Who We Interviewed
LAMAR ALEXANDER: U.S. Senator; former governor of Tennessee; New York University School of Law.
W. THOMAS DILLARD: Practices law in Knoxville with Ritchie, Dillard, Davies & Johnson; University of Tennessee College of Law.
FRANK F. DROWOTA III: Former chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court; Vanderbilt Law School.
ROBERT ECHOLS: Former chief judge, U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Tennessee; practices law with Bass, Berry & Sims in Nashville; University of Tennessee College of Law.
DAN NOLAN: Former Tennessee Bar Association president; practices law in Clarksville with Batson & Nolan; University of Tennessee College of Law.
GAIL PAYNE PIGG: In private practice in Nashville; Vanderbilt University School of Law.
RICHARD STAIR JR.: Retired judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of Tennessee, in Knoxville; University of Tennessee College of Law.
LANDIS TURNER: Former Tennessee Bar Association president; practices law in Howenwald; Vanderbilt University School of Law.
1965 was a very good year for the law in Tennessee. Not only did the legal community gain a new source of information and news – The Tennessee Bar Journal – it also welcomed a bright new class of attorneys who have gone on to become leaders in the profession and the state. During this past year, we have celebrated the 50-year mark of the Journal by looking into many areas of the law and how it intersected with society. We even interviewed lawyers who were born the same year as this magazine and wished them a happy 50th birthday, too. This month, we talk to some of the lawyers who got their start at the same time as the Journal to learn their memories of the past five decades and how the profession has changed.
Tennessee Bar Association records show about 100 lawyers who were licensed in 1965 who are still living in Tennessee. As you might guess, those we spoke with say technology has changed practice the most dramatically, but other things, such as the lack of collegiality and a lower mastery of writing skills, are also big differences.
“I really did not realize that my 50th anniversary in the practice of law coincided with the Bar Journal’s anniversary,” former TBA president Dan Nolan says. “My professional career has been linked so much with the bar association that I should not be surprised of our joint venture together.”
Step back in time and read what it was like when they — and the Journal — started out.
What advice did you receive when you started practicing? What would you tell a new lawyer?
LAMAR ALEXANDER: I talk with many young men and women who are considering law school. I tell them that it is a lot of trouble, work and expense, especially if they don’t end up practicing law, but that it still may be worth doing. Law school teaches you to find the essence from a pile of information. It teaches you how to persuade others that you are right. It teaches you to write, which is especially important these days when writing skills are measured by the dexterity of your thumbs and 140 characters. I can’t tell you how many talented college graduates I have met who can’t write a persuasive paragraph or even a declaratory sentence.
TOM DILLARD: The best advice I received when I started practicing was that on that day I knew more of the law than I ever would, but not much about the practice of law. I was told the secret to success was to constantly improve on the latter, and the former would take care of itself. I think that advice is just as applicable to a lawyer starting in 2015 as it was in 1965.
[My advice would be] that the profession itself deserves his or her commitment to preserve, improve and protect the integrity of the practice of law. This is an honorable profession. Yet often times, we are viewed in a negative light by portions of the community. And the new lawyer — and the older lawyer — need to make sure the criticism is not justified by the way we practice our profession.
FRANK DROWOTA: I started practicing law the summer of 1965 with the firm of Goodpasture, Carpenter, Woods and Courtney. The firm no longer exists. Mr. Carpenter’s advice to me as a young lawyer was to be hard working, conscientious and always be prepared and give 100 percent. He said to always have good communications with your clients so you can always take care of and represent them to the best of your ability.
GAIL PAYNE PIGG: The best advice I received was from Doug Fisher, who told me I could make it on my own if I didn’t stay in my office and waited for the clients, but attended whatever events I could at lunch or off hours to establish myself as a lawyer and meet potential clients. I would further advise a new lawyer to work very hard for his or her client, to follow legal, ethical and court rules, to always maintain a reputation for honesty and integrity and to return phone calls and e-mails as quickly as possible.
RICHARD STAIR JR.: I spent three years as an attorney in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps stationed in St. Louis, Missouri (after passing the bar). After returning to Knoxville in 1968, I established a solo practice sharing office space with my father, Richard Stair Sr., and an up-and-coming young lawyer, Robert W. Ritchie. The best advice I received was by example. Both of these men were hard-working attorneys dedicated to the rule of law who, while advocating for their clients, did so with integrity, honesty and civility. Both are now gone but their example remains.
What’s your first memory of the practice of law?
DROWOTA: One of my first memories in ’65 was going to the courthouse with Mr. Carpenter Sr., and seeing him and Mr. Hooker appear before the jury dressed in white suits. Several other older lawyers wore white suits in the summer. I never bought a white suit and you don’t see them today.
DILLARD: I definitely have a memory of being scared to death when I made my first actual appearance in court, and I remember the older lawyer on the other side, who gave me one of those lessons in the actual “practice of law.”
DAN NOLAN: I had worked with two lawyers, William R. Banks and R. C. Smith, while I was in law school. They had an extra office and allowed me to move into it after I was licensed. The most memorable part of my first day was that they had my name inscribed on the law office door. I remember how excited I was to see my name on the door, with me listed as an attorney.
STAIR: My first memory is that the reality of the practice of law was far different from the academics of law school. When I began my practice, the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure were not in place and there were many archaic procedural traps to catch the unwary young lawyer. I got caught from time to time in a few of those traps. The Rules made a tremendous difference
What legal or office procedures have changed since you started practicing?
DILLARD: The main difference I have seen is the exposure young lawyers now have while in law school to so many varied clinical programs that are invaluable in preparing them for the practice of law.
An example of a change in office procedure for me would be the fact that in 1965, I could not leave my office (even to go next door to our office library) without my suit coat. Formality ruled. Imagine that in today’s environment!
As far as legal procedures, research is the biggest change. Back in 1965, research involved a complete library. If you weren’t in an office that had all of the state and federal reporters and other necessary tools, you made straight for the Supreme Court Library, the county court’s library, or the nearest law school. Now you can sit at your kitchen table and research your issues — which has resulted in many lawyers practicing from locations other than the traditional office.
DROWOTA: In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s a trial lawyer was in court trying cases before a jury on almost a daily basis. Now with mediation and arbitration trial lawyers try fewer cases before a jury. That’s a major change. Technology has also dramatically changed the practice of law. No longer does one go to the library to do research. When I went to the appellate courts in 1974 our secretaries still used the typewriter and made carbon copies to send our opinions to our fellow judges. When I went on the Supreme Court in 1980, Justice Fones in Memphis and Justices Cooper and Brock from Chattanooga had to travel to Nashville for weekly conferences. Today much of this can be done by video conferences.
ECHOLS: It was easy to meet new lawyers because they usually met for lunch at one of several popular restaurants downtown. There also were restaurants in several of the downtown buildings where lawyers met for mid-morning coffee and after work refreshments. The law practice seemed to be at a slower pace, but there was plenty of work to do during that time.
We did not have the dreadful burden of filling out the ever-present time sheets, which are now constant on the desk of lawyers. Time was kept, but it was on the back or inside cover of the file or yellow pad you took to court or to a meeting. Many of the older lawyers dictated to their secretaries in their offices. Most of the younger lawyers were learning how to use dictating machines or the handheld type.
NOLAN: The practice of law was also considerably different for us when we started than today in other ways. We practiced under the common law rules of procedure, instead of the rules of procedure that we have at this time.
I remember my law school professor, Mr. Baugh, teaching us common law procedure. Mr. Baugh was an excellent professor, and I thought that I was well prepared to handle a law suit. As I progressed over my first year in the practice, I found out that maybe I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was.
Trying a law suit was also very different at that time. We did not have mediations, and if you took a case that was to be tried, you tried it or you settled it; there were not any intermediaries. We, therefore, had more trial experience; some of it was difficult but also made me a better trial attorney for the future. I remember the first case that I participated in as a licensed attorney. One of the lawyers that I was working for was trying a law suit, and he said that I could go along and try the case with him. I remember the first witness that I questioned on the stand. I got past his name, and after that the other attorney objected to my question as being leading. The judge sustained it. I asked probably seven or eight other questions to which the other lawyer objected and the judge sustained each one. I remember so much that the window in the courtroom in the Knox County Courthouse was open and I thought how nice it would be to jump out of it. I turned around after looking at the window and then saw that the other attorneys, as well as the judge, were all laughing. I had been the victim of a little fun directed at the new lawyer on his first trial.
PIGG: Probably the most important changes since I started practicing law were brought about by discovery and all the discovery rules. Also, an important change was advertisement. When I first started practicing, our only real advertisement was in the yellow pages, and that was simply to list your name and telephone number. Then the cell phones came along, then the all important fax machine, which is today a dinosaur. And ultimately the Internet.
A lot of the professionalism and camaraderie among lawyers is gone, but that may be because of the massive number of lawyers today, as opposed to [how it was] my first few years in practice.
STAIR: By far the greatest change has been in technology. From carbon sets of letters and pleadings produced by a typewriter in 1965, computer driven software programs have evolved that now allow us to store, change, file and email documents with a keystroke. Legal research has also been a great beneficiary of the technology boom. Those of my generation will remember Shephardizing cases from those large red Shepard's Digest books on the shelf in every law library. … I will not comment further on technology or the generational gap will become too obvious.
LANDIS TURNER: When I started, there were no “motion days” in criminal court. In Hohenwald where I practice, the judge would ask an accused for his plea, find out whether he had a lawyer, then set the case for trial by jury in two or three weeks!
What was your favorite piece of equipment on your first day? What was your office like?
DILLARD: My favorite piece of equipment was a dictaphone. That worked as long as you didn’t make a mistake or dictate over something already recorded. Looking back on it, let’s just say it was not user-friendly. The next favorite piece of equipment was White-Out.
NOLAN: We did not have the technology that we are so used to at this time. I believe that I had a legal pad and some pens and maybe a dictation unit. Our research comprised mostly of the Tennessee Code Annotated and a few books, probably Gibson Suits in Chancery, Caruthers’ History of a Lawsuit, and maybe a few others.
PIGG: My favorite piece of equipment on my first day in my office was my telephone. My office was extremely sparse. I had a desk and chair … also pens and legal pads and a telphone book. The rest came very gradually. That would not be possible today because of the Internet.
STAIR: I don’t recall that I had any items I would consider to be “equipment” other than a typewriter. Dictation in those days, at least in my office, was taken orally in shorthand by a stenographer. My office was in the Hamilton Bank Building in Knoxville and consisted of an old desk and desk chair, and a couple of chairs for the clients I hoped to have. I also had every lawyers stock-in-trade: a telephone, legal pad and a few law books.
What is better about the practice of law now and what is worse?
DILLARD: I wouldn’t say “worse,” necessarily, but the collegiality was better back then because the bar was smaller and more intimate.
Also, the digital/Internet age has made the practice maybe not worse, but certainly more difficult. A normal client file back then was a simple folder, with some files as large as an expando. Today, in the digital age, we have files containing thousands of documents.
One thing that is generally worse now is English composition. This doesn’t go for all new lawyers, but so many law graduates cannot write. Many of them do not construct sentences and paragraphs — [emailing and texting] is a form of communication with its own abbreviations and other rules, which simply don’t translate to brief, motion and memo preparation in a legal environment.
NOLAN: The practice of law today is much different than when I began. We have better facilities, better equipment, and I am grateful for those benefits. I must admit that I miss the camaraderie that existed between the attorneys then as compared to what it is now. The bar today is so much bigger than it was at the time I began; it seems that you really do not know the other attorneys today as well as we did before.
I cannot say that the practice of law today is worse or better, I can only say that it is different. I think there are more opportunities today to earn a living as an attorney than there were when I started. Maybe life in our society has become more complicated and the need of an attorney is more prevalent.
One of the aspects of our profession that has changed significantly is the diversity we now have that did not exist when I first started. The difference in our profession today is the makeup of it. I started in a profession that was predominantly male and since that time, as you know, we are now diversified and are now made up with men, women and minorities — and we are better for it.
TURNER: I think my generation has had the best of the practice of law. It’s too crowded now. I didn’t encourage my children to enter law school.
When did you first want to be a lawyer?
DILLARD: I remember thinking about being a lawyer while a junior in high school [while I was] on the debate team.
STAIR: I did not decide to be a lawyer until my third year in college. At that time I was in the business college at the University of Tennessee studying accounting. After determining rather quickly that I was not cut out to be an accountant, law school seemed the logical choice. I had no particular passion for the law at that time, but my Dad was an attorney and I had some idea of what he did. Becoming a lawyer was the best professional decision I ever made.
TURNER: If you had asked me when I was four years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered “lawyer.” My father had little formal education, but he admired lawyers and brainwashed me into wanting to be one. He loved to watch great lawyers like John Jay Hooker Sr. and Seth Walker. He told me that his family would have suffered more during the Great Depression had he not received $2 per day for jury duty. He managed to serve every time court was held in Waverly, where we lived at the time.
Did you have a lawyer as a role model?
DILLARD: Initially, no. But later on, like so many will say, Atticus Finch.
DROWOTA:?In 1965 my role models were Mr. Carpenter Sr. and Jr., Mr. Hooker and Mr. Norman. John Tune, Jim Neal, Frank Gorrell, Bill Harbison, George Cate, George Barrett, Rebecca Thomas and others were mentors of many members of the bar.
PIGG: When I was a sophomore speech major at David Lipscomb, a lawyer came to one of our classes and spoke to us about the practice of law. To me, as a 19-year-old, law sounded like the greatest career that one could ever hope for. But I believed it was beyond my grasp because of cost. Shortly after graduation I was working as secretary to the president of a very successful company. While it was an excellent job and considered a real achievement, I had not gotten over the seed planted in my mind by that lawyer at Lipscomb. I decided to apply to Vanderbilt Law School, never really believing I would be accepted. Strangely, I was. Believe it or not, a number of professors at Lipscomb, along with others, were extremely discouraging and advised that it was inappropriate for a woman to practice law — even, strangely enough, sinful. This made no sense to me whatsoever. So I looked in the phone book for a female lawyer. I found only one — Rebecca Thomas — with the then firm of Howser, Thomas and Summers. She was very encouraging and became my mentor for many years. She was also very popular with the other lawyers and one of the most gracious persons I have ever known. [Thomas was the treasurer of the TBA from 1975 to 1981.] As a result of her encouragement, I went on to Vanderbilt on a partial scholarship and worked as secretary to Madison Sarratt to pay the remainder of my tuition. (I was married then, with a child, so we had a tough financial time, but thought nothing about it.) We just took it a day at a time.
At law school I faced some fairly ugly comments about being female and a mother who should be home with the children. There were two other females in my class but only two of us graduated on time. We paid no attention at all to those students who wanted to make fun of us, so pretty soon we all became great friends.
I started working part-time at a firm during my last year at law school and continued there for three years after graduation. The great majority of the lawyers and judges were very gracious and accepted me as a lawyer, without regard to gender. There were a few — very few — who argued that I could not possibly make a living as a lawyer, and could absolutely never make it on my own. Nevertheless, as always, I paid no attention and did my own thing.
STAIR: My father, Richard Stair Sr., was a well-respected attorney in Knoxville. After leaving military service in 1968, my wife, Mary, and I returned to Knoxville where I began my practice, sharing office space with my Dad. We did not have a common practice as his practice at that time focused primarily on personal injury law. I developed my practice in the area of bankruptcy and related debtor/creditor work. We shared office space for 18 years before I went on the bankruptcy bench in 1986. To say that I learned much from him about the practice of law would vastly understate his influence on me personally and professionally.
TURNER: My role model and mentor was William C. Keaton, my senior partner. At Vanderbilt College of Law one learns little of practical value. He taught me how to practice.
Why did you want to be a lawyer?
ALEXANDER: As a youngster in Maryville I was inspired to become a lawyer after reading about Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind. As a participant in Blount County’s American Legion “Boys County,” I sat fascinated watching special prosecutor Ray Jenkins, of Army-McCarthy hearings fame, wave before a jury a bloody hammer used in a murder. But to be honest, when I graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1962, I had no money and no obvious professional opportunity. An all-expense paid Root-Tilden Scholarship to New York University’s law school seemed like a good idea.
DILLARD: My wife would probably say because I like to argue. But really, I wasn’t sure initially. After a couple of years of indecision, I became a prosecutor and found what I really enjoyed was the criminal practice. After many years, I became a defense attorney. The roles are similar in many ways, including the desire to help people, be they victims of crime or citizens accused of crime and their families.
ECHOLS: I first thought about being a lawyer when a college professor suggested that I go to law school. No one in my family had been a lawyer and at that time I did not know a lawyer. I did not know much about being a lawyer, except that I was not bashful, was competitive, somewhat analytical, and stood up for what I thought was right.
Would you recommend this career path to your grandchildren?
ALEXANDER: I would go to law school again in a minute. The experience expanded my horizons, taught me to sort out the truth and to write clear sentences. It introduced me to ideas and cultures that I otherwise might not have known. I also made some of my best friends in life there. So certainly I would encourage my grandchildren to consider law school if that is what they are tempted to do — but I would also advise them to make sure they can pay back their student loans if they choose that path.
STAIR: Absolutely. Two of my four sons are attorneys and I hope one or more of their children as well as some of my other grandchildren will pursue a career in the law.
Has it turned out like you thought it would?
ALEXANDER: I have not spent most of my time during these last 50 years practicing law. For most of the 1970s I was partner in a Nashville law firm and I was again during the 1990s. But the skills I learned in law school and during my years of practice have given me multiple advantages in my public service
DILLARD: It has exceeded any expectation I had in the beginning. In 1965, if you would have told me I would be in the criminal defense practice in 2015, I wouldn’t have believed it. I think the lesson for new practitioners is to go where the Good Lord takes you. Always be receptive to change.
PIGG: I operated my own office for some 45 years and had an amazingly successful career. It turned out to be so different from what I originally believed. But that success was due to hard work, hitting the books, staying in my office when not in court or at appointments and responding immediately to telephone calls, whether I wanted to or not.
ECHOLS: If I was starting over today I would again think about being a lawyer. I have learned, however, that it is a selfish and sometimes brutal career to yourself and your family. Much of that depends upon your law partners and the individuals within your law firm, but the practice of law is demanding and sometimes not at all fun to practice. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably look more closely at other vocations, but I am not sure that I would choose anything else.
Read All The Stories Online
If any magazine has been more thoroughly celebrated, dissected, analyzed or pondered more than the Tennessee Bar Journal this year, I don’t even want to know what it is.
After writing about this publication on its 50th Birthday this year every single month, we are ready to move on to the next decade.
I have touched every page in our archives many times for this endeavor, hunting for nuggets of long-gone wisdom, pictures of How Things Used to Be, and Ways Things Are Still the Same. You should be proud, as I?am, of the immense legal history collected in these pages — all 361 issues.
You can look at back issues on our website (back to 1996) at tba.org/journal/archive. You can also read all that we have written for our birthday celebrations, including 1995’s 30th and 2005’s 40th, at tba.org/happy50thTBJ.
I do hope you look at them and that you have enjoyed the reflections. Happy birthday.
Suzanne Craig Robertson has been editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal for 28 of its 50 years.