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Front Page - Friday, June 3, 2016

Ladies of Justice lead spirited SETLAW panel

SETLAW’s Ladies of Justice panel (L-R): Magistrate Marsha Smith, Judge Lila Statom, Judge Flossie Weill, Judge Marie Williams, Judge Christie Sell, and Chancellor Pamela Fleenor. - (Photo by David Laprad)

The theme of managing clients well emerged during the Ladies of Justice panel SETLAW (Southeast Tennessee Lawyer’s Association for Women) hosted last week in the City Courthouse.

During the open-ended discourse, Judge Flossie Weill, Judge Lila Statom, Judge Christie Sell, Chancellor Pamela Fleenor, Magistrate Marsha Smith, and Judge Marie Williams also discussed other topics, some of which concerned the enduring topic of courtroom protocol.

Judge Williams, a 21-year veteran of the bench, was the first to offer thoughts about courtroom conduct. After urging the lawyers present to read and adhere to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, she said a vital part of courtroom protocol stems from attorneys understanding their role versus the client’s role in a case. “The client has the authority to dictate settlement and the expenditure of monies. The client does not have the right to tell you how to approach the court or interact with opposing counsel,” she said. “I’m seeing too many clients tell their lawyers how to behave in court and during discovery, and that is an insult to every lawyer who has ever walked the face of the Earth. We have the education, we are the professionals, and it is incumbent upon you to not let a client undermine you. Don’t become so married to the notion of making your client happy that you abandon your code of conduct.”

After Judge Williams spoke, Judge Sell commented on the importance of maintaining order in a courtroom. “Most of the people who practice in front of me are my friends; I’ve known them for the better part of my life, and when I’m not a judge, I’m Christie. And I’m a friendly, jovial person. But when it comes to court, we all have a role to play,” she said. “I don’t care how well you know the attorney on the other side of the courtroom, and I don’t care how well you know the judge, you have to be careful about how you conduct yourself in front of your client; you have to make sure you’re looking out for their best interest and not just enjoying your friends.

“Our judicial system is the last place where there’s order in our society. There’s no order in our streets, but there will be order in our courts.”

After Judge Sell expressed dismay over the number of attorneys who are still talking after court is called to order, Judge Statom said female judges have to work harder to maintain order in their courtrooms. “Clients treat us with less respect because we’re women. A client would never tell Judge (David) Bales, ‘Yeah, I’m here,’ but they’ll say that to us,” she said. “I want people to treat me with respect, so I treat them with respect. You need to demand your clients do the same.”

Judge Sell then steered the discussion toward the ethics of social media, and specifically whether or not judges should be friends with attorneys on Facebook. While many in the legal profession frown on that level of interaction, Judge Sell said communicating online is no different than interacting in person, which judges and attorneys commonly do. “This is the way of the world. It’s just like being able to sit down at a table and each lunch together, like we did today,” Judge Sell said.

Judge Williams said her life is easier because she’s not on Facebook. “I’m just paranoid enough to know how people misinterpret things, and I don’t want to worry about that.”

While Judge Williams had the attention of everyone in the room, she spoke about a topic of great importance to her: being honest with an opposing attorney. “We have an obligation to be honest with each other, so the games lawyers are playing in discovery disturb me,” she said. “Be honest with each other. Not only are you obligated to be truthful, you have to maintain your integrity. How can someone who thinks you’re not honest recommend you for anything?”

Judge Statom then brought the conversation back to managing clients when she asked the attorneys present to ensure their clients dress appropriately for court. “That’s not easy when they’re a victim. I was sitting for Judge Bales when a woman walked forward in the shortest dress I’ve ever seen. I was shocked,” she said. “I told her to not wear that dress when she returned. That was hard for me to do because she’d been severely injured. It would have been better for her attorney to handle that before she entered the courtroom.”

The issue of dressing suitably for court arises often, Judge Sell and Chancellor Fleenor said. “I once told a woman I wasn’t going to talk to her breasts, and I asked her to go put on a different shirt,” Judge Sell said.

“When I was practicing law, I told a woman to dress like she would for church, thinking she would understand I meant to dress formal,” Chancellor Fleenor said. “While I was in the hall getting ready to go in, (Circuit Court Clerk) Paula Thompson grabbed me said, ‘Is wild thing your client?’ The woman had on stiletto heels, tight jeans, and the words ‘Wild thing’ across her chest. So you have to be specific with your clients.”

Judge Weill brought the panel to a close by recommending attorneys and judges alike stay humble. “Courtroom protocol is about two diseases. For judges, the disease is ‘black robitis.’ Although I’ve been on the bench for only two months, I can feel it coming on. When you put on the black robe, you start to think you’re really special,” she said. “For lawyers, the disease is getting the big head. When you get the big head, you behave in ways you shouldn’t.”

Prior to beginning the dialog, each judge shared a few details about her background and the challenges she faced as a woman in the legal profession. Weill said her journey to the bench began 40 years ago, when her father, Harry Weill, approached his law partners about her coming to work at Weill, Ellis, Weems & Copeland. With few women lawyers practicing at the time, they were tentative.

“They thought I wouldn’t have anything to do because no one would want me to represent them. And they were concerned about how well I’d get along with the secretaries,” Judge Weill said. “But they were willing to try it, and we made it through those early days.”

In January, Weill was sworn in as interim judge of Lookout Mountain Municipal Court. But the part-time position doesn’t mark the first time she’s served on the bench. During the panel, Weill told the story about an occasion in 1977 when a judge asked her to sit in for him in City Court. “It was such a novelty that the newspaper came out and took my picture, and then put it on the front page,” she said.

Judge Statom dealt with similar issues as she and three other women served as assistant district attorneys in Nashville, Tenn. “The men didn’t want us there, and the male judges didn’t think we belonged in the courtroom,” she said. “One day, I wore a pant suit, and the court officers took me to the back and told me I couldn’t come to court dressed like that. I told them I was wearing a suit, just like the men. They said I had to be in a skirt and jacket. This was 1989.”

Judge Statom’s response to sexism was always to “seek justice and do the right thing.” A Scenic City native, she returned to Chattanooga when District Attorney General Bill Cox hired her as an ADA in 1998.

Neither Judge Williams nor Magistrate Smith experienced gender issues during their career, so they each offered a few nuggets of advice geared toward the summer associates and the up-and-coming lawyers in the room.

“During my 18 years of practice, I learned to be straightforward with people, to always be kind, and to not step on anyone on the way up,” Judge Williams said. “Also, learn something from everyone you meet, and look for the humanity in every person.”

Judge Williams practiced law at Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams from 1977-1995. Gov. Don Sundquist appointed her to the bench in 1995, making her the first woman appointed to a state judgeship in Hamilton County.

Magistrate Smith occupies a bench at Hamilton County Juvenile Court, where she deals with child support issues. She encouraged the summer associates to find a place in the law and stay there, and to always behave in the present with an eye on the future.

“When I came out of law school (in 2000), I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I just knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I fell into family law,” she said. “Evidently, (Juvenile Court) Judge (Robert) Philyaw thought I’d handled myself well in court because when he was elected, he appointed me to the bench.

“I enjoy what I do. For those of you who don’t know what you want to do, simply find your niche and stick with it, and take care of everyone you meet along the way.”

For information about SETLAW, contact Kathy Rowell at attorneyrowell@hotmail.com or (423) 702-4479. Find Rowell online at www.attorneyrowell.com.   

To see more photos,pick up a copy of this week's Hamilton County Herald.