Published in: 2014 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2014

Two Bobs and a King

By Jerry Grillo

How Brinson Askew Berry became the biggest firm in Rome

Two Bobs and a King
Photo: Stan Kaady

They’d talk about it over drinks, Bob Brinson and King Askew, how they’d be better off on their own, away from the big firm—the kind of cavalier bravado you’d expect from young men at a bar.

“We talked about it for three years, off and on,” Brinson says.

“You talked about it,” Askew corrects.

Brinson was a young partner and Askew a senior associate at Rogers Magruder Hoyt, one of the largest firms in Rome, Ga., at the time. One night after a Rome Bar Association meeting, they talked about it again. Or, in Askew’s version, Brinson talked and Askew made like he was listening. The next day, Brinson sat down in front of Dudley Magruder, the top dog partner at the firm, and, to the best of his recollection, said, “Dudley, the time has come. I’m leaving the firm and King is going with me.”

King just didn’t know it yet.

“So I went to King and said, ‘I did it.’ King said, ‘Did what?’ I said, ‘We’re outta here, we’re gone. I told Dudley we’re leaving.’ He nearly died.”

Brinson Askew opened for business in January 1975. After a few months, they brought in a third lawyer, Bob Berry, from Smith Shaw & Maddox. The firm is now called Brinson, Askew, Berry, Seigler, Richardson & Davis but is known colloquially by its three founding partners: Brinson Askew Berry. And it is now the largest firm in Rome.

They were busy from the start. Brinson brought over a half dozen cases on behalf of utility giant Georgia Power. His former firm had permitted him the cases if not the client.

“But we had some pretty good clients, including the city of Rome,” says Brinson. “I’d been city attorney, and the city manager agreed to stay with us, and that was huge. That was really our life’s blood.”

Berry agrees. “The city of Rome is the foundation of this whole thing. You might have a file on a plaintiff’s case, but to reap the rewards of that takes a while. So if not for the city of Rome, I don’t know if we would have eaten for a long time.”

Brinson had been appointed city attorney in 1968 at age 28, and he was surprised to land the gig. He’d just sued a company for a zoning violation and had to call in a number of witnesses from the city government for cross-examination. “We got an injunction against this cement plant that was polluting the neighborhood, and in the process I was pretty rough on the city manager, Bruce Hamler,” Brinson says. “Shortly after that case, Bruce came down to my office, told me he wanted me to be city attorney. He said, ‘You really gave me a hard time in that trial, and I’d rather you be peeing out of the tent than peeing into it.’”

Brinson kept the gig for 45 years, until May 2013. A partner at the firm, J. Anderson Davis, who joined the firm straight out of law school in 1984, has since taken on that assignment.

A lot of Brinson’s time has been spent on city business—advising the city commission and the city manager; defending police officers in lawsuits; dealing with car and bus wrecks and even voting rights. In one of the firm’s memorable cases, City of Rome v. United States, Brinson argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The city made changes to its electoral system in 1966 and embarked on a series of annexations without submitting them to the U.S. attorney general for preclearance, as prescribed in Section 5. When the city finally did so, the attorney general denied preclearance for the electoral changes as well as 13 of the annexations. Seeking relief, the city filed a declaratory judgment in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, lost there, then lost its appeal before the Supreme Court.

“It was exciting, the biggest thing that ever happened to me,” says Brinson.

Today the full-service firm has 19 lawyers. Even back when it was just the two Bobs and King, they would take whatever work they could find, including last-minute criminal defense.

“I’m talking hundreds of cases, notches in your gun,” Brinson says. “We learned how to talk to a jury, and how not to.

“I cut my teeth on moonshine cases. For some people, [moonshine] was the only way they could earn a living. You had veterans with no other source of income.”

They rarely said no to a case.

“There was a feeling around town that the big firms were institutions—you had to go to them,” Brinson says. “From the start, we wanted to be more proactive: to reach out and go after business.”

They also saw some of their contemporaries making a bundle as plaintiff’s attorneys and wanted some of the action. They couldn’t do that at the old firms.

“The plaintiff’s cases we got on our own would have been precluded because [the old] firms had a large insurance defense practice,” Berry says.

“But we didn’t try to define ourselves as a plaintiff firm, either,” he adds. “We wanted some insurance clients and some institutional-type clients, like our old firms; but on the edges we wanted to go beyond that. We made it known that we’d make ourselves available for plaintiff’s work.

“Truthfully, in those early times, in a town this size, you took whatever came through the door.”

Everyone did everything. Today, with a team of lawyers, they each have their areas of focus.

At 73, Brinson, a senior partner, concentrates on business litigation.

Northwest Georgia is the global leader in carpet and flooring manufacturing, home to some of the largest corporations in that industry, which has been a gold mine for the firm. “They’re very litigious,” Brinson says. “Antitrust cases, intellectual property cases, a lot of contract work. It runs the gamut.”

A lot of this work occurs in federal court, a few blocks away from the firm’s office in the historic Omberg House, built in 1850, and one of the city’s oldest buildings. Having the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Rome has been another key to the firm’s growth and success.

“We’re in Georgia, and close to Alabama and Tennessee, and having a federal court here opens up whole new avenues of jurisdiction,” Askew says. “Citizens of different states can sue each other, so this is sort of an area where a lot of cases end up in federal court that otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Askew’s main focuses are estate planning, business litigation and school board work. He’s also general counsel for Harbin Clinic.

Berry is big in medical malpractice and hospital defense, insurance defense and other liability-related cases.

All three are fellows in the American College of Trial Lawyers. “I find that pretty amazing for a firm in the hinterlands,” Berry says.

Hinterlands maybe, but that’s changing.

“We’ve got four colleges here, a huge and growing medical community,” Berry says, “and we’ve been able to tap into those lines of business, representing folks and institutions in both of those areas. So we’ve grown along with the city.”

“I’ve watched them build the firm through the years,” says Bob Finnell, a personal injury plaintiff’s attorney, who has lost count of how many times he’s been on the opposing side of a legal argument with the firm. “Bob and King and Bob are definitely in position to make their business top heavy, where the money flows to the top based on seniority alone. They came from top-heavy firms, especially the old Magruder firm, where you had three guys at the top, all fine lawyers and good people, but they were in control and they did not seem to foster and bring along young talent and make them part of the big things.

“But from what I’ve seen, that isn’t the case at Brinson Askew Berry. They’ve been very proactive in making sure younger people have had opportunities to participate in the growth and direction of the firm.”

It’s typical to see younger associates working alongside high-mileage veterans on big cases. A recent example is the pairing of Lee Carter, 30, who recently made partner, and of counsel Norman Fletcher, former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, who, at 79, is the oldest member of the firm. They represented the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Development Authority in a case that challenged the city’s use of school taxes to fund redevelopment projects. In June 2013, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously in their favor.

“You’ve got talent here that is a higher caliber than you might expect in a city the size of Rome, exceptional talent, every bit as talented as the folks at the large Atlanta firms,” says Carter, who spent several years in Atlanta with King & Spalding, an international firm with about 800 lawyers, before joining his hometown firm.

“Here,” Carter says, “they let you run with it from the start. Certainly, there’s supervision, but you’re able to get your hands dirty a little more. Experience is the best form of education.”

Carter has received a different sort of education on Friday evenings, after business hours, when some of the firm’s associates and partners gather on the patio of the Omberg House for drinks, rehashing the week’s events, sharing stories.

Davis, Carter’s former scoutmaster, has been lead counsel on two of the firm’s most bizarre cases.

First, he served as lead and liaison counsel for the defense in the multidistrict Tri-State Crematory litigation, representing a collective of about 50 funeral homes.

In 2002, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency discovered, on Tri-State’s property,  more than 300 decaying bodies that were supposed to have been cremated. Allegedly, the crematory had been passing off concrete dust and other substances to bereaved families, who filed a federal class-action suit against the funeral homes and the crematory owners.

“For almost two years, I did nothing but the crematory case, coordinating and organizing the defense, trying to keep the competing interest to a minimum,” Davis says. “I had to depend on other people in the firm to cover for me.”

In March 2004, the funeral homes settled for $36 million, which Brinson sees as a favorable outcome. “It was a horrifying set of circumstances. We went to the scene several times. It wasn’t pretty. And the smell ... ”

But the case Davis says he’ll probably be talking about into old age is Roberts v. Roberts and Schiess. It’s a story that could have been pulled from an afternoon soap opera.

Davis represented Vernon Roberts, a Rome packaging company worker, whose wife, Darlene was murdered by his ex-wife, Barbara Roberts.

“Barbara was still obsessed with Vernon and would travel from Conyers to Rome and stalk him,” Davis says. “Now, Barbara Roberts and [her boyfriend] Bob Schiess got in a car wreck and became dependent on pain pills, and at some point, they decided they were going to kidnap and kill Vernon’s wife, Darlene.”

On April 6, 2006, Barbara and Schiess put their plan into action. Pretending to have car trouble, Schiess flagged down Darlene on a dirt road just over the state line in Alabama as she returned home from work. When Darlene saw her husband’s ex emerge from a hiding place, holding a shotgun, she ran. But they caught up with her, and Darlene was shot three times.

Barbara got life in prison. Bob got off easy, serving three years on a kidnapping charge. Davis filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of widower Vernon Roberts, and won a $30 million verdict in federal court.

“We weren’t able to collect the [full] $30 million, but we did end up getting a fully refurbished 1929 Packard from Schiess’s family,” Davis says. “We sold it, so our clients got something.”

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