Ask A Lawyer

By Landis Turner,

Contributing Writer

Q. Being president of the Tennessee Bar Association must have taken a lot of time. What made you run? Shorty, Nashville.

A. I thought I might help lawyers be happy, rich and sexy.

Q. Did you accomplish that worthy goal?

A. Nope. I found it impossible.

Q. After practicing in Nashville, why did you move to Hohenwald? Curious, Linden.

A. When I got out of law school firms in Nashville were paying no more than $400 a month. So I found a job with the state which paid more. Interestingly enough, after I’d been on the job for a short time, I received a letter saying I had to take a civil service test. I refused and told them I had passed the Tennessee Bar Examination and had no intention of taking another test to determine whether I was competent to be a lawyer with the state. Then I got a letter telling me that they were pleased to inform me I had made an 87, a “B” on the test. I wrote back that if I were to get a grade on a test I had not taken, I certainly wanted an “A.” Shortly thereafter, I opened another letter giving me my “A.” All this happened in 1965, so I hope the State of Tennessee works better now.

I was with the Department of Welfare, now the Department of Children’s Services. That gave me the trial experience I badly needed. I went from Bristol to Memphis snatching kids from parents and others who were abusing children. Strangely enough, I had no cases involving sexual abuse. The ordinary case went like this: Mother’s live in boyfriend mistreats child, such as hitting, shaking or squeezing the baby to stop its crying. And the mother was too weak to protect the child.

I had one case in which parents took their child to church in the backwoods where the child was told to hold poisonous snakes and drink poison, all to demonstrate their faith.

I had a couple of cases in which parents’ religion forbade medical care for their sick child. I took the child, had him treated, then gave him back. The parents were glad I had done so. They just wouldn’t violate the rules of their church.

I liked the state employment okay, but was anxious to get into private practice. Since the Nashville situation was as it was, I started applying to firms in rural counties. I wanted to stay in Middle Tennessee. I could have just opened my own office and “hung out my shingle,” but I did not have that much self-confidence. My friend, Joe Majors, went to Tullahoma to join an older lawyer, but he died just before Joe got there. Joe decided to stay there. He did quite well as a lawyer, was elected to the legislature where he served one term and then did some lobbying. In the 70s and again in recent years, I was called on to lobby. I was pretty good at it. I was working for the Tennessee Short Line Railroad Alliance and was not paid, so I didn’t have to register and file all the forms required every six months.

I went to quite a few towns, but then was lucky to meet William C. Keaton. He said he couldn’t learn enough about me in one interview. He invited me and Janet to spend a weekend at his home. I worked with him for about 35 years and he treated me like a son. Unlike many older lawyers, he was very generous with money for young lawyers. In less than a year, I became a partner and he put my name on the door and letterheads.

When I came here, the only people I knew were Bill and Lillian Keaton. I had heard of J.H. Warf. A lot of people knew me because a short story about my arrival had been placed in the Herald.

Our firm had fine partners over the years: David Peluso, Charles Peterson, Laura Metcalf, Jerry Scott and Mike Spitzer. Mike and Jerry later became judges. Jerry was an appellant judge for many years and Mike became a circuit judge a few weeks ago.

Bill taught me almost all I know about the practical aspects of practicing law. Vanderbilt had taught me how to recognize a legal issue, look up the answer ,pass tests including the dreaded bar exam, and most important, how to think like a lawyer. But Vandy, like most private law schools, didn’t offer legal clinics or any other practical lessons. UT does, or at least it did then. My contracts professor told me that what Vanderbilt taught was a seven course dinner while legal clinics were “just popcorn.”

Landis Turner is a graduate of the University of the South-Sewanee and Vanderbilt School of Law. He is a former president of the Tennessee Bar Association and the Tennessee County Commissioners Association. He has accepted an invitation to join the American Board of Trial Advocates. ABOTA is made up of lawyers who, as lead counsel, have handled a required number of jury trials.

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