Numerous blue collar workers have fallen victim to mesothelioma. But instead of drawing attention to the tragedy of lost lives, the disease invokes images of late night commercials for national law firms.
Chattanooga lawyer Jimmy F. Rodgers has spent the last 20 years representing victims of mesothelioma, but he’s never advertised his services. Instead, he’s allowed the work he does to speak for itself. And he rarely has a slow day.
Rodgers is an attorney with Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers. He’s been with the firm since 1995, when prominent criminal defense attorney Jerry Summers hired him out of law school to help the firm’s union clients and handle its mesothelioma cases. Summers had been dealing with clients diagnosed with the disease since the 1970s, and had accumulated a plethora of information on companies in the Chattanooga area; something the national firms couldn’t offer.
“The DuPont Combustion retirees have come to know this firm as the place to go when you’re diagnosed with the disease,” Rodgers says. “Jerry and the other members of the firm cultivated that reputation over the years without advertising.”
Although Rodgers says Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers has probably lost clients over the years to the ads, the benefits have outweighed the cost. For example, when Rodgers takes on a case, the lawyers for the defendant know his client has a legitimate diagnosis.
Also, Rodgers derives tremendous satisfaction from helping people who have suffered a devastating blow. “They need to know before they pass away that their family will have some measure of financial support after they’re gone,” he says.
Rodgers also believes it’s important to continue to make the entities that withheld information about the safety of the products their workers were using pay. “There’s a measure of satisfaction in holding companies that made what I would call evil decisions accountable,” he says.
When it comes to assisting the firm’s union clients, Rodgers has more of a workhorse mentality. “We haven’t had a meaningful strike in Chattanooga in years, so I more or less advise them on day-to-day matters like pushing a grievance through the system, negotiating a contract, or handling an arbitration,” he says.
Rodgers has enjoyed the opportunity to address the needs of his firm’s union clients and build relationships with their members. “These are hard working, blue collar folks who are trying to better their lives,” he says. “I like being able to help them move forward.”
Rodgers has always wanted to help others through his work, though he originally saw the law only as a stepping stone to politics. While in high school, he became acquainted with former state senator Ward Crutchfield, who introduced him to Summers. After Rodgers earned his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UT), he clerked for Summers, and then went to work for the attorney in 1995.
Although Rodgers never set his political aspirations aside, Summers did advise him to put them in check. “Jerry told me early on to learn to be a good lawyer because few people are able to work in politics full time,” he says. “I took that to heart.”
Rodgers didn’t settle for the law, though, but rather looks at it as a different way of following his heart’s desire: to have an impact on the lives of people who might not have had the opportunities he did. “My work has correlated well with my political leanings,” he says. “It engages the people I like to be around and I’m proud to represent.”
Rodgers also feels fortunate to be working for Summers. In a profession that can lend itself to firm hopping, he’s found stability and longevity in a small but well-known practice. “Jerry prides himself on loyalty, so he takes care of the people who work for him,” Rodgers says.
Although Summers had a hand in carving out the career path Rodgers has walked, Rodgers still feels a sense of pride and ownership in his practice. “I can’t imagine what else I would have done,” he says. “I’m grateful to be doing what I’m doing.”
A member of the Chattanooga Bar Association and the local chapter of the American Inns of Court, Rodgers stays busy outside of the office, too. In addition to attending local bar functions, Rodgers is the chairman of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee at Christ United Methodist in East Brainerd, and is serving on the City of Chattanooga’s Industrial Development Board. The latter is a six-year appointment.
Previously, Rodgers has served on the UT National Alumni Board of Governors and as president of the Chattanooga Area Brain Injury Association.
Located in the historic James Building, Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers is encased within a shell of steel, marble, and old wood. The firm’s confines are quiet and calm, but when working, Rodgers still closes his door and turns on a white noise machine to drown out the mildest distractions. This allows him to concentrate on his work, although he jokes about the soft hiss of the noise maker lulling him to sleep.
The 45-year-old Rodgers seems too energetic for that, something he attributes to eating well and exercising. “I climb the stairs here instead of taking the elevator,” he says. “I sit on my rear all day, so I need to do something.”
A family man with a wife and two kids, Rodgers seems to have few opportunities for sitting down elsewhere. His son, 8-year-old Rhett, is involved in several sports, including swimming, and Rodgers tries to not miss any of his meets or games. He even helped to coach his son’s baseball team last summer.
His daughter, 13-year-old Riley, is a cheerleader at Ooltewah Middle School. While he tries to be present at all of her events, too, he doesn’t coach her squad. “I know how to clap, but that’s about it,” he says, laughing.
Rodgers and his family live in East Brainerd, where he grew up. “I know it well,” he says, “and I like being there.”
He also likes UT football, to the point of wearing an orange tie in January – long after the Vols played their last game of the season. “I bleed orange,” he says, smiling. “I talked about the recruiting process for next season with some guys at lunch today.”
Rodgers is always looking ahead, especially when it comes to his work. As an attorney, he keeps a finger on the pulse of the law, both for the sake of his clients and himself. He wants to continue what he’s doing, but as a pragmatist, he knows that’s not entirely up to him. “That’s contingent on the legislatures,” he says. “They can change the law.”
If they do, there’s always politics.