VOL. 128 | NO. 115 | Thursday, June 13, 2013
Memphis Law Talk
Cates Wears Multiple Hats as Litigator, Prosecutor
By RICHARD J. ALLEY
Taylor Cates, attorney with Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC, describes himself as “an adequate rhythm guitar player.”
It’s a skill that might not find him onstage at the Levitt Shell, but did help him with work at his first job out of the Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1999. His interest helped him to “speak the language,” and he went to work for a firm in Nashville that specialized in entertainment litigation.
When, in 2003, he and wife, Carolyn, moved home to Memphis where Cates had grown up and attended Germantown High School, it was as new parents with a growing family. There was also a family connection of law and he took an office just down the hall from his father Tom Cates, and father-in-law Joel Porter, both attorneys at the old-guard law firm.
With his connection to the legal profession in his father, there was always some indication that Cates would go into the profession as well.
“That’s something that was helpful in showing me what it was like,” he said.
With a bachelor’s degree in history from Virginia University, the course was an easy one to law school.
Cates says his bread and butter is in business litigation, but still works in entertainment and intellectual property law with referrals coming to him from the Memphis Music Foundation.
“It’s a great resource for people starting out in the industry, and they will send me, from time to time, people that need to be pointed in the right direction or need some basic forms prepared,” he said.
The work is a combination of billable and pro bono, and the goal is to get them to the point where they are realizing their dreams and also become paying clients.
Cates has also carved himself a niche with a nationwide reach. When disaster strikes, as it did last fall with Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast and, more recently, Oklahoma’s deadly tornadoes, restoration specialists are called in to clean up and rebuild. It’s a valiant effort, but is also a job, and when the pay doesn’t reach where it should in a timely manner, Cates says, “they often have to shake the money tree to get paid.”
“You go from ... arguing about when a client is going to get paid ... (to) talking to somebody about how they’re going to come up with $200 to pay their fines and costs.”
The “money tree” referred to is typically an insurance company, but may also involve disputes between contractors and sub-contractors, and “figuring out where the kink in the hose is,” he said.
It isn’t necessary for attorneys such as Cates to be licensed in the states where natural disasters strike, but instead utilize a global network of law firms through ALFA International, with firms in every major city in the United States. For instance, Cates recently handled a dispute between a contractor based out of New Hampshire and a subcontractor who had worked during the aftermath of the 2010 flooding in Nashville.
It’s a growth industry, he says, with more major disasters seemingly in the offing every season.
“Being able to help the people that can get there on the ground and start to get people back on their feet, it’s a good sub-specialty for me,” he said.
One night a week for the past five years, Cates has put on a different hat to act as an assistant prosecutor for the city of Germantown. It’s a challenge quite different than that of his practice in the old Tennessee Club where Burch Porter’s offices are found.
“It lets you use different brain muscles, so to speak, dealing with misdemeanors,” he said.
“You’ve got a lot of discretion as a prosecutor and that gives you a lot of ability to make good decisions for people,” Cates said. “Most of the people that I deal with have had some issue along the way … that caused them to get arrested and caused a chain of events,” he said. “Most of what I do out in Germantown is use what persuasive power we have as a court to get these people to get things back on track.”
Cates and his wife have three children – Amelia, Thomas and Campbell – who fill his time when he’s away from litigation Downtown and prosecution in the suburbs. The disparate, day-and-night lives of Cates helps keep work interesting and his mind attuned to the law on several different levels.
“You go from, in the day, arguing about when a client is going to get paid several hundred thousand dollars to, at night, talking to somebody about how they’re going to come up with $200 to pay their fines and costs,” he said. “It’s two different worlds.”