Mr. Ethics

Richard Sinkfield quietly wins the day: in court, at the negotiating table, and in his rather remarkable intersection with history

Published in 2007 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2007

The courtroom was packed when Richard Sinkfield presented oral arguments before the Georgia Supreme Court in Perdue v. Baker in the spring of 2003.

The case was complex and politically charged. It was born out of the 2000 census, which led to redistricting in Georgia by the then-Democrat controlled government, but a three-judge federal court in 2002 invalidated the redistricting plan as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Attorney General Thurbert Baker had appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court when a new, Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, who had campaigned against the redistricting plan, came to office; he demanded the attorney general drop the appeal. No dice. Thus Perdue v. Baker.

For some, the case boiled down to whether the language in the state constitution required the attorney general to follow the governor’s orders, but Sinkfield, representing Baker, reminded the state supreme court of the third party in the case: the Georgia General Assembly. A decision for the governor, he argued, would amount to a gubernatorial veto of an established law and would have effectively disenfranchised the legislature. To the surprise of many this argument carried the day when, in September, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Baker.

In a press release, the attorney general thanked, among others, his two outside co-lead counsels, Sinkfield and Robert Remar, both of whom had taken the case pro bono. “Their willingness to put their beliefs in good government and independence of the Office of Attorney General above financial considerations speaks volumes as to their integrity and professionalism,” he wrote.

While some may have been surprised by the ruling, no one at Rogers & Hardin was surprised that the words “integrity” and “professionalism” were associated with Richard Sinkfield. At the firm he’s known as “Mr. Ethics.”

“People quickly trust him,” says C.B. Rogers, name partner, and, with Sinkfield, one of eight founding partners of the firm. “Juries quickly trust him, then like him. It’s remarkable. In no time at all, a judge and jury have fallen in love with him.”

Rogers says that Sinkfield “quietly wins the day.” He recalls one criminal case in which the opposing counsel showed up at the last possible moment with discovery documents. Sinkfield turned it into a plus. “He didn’t growl,” Rogers says, “but thanked him. And for a tall, large man, he’s so gentle that no one can build up antagonistic feelings for him.”

John Floyd, of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, has worked with and against Sinkfield. One of their recent entanglements found the two on opposing sides in a complex nursing home malpractice case in which the first day of negotiations lasted 18 hours, the second 14, and the case itself took months to complete. Sinkfield’s clients in the case, according to Floyd, could have filled a ballroom.

“He managed to shepherd a group of difficult constituencies,” says Floyd. “He displayed an incredible amount of stamina.”

Steve Leeds, another founder of the firm, says his relationship with Sinkfield, with whom he’s worked for 30 years, is “like growing up with your brother.” He counts among Sinkfield’s key qualities: humility, soft-spokenness and trustworthiness.

“It’s what he says that ultimately wins the day,” Leeds adds.

Sinkfield may, as he says, “particularly enjoy jury trials,” but only 10 to 15 percent of his cases end up in court. He’s too good at the negotiating table. “He quickly diffuses tension,” says C.B. Rogers.

It’s this even-handed quality that caught the eye of his wife, state Rep. Georganna Sinkfield, whom he met at Tennessee State University. She approached Sinkfield in class, ostensibly for a friend; but he quickly became interested in her, and she in him. She liked that he was a patient, quiet listener who didn’t crave the spotlight.

But anyone who thinks these traits are the result of a quiet, undramatic upbringing doesn’t know Richard Sinkfield.

He was born in Marion, Ala., in August 1942. From first to fifth grade he lived in Midway, Ala., and attended a tworoom schoolhouse where his mother was the principal. As a single mother raising a family—his father left when he was 3—“She taught me how to work.” She was also strict about keeping him out of trouble: a 10 p.m. curfew on weekends, and on school nights he had to be home by dark.

“At the dinner table, we’d always correct each other,” he remembers. “Parenting is passed on. My children, today, still correct me across the dinner table.”

The father figure in his life was his grandfather, an Owassa, Ala., farmer, with whom Sinkfield spent many summers. “He’d say it in different ways,” Sinkfield says, “but what he instilled in me was the Golden Rule.”

To help out with the family’s finances, Sinkfield ran an elevator at night. At the age of 13, he learned bartending and worked odd jobs like peeling potatoes and shrimp at restaurants where his mother worked.

At this point big things were beginning to happen in the world. The family had moved to Montgomery, and in December 1955, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus, the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by a young pastor, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was created, and public transportation was boycotted by the black community. “I walked the four or five miles from my house to school during the year of the boycott,” Sinkfield remembers. “I attended several mass meetings and was a youth participant in my church’s ride program”—in which churches, including Sinkfield’s Mt. Zion AME Zion Church on Holt Street, coordinated donated station wagons to provide transportation for commuters who had no other means of getting to work.

This was only the beginning of Sinkfield’s brush with some of the more seminal events of the civil rights movement. Because he skipped the second grade, he entered Tennessee State in Nashville at the age of 16, and eventually became involved in the Nashville sitins that, like the bus boycott in Montgomery, drew the attention of the nation. Sinkfield was not a sitter. “My job was to keep count of the number of persons arrested and call back to the church or other meeting place for replacement sitters,” he says. “I still remember the violence with which arrests were made at the lunch counters, and the fact that hecklers would sometimes spit on or press lighted cigarettes against the clothes or skin of the demonstrators.”

Later in his career, Sinkfield was a charter member of the MLK Holiday Commission, and he worked closely with Coretta Scott King on holiday celebration planning, but his only personal contact with the civil rights legend occurred in the early 1960s when he attended a non-violent training seminar, led by Dr. King, at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn. One evening, he remembers, “Several of us were held under house arrest after state troopers detained Dr. King off premises for questioning.”

For all of this, Sinkfield’s starkest memory of the period is a relatively positive one—when he traveled to ROTC camp in 1961. “I rode the train from Montgomery to Waco, Texas,” he remembers. “The ROTC camp was in the summer for 28 days. When I left, the train was segregated as well as the waiting rooms. During the 28 days of the period I was at camp, [the Kennedy administration ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban all segregation in areas under its jurisdiction]. So when I returned, all the stuff that was segregated when I went to Texas was integrated on the way back, and the black waiting rooms were essentially closed.”

When Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968 and many were calling for retribution, Sinkfield wrote an article for the school paper, The Meter, recalling those early days in Montgomery when Dr. King “impressed upon us the philosophy that anyone could become angry and permit this anger to be expressed violently against his enemies. But to turn this anguish into love and understanding and direct one’s energies toward effecting a better world for all of humanity was the mark of a true man.” He ended the article with a fitting epitaph: “More violence,” he wrote, “cannot avenge the violent death of a non-violent man.”

Sinkfield ended the decade by attending law school at Vanderbilt, where he served as associate brief editor, and he began his legal career at Powell Goldstein Frazer and Murphy in 1971. Five years later, he and seven other attorneys formed Rogers & Hardin.

He specializes in complex business litigation and mediation and arbitration. Through the years he’s defended numerous local elected officials, including former Mayor Maynard Jackson. He also represented Delta Airlines against the city of Atlanta during Jackson’s tenure—trying the case, atypically, in a summary format before Delta’s CEO and Mayor Jackson, who conferred and resolved the matter without going through the courts. In 2003, Sinkfield was co-lead counsel in successfully defending Wyeth, the maker of the drug Phen-Fen.

His nickname, “Mr. Ethics,” is well-earned. Known to never use profanity, he served on the ABA’s Special Commission on Evaluation of Professional Standards, and, in that capacity, was part of a six-year study that produced the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. He also served as counsel to the board of ethics for “The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games” from 1991 to 1997. He has, or is, serving leadership positions with the Boy Scouts of America, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Atlanta Urban League, and other community organizations.

Georganna admits that she was usually the disciplinarian when their children—now both attorneys—were growing up, although the son, Richard III, 37, remembers a time when he was cutting up in church, and his father stood and told the congregation that Richard would be punished when they got home. When Richard objected to his teenage curfew, his father asked him what he could do during the extra hours that he couldn’t do during the prescribed hours.

Rick also remembers how competitive his father could be during the games they played. The son’s comments could be called the key to Sinkfield’s success. “He was a humble but merciless winner,” Rick says. “He never let up.”

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