The Firm 

The Tradition of Life at Bass, Berry and Sims

The Tradition of Life at Bass, Berry and Sims

There is no nameplate on the doors of Bass, Berry and Sims’ offices at First American Center. There doesn’t have to be. This is not a place people happen upon casually. It is not a place of chance encounters. It is a destination point, a place where appointments are set and schedules are carefully maintained. It is a place where records are kept and hours are carefully tracked. This is a place where time is money—lots of money. In a decor that mixes polished steel and parquet flooring, the atmosphere is not precisely stuffy, but the offices of Bass, Berry and Sims are quiet, understated and unpretentious. It is a place that inspires respect by means of its sheer self-confidence. With picture windows that provide a panoramic view of downtown Nashville and the green hills beyond, this place is clearly a seat of power. This is a place of silent, overwhelming prestige.

Bass, Berry and Sims is the Babe Ruth, the Muhammed Ali of Nashville law firms. It intimidates not only because of the consistent quality of its performance but because of its reputation as well. As a firm, Bass, Berry and Sims has a reputation for calm demeanor and cautious action. Only once in the firm’s 75 years, when partner Tom Nebel was indicted for alleged financial misdealing, has it been tainted by even a hint of scandal.

Nashville is home to a number of other respected law firms (Boult, Cummings, Conners and Berry, for example, or Waller, Lansden, Dortch and Davis), but none of them rivals Bass, Berry and Sims for sheer establishment grandeur and gray-suited unflappableness. The Bass, Berry and Sims client list includes—or has included—virtually every heavy hitter in town: Vanderbilt University, First American National Bank, Service Merchandise Inc., Hospital Corporation of America, Nashville Bridge Co., BellSouth. The bulk of Bass, Berry and Sims’ income comes from its corporate clients. That, too, is part of company tradition. In fact, the firm was born as a result of the merger of two banks—Cumberland Valley National Bank and American National Bank.

Nevertheless, the firm’s list of specializations is all-encompassing. With almost 100 lawyers on its payroll, Bass, Berry and Sims “specializes” in tax law, securities law, estate law, environmental law, health law and labor law. (In labor disputes, predictably, Bass, Berry and Sims almost always takes the side of management.) In recent months, the firm has imported Don Zachary from Los Angeles. With experience as an attorney for NBC, Zachary now heads up the firm’s intellectual law group, which specializes in entertainment, copyright and communications-related matters.

Bass, Berry and Sims is by far the largest law firm in Nashville, but that fact does not mean much on a nationwide scale. It is not the largest law firm in the region. It is not even the largest law firm in Tennessee. It maintains offices in only two cities—Nashville and Knoxville. “When I joined the firm in 1974, there were two firms in Birmingham that were larger than we are now,” says Dick Lodge, a partner with Bass, Berry and Sims. “Many firms have grown faster than we have. We’ve pursued a policy of growing internally instead of merging with other firms.”

What’s more, Bass, Berry and Sims’ start-up salary of $53,000 is far outdistanced by firms in other, larger cities. Yet, when it comes to recruiting young attorneys from the nation’s most respected law schools, Bass, Berry and Sims competes, with enviable success, against firms in much larger markets such as Atlanta and New York. “We go to the campuses of five to 10 law schools every fall. We go there to interview. Often we know there’s an individual we want to see,” explains Wally Dietz, who is responsible for the firm’s recruitment program. “What we try to do is build relationships with the leading law schools in the nation so that when you have young lawyers coming into your firm, they know the bright stars in the class behind them.”

Instead of promising immediate financial rewards, Bass, Berry and Sims attracts young attorneys by offering them stability in exchange for loyalty. An attorney who produces for the firm can expect, someday, to retire from Bass, Berry and Sims as a partner in the firm. True to its promise, the firm does not look much like the classic model of the “New York” law firm, where a limited number of partners are backed up by a squad of associates who do most of the work. By contrast, at Bass, Berry and Sims, there are twice as many partners as associates. Young attorneys who do not make the grade are simply expected to understand that they have no future with the firm. A lawyer who leaves quietly can expect that his or her reputation will be left unsoiled. The attorneys of Bass, Berry and Sims do not talk behind one another’s backs.

Because the concept of the “mega-firm” is relatively new to Nashville, lawyers in private practice or attorneys associated with smaller “boutique” firms are made uneasy by a seemingly invincible institution like Bass, Berry and Sims.

“What’s it like going up against them?” asks attorney George Barrett, who, as a labor lawyer, has spent much of his career opposing Bass, Berry and Sims. “It’s tough. It’s not just that they’re all good lawyers—it’s that they have all these resources. They can bury you on discovery motions, make you spend all your money producing documents, and exhaust you financially before you even go to trial. That’s the advantage of sheer size, and they use it well. There’s a lot to the rumor that only the rich can afford great law firms.”

Lew Conner of Boult, Cummings, Conners and Berry carefully avoids saying “anything bad” about Bass, Berry and Sims. “They make you work to win and they’re a great firm,” he grudgingly admits. Then he tempers even those scrupulously chosen words. “[Bass, Berry and Sims is] a preeminent firm,” Conner says, “but not the preeminent firm.”

For much of Nashville, however, Bass, Berry and Sims is unchallenged as the city’s premier law firm. Its reputation—even if it is no longer based entirely in reality—is a litany of clichés. From the outside, the firm’s roster of attorneys seems to consist, almost entirely, of Vanderbilt-graduated, Republican white guys who belong to Belle Meade Country Club. Admittedly, with plenty of partners available to provide letters of recommendation, a number of Bass, Berry and Sims’ attorneys have been accepted for Belle Meade membership, and the firm frequently finds new talent at the corner of Broadway and 21st Avenue. But it is absolutely inaccurate to pigeonhole Bass, Berry and Sims as a bastion of Republican conservatism. One of the firm’s top litigators, Dick Lodge, is a former chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, and attorney Wally Dietz, who is in charge of recruiting the new talent, is a former press aide to Sen. Jim Sasser. In fact, the firm has a long-standing identification with the Democratic party—most notably when the late Frank Gorrell, a former lieutenant governor, served as chief lobbyist for the firm. Apparently, attorneys at the firm are encouraged to be politically active, since political connections often breed potential clients. Bass, Berry and Sims keeps all bases covered. Forrest Shoaf, an attorney for the firm, served as chief counsel for Lamar Alexander’s presidential campaign, and Mark Tipps, a former Bass, Berry and Sims lawyer, now serves as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Bill Frist.

When it comes to keeping up with the times, Bass, Berry and Sims has made all the predictable gestures. As is the case at many other straitlaced law firms, Fridays are casual days at Bass, Berry and Sims, and the dress code leans toward blue jeans and open-collared shirts. Lawyers at competing firms chuckle at the thought of Bass, Berry and Sims attempting to loosen up. Skeptics blame the “mega-firms” for the rising cost of litigation and argue that the proliferation of “specialized” departments has led to larger and larger staffs, which translate into spiraling legal fees. Now, they say, only the very rich (or the very poor) can afford a Bass, Berry and Sims attorney, while the middling guy who wants to sue his landlord may be out of luck. “I am concerned about the tremendous growth of consolidated firms like Bass, Berry and Sims,” says Steve North, a former circuit judge who is now a partner of his own firm—a tiny enterprise in comparison to Bass, Berry and Sims. “I guess I’m worried about the soul of the law and how such firms are money-driven and how the era of the generalized practitioner really might be dead. I worry about a profession that’s being treated more as a marketing tool than as a learned profession.” Sarcastically—and perhaps a little enviously—the firm’s critics refer to Bass, Berry and Sims, that bastion of tradition and respectability, as “the People’s Firm.”

If they were alive today, the firm’s founders probably would not catch the sarcasm. Instead, they would straighten their neckties and feel proud.

Frank Bass’ portrait hangs on the 28th floor of the First American Center, flanked by portraits of his law partners, Frank Allen Berry and Cecil Sims. In 1921, when they founded the firm, there were just the three of them; their sons followed in their fathers’ footsteps.

In fact, during the early years, most of the firm’s growth resulted from sons signing on with the family business. “It was quite customary for sons to practice law with their fathers,” says William Berry, now one of the firm’s senior partners. “It was expected.” Frank Bass’ two sons and two grandsons would eventually join the firm, as would Frank Berry’s son, nephew and great-nephew; Cecil Sims’ son, Wilson, joined the firm in 1948, when the staff had grown to six persons. By 1976, the number was up to 24; by 1979, the number was 35. The explosion came in the 1980s and ’90s, as new industries and new regulations created a need for specialization in areas such as health care, entertainment and environment law. The firm, which takes up four full floors of First American Center, now employs a staff of 200, including 60 partners, 35 associates and a support staff of approximately 100.

For all its formidable prestige, though, Bass, Berry and Sims still bears some vestiges of the family business/fraternal lodge it once was. Lawyers are forbidden to put nameplates on their office doors or on their desks. “They do that to force us to learn each other’s names,” says Howard Lamar, an associate who has been with the firm for six years. “You have to learn the names in a hurry, because once a month everybody—and I mean everybody—sits down together for a meal.” Third-generation descendants of each founding partner still work for Bass, Berry and Sims, but the firm instituted an anti-nepotism policy several years ago. “My son was the last to come in,” says William Berry, “So that’s one tradition that’s gone.”

Stories abound about the way the original Bass, Berry and Sims practiced law. Frank Bass, the son of a Confederate army officer who went on to found the Bank of Goodlettsville, was named for a Revolutionary War hero, the “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion. The young Bass graduated from Vanderbilt Law School in 1896 and, a few years later, became assistant attorney general for Davidson County. When his superior resigned, Bass filled out the term as attorney general. For the rest of his life, he was known as “Gen. Bass.”

Renowned as a fierce litigator, Bass was almost obsessive in his pursuit of wrongdoing. He won instant fame in 1905, when he prosecuted what was, until that time, the most famous murder case in Nashville history. Rose Mangrum, described as “one of the most beautiful women in Nashville,” had been carrying on an affair with one Dr. Herman Feist. Suddenly, while she was in the midst of making plans to leave her husband, Rose Mangrum disappeared. Her body was later found floating in the Cumberland River. Bass earned much acclaim by convicting Feist of the murder, only to have the verdict overturned on a legal technicality. Feist had been tried in Davidson County, but no one could be sure whether Mangrum, whose body was found in the river, had been murdered in Davidson or Cheatham County.

After his term as attorney general, Bass served as lawyer for the L&N Railroad and for the Cumberland Valley National Bank. Working for the railroad, he met Cecil Sims, who served as claims adjuster for the L&N. Wilson Sims recalls that his father “rode around on the trains, and whenever one would hit a cow, he’d get off and settle with the farmer. The two lawyers went into private practice together in 1919.

Twenty-eight years after his death, Cecil Sims remains a legend in Nashville legal circles. The son of a carpenter, he came from north Georgia and went straight from high school to Vanderbilt Law School, where he finished first in his class and won the Founder’s Medal. Like Frank Bass, he was known for his tenacity as a fighter. “He simply refused to be beaten and seldom was,” says Wilson Sims.

But his influence extended far beyond the courtroom. It was Sims who persuaded state lawmakers that, by holding a limited convention, they could revamp portions of the antiquated 1870 state constitution without having to rewrite the whole document; it was Sims who drafted the first compact for Southern Regional Education. Toward the end of his career, back in 1956, Sims warned his fellow lawyers about the “spreading technological illiteracy” that was infecting their profession. He urged his colleagues to study the classics, particularly history.

Both Sims and Bass considered themselves proud Southerners. A friend recalls that Bass “loved all things Confederate,” while Sims often lamented that the South was losing its traditions. By the time of the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Bass had already been dead for 11 years, but Sims accepted the ruling, saying that a “new and different interpretation of the Constitution...is nothing new.” He failed to understand the true scope of the court’s decision and of the decisions that followed it—he argued that Brown merely ordered states to “permit” blacks to attend white schools but did not “require” them to do so.

Sims later served as a trustee for Meharry Medical College and was the only of the firm’s three founders to run for public office; he served a term in the state senate during the 1920s. Sims’ wide-ranging interests included beekeeping, and he once built a glass beehive so that he could examine the way the bees actually did their work.

Bass was the kind of man who viewed life as a military campaign. On the occasion of Bass’ death in 1943, one fellow jurist said, “He believed that this government was established on fundamental principles, and he viewed changes with suspicion.” By contrast, Sims approached life as one great lesson in the humanities. Frank Berry appears to have steered a middle route between his two colleagues. He earned a reputation as one of the leading banking and corporate lawyers in the country, the man who did much of the legal work for the firm itself. Bass and Sims handled the litigation.

Bass’ son, James O., a senior partner with the firm, recalls an investment banker who had watched “in amazement” as, “over a period of many hours, Mr. Berry dictated an entire bond indenture without once consulting a note or a form.” Berry, according to James O. Bass, “was absolutely brilliant.”

Born in Nashville and a graduate of Harvard Law School, Berry became, in 1911, the attorney for the American National Bank, a rival to Bass’ Cumberland Valley National Bank. When the two banks merged in 1921 (retaining the name American National Bank), Berry joined Bass and Sims, and the firm was officially born. Apparently, the sheer physical spectacle of Bass and Sims working in tandem was almost overwhelming. Both were large men, and Bass smoked cigars, while Berry preferred cigarettes. When the two of them crowded into a room to take depositions, breathing was difficult.

Over the years, Bass, Berry and Sims continued its tradition as a family law firm, albeit a large one, and established the habit of promoting associates to full-partner status. Turnover at the firm has been limited. Indeed, a minor shock wave rippled through the local legal community last year when three partners, Jay Bowen, Tim Warnock and John Jacobson left to form their own entertainment and business practice.

“It was kind of like losing your brother—or your child,” says Keith Simmons, a managing partner at Bass, Berry and Sims. “It was simply against our tradition.” Bowen insists that neither he, Jacobson, Warnock nor Steve Riley, another partner who eventually left to join the new firm, departed on bad terms. According to Bowen, he and his colleagues used Bass, Berry and Sims as a training ground. “We certainly learned there, and they’ve been very supportive of us. We send business to them and they send it to us,” Bowen says. Such developments are contrary to firm tradition. In the past, loyalty to the firm has been a byword at Bass, Berry and Sims.

That loyalty was tested by the case of Tom Nebel. In 1986, Nebel, then a rising young star at the firm, accepted the unfortunate assignment of representing Russell Brothers, a member of a prominent Belle Meade family who is now doing hard time for cocaine smuggling. Nebel, who handled Brothers’ personal business dealings, was eventually indicted by the U.S. attorney’s office and was tried twice for helping Brothers set up dummy corporations to launder money. The first trial ended in a hung jury. In his second trial, Nebel defended himself; the jury deliberated for two hours before acquitting him.

Nebel was through, however, at Bass, Berry and Sims. With his professional integrity tarnished, there was little chance that he could be of any value to the firm. Simmons, Lodge, Dietz and fellow partner Jim Cheek all deny that anyone at the firm exerted any pressure on Nebel to resign. Meanwhile, according to other insiders, some members of the firm were in a “quiet panic” out of fear for the firm’s reputation. Nebel now practices law at Williams and Associates and has nothing but good things to say about his association with Bass, Berry and Sims. He insists that the firm stood by him throughout his ordeal.

Nebel’s downfall illustrates the salient characteristics of Bass, Berry and Sims. When his friends at the firm talk about his troubles, it’s as though they were discussing a lost relation. On the other hand, they seem to accept the simple reality that he had to leave because he could no longer serve the firm and bring in business. As Frank Bass Sr. might have put it, “It’s money that makes the old mule trot.”

Newspapers and newscasts are filled with reports of seemingly incredible legal fees, run up over the course of almost interminable court trials, the sort of tediously grisly trials that stem from charges such as medical malpractice and child abuse. Attorneys at Bass, Berry and Sims are expected to do pro bono work, and the firm is noted for its contributions to Legal Aid. Still, it is not these small-time trials that make the news—or the money for the firm. In coming months, Bass, Berry and Sims will attract a great deal more attention when partner Lee Barfield represents Vanderbilt Medical Center and the Tennessee Department of Human Services in a complex case of child abuse. His opposing attorney will be former O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran.

By the standards of today’s legal profession, Bass, Berry and Sims’ fee scale is hardly exorbitant. Hourly rates for partners range from $150 to $275; hourly rates for associates range from $85 to $150, and hourly rates for paralegals range from $25 to $85. Still, attorneys at the firm—like attorneys at all large firms—feel the pressure of what Steve North calls “the almighty billable hour.”

In large firms, North says, “there are tremendous pressures to be creative in the billing hours.” When it comes to the decision of who is promoted to partner status, North says, the important question is, “How many billable hours did you produce? Who cares whether you won the case?”

Meanwhile, Bass, Berry and Sims associate Howard Lamar argues that, when it comes to financial rewards, the public has a far too grandiose impression of the legal profession. “If your goal is to make money, you shouldn’t be in the law,” says Lamar, a former commercial banker. “Go sell something.”

At Bass, Berry and Sims, the starting salary of $53,000 per year comes with living expenses, plus a fee that supports the lawyer until he or she passes the Tennessee bar exam. That’s tops for Nashville, but it is well below the salary packages offered by firms in cities like Atlanta, Dallas or New York. What’s more, Bass, Berry and Sims’ potential associates must undergo a grueling inteview process. “They have to pass muster with everybody,” says Jim Cheek, a corporate and securities lawyer with the firm. “After all, they’re the most important resource we have.” Final hiring decisions are made by an 18-person “recruiting committee.”

Bass, Berry and Sims now hires an average of eight to 12 new lawyers per year. Still, Simmons says the firm is not growing fast enough. “The people we hired last year are already working too hard,” he says. “The truth is that we’re not large enough to do everything that needs to be done.”

When young associates join the firm, they often find themselves plunged into an intricate maze of specializations. “When I started practicing, I did everything,” says Cheek. “Divorces, real estate titles, wills. Frankly, over the years, I’ve looked on those times as some of the best I ever had because they built my judgment. We’ve tried to keep as broad a base as possible in the firm, but you just don’t have the same ability to be a generalist anymore.”

Nevertheless, Bass, Berry and Sims has no problem attracting young lawyers, even if some critics say the firm’s standards are not maintained as strictly as they once were. Wally Dietz counters that the firm’s standards are “probably the highest of any law firm in Tennessee.” When recruiting attorneys, he says, “we look for a mix of components—high academic achievement, to be sure, plus the personal traits of being able to get along with clients, think well on your feet, reason clearly—traits necessary for success in almost every profession.” Still, Dietz admits that the firm will make concessions in order to recruit a graduate of a high-profile law school. A Harvard diploma looks far more impressive than a diploma from UT-Memphis. Grade point averages are not the ultimate determining factor.

At the same time, Dietz says, Bass, Berry and Sims is “aggressively” attempting to recruit minority attorneys. He denies that this effort has been hindered by the firm’s historical reputation as a clubby enclave of Southern good ol’ boys, sons-in-law and near-relations.

“When I was interviewed in 1983, I was told by competitors that Bass, Berry and Sims was white bread and Belle Meade,” says Dietz. “That has turned out not to be true.”

The facts are these: Of the 95 lawyers at Bass, Berry and Sims, 21 are women. The only African-American attorney is Menah Pratt, a black woman. In its entire history, the firm has had only one black partner. He now practices law in Texas.

The firm’s lack of racial diversity is “clearly a weakness,” says Pratt. “It’s a significant weakness. But the firm realizes that it hasn’t been aggressive in the past in recruiting minorities. After all, there are only 100 or so black attorneys in all of Nashville.”

The firm has been more successful in hiring women. Leigh Walton, a specialist in corporate litigation, is now the senior woman attorney with the firm. When she was hired in 1979, she was only the third woman associate ever to work at Bass, Berry and Sims. “It did not seem to be ground-breaking at the time,” Walton says. “I didn’t even think of it at the time. But obviously our hiring of women has accelerated. In the corporate area this year, we had five new associates, and all of them are women.”

Simmons proudly points out the accommodating system Bass, Berry and Sims has devised to maintain one woman attorney’s association with the firm. When the husband of partner Patricia Meador took a job in the Duke Medical School in Durham, N.C., the firm made a considerable effort to keep her on the Bass, Berry and Sims roster. Meador, working from North Carolina, communicates with the firm via computer, telephone and modem. Even though she is 500 miles away, she maintains full-time status. “You wouldn’t know that she wasn’t in the office every day,” Simmons says.

When Bass, Berry and Sims’ recruiters talk to desirable young lawyers, however, they talk about a great deal more than computer technology. The firm cannot offer the highest salaries in the profession or the promise of life in a glamorous, fast-moving metropolis. What Bass, Berry and Sims has to sell is tradition, dependability, loyalty—for the well equipped team player, it can virtually guarantee a secure, comfortably predictable future. Senior partners are well known for their interaction with new staff members. “There’s no such thing as a closed door around here,” says one associate. The tradition, like a secret handshake, is a legacy to be passed along.

Still, in an age of specialization and technology and media scrutiny, there is no keeping the real world out—not even on the 28th floor of the First American Center. Wilson Sims laments the passing of an age that could nurture the individual genius of attorneys such as his father, Cecil Sims. “I think all three of the founders of the firm would have preferred to practice law when they did rather than today,” Sims muses. “It’s a different age, less individualism. Back then, you met and dealt with the same lawyers time and again.”

Meanwhile, Menah Pratt, who attended law school after majoring in literature at the University of Iowa and after earning a master’s in sociology at Vanderbilt, says the “intersection of the law and society” is what drew her to the legal profession. “The attorney has traditionally been a symbol of the humanities in society,” she says. “It’s the humanities aspect of it that I enjoy so much.” When she talks like that, Menah Pratt, a black woman, sounds very much like the lawyer of Cecil Sims’ dreams.

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