Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 28, 2017

‘Why should I retire? I’m only 83’

Bahner, like his father, refuses to quit the profession he holds dear

Placed above a table by which octogenarian attorney Max Bahner dresses in the morning is a frame containing a piece of paper his daughter, Susan, had him sign. She penned the following on the document:

“I, Max Bahner, will inform Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel that effective Jan. 1, 2017, I will essentially retire.”

Bahner’s wife and best friend, Sara, framed the piece of paper and placed it where her husband and best friend could see it every morning as he’s buttoning his shirt and knotting his tie.

Having learned a thing or two during his 57 years of practicing law, Bahner is pretty sure the document is not legally binding. Nevertheless, it’s there as a reminder that his family is ready for him to at least slow down.

But Bahner, who ignored the deadline his daughter imposed and still goes to work nearly every weekday, isn’t there yet. “Why should I retire?” he asks. “I’m only 83.”

Bahner’s father, Carl Tabb, worked as a scientist until he passed away at 92. Described by his son as a brilliant man, the elder Bahner was working on drugs to treat the new forms of tuberculosis when he died. “My dad didn’t believe in retirement,” Bahner recalls.

Apparently, Bahner doesn’t, either. Although time has taken its toll on his posture and stride, it’s left his mind – a sharp, piercing tool that can cut to the heart of the law and any matter it involves – alone.

Therefore, the mere suggestion that it’s time for Bahner to close the book on his career makes him laugh out loud.

If Bahner were to retire, he’d have to leave certain things undone. A celebrated trial lawyer who spent decades defending large, complex commercial lawsuits, he stopped trying cases a few years ago. “I’m a quarter of a second too slow,” he jokes.

But Bahner is an active AAA arbiter and Rule 31 Mediator, and his plate is full. What’s more, the intricacy of the matters he’s handling has not abated since his days in court, as his case involving a dispute between a group of hospitals and an insurance company suggests.

“Millions and millions of dollars” are at stake in the matter, which Bahner and two fellow arbiters will hear in Austin, Texas, this fall. It’s the kind of tangled, problematic matter between bitterly divided parties that Bahner is skilled at bringing to a reasonable settlement.

The case is simply another opportunity for Bahner to use one thing he loves – the law – to bring about another thing he cherishes – civility.

“I love the law. It’s an impartial arbiter,” he says. “It makes it possible for us to have the society we have in the U.S. It isn’t perfect, but it’s the best thing this country has.”

Retirement would also take Bahner away from another role he enjoys – helping to shaping the future of Chambliss Law by serving as an informal counselor to the young attorneys coming in to the firm.

“They’re the future of Chambliss Law,” he points out. “We’ve had some brilliant, practical, down-to-earth young lawyers here, and it’s fun for me to watch them take off.”

Bahner checks his watch as he mentions the firm’s budding attorneys. In one hour, he and two other members of the firm – managing partner Mike St. Charles and attorney Catherine Dorvil – will be having lunch with an intern who’s considering going to law school and a young attorney he says is doing “great work.”

Instead of trying to pass on nuggets of his considerable wisdom, Bahner is planning to tap into the minds of the fledglings.

“We’re going to talk about the firm and its history, but I also want to find out what their dreams are,” Bahner explains. “Dreams are important. You need to have something to reach for as you get better and better at what you do.”

Called to the law

Bahner remembers the dreams of his youth and how they changed shape as he grew from a young boy who walked the hills of East Tennessee and camped in the mountains beyond his home to a new attorney with his life and career ahead of him.

Bahner’s years of academia began at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, where he earned a degree by the age of 19. (He brushes aside an exclamation of surprise at completing college at a young age, saying his father earned a master’s degree in chemistry by 19.)

Uncertain what his next steps would be, Bahner followed the path his father took and went to Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

“In those days, it was a fine institution,” Bahner says. “The faculty encouraged us to read widely, think deeply and debate. The fundamentalists have taken it over since then and changed it dramatically in a way I don’t like.”

While Bahner was in seminary, the First Baptist Church in Welch, West Virginia, summoned him to a summer position. The church’s pastor left for a month when he arrived, leaving Bahner in charge of preaching, teaching Sunday school and visiting parishioners.

Although busy, Bahner found time to walk across the town square, where the church was located, and hear people try cases at the courthouse.

“That appealed to me,” he acknowledges.

Bahner also accepted regular invitations to parties. But he noticed something peculiar about the extent of his welcome.

“People expected me to be gone by eight o’clock so the party could really get underway,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘This is a heck of a way to try to get to know people,’ so that summer, I decided to go to law school.”

Upon graduating from seminary, Bahner made his way to the University of Virginia, where he earned the degree that would form the foundation of his vocation. But even then, he was unsure about where his next steps would take him.

“I thought about going to New York to practice. It sounded fun,” he says.

Bahner even interviewed with a number of Big Apple firms that came to Virginia fishing for prospects. But he changed his bearing on the advice of one of his professors.

“He told me about when he went from law school to New York to practice,” Bahner explains. “He said unless I had a particular connection at one of those firms, it would be easy to get lost.”

Bahner returned to the small apartment he and Sara were sharing, and they talked about their future. In the end, they decided to move back to Tennessee. They chose to make their home in Chattanooga, where Bahner had received an offer to work for the law firm of Duggan, McDonald, & Kefauver for $300 a month. That was better than the $200 a month a Knoxville firm offered him.

“Our son had significant medical problems at the time, so I needed to come here,” Bahner says.

Bahner and Sara moved into a duplex on Signal Mountain, and in January 1960, T. Maxfield “Max” Bahner began to practice law.

Bahner had been trying fender benders with Duggan, McDonald, & Kefauver for only a few years when Jack Chambliss called and asked him to stop by. Chambliss Law consisted of five attorneys at the time, all housed on the 11th floor of the Maclellan Building. (As the author of a detailed history of Chambliss, Bahner can recall the smallest details about the 130-year-old firm.)

“When I went to see Jack, he said, ‘Max, we want you to come practice law with us.’ I said, ‘Jack, I’m not your man,’” Bahner remembers. “I was happy where I was.”

The idea stuck with Bahner, though, so he spoke with U.L. McDonald about the opportunity. McDonald told him to seize it. “I took his advice,” Bahner adds. “Friends who give you counsel can make a tremendous difference in your life.”

In Aug. 1964, Bahner moved into the Maclellan Building as a named partner with Chambliss Law. He’s been with the firm ever since, initially building a distinguished commercial litigation practice and then moving into arbitration and mediation in recent years.

Bahner also helped to grow the firm by having a hand in bringing in attorneys skilled in particular disciplines. Today, the firm consists of around 60 attorneys housed on the top four floors of the 17-story Liberty Tower – the location from which the firm handles cases at home and across the country.

During Bahner’s many years of practicing law, he’s done more than try cases; he’s also built a legacy of dedication and service to his profession and community.

Building a legacy

Bahner is known for being a zealous advocate for his clients and a passionate supporter of the legal profession.

He is a past president of the Chattanooga and Tennessee Bar Associations and served nearly 17 years in the American Bar Association House of Delegates. He also served on the board of governors of the American Bar Association for three years.

Additionally, Bahner has helped to shape how attorneys practice law in his home state. He was chair of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Advisory Commission on the Rules of Civil Procedure for seven years, during which the commission wrote the Tennessee Rules of Evidence, which were adopted by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Bahner also chaired the task force to review and recommend changes to the Tennessee Rules of Judicial Conduct, which were adopted by the Supreme Court and have become influential in revisions in other states.

Finally, Bahner is also a founding Fellow of the Chattanooga and Tennessee Bar Foundations and a Life Fellow of the American Bar Association.

Bahner’s record of community service is just as broad. He’s been a trustee of Carson-Newman for 40 years, including serving five terms as its chair. In 1984, he received Carson-Newman’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. Also, Bahner has served as a board member of the University of Chattanooga Foundation.

Instrumental in the early years of Orange Grove, Bahner has been a member of its board of directors for over 30 years, including two terms as its chair. He also served on the Hamilton County School Board, the board of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra and held the positions of vice chairman and secretary of the BOTA Foundation Board of Trustees.

The Rotary Club benefited from Bahner’s leadership while he served as secretary, vice president and then president in 2001-02.

Bahner’s other civic contributions include service on the board of directors of the Community Foundation and of the United Way, where he has chaired the professional division for that organization’s annual drive.

Among the many awards Bahner has received are the Ralph H. Kelley Humanitarian Award and the Harry Weill Zealous Practice of Law Award from the Chattanooga Bar Association. He also received the John H. Pickering Award of Achievement from the American Bar Association and the 2013 Bruce C. Bailey Volunteer Lawyer of the Year from the Legal Aid of East Tennessee. He accepted the Kiwanis Club of Chattanooga’s Distinguished Service Award in 2015.

Competitor at heart

Bahner didn’t set out nearly six decades ago to have a long, successful career in the law or to make an impact on his profession and community. Rather, he says he just showed up every day and tried to do his “dead-level best.”

“You don’t pick your cases; cases come to you, and it’s up to you to figure out how to handle them in the best interest of your clients,” he points out. “That’s a terrific challenge because you’re often dealing with people’s livelihood.”

Along the way, Bahner grew to love being an attorney. He says the people he met and the matters he handled over the years fascinated him, and the competitive nature of the law appealed to the part of him that enjoys a fair and honest fight.

“I learned in football that you don’t wait for a big guy to barrel down on you; you run at him as hard as you can,” Bahner says.

If Bahner has anything approaching a regret, it’s his characteristic bluntness with clients he believed were heading in the wrong direction.

“People sometimes try to do things that are not in their best interest. I had clients who were mad and wanted to demolish the other side. But when I looked at those matters objectively, they weren’t as black and white as my clients believed, and I told them what I thought.

“Sometimes, I haven’t been as gentle with people as I should have been. I tell people they never have to worry about what I’m thinking; I’ll let them know.”

A good life

Bahner has not labored alone all these years. He counts among his blessings the guidance of his fellow attorneys at Duggan, McDonald, & Kefauver, who taught him to try cases, and his partners during his early days at Chambliss Law, which included John Chambliss, John’s son, Jack, and Albert Hodge.

Of even greater importance has been Sara’s support. Bahner and his wife have spent their life together on Signal Mountain, where they eventually purchased five acres and built a house in which they have lived for over 40 years.

There have been moments that were less than storybook perfect. Although the couple had four children together, only two are still with them. Bahner and his wife lost a daughter named Sally after only a few months due to a heart malformation and their only son, Maxfield Tabb, died of a heart attack at the age of 34.

Catherine and Susan, however, remain, and have a father who’s as proud of them as any parent could be.

There have been other trials. Two years ago, Bahner underwent heart surgery to remove blockages that were only a few months away from ending his life. He’s also submitted his right shoulder and elbow to a surgeon’s tools. But Bahner has adopted a humorous perspective to these ordeals

“I tell my wife she’s getting a new husband, piece by piece,” he says, laughing.

Although the Bahners have been through difficult circumstances, their focus today is on the good things they’ve received.

“We never imagined we’d have the life we’ve had. Opportunities we didn’t deserve came to us because of who we know and where we are,” Bahner adds. “We’ve been fortunate to be rich in friends who have helped us in ways we can’t begin to articulate.”

Bahner is especially grateful for his grandchildren – Michael, Thomas, Max and Sara Catherine. They are the source of the very thing he hopes to see in the young attorneys with whom he’ll be having lunch in a few minutes: his dreams.

“I dream about seeing our grandchildren mature and take responsibility for the world around them,” Bahner explains.

Bahner has others dreams, too, such as seeing Carson-Newman continue to grow and remain a place of academic freedom. He also wants to see the people who are a part of the society he adores overcome the superficial divisions that separate them.

“We don’t have to agree with each other; we simply need to stop writing off other people because they don’t say the right things in the right way or wear the right labels,” he says. “We’ve always had friction, but it’s become more virulent.”

Seeing these dreams become reality are part of what motivates Bahner to get up each weekday morning and go to work.

As Bahner is buttoning his shirt and knotting his tie, he has a few moments to look at the note Susan wrote and ponder not a dream but a mystery. Just as his father reached the end of his life, Bahner knows the time will come when he’ll no longer practice law, hold his wife’s hand or behold the face of his grandchildren.

But the man who went to seminary and still teaches Sunday school at First Baptist Church is at peace with that moment and the things that lie beyond it.

“We live with mystery. That frightens people who are accustomed to living in an empirical word and feel threatened by anything they can’t calculate. But mystery doesn’t frighten me or shake my faith. I’m comfortable with it,” he says.

“One of my good friends in seminary was John Claypool. He said, ‘We’re afraid of death because of the mystery that surrounds it. But I don’t think we should be.

‘Before we’re born, the only world we know is our mother’s womb. Then we’re born into this world, which is beautiful and filled with people with whom we have relationships.

‘Then this life ends and we enter a new one every bit as real but one we can’t understand from our current perspective – one that will be filled with beauty and people with whom we’ll have relationships. And that life will never end.’

“I believe John is right about that.”