Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 22, 2022

50 years of practicing law, collecting memories

Thomas Williams, left, and Gary Napolitan have been attorneys for more than 50 years. They say the practice of law has changed dramatically since their early days. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Thomas Williams was barely out of law school when he went to the federal courthouse in Chattanooga and watched Judge Frank Wilson send Jimmy Hoffa to prison for jury tampering.

“Seeing that banty rooster stand up as the judge sentenced him was something I’d never imagined I’d see,” recalls Williams, 82.

Williams also had never pictured being the lead attorney in the courtroom prosecution of the “Hoffa party girls,” as the Chattanooga News Free-Press called them in a 1969 article, five years later.

He cracks a smile and his eyes light up as he tells the story of how his name became attached – in a small way – to history.

“Lawyers from Detroit convinced prostitutes to sign affidavits saying they’d had sex with the jurors [assigned to Hoffa’s trial] on the 10th floor of the Read House, where they were sequestered. I got convictions on those.”

Williams has innumerable stories to share from his three-year stint as an assistant U.S. attorney general, as well as the decades of trial work that followed once he joined what was then Thomas, Bishop, Leitner, Mann & Milburn.

Newspaper clippings detailing some of his triumphs are scattered across a conference room table at what is now Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan like autumn leaves at the foot of a mighty oak.

“I’m old,” Williams says as he surveys the spread. “Although I did just find out I’m 82, not 83. I mentioned to some people from high school how we’re all 83. A girl who was born three days after I was corrected my math.”

One of the articles on the table describes how Gary Napolitan, a longtime partner of Williams, once held the record for the largest personal injury settlement in Hamilton County history.

Napolitan, who’s seated across from Williams, takes over storytelling duties while his friend and colleague sifts through the memorabilia.

“In the mid-80s, we represented an 18-year-old man who was catastrophically injured in a tractor-trailer accident. After a year of intense litigation, the case resolved for $2.2 million.”

Napolitan, 76, also has decades worth of courtroom tales he could tell. And like Williams, he revels in the titillating details as he shares another.

“David Noblit and I defended a mine operator in Grundy County before the late Tom Greer. And the jury hung up,” he begins.

“Judge Greer asked if we wanted to accept a majority verdict. He’d told us before the trial that a mining company had never won a case in Grundy County and he was trying to get us to settle. I didn’t want to but our client did so we took it.”

Napolitan says he was stunned when his client won the case 7-5.

“When we returned to my hotel, I asked our client why he’d wanted to take the majority verdict. He looked at me, smiled and changed the subject. I never asked him again because it was Grundy County, after all.”

As lifelong attorneys who in some cases touched history and in others made it, Williams and Napolitan have a far-flung perspective on what it was like to practice law 50 years ago. From the heavy demands their practices placed on their time to the abundance of trial work they did, it was altogether a different era, they agree.

Williams and Napolitan’s mentors certainly took a different approach to schooling them than some firms do with their associates today. The senior attorneys didn’t ease the two greenhorns into the grind, but rather threw them into churning waters to either sink or swim.

“Maybe that wasn’t enjoyable,” Napolitan admits, “but it was how we learned to do our job.”

Although it’s been 52 years since Napolitan became an attorney, he remembers his sudden induction in the law like it was yesterday.

Fresh out of school, Napolitan was touring the firm of Thomas Bishop on a Friday in April 1970 when he encountered the late Ted Milburn, who was more than a decade away from becoming a U.S. district court judge.

When Napolitan told Milburn his first day would be Monday, the senior attorney asked what he was doing at that moment.

“I told him I was looking for my office,” Napolitan recollects. “And he said, ‘Here’s a file. Outline the strong points and weak points.’ So I sat down and went to work.”

Napolitan initially worked with Thomas Mann, a hard task master and mentor, he says. Mann also was an excellent lawyer, Napolitan adds, and that made a difference as he began to develop a practice of his own.

“Tom was like a lot of lawyers back then – rough and tumble. So I worked can to can’t, including Saturdays and Sundays. Since I was single, it didn’t matter, but I can’t imagine having a family at that time.”

Williams says a distant relative named Henry Ashurst (the first U.S. senator from Arizona) prepared him for the backbreaking labors that were waiting for him in a letter Ashurst penned while Williams was in law school.

“He wrote, ‘In order to succeed at the bar, one must scorn delights and live long and laborous days,’” Williams says. “He was right.”

Ashurst did not advise Williams to strike a healthy balance between work and home. In fact, the term “work life balance” wouldn’t appear until the 1980s as part of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the U.K., according to an article on Kumanu.

But having the time to both develop a practice and spend time with family and friends is important to many young Chattanooga attorneys today as they begin working for local firms.

Napolitan says this is not necessarily a bad thing even as he jokes about the yawning gap between what he did as a new lawyer and what he says he believes some associates strive to do today.

“Our work-life balance was making time for lunch,” he laughs. “And maybe that was stupid. Maybe today’s younger attorneys figured if they retire initially, they won’t have to wait until they’re 70.”

Williams and Napolitan did marry and raise families. Williams tied the knot early on, while Napolitan clung to bachelorhood until he was 40, when he married a 22-year-old bride. He says their wives paid a price for being married to attorneys, but that was not unusual.

“Lillian has been a great wife and mother. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her for a number of years. Tom’s wife was fabulous, as well. I don’t know how they did it. But it was a different era.”

Williams and Napolitan filled their “long and laborous days” with an unrelenting flood of litigation. Compared to today, when many attorneys rarely try a case, they practically lived in court, Napolitan says.

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, we tried cases all the time. It wasn’t unusual to handle a case a month. I’d go from giving a closing argument in one case to picking a jury in another.”

Young trial attorneys didn’t specialize in one area of the law, either, but tried a variety of cases as they learned the ropes, Napolitan continues.

“When Tom and I started, you ate what you killed in some respects. You handled anything from a speeding ticket to a murder. You did whatever you were qualified to do.”

Although taxing on even young minds and bodies, the grueling work enabled budding attorneys to meet a variety of clients and develop solid practices, Napolitan points out.

Then mediation changed “everything,” he continues, when the Tennessee Supreme Court introduced it in 1996. Today’s Volunteer State lawyers not only spend less time trying cases – and as a consequence have fewer opportunities to learn how to litigate effectively, Napolitan notes – but they also rarely learn how to build a practice.

“There’s not nearly as much rainmaking with young lawyers. They haven’t been trained that way, nor do many of them have the ability to do it. These days, they just don’t have the opportunities.”

Instead, associates work with senior attorneys, who gradually pass on clients to the next generation of practitioners. “Here, they work on cases with you and get to know your clients,” Napolitan explains. “And eventually, they become their primary contact.”

Napolitan insists he’s not a grouchy elder who shakes his fist at change and bemoans how different the world is. Rather, he speaks positively about the impact mediation has had on the public and says he and Williams adapted well.

“I think people still get together and work things out,” he offers. “Tom and I mediate cases all the time. And it’s enjoyable.”

If one thing concerns Napolitan more than the reduction in trial work, it’s the way technology has made it possible for attorneys to distance themselves from their colleagues, he says.

“It’s an impersonal practice now. Emails and texts are ways to share information, but they’re not communication. Communication is done in person, and you don’t see many lawyers face-to-face anymore,” he claims. “At least I don’t – unless I have a mediation.

“When I was always at the courthouse, I’d see my friends and opponents and other colleagues – and I miss that. Having a history with people makes a difference. It improves you as a lawyer and benefits your clients.”

Despite the changes in the practice of law over the last several decades, Williams and Napolitan agree one thing has remained the same: many in the general public still scorn attorneys to a degree.

Napolitan says this is due to people not understanding what lawyers do.

“Ninety-five percent of attorneys are hardworking, ethical people. What you see on television and read about in the newspapers is really not accurate,” he says.

“One reason the public gets chastised with lawyers is they don’t understand how they can represent a repeated felon. You can’t lie and you can’t bring up false proof, but there’s probably something of a defense there, and that’s what you’re trained to provide. And they’re entitled to it. That’s a hard concept to accept.”

Before Williams set his sights on the law, he initially hoped to join the FBI after earning a degree in engineering physics at the University of Chattanooga.

Napolitan says he was less certain about his future as he gripped his diploma from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and then made an unsuccessful bid to become an Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War.

But they both found their way to the law and the profession they loved. Along the way, they gathered the kinds of stories Napolitan says today’s young attorneys sadly won’t be able to tell.

In honor of what might be a dying art, they each offer up one more courtroom war story. This time, though, they pick cases that don’t necessarily cast them in a flattering light.

“I lost only one case as a prosecutor. And it was a bootlegger who beat me,” Williams says, going first.

“Harry Berke was the defense attorney. He came to see me and said, ‘There’s no sense in us playing around. Show me what you have.’”

At that time, stores that were on notice for selling too much sugar were required to report their sugar sales, Williams recalls. Berke’s client had failed to do so, and Williams possessed photographs of the man hauling the sweet stuff out of his warehouse in Red Bank.

In a blunder that still makes him wince, Williams showed Berke the photos, believing his opponent would see he was prosecuting an open and shut case. But Berke used the information to pull a fast one, Williams says.

“Harry found someone who looked just like his client and who claimed to be the one who moved the sugar. And his client brought in witnesses who said he was at crippled children’s event in Florida at the time.

“If you’re not thinking fast enough, you can get beat. And Harry cleaned my plow on that one.”

Napolitan won his trial – a rare plaintiff’s case for him – but only because his client didn’t take his advice.

“A ceiling fan fell and hurt a farmer’s wife in Winchester. She had limited medical expenses and no lost earnings because she’d always been a farmer’s wife. But the defendant offered us $50,000 before the trial. And I encouraged her to take it,” he says.

“I thought it was a good offer,” he continues. “We tried the case, though, and ended up with a $260,000 verdict.

“Outside the courthouse, she thanked me and then shook her finger at me and said, ‘Gary, always listen to women. They know best.’”

Williams and Napolitan could entertain and edify listeners for hours. From their work on the 1990 Interstate 75 fog disaster in Calhoun, Tennessee, to Napolitan’s teaming with Paul Leitner on the initial asbestos cases, to the major fire loss cases Williams handled, their stories paint a picture of two lawyers who gave every breath and heartbeat to their careers and built not just rewarding lives for themselves but also touched the lives and livelihoods of countless clients.

“It’s been a wonderful experience and a tremendous career,” Napolitan says. “In my opinion, Tom and I practiced law during the best time in American history. Every day, all day, you were dealing with people.

“It was intense, financially rewarding and challenging. And it was what I knew how to do.”

Napolitan admits those years were not the best for every attorney – and alludes to the challenges women faced as they struggled to gain traction in the profession – but says he’s grateful for the opportunities he’s had.

“You can’t take credit a lot of times for where you are. It’s just luck,” Napolitan muses. “If the Air Force hadn’t booted me out of flight school, I probably would have become a helicopter pilot and died in Vietnam.”

“It’s been fun,” Williams adds. “It was something different every day.”

Although Williams and Napolitan have enjoyed their stroll along memory lane, duty calls.

Williams still saunters in a few days a week to do probate and estate planning work while Napolitan continues to go full throttle as he handles work injury cases and employment law matters for Coca Cola Bottling Company, Covenant Transport and CHI Memorial.

Neither seem to be intent on hanging up their spurs anytime soon.

“People are always asking me about when I’m going to retire. And I say, ‘From what?’” Napolitan says. “I’m not patching road or laying gas line. I did that when I was a kid.”