When Legal Aid Was a ‘Tall- Building Lawyer’

This letter was written to Bill Haltom about his July 2011 Journal column, “The Ups and Downs of a Tall-Building Lawyer.”

As ever, I enjoyed your column. Made me think of a Legal Aid tall-building story. About 20 years ago William Sloane Coffin was spending a semester or a year as a visiting professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School. At some point, either before he came to town or after, he had heard about some of the work of Legal Aid, or at least Gordon Bonnyman. He called me up one day and wanted to come visit. Of course I was delighted and we set a time. We were then located on the eighth floor of the Stahlman Building — not fancy digs, not 29 floors up and a view of the Mississippi — but it did overlook the Cumberland River. I must have gone down to meet him on the ground floor or maybe I picked him up at Vanderbilt, but in any case I do remember riding up with him in the (dingy) elevator and during the ascent his turning to me to say, in his typically disarming way, much like your father-in-law, but different words, “How the hell do your clients find you way up here?” I stammered some weak reply about not knowing but that we sure had enough business. I thought, what a nice start to the visit; I hope Gordon does better with him than I have.

When several years later, Metro decided to do something else with the Stahlman Building and we had to move, I still remembered Coffin’s question and I was more aware of the obvious distress elevator rides caused for some of our elderly and disabled clients. During our search, our main requirement was that the new space be visible and accessible. We found the great space on the ground floor of the parking garage across the street from the courthouse and became for the first time courthouse square lawyers.

In the summer of 2003, I wrote to Coffin to thank him for his question and his inspiration. By this time he was retired and living in Vermont somewhere, 79 years old and suffering from terminal heart disease. I never expected to receive any acknowledgement of my letter, at least not from him, maybe from his widow someday. Six weeks later, I received a letter on his letterhead, from him. “You were kind to write and I rejoice with you in your new building. I am sure that my rude question only raised to a conscious level the knowledge that was already yours!” That was the gracious and affirming first paragraph.

In the next paragraph, true to form, he launched into a criticism and a challenge, this time about law school tuition cost and about the ethics of law students. He said he had “suggested to the chancellor at Vanderbilt that he forgive the law school debts of those who worked for non-profit organizations. He himself was too rich to see my point, but maybe the present chancellor....” He closed, sending “my very best to Gordon Bonnyman.”

Sometimes out of the mouth of preachers....

Thanks, Bill, for the great stories and the familial chords they strike.

— Ashley T. Wiltshire, former executive director, Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands