Can a penchant for law and politics be passed down in the genes? Talking to attorney Cynthia Vines Butler, you get the impression that her feel for justice is something she was born with.
The legacy goes back to her great-grandfather, a 1920 sera doctor who forayed into politics and sat on the Jefferson County commission. He was among the first to recognize that Jefferson County, Alabama needed a second courthouse.
“If you lived in Bessemer or out in the western end of the county, it could take you all day to drive to Birmingham to conduct your business,” she says. “My great-grandfather, Dr. J. B. Vines, saw this and wanted to solve this problem.”
He played a leading role in carving the Bessemer Division from the western side of Jefferson County, making it the only Alabama county to have two courthouses. What was soon dubbed the Bessemer Cutoff was the line dividing the county into the Birmingham Division and the western Bessemer Division.
Butler takes pride in the role her great-grandfather played in the establishing the western courthouse. “My family was instrumental in getting the second courthouse placed here. He lobbied heavily for that.”
The legal tradition continued, with Butler’s grandfather Gurley N. Vines becoming Bessemer Division probate judge in the late 1940s. His son, Butler’s father, J. B “Buzz” Vines served three terms as Bessemer Division deputy circuit clerk. An uncle served in the Alabama State Senate and later became a circuit judge.
But starting out, Butler ignored the tradition, turning instead to a medical career. Earning a Bachelor of Science in allied health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Butler spent several years as a medical technologist.
Then in 1985 she lost her first husband to an accident on the job, and Butler’s world changed. Deciding finally to pursue a law career, she and her new husband, James Butler, enrolled in the Birmingham School of Law. She worked to put him through law school and help raise their three children before concentrating on her own law studies.
The effort paid off, however, and in 2002 Cynthia Butler graduated and passed the Alabama Bar, aft er which she set up her law practice. She’s operated as a solo practitioner ever since except for a six-year stint as deputy probate judge in the Bessemer Division.
Fighting Big Industry
Today, the law practice of Cynthia Vines Butler LLC handles family law, probate law and social security disability. Located in Bessemer, she pulls her blue collar, working class clientele primarily from Jefferson County and surrounding areas.
As Butler describes, western Jefferson County is not the healthiest location either with steel mills, foundries and other smoke-producing industry close by. While much cleaner today, in past years that type of industry created conditions that led to some interesting mass tort situations. Such a case was Lowery v. Honeywell, Inc., when about 10 years ago a plaintiff in the Wylam neighborhood west of Birmingham began to notice fly ash setting all over his property.
“It was what you’d call a trespass and nuisance type of case. This particulate matter would build up on their cars, their houses, their gardens, everywhere,” she says. “There were hundreds of plaintiffs, and it has taken 10 years to finally get it settled.”
Jurisdiction of the case was a complicating factor. Butler said the case actually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded it back to the Alabama Circuit Court to decide jurisdiction. “I was the lone person who identified the cause of action,” she says. She brought in the larger Birmingham firm of Yearout & Traylor P.C. to help pursue the case.
Challenges Present and Future
Butler loves the practice of law, but admits her higher profile role brings challenges. One, she says, is being a female attorney in what has been a man’s world, at least in her “neck of the woods” to use an old southern expression.
“We have to work harder to gain respect,” she says. “You can’t let a roomful of male lawyers just walk all over you.” However, Butler sees that situation changing with increasing numbers of women pursuing law careers.
Another challenge has been maintaining an active practice in a crowded Bessemer legal community. With its separate courthouse, Bessemer became the legal center for western Jefferson County. But the 2008-2011 economic slowdown took its toll. “For the first time in my career, a couple of law offices closed in Bessemer. Without the legal community, Bessemer almost ceases to exist.”
Like many attorneys, Butler has moved several times. In 2012, she bought and converted an old house just south of downtown.
“It’s great to have a place of my own.” Now almost 15 years into her private practice, Butler values the lessons learned. “In order to succeed, you have to have what I call the ‘three D’s’ – determination, discipline and dedication. And you also have to be flexible in order to weather the downturns in the business. We all want to make a difference, but sometimes you have to redirect your practice. That’s especially true if you are a sole practitioner.”
Now her plans are to build on past successes in wills, estate, probate and domestic matters. “With the aging of the baby boomers, I see this part of my practice only continuing to grow.” She is also working to develop more mass tort cases.
For Butler, it’s in the blood. That legal and political legacy that began nearly a century ago remains intact.