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VOL. 126 | NO. 253 | Thursday, December 29, 2011

City Closes Books on Dynamic Year

By Andy Meek

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If there’s one thing 2011 proved about the legal profession in Memphis, it’s how intrinsic it is to the daily ebb and flow of life in the city and how deeply enmeshed it is in the big news stories of the day, from politics to business.

The past 12 months have seen the swearing-in of a new Shelby County district attorney general – Amy Weirich. And regulators reached a more-than-$200 million settlement with Morgan Keegan & Co. Inc. this summer over a blowup in some of the Memphis-based investment firm’s mutual funds, an episode that for the last several years has been the target of lawyers, lawsuits and regulatory investigations.

Also, some major Memphis employers were the targets of high-profile lawsuits in 2011.

Gibson Guitar Corp.’s plants in Memphis and Nashville were closed briefly by federal agents investigating allegations of improperly manufactured wood – a legal headache that continues to dog the firm. The fallout from those closures had national ramifications, rising to the level of even John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, eventually weighing in on the episode.

Before the Christmas break, the federal government filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against FedEx over the alleged improper use of certain cargo containers.

Here’s a snapshot of the rest of the year, as far as the legal community goes:

The two-year-old lawsuit filed by Memphis and Shelby County against Wells Fargo cleared a major hurdle.

A U.S. District Court judge is letting the case proceed, and both sides are now in the preliminary stages of the suit, which is focused on the city and county allegation that Wells systematically steered black borrowers into predatory, high-cost home loans when they could have been given more affordable loans.

The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Tennessee has opened a new civil rights unit, building on the substantial record of official misconduct, civil rights, hate crimes and similar cases the office has prosecuted for decades.

Despite the economy, some Memphis law firms are expanding. Farris Bobango PLC partner John Bobango told The Daily News his firm is looking to hire in its Memphis and Nashville offices, and the Memphis-based firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC merged with more than one law firm in 2011.

Since 2003, Baker Donelson has grown from 270 lawyers and public policy advisers to more than 600.

The city’s oldest continuously operating law firm has also been expanding and doing some hiring. Apperson Crump PLC, which was founded the same year the U.S. Civil War ended, this year brought Smith-Kimbrough & Associates PC under the Apperson Crump banner. The firm also added a few new attorneys to its current roster of more than two dozen.

And Apperson Crump formed an affiliation for referral work with Wolff Ardis PC, a firm known for its banking and product liability work.

A few new mediation offices opened during the year, representing a growing push in the profession towards mediating more cases instead of continuing to crowd court dockets. To that end, two former Shelby County Circuit Court judges, Lorrie Ridder and Rhynette Hurd, opened their own mediation shop.

The year saw scandal in the field. A federal grand jury handed down indictments in the criminal investigation of more than $1 million taken from delinquent tax property sale accounts at the Shelby County Chancery Court Clerk’s office.

In other news, Glankler Brown PLLC, one of the largest law firms in the city, publicly opened the doors for an open house at the firm’s new office space at 6000 Poplar Ave. And the Memphis Bar Foundation awarded grants totaling almost $50,000 to eight local causes – the largest grant amount in the foundation’s history.

The profession also saw some seat-swapping. U.S. District Court Judge Bernice Donald took the oath of office as the newest member of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

President Barack Obama has nominated Shelby County Criminal Court Judge John Fowlkes to replace Donald on the local federal court bench.

PROPERTY SALES 36 154 6,546
MORTGAGES 34 94 4,129
BUILDING PERMITS 201 554 15,915
BANKRUPTCIES 43 126 3,396