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Front Page - Friday, June 17, 2011

Small firm attorney makes a big impact in Chattanooga

Attorney Richard Buhrman talks with his son, John, who works with him at Buhrman & Associates. Buhrman has served his clients, his profession and his community for 45 years. - David Laprad

Richard Buhrman had taken the law boards on a whim with a friend. He didn’t even know what an attorney did. Yet there he was, answering questions in an office at Duke University in the hopes of being admitted to its school of law. The first person in his family to attend college, Buhrman had graduated from the University of Chattanooga with a double major in Math and English.

While working on his bachelor’s, he’d earned good grades, served as a cadet commander in R.O.T.C., competed with the wrestling team, made the Dean’s List, and graduated with honors. He’d then scored high enough on the law boards to receive scholarship offers. Duke was his school of choice because that’s where his high school sweetheart was.

The man who was asking the questions puffed on his pipe, told Buhrman he looked good on paper, and then said he had a problem: he’d never met a prospective student from Chattanooga, so Buhrman was going to have to take the law boards again to prove his first score wasn’t a stroke of luck. Buhrman was glad to oblige.

Over 45 years later, Buhrman still looks good on paper. Sitting in a conference room in his modest accomodations on North Market Street, he pushes a document titled “Biographical Sketch of Richard W. Buhrman” across the table. It’s three pages long. The first page is dedicated to personal information, his education, and his employment history.

Highlights include his graduation from Chattanooga High School in 1959, his service as a captain in the U.S. Army in the late 60s, the master’s degree in taxation he earned at George Washington University, and the launch of his own firm, Buhrman & Associates, in 1972.

Things get interesting on page two. Under “Professional Activities,” he’s listed 11 things, including teaching law at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the National Business Institute. He’s also a frequent speaker on estate planning and taxation before various professional groups, including the Tennessee Bar Association. In addition, he was chairman of the Duke University Estate Planning Council for 14 years, and is a member of the Estate Planning Council of Chattanooga and the National Academy of Elders.

Page two also reveals Buhrman’s membership in the Mountain City Club.

The sketch then gets to the heart of who Buhrman is: a man committed to making a positive contribution to his community. The final page-and-a-half of the document lists 27 ways Buhrman has made a difference. From serving as scoutmaster of Troop 172, to donating his talents to the Community Kitchen, to being active at St. Jude Catholic Church as a lector and Eucharistic Minister, Buhrman has been generous with his time.

His reason is simple: he’ll never make a lot of money, so he gives back in other ways.

“I’m never going to get rich the way I practice law. I started out at a big law factory, but then decided my freedom and my ability to control my life and my practice were more important to me than a big salary,” he says.

Buhrman’s practice focuses on taxation, estate planning, probate, and corporate and commercial matters. Although many of his clients have been with him for 30 or 40 years, and have spread positive word of mouth about his firm, Buhrman & Associates is small: it’s just Buhrman, his son John, and a third attorney.

John joined his dad about 10 years ago. As office manager, he writes the checks, decides how to spend the firm’s money, and “kicks his dad in the rear” to bill on a regular basis.

“Having him here has been a mixed blessing. He took on things I didn’t want to do anymore, like interviewing, hiring and firing people, and taking care of employee benefits. My job is to get business, make our clients happy, and collect the fees,” Buhrman says.

While Buhrman will bill a client when his son urges him to do so, he won’t try to collect an exobidant fee. Rather, he charges what he believes is suitable for the service he provided.

“We do things the easiest, fastest, and least expensive way. A big law factory might charge a family with a will a percentage of a man’s estate, which might be a half million dollars for filling out a form and collecting an insurance policy. We don’t need five percent of a man’s life savings to fill out a form,” he says.

Born in Chattanooga in 1941 to Ward and Margaret Buhrman, Buhrman has lived in the same home in Hixson since the sixties. He and his wife, Judith, a nurse practitioner at a clinic for Memorial Hospital, have three children: Thomas, Audrey and John. When Buhrman isn’t working, he enjoys collecting stamps, listening to Bach, and getting outdoors. He and Judith also follow UTC sports.

Mentioning his alma mater triggers a memory.

“My first job was selling cold drinks at Chamberlain Field. I had to buy the first bucket, and when I turned in the empties, I got a fresh bucket. I learned where the fraternity boys sat, as they were big on buying cold drinks and then mixing in their adult beverages,” he says. While Burhman can also look back on a long and highly regarded career, he does have one regret: he wishes he could have spent more time with his peers at the Chattanooga Bar.

“I don’t have a lot of interaction with lawyers who aren’t in my field, and I feel badly about that. I’m disappointed that I don’t know many of the lawyers in Chattanooga simply because I don’t engage in a lot of trial work,” he says.

Even though Buhrman doesn’t spend much time with other attorneys, his peers know who he is and respect him. Their admiration of his community efforts alone promoted the local Bar in 2010 to select him as the recipient of its Ralph K. Keley Humanitarian Award, which it gives to a member of the legal profession who’s provided exemplary service to his or her community. During the awards ceremony at the annual meeting in January, he accepted the award with a nod and quickly returned to his seat, preferring that the spotlight be cast on someone else.

Burhman does look good on paper. But even his long list of accomplishments can’t convey the impact he’s had on his community, in the lives of the countless Boy Scouts he mentored, in the students and attorneys he’s taught over the years, and in his own family. To record everything Buhrman has done would require more than three sheets paper, and far more than 1,107 words in a newspaper.