We had the honor of sitting down with Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins to discuss his personal story and the challenges of the judicial system.
AALM: How did you transition from your career as an attorney to your career as a judge? What prompted the change? What advice do you have for attorneys considering the switch?
Bivins: I have always been interested in public service. I feel an obligation to give back to my community and my state. I recognize that a judge has significant influence over the lives of many people. I wanted to be a part of a positive influence in that way. As for advice, I would strongly encourage any lawyer interested in becoming a judge first to focus on being an excellent lawyer but also to become as active as possible in the community and in professional legal organizations.
AALM: Describe your style in the courtroom.
Bivins: I pride myself on always being prepared. I try to exhibit a polite and respectful demeanor in the courtroom, while also running a tight ship. The dockets of our courts at all levels are crowded, and I believe it is important to move cases along as quickly as possible, while assuring that each side has a proper opportunity to be heard.
AALM: Do you have any advice for attorneys trying a case before your bench?
Bivins: Particularly from an appellate perspective, there is no substitute for being prepared. The lawyer needs to make certain that he or she thoroughly knows the record. Also, always be courteous and respectful to the court and adversary counsel, even though that may be difficult at times. Address questions directly in oral argument, but, above all, make sure that you are accurate in your answers. Your reputation is everything.
AALM: What do you find most challenging about your profession?
Bivins: Maintaining a proper balance between the pressures of working hard in the profession while still making time for family and the community.
AALM: What do you believe is the biggest difference between practicing law and presiding as a judge?
Bivins: I believe that the biggest difference is the transition from being an advocate to being a neutral. Often that is not an easy transition, but it is necessary to become a good judge. Some of the best lawyers we have may not make good judges because their passion is to be an advocate, not a neutral.
AALM: Are there any challenges that you believe need to be corrected in the legal community?
Bivins: I am concerned about the decline in civility that we have seen in the practice of law. We need to be able to be zealous advocates as a lawyer while still being professional, ethical and courteous.
AALM: How are you involved with the local community?
Bivins: Over the years, I have been involved in numerous different capacities, including serving as a county commissioner in Williamson County and serving on various nonprofit boards. I currently serve on the board of the Education Foundation of Williamson County, the board of the Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature, and the advisory board for High Hopes. I also serve as an elder at my church.
AALM: Who is your legal hero and how do you try to emulate them in your day-to-day life?
Bivins: My legal hero is the late United States Senator Howard Baker. He was an incredibly important lawyer in our country’s history with the many positions he held. Yet, despite his successes on the state, national and world scene, he remained a caring, humble public servant. I strive to be a successful, caring, humble public servant in my day-to-day life.