Jerry Summers could buy a hamburger for a quarter and a beer for the same when became an attorney in Chattanooga in 1966. Today, lunch costs him a bit more.
Having reaped the rewards of a successful career as a criminal defense attorney, he can afford the bump in price. But what he can’t abide are some of the changes that have taken place in the hallowed venues of his chosen profession.
“Things are different now than when I started,” he says. “Some of the changes have been good for the profession; some of them have been bad.”
Summers is sitting at a table inside a conference room at his law firm: Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers, housed in the nearly 110-year-old James Building on Broad Street. In front of him is a pad of paper containing several pages of handwritten notes.
To understand the words on those pages and the concerns they express, one must grasp a simple truth about Summers: He is as fierce an advocate as one can find in Chattanooga, and likely for many miles beyond the city, as his peers will attest.
Hal North, an attorney with Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, says Summers will “fight to hilt” on behalf of the criminal defendants he represents.
“Whether someone is guilty of a crime or not, Jerry understands they’re entitled to the best defense he can provide,” North says. “And he does an outstanding job. He’s tenacious, aggressive, and very effective. If I ever need a criminal defense lawyer, Jerry will be the only attorney I’ll call.”
Summers is equally passionate about the profession to which he has devoted his life, and will defend it to the best of his ability as well. Hence, the words on the pages before him.
He glances down at the first page, points to the item at the top, and then pauses to offer a caveat. “There’s more bad here than good,” he says. “Just remember: these are my opinions.”
Summers starts slowly with a few minor objections one might expect from an attorney who got his sea legs in a different era. There were fewer lawyers when he began his career as an assistant district attorney, he says, and the practice of law was less hectic. What’s more, lawyers tried more cases than they settled.
Having warmed up, Summers tackles his first real grievance: Cameras in courtrooms.
“When I started practicing law, cameras weren’t allowed in courtrooms. But the news media pressed the issue because they said the public has a right to know. But I think cameras in the courtroom turn lawyers into grandstanders and frighten judges,” he says.
“There were times when I was doing OK, and in walked a cameraman, and it affected the administration of justice,” he says.
Summers’ aversion to the media casting its gaze on the judicial process is insignificant compared to his abhorrence of lawyers advertising on billboards and TV. Although he knows people have a right to free speech, he prefers the days before the Supreme Court decided to allow limited advertising of legal services. In those days, the only marketing lawyers did was putting in a hard day’s work.
“The best source of information is someone who says, ‘Call Joe Smith. He fought tooth and nail for me,’” Summers says.
His dislike of billboard and television advertising stems more from his concern for the people who are seeking legal help than what the attorneys say. He urges people to base their decisions on careful research, not “the slickness of an ad.”
“We have over a thousand lawyers in Chattanooga, and many of them are good at what they do,” Summers says. “But when you’re selecting an attorney, you still need to make an intelligent decision. Find someone who cares about the truth and will search for it when you need justice.”
The third item on Summers’ hit list is related to the second: Companies that sell attorney accolades. Summers would love to do away with plaques these businesses sell proclaiming the purchaser to be among the best in a particular area of legal practice.
“Every week, I get mail asking me if I want to be named the best of this or the best of that for $395. I’ve even been asked if I want to be placed at the top of something in which I’ve never even tried a case,” Summers says.
Instead of purchasing ratings and plaques, Summers urges his fellow attorneys to strive for what he says is the gold standard in lawyer rankings: the Martindale-Hubbell AV Preeminent rating.
“The ‘A’ means you have legal ability, and the ‘V’ means you have good ethics. Everyone used to strive to earn the AV rating because it was based on the word of your colleagues and clients,” Summers says. “It was more reliable than self-promoting.”
Summers knows some of his fellow attorneys will disagree with him on these three peeves. But local lawyers, he says, will back him on what he calls the war between the states. He’s not talking about the American Civil War, but to attorneys based in other states advertising and doing business in his hometown.
“We have a beautiful pink bus that drives around town, and on the side of it is an advertisement for slip-and-falls from an attorney in New Orleans,” Summers says. He then names several lawyers from other states who have entered the Chattanooga market, his voice sounding very territorial.
Once again, Summers says the solution lies with the buyers of legal services. Instead of making a snap decision, he says, find out the depth of experience and the success rate an attorney has in a particular area first, then be slow to settle, making sure the lawyer is not recommending a quick payday when there’s more to be gained from a case.
Summers could spend hours discussing his objections to some of the changes that have taken place in the legal professional over the course of his long career. But he winds down by briefly tying together a few loose threads.
Flipping through his pages, he says he doesn’t like frivolous lawsuits, believes the public should be less critical of juries, and would like to see the practice of law return to being less of a business and more of a profession.
If there’s one change with which Summers is pleased, it’s the extent to which the poor are represented in criminal cases. He recalls the time when only a handful of attorneys were available to be appointed to represent indigent clients, and says the legal system today is doing a far better job or providing everyone with access to justice.
“I got carried away with the things that bother me,” he says. “But access to counsel is important.”
Summers closes with a few words of admonition for young attorneys. By following these principals, he says, a lawyer can revive some the spirit of an earlier time in the practice of law and carry it forward.
“Never lie to a judge, and never lie to another attorney,” he says. “You might get away with it, but if you get caught, you’ll suffer in the fires of condemnation for the rest of your career.
“If you can’t tell the truth, don’t say anything at all, as long as that doesn’t violate any ethical standards.
“Also, find an attorney who will answer your questions, don’t get caught up in economic survival, and watch how much you drink.”
Summers also admonishes new lawyers to become involved in legitimate activities that will help their practice, their profession and their community.
When Jerry Summers became an attorney in Chattanooga in 1966, he earned an annual salary of $9,500.
When he left the district attorney’s office in 1969, he found an office for $250 a month and a secretary for $75 a week, part-time.
Today, his rent in the James Building costs him a bit more, as does his secretary. But one thing hasn’t changed: he’s as proud to be a lawyer today as he was 50 years ago.
“I’m proud to be a lawyer because I’ve helped people. Representing someone you believe isn’t guilty of a criminal offense is rewarding, and I enjoy getting a fair result that restores someone’s dignity,” he says.
“My critics will say that’s just lawyer-talk. But whether you’re trying a case or digging a ditch, if you chose to do it and you believe you’ve done a good job, you deserve to feel good.”
Next week: A look at the life and career of attorney Jerry Summers.