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VOL. 119 | NO. 153 | Thursday, August 25, 2005

Luncheon Features Drowota in Last Public Appearance

LANCE ALLAN | The Daily News

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Memphis & Shelby County Bar Foundation
Ben Hooks Annual Luncheon
When: Noon on Wednesday, Aug. 31
Where: The Peabody, 149 Union Ave.
Basics: This year's event features Tennessee Chief Justice Frank F. Drowota III as keynote speaker, Drowota's final public appearance before retiring from the bench next week.

Each year, the Ben Hooks luncheon for the Memphis & Shelby County Bar Foundation is a special event in and of itself for the local legal community. But next week's annual gathering will serve as a special send-off for Tennessee Chief Justice Frank F. Drowota III.

Important year. The event, which serves as an important fund-raiser for the foundation, marks Drowota's last public appearance before retiring from the Tennessee Supreme Court. The luncheon also will include the induction of one of the foundation's largest classes of fellows, at 39.

"This 2005 class is the largest and most diversified class we've had in a very long time," said George "Buck" Lewis, a shareholder in the Memphis office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC and foundation president. "We have more people from corporate law departments in this class than we've had, and we also have very good gender and ethnic diversity in this class."

The foundation, which is the charitable arm of the Memphis Bar Association, is also a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation. It is by chance that Drowota's public appearance on Wednesday comes just two days before he hands over the gavel.

Career of public service. Lewis served as Drowota's first law clerk on the Supreme Court. The two have remained close since.

"I asked him to do this nine or 10 months ago," Lewis said. "We had no idea. It was just purely coincidence that it happened to hit right before his retirement date. He didn't solidify that until later in the spring - many, many months after he committed to do this event. But of course, Frank is so great about speaking whenever he is invited. To have Justice Drowota come and have this be his last public appearance as a judge after 35 years is really special."

Drowota has served longer than any of the 183 active state court judges. He has served the judiciary for 35 years, including 25 spent on the Tennessee Supreme Court and two terms as chief justice.

Drowota began his judicial career in 1970 when he was appointed to the Chancery Court of Davidson County. In 1974, he was appointed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, where he remained until his first election to the state Supreme Court in 1980.

"(The bar foundation) is an organization that can do a lot of good in the community. As lawyers, we have an ethical responsibility to assist the public in their access to justice, and this is just one way lawyers can do that."
- Susan Clark
attorney, Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC

Outstanding speakers. The chief justice's appearance represents a trend by the foundation of attracting outstanding speakers for its annual luncheon. Last year, Benjamin Hooks was the featured speaker. And next year's speaker is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The luncheon was named for Hooks to honor not only his community service to Memphis, but also his national service in the cause of civil rights. Lewis said the event is one of few times during the year that lawyers of all practice areas and backgrounds have an opportunity to come together. And interest in this year's event is particularly strong.

"I will say that we're rapidly running out of space, which, we've never had that problem before," Lewis said. "That's an astounding problem to have."

Recognition of fellows. For the 39 fellows being inducted this year, the event marks a chance to receive recognition from their peers. Fellows must have practiced at least 10 years and must, in the judgment of the board of trustees, have exhibited professionalism, community involvement and high ethical standards in their practice.

Susan Clark, an attorney with Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC and current president of the Memphis Bar Association, is one of this year's 39 inductees.

"It is an honor because it's recognition by your peers that you have made contributions to the legal profession," she said. "To be held in esteem by your peers is quite an honor. It's an organization that can do a lot of good in the community.

"As lawyers, we have an ethical responsibility to assist the public in their access to justice, and this is just one way lawyers can do that."

Raising funds. Fellows commit to giving $1,000 over a five-year period following their invitation to join, serving as one way the foundation raises money each year. It also hosts events such as golf tournaments and the annual luncheon, and it receives direct contributions to an endowment fund from individuals, firms and corporate citizens.

This year marks a strong fund-raising year for the foundation, with $50,000 to $60,000 expected, Lewis said. Foundations across the country that have become what Lewis calls "power houses" typically have received a generous bequest in someone's will.

"That hasn't happened to the Memphis Bar Foundation yet, but we're trying to remind lawyers and those who might be involved in planning estates to have the bar foundation as one of the charities they remember in doing their estate planning," Lewis said. "That's a fourth source, but one that has not been utilized so far."

Organizational goals. The foundation's mission is to support education, equal access to justice and professionalism. The money raised each year goes to organizations that promote one or more of those goals.

And a strong fund-raising year means more money for grants to Memphis Area Legal Services and other legal organizations, for example, or funding to help the University of Memphis law school.

"One example this year was we did a grant to pay for the expenses of the trial moot court team," Lewis said. "They won the district and were going to regional. There was nothing in the dean's budget to pay for their expenses. We didn't want the students to have to pay their expenses, so we helped defray their expenses with a grant to help those students."

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