The Man Who Wouldn’t Wait
Why William B. Hill Jr. talks to Juanita
Published in 2009 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 18, 2009
Updated on June 11, 2009
William B. Hill Jr. is a man in a hurry. He makes sure appointments start on time. He speaks fast. “When I am in trial, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning,” he says. “I’m up at 4:30. It’s like going downstairs to see what’s under the tree. I can’t wait to get to the courthouse.”
Time, says the 56-year-old partner at Ashe, Rafuse & Hill, “has never been my friend. It has always been my enemy. I don’t know whether that’s a strength or weakness.”
Hill was born at Grady Hospital and grew up in southwest Atlanta, the oldest of nine children. His mother was a homemaker; his father, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute (now University), was a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, an all-black school—”the only place he could teach,” says Hill. He also worked part-time for the U.S. Postal Service, then switched to full-time after he discovered he could make more money there than with teaching. Hill’s father eventually retired in 1984 after 43 years. He died a month later.
Hill was driven by the idea of making sure that when he had a family, taking care of them wouldn’t depend “on how strong my back was or how long my knees lasted.” He received a scholarship to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and went up to take a look. “I set foot on campus, walked across the Colonnade and fell in love,” Hill says. He spent seven years at W&L, as an undergrad from 1970-1974 and as a law student from 1974-1977.
Freshman year was an adjustment. “It was the first time I had ever sat in a classroom with a white kid,” he recalls. “First time I’d ever had a white teacher. … There were a lot of kids who had gone to prep school, so a lot of the material was review for them. But for me, it was new. I had to buy a trigonometry book and read it at night to keep up with the calculus lecture.”
He still relies on the lessons he learned there. “I had one professor, Allen Moger. I took his Old South history class,” Hill says. “He was tall, distinguishedly gray, and he had a Southern accent you could cut with a knife.” At first, Hill was put off by those characteristics, but he signed up for Moger’s New South history class, too. “We had to turn in book reports every Monday,” Hill remembers. “In my senior year, Dr. Moger called me in and said, ‘Mr. Hill, I read your book reports and you seem to be extremely impatient at the progress African Americans are making in this country.’ I said, ‘Dr. Moger, my perspective on history is much shorter than yours, and maybe the opportunity for patience hasn’t visited itself on me yet.'”
Hill and Moger gradually developed a relationship of mutual respect. In fact, when Hill was applying to law school, Moger volunteered to write a letter of recommendation. Hill has never seen the letter, but many years ago the dean of the law school told him it was one of the finest letters of recommendation he’d ever read.
“The thing I learned from Dr. Moger was this,” says Hill. “Under no circumstances do I ever let myself judge somebody on appearance. If you asked me what was the most important lesson I learned at W&L, that was it.”
The opportunity for patience continued to visit itself elsewhere.
In November 1976, during his last year of law school, Hill interviewed with and received a job offer from the Georgia Attorney General’s office. He accepted immediately. Bob Stubbs, assistant attorney general, said to him, “Hill, you are going to get other job offers. You might want to wait.” Hill responded, “My wife has nine aunts. They all live within a five-mile radius of each other in Richmond, where my wife wants me to practice law. And they all have very well-trained husbands. I cannot stay in Virginia.'”
Hill’s wife gave birth to their first daughter in February 1977, and the day after, Hill told her: “‘I think I’m going to drive down to Atlanta and take the bar exam.’ She asked me if I wanted to wait until after graduation and take a bar review course. But I said no. I told her, ‘I wish I could take this feeling and bottle it. There is no way in the world I could flunk a bar exam—I feel too good.’
“I accepted the job in November, took the bar exam in February, found out the day after graduation I had passed the bar, and showed up for work the first Monday in June.”
It turned out to be a memorable first day. “I told [Attorney General] Arthur Bolton I would work in any division, but please don’t put me in criminal law because I hated it in law school,” Hill says. “He sent me off to see John Walden in division three. We talked about 15 minutes, and then he said, ‘Your office is the last door on the left. It’s good to have you here in the criminal division.'”
Hill spent 11 years in that division, including six years as its head and three as deputy attorney general. He loved it. He was involved in high-profile cases, worked with many of Georgia’s legal stars and argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. But he started by shadowing one of his many mentors: Harrison Kohler. “I watched him put together a case, build his witness exam outlines, marry them up with his exhibits and create documents to make sure he laid the correct foundation. I saw how he talked to a jury as opposed to a judge.”
Hill now uses the same tactics when he mentors associates. “You teach young lawyers from the ground up,” he says. “I’m doing what I learned from Harrison. … You can’t just take a lawyer to trial with you and say, ‘Watch me try this case.’ You have to make them walk with you from birth to grave.”
This is how he does it. When a client comes in, Hill asks a younger associate to sit in. After the client leaves, he asks the associate: What do you think this client’s real problem is? “The next time we have a telephone conversation with the client, I’ll make sure you’re in the room,” he says. “And if you won’t talk, I’ll make you talk! So when I say, ‘Here’s what I want to try,’ you’ll be able to say ‘Why?’ And then we’ll talk about why I want to do it, and what I expect opposing counsel to do, and how we’ll get in a position to make our argument.
“If you can walk them through one trial, from birth to grave, and they can see how it ultimately falls into place, that’s how you teach them how to try a case.”
At the attorney general’s office, Hill had his first chance to stand up in front of a jury—something he says still makes him nervous. “I tried an attempted murder case with Harrison in Tattenall County—it was a tough case,” Hill recalls. A group of white inmates planned to use zip guns and shanks to kill the prison transfer officers as they were being transported on a bus. Then they planned to get the keys, let themselves out, relock the doors, puncture the gas tank and set the bus—with the other inmates inside—on fire. They believed that by the time the police identified everyone from dental records, they would be far away. But one inmate overheard the others planning to kill him and informed the warden about the plan. The men were arrested and tried for attempted murder.
“I think Harrison did opening statement and I did closing argument,” says Hill. “I took several of the inmate conspirators on cross-examination. We won—we got convictions on everybody. It was damning enough that these guys were going to punch holes in the gas tank and burn everybody alive. They talked about it, and they were very callous about it. But they were extremely callous about burning the black inmates alive.” Hill believes that made an impression on the jury, which had several elderly black members.
Hill was head of the criminal division when the convictions in an infamous Georgia murder case were overturned. In 1973, six members of the Alday family were murdered by men who had escaped from a Maryland prison. It was an especially gruesome crime, and three of the men—Carl Isaacs, Wayne Coleman and George Dungee—were sentenced to death in 1974. (Isaacs’ brother Billy, who joined the men after their escape, turned state’s evidence and eventually served 20 years of a 40-year sentence for armed robbery.) But because the court found the men could not have had a fair trial due to the publicity surrounding the murders, the capital convictions were reversed.
Hill and District Attorney Charles Ferguson retried the men in 1988. “We had to find all the evidence,” says Hill. “We found everything except a .380 automatic—and we had a photograph of that showing the serial number. Those were tough cases, because there was a big push by the opponents of capital punishment. We tried the cases in three venues—it took about a year and a half. I put a reporter who had interviewed Carl Isaacs on the stand and asked him about his conversation with Isaacs, who had boasted that he was the only thing that made the Aldays famous. The reporter has asked Isaacs if, knowing what he knew now, he would have done anything differently. And Isaacs said, ‘No, I’d kill ’em again.’
“As I was walking away from the witness, I stopped and said, ‘I have one more question for you. How is it you remember that conversation after all these years?’ He said, ‘Talking to Carl Isaacs was like ice water down my spine. There’s no way I could ever forget it. And I believe every word he told me.'”
The three men were convicted again. Dungee and Coleman are serving life sentences without parole. Isaacs was executed in 2003.
Hill says he didn’t truly appreciate his AG experience until he was appointed judge of the state court of Fulton County, and later judge of the superior court of Fulton County. “When I was on the bench, I missed the ability to just walk down the hall and talk to people,” he says. “Working through issues [alone] is like trying to tickle yourself—you can’t do it. You don’t know what you don’t know. You gotta go find somebody to talk to.” Even now in private practice, Hill estimates he spends only about an hour or so per day actually sitting in his chair. The rest of the time, he’s “moving, talking, dictating.”
Being a judge, however, made him a better lawyer. “I approach cases very differently now,” Hill says. “When you are on the bench, there is never enough time to get everything done. The best you can do for litigants is give their case all the attention you can. Focus on it, get them in as quickly as possible, resolve their issues as best as possible, and give them a ruling—right then, if you can. And then you move to the next case and do the same thing.”
Now in private practice and focusing on commercial litigation, employment defense and products liability, he looks at his cases with this in mind: “What do I need to do to help the judge move this case?” That means no 123-page motions for summary judgment. “If it takes you 123 pages to convince me why you are entitled to a judgment as a matter of law, you’re not getting it,” he says. “But if you get a 12-page motion for summary judgment, and it’s right between the eyes, that’s a good motion.” The name of the game, he says, is to assist the court in resolving the issue—not to make clients feel good.
In fact, the first thing Hill asks a client is, “What is your definition of success [in this case]?” Often, he says, a client comes in talking about symptoms of a problem rather than the actual problem. “Your job as a lawyer is to listen and understand enough about their business to get them to see that they are contending with real circumstances, but those circumstances are not the problem,” he says. “Focusing on resolving the problem is very different than focusing on the symptoms.”
He likens lawyer-client relations to having friends who tell you the truth. “My best friends are people who, before I went on the bench, would say, ‘Hill, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,'” he says. “Then after I got on the bench, they would say, ‘Hill, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’ And they still say it. You have to have that relationship with your client, even though your client is paying the bills.”
Hill entered private practice for the first time when his oldest daughter was accepted to W&L, and he needed more than a judge’s salary to pay her tuition and expenses. Lawrence Ashe, founding partner of Ashe Rafuse, was then at Paul Hastings and recruited Hill.
Hill remembers being worried about whether he could establish a client following in private practice. But Ashe had no qualms. “He was obviously a very fine lawyer with an outstanding presence, interpersonal skills, trial skills and can-do courage,” says Ashe. “We needed all those, and I was confident that clients would want to keep using him once they had seen him in action.”
The move required, Hill says, a “paradigm shift” from being in government practice, where you were expected to do everything yourself, to a private firm, where “associates were upset with me because I was doing work I should have been giving them so they could fulfill their billable budget. My job as a partner was to create work and push it down to the paralegals, the young associates, the junior partners, rather than being a jack of all trades,” he says.
The other shift was just as dramatic. When Hill got his first paycheck, he headed down the hall to talk to the head of the litigation department. He saw Hill coming and explained to him that partners would receive a minimum draw for 10 months, and then two big paychecks at the end of the fiscal year. “He noticed I was just sitting there looking at him, and he said, ‘Wasn’t that your question?'” Hill recalls. “I said, ‘Quite frankly, I thought I had gotten overpaid here. This is more money than I have ever seen in one paycheck.'” When he got home, Hill remembers, it was “the first time in 18 years I paid all the bills.”
He remained at Paul Hastings nine years until Ashe and Nancy Rafuse, who had left Paul Hastings, persuaded him to join their new firm. “This guy has one of the best sets of trial skills and courtroom judgment I’ve ever seen,” says Ashe, who was eager for Hill to make the move. But Hill hesitated. “It was a bad time for me, because now my youngest daughter had been accepted to W&L. I had no idea what my money was going to look like, so I said I couldn’t come,” he says. “But as the year went on I thought about it. My daddy used to tell me, if your ship is going to run aground, run your own ship aground. And I think I wanted a smaller environment. Maybe subconsciously I was harkening back to the AG’s office. I wanted a more intimate family.” In 2004, almost a year after the firm was founded, Hill joined Ashe & Rafuse.
Hill still loves to try complex cases and still loves his time in front of a jury—once he gets over his initial nervousness. “I figure the day I can stand in front of a jury when I first get on my feet and not be nervous, it’s time for me to think about winding out of the practice,” he says. His coping method? He pretends he’s talking to his mother’s best friend, Juanita.
“[I imagine] my mama says, ‘Juanita, my son William is going to try this case tomorrow morning. William, tell Juanita about this case.’ So I keep in mind that I’m not talking to 12 lawyers. I’m talking to Juanita. Juanita doesn’t want to know about any case precedent. She wants to know the story.”
Hill is still a man who can’t wait. Last November, he witnessed something he, and most people in his generation, thought they’d never live to see: a black man, another man who wouldn’t wait, elected president of the United States. “Time is moving,” Hill says, “but I’m still impatient with a lot of things—not just the progress of African Americans and Hispanics, but how we deal with children, old people, those living below the poverty line. We have too much talent in this country not to be able to solve these problems.”