Ramsaur Saw Association Work as a Vehicle for Change
Allan F. Ramsaur came into bar association work, not from a business or management angle, but as someone who saw a way for the bar to be a change agent, to help people. This began brewing as he grew up in rural North Carolina and West Tennessee; then while in law school at the University of Tennessee; and at a job at the Department of Mental Health, which led to the Tennessee Alliance of Legal Services; a political campaign; and then to bar associations. Ramsaur, now executive director emeritus, retires from the Tennessee Bar Association at 66 this month after 20 years there.
But let’s start at the beginning.
When Allan was 12, his father packed the family up and moved from Greenville, North Carolina, to work for a tile manufacturing company, which was opening a new plant in Jackson, Tennessee. He and his younger brother got involved in the new school and extracurricular activities.
“Mother insisted I try every sport,” Allan says. “I played golf, tennis, did swimming, football and basketball. Baseball ended up being my sport. I was a catcher.” He was also an avid Boy Scout — from Cub to Eagle Scout, after which he became a Junior Assistant Scout Master.
Perhaps the best thing that move did for him, though, was he met a girl named Jimmie Lynn Brewer. She was a year ahead in school, but, he says, “everyone knew everyone. She and I each had steadies but hung out in the same circle.”
Jimmie Lynn then went to Lambuth College in Jackson and the next year Allan ended up there too, both on Methodist scholarships.
“With scholarship and loans I could afford it if I worked, but couldn’t afford to live in a dorm,” he says. So he lived at home.
And this is where Allan’s professional story begins to take shape. While at Lambuth he managed the campaigns for people who ran for student government positions.
“I always wanted to be the power behind the throne,” he says.
When Allan was a sophomore and Jimmie Lynn was a junior, the two had class together, as they were both political science majors.
“We had a very platonic relationship,” he says. “She was president of her sorority. I was on my way to leadership in my fraternity. We went to a lot of parties together. We had lots of intellectual discussions.”
And as their relationship grew, “along about spring we decided to get married.”
Which is how he moved from his parents’ home to an apartment above Jimmie Lynn’s parents’ printing shop that September as he entered his junior year.
Jimmie Lynn graduated and “waited for him,” working as a secretary until he graduated.
At the time neither of them knew much about the law, he says, but they knew “it was an honorable profession” and that “there were lots of political folks who were lawyers.” Applying to several law schools, they both got into UT “and we could afford it,” he laughs.
A Passion Develops
Allan and Jimmie Lynn both worked for law professor Grayfred Gray as part of their work study requirement. This is where Jimmie Lynn pinpoints the beginning of Allan’s passion for legislative work.
Gray became his mentor, as Allan worked on mental health issues in Knoxville and spent a law school quarter in Nashville, working under Gray’s supervision in the legislature.
“It was this experience that seemed to cement his interest in making the law and trying to influence those elected officials to make the law better,” Jimmie Lynn says.
Gray had worked in the Department of Mental Health, which Allan did also immediately after law school, as legal counsel. There he prepared legislation, rules and regulations, and represented the department in legislative and administrative affairs. He helped pass some major legislative programs, promulgation of eight chapters of rules and regulations and development of numerous significant departmental policies.
Meanwhile, Jimmie Lynn was working at Legal Aid doing domestic relations work.
They were part of “a community of lawyers, like-minded, working on issues for poor folks, and issues affecting poor folks,” he says.
|Ramsaur makes his way through the tunnel leading from Charlotte Avenue in the Capitol.
Allan saw this effort and the related work at the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (then called the Tennessee Association of Legal Services) and “talked my way into a job at TALS,” he says. “They had a part-time lobbyist, and I told them they needed a full-time one, even when they are out of session, and to organize groups of specialists (task forces) to watch the issues.” He was staff attorney and then executive director for TALS for several years, but notes that “it was really as a lobbyist.”
“We learned together the importance of public policy work,” says Nashville lawyer Stewart Clifton, who worked with Allan when he was executive director of TALS. “In addition to being a zealous and effective advocate for the rights of low-income and elderly persons, Allan also became a brilliant student of the legislative world, a world full of unwritten rules and unique processes! Perhaps more importantly he also became knowledgeable about the interesting personalities that make up the General Assembly and the lobbying corps.”
“The first day I walked in the door at legal aid, Reagan became president,” Allan says with a shrug. “He announces that the LSC [Legal Services Corporation] would be defunded, ended. It was the last of the Office of Economic Opportunity programs signed into law by Nixon. From the day I went to work at legal aid we were under threat. One of the things that legal aid realized was that we had an ally in this fight against Reagan: the bar. Lawyers recognized it was needed.”
So the folks at legal aid figured out a way to incorporate the organized bar into that work. That turned out to be the secret weapon.
“I got involved in the TBA Young Lawyer’s Division. After two or three years of involvement, I was president of YLD and served on the TBA board.” He says he connected with Nashville lawyer Harris Gilbert (who later would become TBA president), and they “began to change the conversation at the TBA board. It took some attitude change and discussion,” he admits. “Some of the board members had never met a legal aid lawyer. They thought they were all shoeless hippies — and I had a three-piece suit!”
A Vehicle for Change
It was during these transitions that Allan saw how his passion for the underdog could intersect with legislation to effect change.
“That was a path — bar work,” he says. “A vehicle for change.”
By this time he had worked at TALS for four and a half years and figured out that his favorite part of that job was lobbying.
“It was figuring out how to affect policy on behalf of clients,” he says. He worked on the first wage assignment statute, which was legal aid helping women get divorced. “They were poor folks. The best way to succeed was to find a way to require the noncustodial parent to pay directly. Divorce created more poverty.” It appeared that the best way to address this poverty was to require the noncustodial parent to pay directly.
He also did a lot of work on small loan legislation, dealing with conditions of loans, welfare reform grant increases, Medicaid enhancement, mandatory school breakfast program, and adoption of the IOLTA funding program.
Working to get the state to adopt a school breakfast program was one of his proudest accomplishments, but it also nearly did him in.
He explains that all counties in the state had a lunch program that was 100 percent subsidized by federal government, but few jurisdictions had school breakfast. Reports showed, however, that learning was affected when children came to school hungry.
“We tried legislation three or four years. We would get it so far and it would get blocked,” he says. “I would come away from legislative session with the burden on my shoulders of feeling that I had let down 400,000 school kids. They weren’t going to get breakfast because of ME. I had failed them.” In describing this decades-old situation, Allan still gets emotional about it. He had taken that personally, and it nearly burned him out.
“You need professional distance,” he says after a moment. “I realized I was becoming ineffective. But the last session I was there, I had professional distance.”
That distance came when in about 1985 he had a conversation that changed everything. He had the opportunity to ride along with a school bus driver in a small rural county, and from that he saw a path to a solution.
“She knew who wasn’t getting breakfast,” he says. “At the end of the bus ride, she asked me, ‘Why can’t we have the [breakfast] program?’ We were told the cost of meals and staff was paid for, but what wasn’t paid for was supervisors. That gave me two leads.”
They arranged for the bus driver to talk to legislators. She told the lawmaker that the program would help, “plus it gave the locals more of a say, an opportunity to be advocates. We adopted a requirement that every school board have a meeting with parents to talk about school breakfast.”
In a few years more than 70 percent had the program, he says. He believes that what he did for public school breakfast is his greatest contribution.
It was 1986 and Allan’s friend and state Representative Steve Cobb had decided to run for the 5th District House of Representatives, so seeing an opportunity to get involved with government at an even closer range, he agreed to become research director with the “Cobb for Congress” campaign. Allan was in the thick of it, developing position papers, handling campaign media relations and advertising, as well as leasing office equipment for the campaign headquarters. Cobb lost the race by a narrow margin to Rep. Bill Boner.
Rule 21 Shakes It Up
If volunteering at a bar association had been a vehicle for change, when the Nashville Bar Association decided to hire its first full-time executive director, it must have felt to Allan as if the path had opened up even wider. He was chosen and when he started there at the Stahlman Building, the staff was two part-time librarians, a lawyer referral director and him.
That year, 1986, the Tennessee Supreme Court had adopted Rule 21, which instituted mandatory continuing legal education — and that changed the focus for lawyers and, therefore, bar associations. CLE became a more important and crucial part of the mix.
“We started out doing CLE with the librarians doing the administration,” he recalls, and the program grew so quickly they needed to add staff. When he left that position 13 years later, the NBA had a staff of 14, including support for government affairs and pro bono programs.
Accordingly, membership numbers rose, “from a rather provincial bar to a metropolitan bar — from 600 to 2,000 members,” he says.
He recalls the early days of the member publication The Docket with a smile, and those who pitched in to make it happen, including Jack Robinson, Ed Yarborough, John McLemore (who documented everything with his camera), and Bill Koch, who was the calligrapher of names for the photo edition. They would go to someone’s house to assemble it.
|The TBA Legislative Committee meets every two weeks while the General Assembly is in session. At left is Tim Amos, Nancy Corley, Meagan Frazier, Allan Ramsaur, Berkley Schwarz, incoming President Jason Pannu. Steve Cobb is at right.
“It was hands on,” he says. Jimmie Lynn had volunteered to be on The Docket board, and one of her duties was to take it to M. Lee Smith for printing. Smith also handled the mailing, which was done with addressograph plates. The Docket was renamed and reformatted to be the Nashville Bar Journal during the time Allan worked there.
But his favorite part of his job at the NBA: “They also let me lobby,” he smiles. “They figured out they could have some effect on state policy.”
Focus on Member Services
In January 1998, he met with “Danny” Breen and Dan Nolan, who were immediate past president and president, respectively, of the TBA at the time. The TBA was looking to hire an executive director to fill the shoes of Gilbert R. Campbell Jr. (Breen is now U. S. judge for the Western District of Tennessee, but he had gone to the same high school with Allan and Jimmie Lynn, so he will always be “Danny” to them.)
“They did the final interview at Loews Vanderbilt Plaza — and offered the job at the same time.”
A lot of changes have taken place at the TBA in the 20 years since that meeting. Membership has grown by leaps and bounds; the quality, quantity and variety of continuing legal education produced by the association has resulted in a tenfold increase in education revenues, and member services have been enhanced through insurance programs, Fastcase legal research, and job board services.
One of the first drastic changes he made when he started at the TBA was to increase the publication of the Tennessee Bar Journal from six issues a year to 12.
“It was a leap of faith,” he says now. “Gil had said we couldn’t afford it. But that regular communication, in our mailboxes every month, is an important member benefit.”
And years before it was actually feasible, Allan began talking about sending out a digest of the day’s legal news every day, coupled with court opinions. This type of service was unheard of at the time, but he pushed until TBA Today became a reality in 2005.
His philosophy was simple: to provide value and to remain in touch with what members wanted.
“Perhaps the most innovative thing we did here was at the same time we added three free hours of CLE, free legal research [through Fastcase] and TBA Today all at one time as benefits, and we raised dues 40 percent,” he says. “And that year we grew membership by 3 percent and continued that membership growth. People saw real benefit and value in it.”
One of the challenges for lawyers over these past two decades, Allan says, has been to “keep up with the pace of change for technological assistance to aid in practice of law, and keeping law practice about loyalty to the client and confidentiality as core values in the face of those changes.”
That’s one of the main things that has accelerated since he became a lawyer: the pace of practice and “the rapidity with which you’re expected to figure out the problem and give an answer. There is little time for reflection. You have to rely on your experience much more. There’s no time to research and figure things out. This has led to more specialization,” he says, as people must get narrower in their practice areas to have the necessary expertise.
Advocate for the Profession
He has been a “card-carrying lobbyist for 40 years,” half of which has been spent on behalf of the TBA. During that time he has covered a lot of subjects up at the legislature, including helping reform the condominium law, writing business organization law, and addressing needed changes in the conservatorship process.
“That was one where we undertook to do hearings across the state to figure what needed to be changed. The TBA’s whole program was adopted,” he says. “There is still lots to be done there, but we made many improvements.”
|Ramsaur has spent a lot of time at the Capitol. Here he is in the House of Representives.
“Allan has always been interested in legislation,” says Steve Cobb, who has served many years as a lobbyist for the TBA and is on the group’s Legislative Committee, says. “He truly loves doing that, which makes him a very effective spokesman for his clients.” Cobb tells the story about a time several years ago when most business on the Hill was starting to wind down.
“We had completed our tasks for the Bar Association. All our bills were passed, and Allan asked me to come with him to talk to a couple of members. We did and I was a little puzzled, and I asked Allan what was up. He replied, ‘Sport Lobbying.’ After a minute or so I realized that he meant we were lobbying that bill principally for the fun of it. We had done all our work for the Bar so now we could lobby on other bills that made sense to us. Anyone who lobbies for the pure pleasure of the process can be a formidable advocate,” Cobb laughs.
“That early knowledge and those early relationships led Allan and the TBA to a solid record of achievement,” Stewart Clifton says. Clifton also serves on the TBA’s Legislative Committee. “A whole generation of lawyers and bar leaders have benefitted from Allan’s intense commitment to our profession. The many successes of our association and the effective work of the TBA Governmental Affairs Committee are due primarily to his careful and grounded leadership and his uncommon skills at navigating perilous waters.”
Nashville lawyer Gif Thornton has served on the TBA’s Legislative Committee for more than 20 years, so he has seen Allan operate on the Hill a lot.
“Allan has been a passionate advocate for lawyers and our profession for decades,” Thornton says. “He has an encyclopedic knowledge of TBA positions and the reasoning behind them. He can recall every TBA committee debate and legislative battle over the years. He has built a formidable government affairs operation, and we will miss him.”
Volunteer Leadership, Dedicated Staff
Over these years, the TBA has received national recognition in many areas. Allan explains that “it starts with great volunteer leadership that expects great things for their association. Then, it takes a creative dedicated staff who help to carry that out.”
He currently represents the National Association of Bar Executives in the American Bar Association House of Delegates. He was selected by his colleagues to represent them.
“Allan’s vision continually provided great value to the TBA membership and combined with his long tenure set the stage for the TBA’s preeminence among state bars,” former TBA President Jonathan Steen says. “He has the ability to support and ‘lead from behind,’ allowing each TBA president to shine, yet has great leadership skills of his own, as demonstrated in the leadership positions and recognition he has received throughout his career.”
It’s a sentiment that is echoed from other bar leaders.
“Allan has had a fabulous 20-year run,” says TBA President Lucian T. Pera. “There’s virtually no issue affecting the legal profession that he has not worked on, and he’s made a difference on issues too numerous to count. He will be missed.”
Joycelyn Stevenson, who began as TBA executive director last summer, says she especially appreciates Allan’s “dedication to access to justice and his 20 years of service to the TBA.”
His work for access to justice issues has included the TBA’s and Allan’s involvement in the recent push for indigent representation reform, to increase payments for attorneys representing indigent criminal defendants.
The TBA’s lobbying efforts will not miss a beat, however, with the Legislative Committee still in place and the hiring of Berkley Schwarz as director of public policy and governmental affairs. Schwarz has many years of lobbying experience through time working on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and as a private lobbyist, and most recently with the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office.
“He has been instrumental in helping me understand the legislative issues important to TBA members, figuring the ins and outs of the General Assembly from the bar’s perspective,” she says. “He’s done a great job of helping me build relationships with legislators.” She says she has learned much from him about TBA history and its members. “Legislators look to Allan, along with the TBA, as a resource — and I want to continue being that resource. This time together will help me do my job better in the future and be a better lobbyist.”
||Ben, Kate and Jimmie Lynn Ramsaur were at the TBA’s Public Service Awards Luncheon in April to see Allan receive the Access to Justice Champion Award for his accomplishments as a bar leader and as a leader in the ATJ community. Photo by Barry Kolar.
“When we first went to law school, I assumed that I would be the ‘contracts lawyer,” Jimmie Lynn says, “and that Allan would be the courtroom lawyer. But things don’t always end up the way you thought they would in the beginning. I went to the courtroom and never left, and Allan took his advocacy in a different direction, advocating in committee meetings, with state and federal legislators, and for rules and policy changes before the Tennessee Supreme Court.”
Jimmie Lynn has been assistant U.S. attorney for 30 years; criminal chief for eight years. They have two children, Kate, 36, and Ben, 27. Kate lives in Nashville and Ben lives in Knoxville.
“I want to keep active in the bar,” he says. “I have been toying with three or four ways to keep helping lawyers, but I haven’t figured out which one will work yet.”
He anticipates more time around the house, travelling, gardening and cheering on the Tennessee Volunteers and the Titans.
For 40 years, Allan Ramsaur has devoted his life and career to representing, supporting and understanding lawyers and the legal profession.
“Allan has been able to meld his passion for helping poor people, his love of the legislature and his enjoyment of the challenge of working with so many lawyers through his three executive director positions,” Jimmie Lynn says.
“Over the years, I have watched him put his whole heart and soul into his work with the TBA, the NBA and TALS. Although it wasn’t always easy or fun to represent the interests of lawyers and others who don’t have deep pockets, it was the work he loved and has dedicated his career to. His efforts have improved the circumstances for lawyers, underdogs and lost causes,” she says. “He is my hero.”
Suzanne Craig Robertson is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.