Standing Up to Bullies
Playwright-turned-litigator Hank Bates of Carney Williams Bates Pulliam & Bowman in Little Rock goes up against those who prey on the poor
Published in 2011 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 7, 2011
Updated on October 17, 2012
Q: What first got you interested in the law?
A: On the worldview level, I was interested in doing something from a social change perspective. In my practice, I’ve always done nonprofit or social interest or plaintiff’s work, which I’ve always seen as a sort of public interest work. On the gut level, I’ve always rooted for underdogs and don’t like bullies. A lot of what I do, at least in my mind, is sue bullies. I’m not anti-corporation—my law firm’s a corporation—but they are good and bad. And I like suing the bad ones. There’s a lot of bullying, particularly in our current economic environment.
Q: You spent some time at The University of Manchester. What was that experience like?
A: Mostly what I did over there was related to creative writing. In a former life, I was a playwright. And coming out of college, I was writing plays, and I got a fellowship to go over there for a year and that’s what I focused on. Basically, I wrote and traveled. I took some classes and I don’t know what grades I made in them. I’ve never seen the transcript. When I applied to law school, they asked for a copy of the transcript, and I was like, “Are you serious?” [Laughs]
Q: Did you ever have anything produced?
A: I did. I have one play that I co-wrote that gets produced in high schools and such. It’s called American Beauty. It’s a light satire on beauty pageants. I got a check for $43 the other day.
Q: The residuals are rolling in!
A: I make about $50 a year. Law has turned out to be a little more lucrative.
Q: Tell me about your consumer fraud finance work.
A: It grows out of my own frustration with what’s happened with the economy over the past several years and the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. A certain segment of the haves make their money off business plans that purposely prey on the have-nots, particularly in the subprime lending and payday loans, refund loans, credit cards, banking fees, all those areas. It’s not just that they happen to be making money off of poor people, it’s that their business is to make money off poor people.
Q: And you represent people who’ve been taken advantage of?
A: There are a lot of people who have bad credit these days because of the economy and they end up in a subprime situation. Certain companies actively solicit and advertise and seek out those kinds of customers so that they can hit them with fees, basically. It’s a business model. It’s a way to make money.
Q: Do you enjoy the courtroom experience?
A: I do enjoy it. I had a five-week trial last fall, and that is an endurance test. Because not only is it five weeks of 14-, 15-hour days, there’s also the lead-up length, [which] is 10 weeks. The pretrial can be harder than the actual trial.
Q: Does your creative writing experience help you?
A: I think it does. One, because I’ve had creative writing, I have confidence in my writing and I don’t feel the need to show I’m a good writer. Therefore, I can just write clearly and simply, rather than trying to use big words or fancy words. In legal writing, you want to write simply and persuasively—get to the point. So I think it helps me do that.
Also, when you write creatively, you have to set out a plot and make it all tie together. It helps me take a brief through an efficient, linear story to show my argument. [And] it probably helps with opening and closing in terms of telling a story, something the jury can relate to.
Q: Do you do anything special to prepare for trial?
A: It’s just a lot of hard work. Maybe there are lawyers out there that are just so charming that they don’t have to work very hard, but I don’t consider myself one of those. [Laughs] I think to the extent I’m persuasive to a judge or a jury, it’s because they think I truly understand the facts and the context, and therefore, they can trust what’s coming out of my mouth. Which means I have to know it really, really well. Maybe that’s the way it is with most lawyers.
Q: What would you tell young lawyers just beginning their careers?
A: The same advice I’d give anyone, but it’s particularly true in law: Make sure you like what you’re doing. There’s a lot of lawyering that is very hard work and can be frustrating. If you don’t like it and aren’t doing something you think is worthwhile, you’re going to hate being a lawyer.
The other thing is that some people seem to think lawyers are people that argue well. Good lawyers don’t argue at all. When I’m on the phone with a good lawyer, we never argue about our case; that’s a waste of time. What good lawyers do is get along with opposing counsel and try to resolve differences as efficiently as possible and to persuade judges and juries. And there’s a big difference between arguing and persuading.