Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 29, 2024

Adversaries? Only when they’re on the clock

Attorney Bill Colvin urges lawyers to intentionally develop friendships with their legal adversaries. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Years ago, four attorneys traveled from their hometown of Chattanooga to Philadelphia to take depositions in a contentious case, recalls Bill Colvin, a member of the entourage. The group also included Roger Dixson, the plaintiff’s lawyer in the case, as well as Harry Weill and Hugh Moore, each of whom was representing a defendant. An attorney from New York City met them in Philly.

After a day of heated testimonies, one of the Chattanooga attorneys brought up the topic of dinner. “Where do we want to eat tonight?” he asked the group.

The Big Apple lawyer looked as though he’d just witnessed his co-counsel cursing a judge.

“You’re going to eat dinner together? But you’re adversaries,” he gasped.

“Of course we’re going to eat dinner together,” replied one of the Chattanooga attorneys. “We’re in Philadelphia.”

Perhaps the New York attorney thought the City of Brotherly Love had cast a spell of amity on the Scenic City jurists. But this was not the case. The foursome would have eaten any meal of any day together, if the opportunity had presented itself, because that was the nature of the Chattanooga bar.

While there are stories – stories older than the one Colvin just told – of courtroom brawls and seething animosity that paint individual lawyers in a harsh light (coax attorney Jerry Summers into a conversation to hear some choice tales), on the whole, the Chattanooga bar has an enduring reputation for civility.

How this is possible is a question outsiders often pose.

“There was a fascinating Inns of Court meeting this month with the great orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Richard Pearce,” Colvin says. “He said one of the things he didn’t understand about lawyers when he was starting out was how they could fight like cats and dogs during a deposition and, when it was over, shake hands and start talking about what their kids were up to. He said it took him a while to get a grip on that.”

Colvin has a few theories about how this camaraderie was possible “back in the day,” all of which revolve around the time local litigators spent together socializing outside of court. He mentions the Chattanooga Trial Lawyers Association first.

“When I first came to [Chattanooga] in 1979, the trial lawyers would meet at the old Town and Country Restaurant. Plaintiff and defense lawyers would eat and drink together, and somebody would speak about trial practice.”

Colvin also recalls spending time with both friends and foes of the bar at The Brass Register, a now-shuttered gathering place (or, rather, watering hole) across the street from the county courthouse.

“Both sides would meet there for a beer after court, and lawyers would congregate there once a week. We knew each other better socially in those days. We knew what each others children were doing, and we talked about what was going on in church. Nowadays, everyone feels pressured to be billing time or pushing a case when you’re on the plaintiff’s side. You don’t see lawyers from opposite sides of a case socializing as much.”

Regardless, the Chattanooga bar is still known as one in which courtroom adversaries can be not just friendly but also genuine friends after a judge’s gavel falls, like Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog in a Merrie Melodies cartoon after punching out at the end of a workday. This stirs Colvin’s memories of one particular legal opponent who became a close confidant – the late Bill Alt.

Colvin was practicing at Shoemaker Thompson in the mid-1980’s and contributing to the firm’s work on behalf of CBL & Associates when he learned of Alt, a lawyer with Arlen Realty in New York. While the relationship between the attorneys who represented CBL and “anyone and everyone associated with Arlen” was rife with friction, Colvin recalls, he says Alt earned his respect.

“Bill paid close attention to everything a party said, and if they even hinted at weakening their position, he’d pursue it to the ends of the Earth. He was always so well prepared and had such a grasp of the facts in a case.”

Colvin was also impressed with Alt’s technical background, which on more than one occasion had pushed him against the ropes in construction cases.

“You don’t get a master’s degree in civil engineering from Caltech without being brilliant. So, Bill always knew not only the facts of a case but also the engineering behind the facts. And when he saw the slightest opening, he’d pursue it until the barn door was wide-open, if that was to his advantage, or slammed shut, if that was to his advantage.”

While Alt might have had the nose of a legal bloodhound, he was never less than respectful and fair to Colvin, even when they were on the mat in a combative case and unable to agree on anything, Colvin says.

In time, a client on a case asked Colvin to recommend a potential co-counsel. Colvin suggested Alt without hesitation.

Eventually, Colvin and Alt had a case together in Cleveland and grew to know each other personally during their drives to court.

“I learned about his daughter who has early onset dementia, and his daughter who had a stroke, and his wife becoming sick. We also talked about faith. During lunch together after one of our cases, we brainstormed about finding easier, more economical ways to resolve residential construction disputes. We never came up with a good solution.”

As Colvin stood to present the resolution he’d prepared for Alt at the Chattanooga Bar Association’s memorial service in March, he said, “I want to speak of William Alt, the adversary who became my friend.”

As Colvin concluded his resolution, he spoke not of the attorney he’d never bested in a legal dust up but of the human being who’d embraced life and inspired purpose in those around him.

“Bill radiated joy and sincerity, delighted those close to him in laughter, and charmed with his wit and gaiety. He personified grace, compassion and humility. Above all, he loved his wife, friends and family unconditionally.”

Colvin worries that personal relationships like the one he and Alt formed – friendships forged beyond the fires of battle – are becoming relics of the past, even as organizations like the Young Lawyer’s Division of the CBA nurture solidarity and fellowship among lawyers. He attributes this partly to how many movies and television series portray lawyers as table-pounding hotheads, as well as to how the practice of law has evolved.

“It’s very demanding. There’s a lot of pressure to put in the hours and court new clients. There’s also the perception that the only way to be an effective lawyer is to scream and shout and not agree about anything. But Alt didn’t raise his voice at people.”

To ensure a future in which the Chattanooga bar experiences the kind of camaraderie that once filled The Brass Register with laughter and chatter about every topic under the sun, and filled cars traveling to another city with personal revelations and empathy, Colvin suggests attorneys spend time being a friend to their adversaries.

“We need to make more of an effort to sit down with young lawyers. Take them to lunch, or take them out for a drink or a cup of coffee after work, and find out what’s going on in their lives. Learn about what they’re dealing with, whether it’s personal or professional. Because we all have issues.”