Attorney Joe Simpson has the kind of smile that can break down walls. It doesn’t stop where most smiles do, it engages his entire face, and it’s there already before he says hello or shakes someone’s hand. It’s genuine and sincere, too, which can be a source of comfort and encouragement to his clients.
But it’s more than the smile of an attorney who’s glad to do be doing business with a person; it’s also the smile of a servant, of a father and a husband, and of something else no one would be able to guess by looking at him.
People in Chattanooga primarily know Simpson through his work as an attorney. A member of Husch Blackwell’s financial services team, he concentrates his practice on tax and estate matters. He also advises clients in elder law matters.
Although Simpson’s practice sounds straightforward, his work on behalf of his clients is anything but cookie-cutter normal. Rather, he tends to think outside the box when drawing up solutions to the legal issues his clients are facing. He credits former Chancellor Frank Brown, who encouraged innovation, with shaping his approach to practicing the law. “There’s one side, and there’s the other side, but what solution will be good for the client and will hold down legal fees?” he says. “I’m always outside of the box trying to settle.”
Encouraging compromise, especially when family members are in disagreement over an estate matter, is rarely easy, but Simpson readily tackles the challenge because it can bring people together. “Issues come up, even when you’re good people and good family,” he says. “Working through those moments and getting everyone on the same page is one of my main jobs.”
Simpson’s interest in tax and estate planning was nurtured as he grew up in Athens, Tenn. His father “did everyone’s taxes,” and his grandfather owned a farm that was held in trust. Simpson didn’t know what that meant, but he wanted to find out. In addition, Simpson’s basketball coach, Don Reid, was an attorney and a judge, and had a hand in inspiring him to become a lawyer.
One of Simpson’s law professors at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, R.D. Cox, further stoked his interest in estate work. “He knew real property, decedents, and estates inside and out,” Simpson says. “His tests were multiple choice, and you either got it or you didn’t. I got it. I had to work at it, though. I’m not the kind of person who naturally gets things.”
After graduating law school in 1987, Simpson stayed in Memphis to work for a large accounting firm. A few years later, he moved to a smaller firm, where he spent the next decade doing IRS-related work. He labored under the auspices of David Lowrance and David Monypeny, whom he calls “great attorneys and good men.” His time with them impacts his practice to this day.
“I’ve been blessed to have worked with folks who gave me opportunities and showed me the ropes,” Simpson says. “Through them, I learned the ins and outs of the law.”
One day, a law school friend of Simpson’s named Stan Hildebrand, who was practicing at Shoemaker Thompson in Chattanooga, called to tell him he was leaving the firm. Hildebrand also said attorney Alan Cates would be needing a replacement on his team. His interest piqued, Simpson came to Chattanooga and met with Cates. It didn’t take him long to realize the time to leave Memphis had arrived.
“The opportunity to work under someone like Alan, and for a firm as respected as Shoemaker Thompson, was too great to pass up,” Simpson says.
Although Simpson has worked for different law firms since moving to Chattanooga, he’s been with the same people the entire time. Those individuals are the aspect of his law practice he enjoys the most. “When you’ve worked with a group that long, there’s collegiality among you, and you look forward to coming to work,” Simpson says.
As a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Simpson also does a considerable amount of guardian and conservatorship work at Husch Blackwell. Like his other areas of practice, he can trace his interest in elder law to his younger days. “I grew up with both sets of grandparents, and they had a big impact on me,” he says. “I have a great deal of respect for them, so working with older folks is a pleasure for me.”
Clearly, Simpson sees the law as more than a tool for making a living; he also sees it as a means of helping others. In other words, his smile is more than the smile of an attorney, it’s also the smile of a servant.
The people at Legal Aid of East Tennessee are well aware of this. Since moving to Chattanooga, Simpson has done a substantial amount of work for the nonprofit firm. He considers it to be his duty.
“I’m interested in helping those who have been less fortunate than I have been. My position is a privilege, and Legal Aid gives me an easy way to give back,” Simpson says. “Most of the cases I take aren’t complicated, but I have had some litigation that tested me.”
As an expression of their appreciation for the work Simpson has done for them, Legal Aid added him to their Hall of Fame. Simpson accepted the accolade with modesty. “Buz Dooley does intake for Legal Aid, and when he calls you, you say yes,” Simpson says, smiling.
Simpson also volunteers as a guardian. Through the Tennessee Public Guardianship for the Elderly Program, he’s served the same ward for nearly a decade.
Whether Simpson is volunteering at Legal Aid or giving his time to a ward, he’s grateful to have the support of his firm. “Husch Blackwell encourages its attorneys to give back, and gives them credit for the time they spend doing it,” he says. “So, I get to do what I love doing, and my firm counts it as billable hours.”
Time is a valuable commodity for every attorney, especially those who have families. Simpson and his wife, Rebecca, have been married 25 years, and they have three children: a daughter, Kate, a middle school English teacher in Mississippi; a son, Jake, who’s studying engineering at Tennessee Technical University; and another daughter, Grace, a sixth grader.
Over the years, Simpson has had to work at striking a balance between his job and his family. However, just like he thinks outside the box when coming up with solutions for his clients, he’s found unique ways to connect with his children. He’s made good use of their time together during their morning and evening commutes to work and school, and he can usually carve out enough time to eat or watch a movie with them.
Still, he credits how well his children are doing to his wife. “I can’t say my kids have done well because I’ve done well,” he says. “They’ve done well because I married well.”
Simpson smiles the smile of a man who feels fortunate to count loved ones among his blessings. But there’s something else behind that smile – something no one would be able to guess when seeing him in one of the neatly pressed suits he wears to work.
It’s the smile of a part-time farmer.
Simpson and his family live on a farm in Athens, where he and his father and brother raise beef cattle. While he likes the change of pace from his law practice, there are days when he’d rather get more sleep. “Some days, when I’m getting up at 5 a.m. to feed the cattle, my wife will remind me that I’m living the dream,” he says, laughing. “And she’s right: I dreamed about doing this.”
Even when he’s worn to the bone, Simpson enjoys working with his father and brother. “My dad turns 80 this year, and while my brother and I might be in charge someday, we aren’t today,” Simpson says, laughing again.
Simpson is not only handy during feeding time, he also has a way with a slab of beef and a large cooker. He’s been known to haul his equipment to the church he attends, Clearwater Baptist in Athens, and grill for outreach events and other occasions.
Simpson attended Clearwater as a child; he’s now in his early fifties. In the same way, he sees himself practicing law, giving back to his community, spending time with his family, and farming for many years to come. He smiles at the thought.
It’s the smile of a man who appreciates the opportunities he’s been given, who works hard to make the best of them, and who serves others with humility. It’s also the smile of a man who loves his family and doesn’t mind getting up before the sun to feed his cattle. Above all, it’s the smile of a man who wants to break down walls.