To many, the idea that a “lone wolf,” working in the relative obscurity of a small town, can make a difference in the legal field is somewhat unbelievable. In a field increasingly dominated by larger firms, Dale Bryant proves that laboring virtually alone in small-town Athens, Alabama, can produce a successful practice. As a solo practitioner, Bryant has created an environment that blends the values that guided his youth with the realities of today’s legal world.
I Was Born in a Small Town
Echoing the lyrics of the John Cougar Mellancamp song, Bryant grew up in Ardmore, a virtual village of about 1500 that straddles the Alabama-Tennessee line, where everyone knows everyone else. Though raised in a working-class family, Bryant developed an early desire to have more out of life. That fueled drive and determination to succeed. He went to the local public high school, where he excelled in both academics and athletics. And while athletic prowess is always smiled upon, academic ability brought with it a label.
“I made good grades, “says Bryant, “and sometimes got treated as a nerd because of that.”
And though Bryant did not realize it at the time, his small-town upbringing would give him an appreciation of the types of lives that most of his future clients live daily. It also fostered in him the need to take up for those with problems, legal or otherwise.
“As far back as I can remember being a lawyer was what I wanted to do. I always remembered wanting to help people. I was always the one to argue for my friends when they got into trouble. That’s always been my nature – to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.”
Bryant’s criminal defense practice takes on cases he feels will most help someone. People can make wrong choices, he says, and while he does not object to the basic concept of punishment, he knows how the pressures of a working-class life in today’s world can cause people to compromise values.
Great Mentors Made the Difference
Deciding to forego the party life of undergraduate education at a major school like Alabama or Auburn, Bryant chose instead to go after a history degree at nearby Athens State University. He knew everyone, and felt comfortable with the collegial atmosphere. The degree provided a good foundation for later law studies at the University of Alabama law school.
Just getting accepted at Alabama was a challenge, as his application lacked connections, extracurricular activities and high-profile community service. Bryant says a crucial letter of recommendation from a local Athens attorney made all the difference.
“I have to give credit to Byrd Latham of Latham & Moffett for helping me get into Alabama. I doubt I would have been accepted were it not for his letter of recommendation. I worked a lot and did not have time to get into the volunteer work and other activities that go into being the “well-rounded student” that admissions committees look for.”
Bryant feels he had a lucky break when, after a year of clerking for Judge William K. Bell in Madison County, he landed his first job with long-time Huntsville attorney Gary Conchin. Taking advantage of his new hire’s talents, Conchin put him to work on everything from drafting and filing briefs and deposing witnesses to actually trying minor cases. Looking back now, Bryant credits Conchin for exposing him to the heavy side of legal work early on.
“Gary Conchin allowed me to do so many things a new attorney would not normally do,” he says. “I learned a lot quickly, and owe a lot of my success to him.”
Conchin was so impressed with his protégé’s performance that he gave Bryant a shot at a major case. When a Tuscaloosa apartment complex was heavily damaged by a wave of devastating tornadoes in 2011, the insurance company declined to cover damages. Conchin brought a suit on behalf of the management company plaintiffs.
“It was one of the first cases I worked on after I started working for Gary Conchin in 2013. The insurance company had filed a declaratory judgment action to establish that they did not have to pay the claim. We countersued against a very large insurance defense practice from Houston with offices across the country. Gary and I were like David going up against their Goliath.”
After he left Conchin’s firm, the case got tried in federal court. Bryant is proud that the case ultimately resulted in a multimillion-dollar judgment against the insurance company.
“I’m fortunate that I started out with a case of this size. Just two years out of law school, and I’m drafting motions and making arguments in federal court against the huge Houston firm. It was a tremendous experience and gave me confidence that I could go up against anyone,” he says. “At this point I feel like I’ve been practicing for 15 years, not just six.”
Outwork the Other Side
He set out his own shingle in Athens, Alabama, in 2014 where his largely criminal defense practice brings him into contact with clients facing drug offenses, petty crimes and even those indicted for murder. Often, his clients lack education and may have faced a wretched childhood – this upbringing can be a contributing factor to drug abuse or other criminal activity.
While not excusing criminal behavior, Bryant tries to take a compassionate approach, bringing his experience and empathy to each client.
“I get a charge out of helping people. Many of my clients have made wrong choices, but those choices should not necessarily ruin the rest of their lives. There are usually mitigating circumstances that should be considered.”
He has defended several murder cases since opening his practice. Often the defendant’s guilt is obvious, but just as often circumstances argue for a lesser sentence.
“I realized that my client’s life is in my hands. They may be facing the death penalty if I don’t do my job to the best of my ability. It’s a tremendous responsibility.”
In approaching any case, Bryant cuts no corners in preparation, which he feels can give an attorney the courtroom edge over an attorney who tries to wing it.
“I’ve been in situations where it was apparent the prosecuting attorney probably never read the deposition before coming to court. A lot of attorneys these days just are not willing to take the time and effort to prepare. Often I’ve been successful just because I’m willing to outwork the other side.”
Bryant’s efforts go beyond courtroom preparation. He helps in clients in other, more subtle ways, ways that are never seen in the courtroom. One of his more recent cases involved a young man, “just a boy, actually” says Bryant, with a drug problem. The state drug rehabilitation center required the young man to work, but he needed a state-issued identification card in lieu of a drivers’ license. However, a city of Athens warrant for missing a court date kept him from getting the ID. It was logjam that needed to be broken.
“It was pretty obvious what needed to be done, Bryant says. “I spent about three hours going to city court to get that warrant taken care of. He was then able to get the ID to work. I suppose I could have charged for those three hours, but I didn’t. That’s the way I operate.”
Helping clients can take many forms. Bryant understands that education is a path out of the maze for many, so he has encouraged his clients to take the time to learn how to read if they’re unable to. For some that meant organizing transportation to local Learn to Read programs or in some cases attending the events with them.
That willingness to work in the background carries over to his public service. He takes a low key, doing a lot of pro bono work. When approached to support local Little League baseball and soft ball teams, he can be counted for a donation. He also provides intern opportunities to students from Athens State University.
The preparation, the hard work, the empathy for his clients … it all adds up. But like his namesake, legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, Dale Bryant lives and practices by this motto: “It’s not the will to win that matters – everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”