east — the Peabody Hotel and the Rendezvous Restaurant.

My father-in-law, Howard Swafford, is a courthouse square lawyer in the booming metropolis of Jasper, Tennessee, population 3,214. Several years ago, I gave Howard a tour of my firm’s offices, hoping he would be impressed by his son-in-law’s majestic view of the Mississippi River and the close proximity to Rendezvous ribs. To my chagrin, he was not. He could not believe how our firm could possibly be successful located several hundred feet above street level. “How in the world do you get clients up here?” asked Howard.

It was a good question coming from a man whose office is always open on Saturday mornings to accommodate the walk-in crowd of clients who have driven into downtown Jasper. It is, after all, the county seat of Marion County.

When my pappy-in-law asked me the question, I laughed. He did not. He was dead serious. And then, to my chagrin, I realized I didn’t have an answer.

As a tall building lawyer, I haven’t the slightest idea how I ever get a client. They sure don’t walk into my office on a Saturday morning. In fact, if someone other than one of my partners or associates comes walking into my office on a Saturday morning, I immediately call security.

If a potential client wants to see me, they can’t just walk in off the street. They have to take vertical transit. That’s a transportation engineering term for an elevator.

As a tall building lawyer, I am required to spend several minutes each day in vertical transit.

Vertical transit is a part of my life as a tall building lawyer that I truly do not enjoy. I’m somewhat claustrophobic, and during the nearly 20 years I’ve worked in Commerce Square, I have more than once experienced the thrill and agony of being stuck on an elevator between floors. This event generally happens in one of two situations. The first is at either the beginning of the day or the end of the day when the elevator is packed like a can of sardines.

The other situation is when I’m all alone on the elevator on a Saturday morning when, unlike courthouse-square law offices, tall-building law offices are closed.

Either situation can be terrifying. When you are packed in a stuck elevator like a bunch of sardines, everyone on board quickly panics and starts perspiring like Dick Nixon did in his debate with JFK. In those agonizing moments, no amount of Old Spice, Right Guard, or Mitchum deodorant will control the aroma.

And when I’m stuck on a dead elevator all alone on a Saturday, I collapse to the elevator floor, curl up in the fetal position, whimper and suck my thumb, convinced that my body will not be found until the following Monday morning.

But as a tall building lawyer, I recently received some good news from Ricardo Monroy. No, not the charming Mexican actor who played Mr. Roarke in the ’70s TV series, Fantasy Island. That was Ricardo Montalban.

Ricardo Monroy is not an actor. He is vice president of Cushman & Wakefield. And no, Cushman & Wakefield is not a firm of tall building lawyers. It is a “commercial asset services company” that maintains One Commerce Square.

The letter from Mr. Monroy triumphantly announced that a “comprehensive modernization program for the elevators (in One Commerce Square) will commence very soon!” According to the letter, the modernization includes “both visible and non-visible improvements to the elevator interiors and related components that result in improved interior elevator cabs, waiting time and travel experience.”

I haven’t the slightest idea what this means.

Maybe the elevator will feature vertical flight attendants who will serve very small bags of peanuts.

Maybe, to borrow a line from Ricardo Montalban, the new elevator interior will feature “rich Corinthian leather, of course!”

Maybe the “improved interior elevator cab” will feature little TV screens, showing ESPN or CNN or re-runs of Fantasy Island. I’ve actually seen these sorts of flat-screen TVs in “interior elevator cabs” at fancy tall buildings in Chicago and New York City, but I’ve never dreamed I might have this sort of thing in my very own tall building.

No doubt about it, things are looking up for this tall building lawyer. And, of course, they are also looking down.

I just hope that my tall building landlord doesn’t raise my rent to pay for all these vertical transit improvements. That would be giving me the shaft.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.