John Shearer: Miller & Martin Law Firm Celebrating 150th Anniversary In 2017

Sunday, December 10, 2017 - by John Shearer

From one of the Miller & Martin law firm’s meeting rooms atop the 12th floor of the Volunteer Building, a stunning view of downtown Chattanooga and beyond is offered.
 
It could be symbolic of the reach that the firm has had on the community as well, as many of the visible places have been impacted by the firm’s services over the years.
 
And that reach brings satisfaction to chairman James Haley IV and others, as the firm is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

 
“We’ve spent the last year looking back with justifiable pride,” said Mr. Haley, who possessed an easily approachable manner during a recent interview and gave little hint that he heads Chattanooga’s largest and oldest law firm. “It’s been fun to recognize what the people who came before us have done and the brand they created.”
 
In recent weeks, the firm has hosted events for clients and employees at such places as the Hunter Museum of Art and the Chattanooga Theatre Center. A book,  “Substance Matters: The History of Miller,” has also been written by former Miller & Martin attorney and current McCallie School administrator Thomas E. Hayes.
 
And U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who owns the Volunteer Building where the firm’s offices are, recently offered some words of congratulations to them in person after flying back from Washington, D.C. Sen. Corker in a foreword in the book said that he has used the services of Miller & Martin and that Mr. Haley is his primary relationship attorney.
 
The firm has also done some volunteer work at United Way agencies as part of the anniversary celebration to focus as well on its belief in community service and being good civic stewards.
 
According to the “Substance Matters” book, the firm traces its roots on the Miller side to T.M. Burkett. The son of a Methodist minister, the uncle of White Burkett Miller, and the great-uncle of well-known mid-20th century attorney Burkett Miller, he was a Confederate Civil War veteran who had passed the state of Tennessee bar in 1867 and began practicing in Athens, Tenn.
 
The Martin side traces its roots to Maj. William Stanhope Marshall, a veteran of the Union Army who was captured at the Battle of Missionary Ridge. He had resumed his law practice after the war and had become a citizen of Chattanooga in 1867. Later partners of his firm included George White and Francis Martin, the father of longtime firm partner H. Linton Martin.
 
After the firm of White and Martin faced off against Col. Burkett and W.B. Miller in 1905 in a case involving disagreements between the two Methodist-founded colleges in East Tennessee named after former President U.S. Grant, they merged firms.
 
One of the combined firm’s early cases of note was one in which the infant U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided to go after Coca-Cola over the fact that caffeine was in the drink and the agency considered it very unhealthy.
 
Representing the Coca-Cola interests in the trial, which did result in Coca-Cola agreeing in a later settlement to reduce the amount of caffeine in its drink to half, W.B. Miller came into contact with various urbane, civil and progressive individuals. As a result, that trial gave him his own boost of natural energy to change Chattanooga.
 
His new outlook was also influenced by his view of the rugged frontier that still existed to some extent in the Appalachian South and that he saw played out about the same time with the tragic murder of his father on his McMinn County farm. That incident had occurred after a tenant of the farm, George Rose, had coerced White B. Miller’s brother, Bascom Miller, who had special mental needs, to ambush his father and hold him down while Mr. Rose struck the father with an axe.
 
As a result, White B. Miller wanted Chattanooga to be a more civilized town. To accomplish that, he sent his McCallie School-educated son, Burkett Miller, to the University of the South at Sewanee for undergraduate work and the University of Virginia Law School. Meanwhile, Burkett’s brother, Vaughn, who also went to McCallie, attended Yale for undergraduate studies and then Harvard Law School.
 
Vaughn Miller also became well acquainted with the famous as well as the finest. “At Yale, he was best friends with (composer and song-writer) Cole Porter,” said Mr. Haley. “Cole Porter came to Chattanooga some to visit him. And Vaughn clerked for (Supreme Court Justice) Oliver Wendell Holmes.”
 
He enjoyed a successful career with the firm until his death in 1964.
 
Mr. Haley added that Burkett Miller before his death in 1977 also became quite successful in business and became philanthropic through the Tonya Foundation. Tonya was a “mysterious” name that he had named his yachts while enjoying a vacation home in South Florida and becoming acquainted with such people as tobacco baron R.J. Reynolds.
 
The Tonya Foundation went on to help a number of downtown and riverfront development projects, including Miller Park and Plaza, the Willie Miller Eye Center, the Tennessee Riverwalk, the Tivoli Theatre restoration and Coolidge Park.
 
Mr. Miller was also involved in the development of Miller Park in part through his own visionary plans.
 
Burkett Miller had also been involved in the creation of the now-well-known Miller Center, a non-partisan center affiliated with the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy and political history. Mr. Haley said the center is a repository for oval office voice recordings, and also does a study on the first year of a presidency, as it is currently doing with Donald Trump.  
 
Mr. Haley said he first worked for the Miller & Martin firm as a clerk in the summer of 1974 while attending the University of Tennessee College of Law, and said he remembers seeing from his small office two distinguished-looking gentlemen being ushered back to Burkett Miller’s office. He later learned they were the U.Va. president and the governor of Virginia, Mills Godwin, and they were there to talk to Mr. Miller about his idea for starting the center.
 
“He (Mr. Miller) thought there was a lot of rancor (among politicians),” said Mr. Haley regarding Burkett Miller’s motivation for the founding of the center. “We’re real proud of that legacy.”
 
Mr. Haley remembered that Mr. Miller was a slightly unique person, but one who was certainly easily approachable.
 
“At that point in the late 1970s, he wore suits off white and they looked like they had been put under the pillow the night before,” he recalled with a laugh. “He was a rumpled looking guy, but very direct. He knew what he wanted to do. And he was certainly polite to me.”
 
During those early years working for the firm fulltime beginning in 1975, Mr. Haley – a Baylor graduate and former Morehead-Cain Scholar at the University of North Carolina -- said he also became acquainted with another person working in the Volunteer Building. He said the firm’s offices at that time were only on the 10th floor of the Volunteer Building, and he would park in the garage and ride up to his office via a man-operated elevator.
 
Regularly he would see an unassuming-looking man get out of his Pontiac automobile and head up to his office. And often they would enjoy some light conversation.
 
Only after a few conversations did Mr. Haley learn that his elevator mate was Cartter Lupton, who, despite his low-key demeanor, was one of the richest people in the South with his Coca-Cola bottling interests later headed by his son, Jack Lupton.
 
“He was totally non-descript and a gentleman,” Mr. Haley recalled.
 
During that time when Mr. Haley was just getting started with the firm, Miller & Martin was involved in another high-profile case. It involved the FDIC takeover of the financially straddled Hamilton National Bank in 1976 as the institution became part of First Tennessee Bank.
 
Through the years, the firm has continued being involved in large and small cases in its primary work of serving as a business law firm. Mr. Haley said it works primarily in the areas of corporate law, litigation, and commercial law, including real estate and bankruptcy.
 
Besides those who have distinguished themselves in various ways with the firm, its alumni also include former district federal Judge R. Allan Edgar and former District Attorney Gary Gerbitz.
 
Miller & Martin has also tried to be a good civic partner in Chattanooga and beyond, Mr. Haley said.
 
But the firm – with about 80 attorneys in Chattanooga and another 45 in Nashville, Atlanta and Charlotte -- also has its eyes on the future. Mr. Haley said he knows the profession of law is changing in this age of increased technology, and artificial intelligence will be able to quickly provide information for lawyers that sometimes formerly took hours of research.
 
But even with a nearby computer, he hopes the people aspect for his large firm remains as important as it was for the founders working with only a pen, paper and a lamplight nearby.
 
“A lot of it will be focusing on relationships and understanding of clients and businesses,” Mr. Haley said. “Our goal will be to add value to the client.”
 
Jcshearer2@comcast.net

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