William J. Harbison: Tennessee’s Greatest Lawyer

I. Early Life

William James Harbison was born at Columbia in Maury County on Sept. 11, 1923. He was high school valedictorian. After he had enrolled at Vanderbilt, his undergraduate education was interrupted by the Second World War. Soldier Harbison served in Europe, returning to college in 1946.

II. Law School

At Vanderbilt Law School he became and remains a legend. So excellent were his examination answers that cheating was suspected. Investigation disclosed brilliance. Student Harbison’s grades have never been equaled. He took time to edit the Law Review. In 1950 he graduated at the top of his class.

III. Law Practice

Lawyer Harbison joined the Nashville firm of Trabue and Sturdivant, where he was both an office lawyer and a civil litigator. Many of his trial clients were defendants, but his most famous case found him at the plaintiff’s table.

Lowry Stehn (age 15) was in a wrestling class at Castle Heights Military Academy. Because of coaching negligence the young man suffered a broken neck and severed spinal cord, resulting in quadriplegia. The $375,000 verdict was the highest statewide at the time. Stehn v. Bernarr MacFadden Foundation Inc., 434 F.2d 811 (6th Cir. 1970).

Professor Harbison taught as an adjunct at Vanderbilt. The Nashville Bar Association elected him president in 1970-71.

IV. Supreme Court

Justice Harbison’s first service on our highest tribunal was in 1966-67 as special justice during the terminal illness of Weldon White. In 1974 he and four others were elected to form our best Supreme Court. The office of chief justice was rotated between William H. D. Fones, Robert E. Cooper, Joseph W. Henry, Ray L. Brock Jr., and Harbison.

For many years Justice Harbison served as court liaison with the Rules Commission. I was fortunate to serve as reporter, and through that office I formed a lasting friendship with him.

V. Final Years

Justice Harbison left the court in 1990 and practiced with his son, Bill L. Harbison, at Sherrard & Roe PLC in Nashville. He died at home on Nov. 20, 1993.


Donald F. Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute.