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VOL. 123 | NO. 16 | Thursday, January 24, 2008

Updated History of Memphis Legal Profession in the Works

SCOTT SHEPARD | Special to The Daily News

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Someday soon, while sitting in your lawyer's waiting room, you'll be able to brush up on local history.

The Memphis Bar Association is sponsoring the publication of an updated history of its own, an exhaustive tome with hundreds of photos, a 70,000-word story and in-depth profiles of local law firms.

Now at the keyboard and facing an April deadline is author John Thomason, an attorney who retired in 2002 after 50 years in legal practice. He's drawing on sources as diverse as older histories, oral records, his own contacts and even treaties signed by the indigenous Chickasaw Indians.

And while the big events are already known, Thomason has added vast new details.

"I just finished the chapter about the 1968 sanitation workers' strike, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the trial of James Earl Ray; at the time I was an assistant district attorney," Thomason said.

A lawyer's insight

On March 8, 1968, King led a march that turned to a riot; more than 30 people were injured and 16-year-old Larry Payne was killed by a stray bullet. When the boy's parents sued the city, Thomason defended Memphis.

That chapter is rich with his own intimate knowledge plus interviews with surviving lawyers on both sides, and their records.

"I knew all of those people so I was able to draw on my knowledge of them," he said. "I add a lawyer's insight. I have a different understanding of what I'm reading that a non-lawyer doesn't have."

Thomason remembered participating in an oral history of Memphis lawyers in 1991, in which seasoned attorneys talked about their memories and experiences. He tracked down a set of the tapes and had them converted to CDs so he could listen and draw out details. Lawyers who heard about this got so excited that a contemporary oral history was staged, and two more chapters added to the book.

He was especially fascinated by more than 500 lawyers from the area who served in the military during World War II.

In some cases, such as the highly decorated Gene Bearman - who died 20 years ago - Thomason turned to the family for personal details.

"Today there are more than 3,000 Memphis lawyers," Thomason said. "There's no way you could write a history of all of them, so I tried to pick out what seemed to me to be the most interesting."

Books of revelation

Along with Thomason's prose are pieces about individual law firms, many written by journalist and historian Paulene Keller. The book is rounded out with photos collected from a variety of sources, such as private collections and public archives.

The book is just the latest product by Association Publishing Co., a Birmingham, Ala., business owned by publisher John Compton. He's built a business over the past 10 years publishing similar books for bar associations and local medical societies.

"I'd been in publishing 25 years working for other companies," Compton said. "I was managing products for another company when they decided they were not going to do the legal books anymore. I decided to start my own company and add doctors to the mix."

The business for Compton and his wife has become a lifestyle. Because it can take 18 to 24 months from start to finish, they typically rent an apartment in the host city and get to know the local culture.

The process begins with letters to the bar association members announcing the project and inviting them to participate. Although the professional organizations are deeply involved, Compton insists on fairness and accuracy.

"This is not advertising," he said. "We tell the true story, and if there are warts then they should be included. We're all fallible people and in everyone's life and every organization there are going to be things that reveal us."

Time for an update

Books are distributed to members, libraries and bookstores. High school guidance counselors have been enthusiastic: A 17-year-old understands lawyering and doctoring from TV, so counselors use the books to teach the reality of these professions.

A typical press run is 1,500 copies; Birmingham's book, "Lawyers in a New South City," is the only one to go into a second edition.

"The bar association there is a very close organization and a number of people who weren't in the first one felt left out," Compton said. "There were new firms created and they also asked to be part of a new book."

A history book was an easy sell for Memphis lawyers, said Anne Fritz, executive director of the Memphis Bar Association. Compton shows his books from other cities, she said, and the caliber of the work closes the deal.

"Everyone has been impressed with the quality of the books done for bar associations in other cities," she said. "We had a written history but it only went up to 1981; it was time to do a new one."

The Memphis book is Thomason's second history book. He graduated from law school in 1952 and was an Army lawyer in Germany until 1955. He details his experiences in "Lieutenant, Your Cap's on Backward: A Warm Story of the Cold War." Excerpts are available at Thomason's Web site, www.armyjag.com.

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