I am happy to be a lawyer and passionate about being a lawyer,” says William L. Harbison, member of Sherrard & Roe, PLC.
Harbison comes by the feelings naturally as he is a third-generation attorney. “I grew up in a lawyer’s household. My father was a lawyer who later became a judge, so talking about legal issues was something we did at the dinner table. My father also taught at Vanderbilt Law School for many years and he would sometimes invite me to attend his classes while I was in high school. The law and the legal profession were always around,” he says.
He never had a specific “aha” moment in which he realized a sudden passion for the law. “I was watching ‘Perry Mason’ and I liked all of that, but to be perfectly understood, a legal career was something that was always in the back of my mind, so I went to law school straight out of college. I didn’t take any time off between college and law school, so that tells you what was going on in my mind.”
Harbison grew up in Nashville where he attended Montgomery Bell Academy, an all-boys high school. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1977 and moved on to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1980. Perhaps the high point of law school was meeting Patty, a Harvard Law School classmate and the woman who would become his wife. “We took the bar together and a week later we married,” he says.
He clerked for a large New York City law firm in 1979, but decided to return to Nashville after graduation.
He loves his community, but notes that Nashville has changed a lot since he graduated from law school. “I see different kinds of cases being brought now. That has changed over the years. For example, we now have really large international firms doing business or developing property. That and other factors have really changed the types of legal work being done in Nashville. It’s a much bigger city. Law practice is now more regional and national than when I started.”
In addition to his primary practice areas, Harbison has done some work with the music industry, representing performers and some music industry firms. “I’ve made good friends representing them. That’s not the focus of my practice, but in Nashville you can’t avoid it and you don’t want to avoid it. It’s interesting and it’s fun,” he says.
A MOVE TO SHERRARD & ROE
After law school Harbison worked for the firm of Trabue, Studivant & DeWitt for approximately three and a half years. Two attorneys at that firm, Tom Sherrard and John Roe had started a new, small law firm and in the fall of 1983 Harbison joined them.
Harbison’s primary practice is litigation and appellate litigation concentrating on trusts and estates.
“I like being in the courtroom. I like the system. I like being in the courthouse. It’s something I enjoy doing. I really enjoy the legal argument part – engaging with the judge or judges and having a dialogue about the legal issues and trying to persuade the court. I like examining witnesses too, but I really like the legal argument. I like the challenge of solving problems and dealing with the stories of cases and figuring out how they would best be presented. That’s particularly true on appeal,” he says.
Doing what you love for a living isn’t without its challenges. Harbison says serving clients statewide requires him to work with a variety of courts and judges. Every judge has a different style and technique and different things appeal to different judges. Part of an attorney’s job involves trying to understand the concerns of each judge. The challenge is significant because those concerns and practices vary from court to court and from area to area.
He says that judges’ personalities vary, their legal philosophies vary and their styles and customs about how to present cases vary. “That’s a challenge to try to conform my style of persuasion to what that court wants and thinks is persuasive. I prepare by reading every case I can get my hands on that deals with the subject at hand. I try to never go to court unless I am as prepared as I know how to be. I try to have ready answers for whatever the court asks,” he says.
Those challenges sometimes can lead to the supreme court of the land.
MAKING HISTORY IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF HISTORY
Two and a half years ago his son was attending the University of Tennessee Law School where one of his professors wanted to bring a case challenging Tennessee’s ban on same-sex marriage. They were looking for a law firm other than sole practitioners to work on the case. Harbison says, “My son volunteered me without me knowing it. He said, ‘My dad will do it.’ And then he called me to ask if I’d do it. Of course, I took the case.”
Tanco v. Haslam was one of four similar cases from Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan – the states comprising the Sixth U.S. District Court. Harbison appeared before the appellate court (Sixth Circuit) in August 2014. The court upheld Tennessee’s laws prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages. That ruling sent the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It was mind-blowing. That wasn’t the first time I had been to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was the first time one of my cases was presented where I was counsel on the case. That’s a pretty historic case. It was a lifetime experience to be there for it. That one made me aware that I was walking in the footsteps of history.”
Sherrard & Roe earned a Bill of Rights Award from the ACLU in Tennessee for that work.
According to Harbison, the firm is dedicated to an academic and intellectual focus. They don’t try to practice in all areas of the law, but they aim to be thoroughly proficient in the areas they do practice – primarily in the business arena.
He says, “We have taken on a few civil rights cases. Being able to do social justice work is meaningful to a lot of attorneys here. That’s part of our mission is to be an important part of the community.”
Another of those cases involved the treatment of an undocumented worker, Juana Villegas who was shackled in the sheriff ’s custody while she was giving birth. “In Villegas v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, we sued the city on her behalf and got her a judgment that earned national attention. Those are not my everyday cases that I do to make a living, but I am proud of them. They are critically important cases and to be able to be part of something that achieves social justice is pretty rewarding,” he says.
HARD WORK, JOY & SATISFACTION
One of the reasons for the success of Sherrard & Roe is their academic approach, Harbison says. “We have 35 attorneys in our firm. These are people who have excelled tremendously at their craft. If a client is looking for a firm to staff a team of 20 lawyers across the country, we’re not the right fit for them. On the other hand, if it’s a sophisticated problem here in Tennessee, I think we are situated to do that really well.”
He says the firm takes a scholarly approach to the law. “I think we pride ourselves on the writing, the research and our ability to really analyze a problem, analyze a case. The lawyers are all accomplished academically, but they are also incredibly nice people. We all know the names of each other’s children. We know each other’s spouses. I’ve been here 32 years and that makes for a very warm and very happy atmosphere to walk into each day.”
Among the chief reasons for Harbison’s personal success within the firm is his experience, temperament, trustworthiness and ability to do hard work, he says. He also stresses his enjoyment of facing new and different challenges. “One of the things I really like about our business is that every day is different. It might be a mediation, it might be a court appearance, meeting a new client, or traveling for a case. The days are all quite different. That often presents great challenges, but it also brings great joy and satisfaction.”