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VOL. 123 | NO. 46 | Thursday, March 06, 2008

National Bar Association Role Puts Turner at Forefront of Legal Landscape

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"I'm a part of the community. I want to provide more than a legal service to them. I want to help them."

- Van D. Turner Jr.
Name: Van D. Turner Jr.
Position: Associate General Counsel
Company: Memphis City Schools
Basics: Turner is the 2008 president of the Ben F. Jones chapter of the National Bar Association.

Van D. Turner Jr. is the 2008 president of the Ben F. Jones chapter of the National Bar Association.

The national bar, founded in 1925, is the nation's oldest association of predominately black lawyers and judges. The Ben F. Jones chapter was formed in 1966.

The chapter was at the forefront of the civil rights movement in Memphis, which was built around court cases and attorneys who took their commitment to equal rights beyond the courtroom. The attorneys who formed the chapter represented those arrested during sit-ins of the early 1960s. They represented plaintiffs in the lawsuits that forced lasting changes on the city's social fabric.

Many went on to serve as judges and in other elected positions.

Turner said today's black attorneys fill a similar role in the Memphis community. And 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Turner sees the chapter as a link between the past and present.

Turner has been associate general counsel for Memphis City Schools since May. The school system recently started its own legal department.

Before that, he was an attorney at Evans & Petree PC and Glankler Brown PLLC. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Memphis law school and also has served as an adjunct professor at LeMoyne-Owen College.

Q: What are some of the goals that you have for the Ben F. Jones chapter this year?

A: To engage the community more. To work with the Memphis Bar Association. I would say to really make an appeal to African-American attorneys and minority attorneys to come and join the organization - to utilize us.

Q: What are the issues that black attorneys face?

A: In a city like Memphis, one of the challenges would be dealing with persons in the community. You, as a practitioner, will oftentimes get calls from individuals who really need you, but financially are challenged to pay the bill or challenged to pay for the services they need. One challenge is to balance trying to help that person and being of service to the community with running a business. You get calls all the time from persons who have criminal cases, persons who have family law issues, persons who have bankruptcy issues and they need the assistance. A lot of times, it's a hard balance between paying and servicing the community.

Part of it is you are an advocate in the community and for the community. I don't think we necessarily want to run away from those situations because we want to be of benefit. Yes, I'm going to help you out on your legal case in court. But I want to talk with your mother. I want to talk with you and let's see how we can prevent you from getting back in the system. Let's encourage education. Let's encourage programs where you can go out and get a job.

What I've seen is that you really deal with the person as a whole. You tend to view them as a person. Many of us came from these communities. I grew up in Whitehaven. I attended public schools the entire time, K-12. I'm a part of the community. I want to provide more than a legal service to them. I want to help them.

Q: Where did you attend undergraduate and law school?

A: Undergraduate at Morehouse College in Atlanta. I attended law school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Q: What should people who don't practice law know about our legal system?

A: How it's perceived on television and in the media sometimes may not accurately depict what's going on. You may see a case where someone is defending what is perceived as a malfeasant corporation or you may see us defending someone who has committed a heinous crime. You would say that's horrible. The crime is horrible but the corporation or the person still has a constitutional right to fair representation.

It's the same thing if you are an African-American attorney or if you are any type of attorney. Working these hard cases and defending unsavory persons, it's distasteful and it doesn't look good when you just get a snapshot of it. As an officer of the court and as a lawyer, you have to understand that everyone is entitled to good representation. They have to be proven guilty or liable. Everyone is entitled to fair representation. A lot of times you don't see that from the outside.

Q: Is there a person you would most like to depose or get on the witness stand?

A: I think that I would probably like to talk with Frederick Douglass. He would have a story to tell. He represents a transitional period and I just think it would be really amazing to hear his story - once a slave, escaped and then he's this nationally recognized abolitionist.

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