Practice Made Perfect

Beth Tanis’ early fear of failure pushed her to become one of the most successful attorneys in Georgia

Published in 2007 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2007

Beth Tanis pauses at the courtroom door. She’s weary from an arduous trial, her stomach unsettled, her eyes strained, but she releases all the angst with a deep breath. Once she flings open the courtroom door there will be a judge or jury to convince of her client’s integrity and innocence. So the first task is establishing a presence.

“As a litigator, if you go into court without an air of confidence, you are in a world of hurt,” Tanis says. “Whether you feel confident or not has nothing to do with it. You better walk in like you own the place.”

Tanis, 51, has been defending professional liability cases for Sutherland Asbill & Brennan since 1986, and if she walks into court like she owns the place it is because she owns her case. If a plaintiff’s attorney wants to flyspeck every aspect of her client’s performance, well, Tanis has an even bigger magnifying glass and has flyspecked before them. Nothing in the case is immaterial, as far as Tanis is concerned.

“She is as thorough as any lawyer I have ever seen,” says Patti Gorham, a partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, who has known Tanis for almost 20 years. “She anticipates a vast number of curves. It is rare to see something come out [in trial] that she hasn’t anticipated. If something does come like that, she knows the material so well it is relatively easy for her to deflect it and to pull from the law or the facts as she knows them.”

To Tanis, it is not just important that she defend her clients; it is important to defend the law.

“She knows the why of the case,” says Amy Rudolph, another partner at Sutherland Asbill. “What is the policy reason, what is the basic principle of fairness that underlies the law she’s arguing? Why is that the right thing to do? It is a very reasoned and principled kind of an approach.

“You don’t just want your one case to be the one-off exception. You want it to fit into a coherent whole. Decisionmakers do look to see what would be the implications of a broader decision like that.”

These days, lawyers such as Tanis, who defend big accounting firms, walk into the courtroom at a deficit because of one word: Enron. The scandal at the Houstonbased energy giant cast coast-to-coast suspicion over big business and the accounting firms that audit their books. Regulators are looking under rocks; disappointed investors are laying blame. If you are an auditor, the FBI might want to talk to you.

Auditors are crying witch-hunt because they are being dragged into court and, with tens of billions of investor dollars lost, there are jurors willing to join the hunt and hold auditors accountable.

The climate makes Tanis’ job that much more difficult. She has represented clients being sued for $190 million, $200 million and $700 million, so the stakes are high. In one suit filed in Michigan, an accounting firm was sued for $1.2 billion. The lawsuit was dismissed with no judgment against Tanis’ client.

“Accounting firms and other professionals have been under siege for a very long time,” Tanis says, “since way before Enron, but I believe what Enron did caused people to be cynical and caused people to believe the typical professional would actually engage in bad behavior. There is a willingness to assume based on very little evidence.”

She typically defends partners who belong to the Big Four accounting firms: PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, Deloitte & Touche and KPMG International. Accountants at those firms have had long careers and have much to lose. Tanis’ job is to steady them after the plaintiff makes the first charges of fraud or malpractice in the courtroom.

“One of the big issues is keeping people’s confidence in their work and keeping them from succumbing to the insecurities that these allegations can cause in anybody,” Tanis says. “The most important thing a professional gets to offer is [his or her] integrity, and these cases are attacks on that integrity.”

“She takes ownership of her cases,” Rudolph says. “Her client’s problem is her problem.”

It is Tanis’ job to take a complex subject and make it easy to understand. A juror might wonder how a fictitious number ended up in a financial statement and blame the auditor when the auditor had no idea where the number came from in the first place.

“We all have our preconceived ideas of what somebody in a different profession does,” she says. “What we have to do is start from square one and give whoever the fact finder is the basic understanding of what this profession really is. You have to strip it down and move a layperson into the shoes of a person with a lot of expertise.”

Tanis’ expertise comes from fanatical command of her case. That’s why a 1999 case pitting her against three Florida banks is a benchmark in her career. She did not have time to dissect this case like the others.

Sutherland Asbill was representing a Big Four accounting firm, which was being sued for $35 million for negligence in West Palm Beach. The banks said they extended credit to a customer based on financial statements that were not properly audited by the Big Four accounting firm. The customer went bust and the banks lost money.

Tanis was in the middle of preparations when her client’s local counsel phoned and said, “We have to pick a jury in 10 days.”

“It came out of the blue because we were still taking depositions in the case,” Tanis says. “We thought there was no way this particular judge would put this on her six-week trial calendar [because] it was going to be a 10-week trial.”

The judge took the case anyway. As a result, Sutherland Asbill moved a trial team almost overnight to West Palm Beach. They lived in hotel rooms for 10 weeks while the plaintiffs’ attorneys went home on the weekends to Miami.

Tanis was out of her comfort zone. The judge thought the case had stayed on the books too long and Tanis was not going to be allowed to thread the needle on every point in the case. “It was the most fly-bythe-seat-of-my-pants case I have had, and it was also the longest jury trial I had ever done,” Tanis says. “It ended up being a fabulous experience, and it ended up being a lot of fun.”

Because the banks’ allegation was that Tanis’ client had failed to catch a fraud, Tanis had to walk the jury through an auditor’s role, which is not to catch fraud, but to see if financial statements are materially stated in ccordance with generally accepted accounting principles.

The case went well from the start. The defendants, Tanis says, did not have any bad days where the evidence did not fit, and the jury found that the banks were overwhelmingly negligent in offering credit to the defunct customer. There was a zero verdict for one plaintiff and a small verdict for the other three plaintiffs.

“It’s impossible to get prepared in 10 days,” Tanis says. “You really learn a lot about your ability to wing it and you learn a lot about your ability to roll with surprise. You have to take risks.

“For me, a prepared person, I needed to be pushed out of the nest on that one.”

To paraphrase Wordsworth, the student is mother to the lawyer. At law school, the other students seemed so much smarter than Tanis; they were the ones who raised their hands in class all the time. Tanis, meanwhile, struggled with confidence. There was the consistent fear of failure. At 23, after her first round of law school finals, she phoned her father, a self-employed manufacturer’s rep in the steel industry, and told him that this law school thing might not work out. Maybe it wasn’t too late to be a dentist, or a doctor, or go into sales.

“I was certain I didn’t do very well on the finals,” Tanis says.

She couldn’t have been more wrong. Tanis wound up first in her class at Loyola University of Chicago.

Just a few years earlier, Tanis thought she might end up in public interest law. She had been involved in anti-war rallies in Oak Park, Ill., where she grew up, and she was a paralegal for Legal Aid working with the elderly in Louisville, Ky.

“I have always been a fairly cause-oriented person, which I think is why a lot of people go to law school,” says Tanis. “I guess I did have a justice-for-all kind of orientation. I first saw myself working for the ACLU, but just took a different path because opportunity was there.”

Upon graduation, she was hired by Jenner & Block, a then-70-year-old Chicago firm, and in 1986 she was hired by Sutherland Asbill. She is now the most senior female partner in the Atlanta office.

But her justice-for-all spirit is still there. She’s on the board of directors of five organizations, including the Georgia chapter of the ACLU; Georgia Appleseed, which is part of the national Appleseed organization founded by Harvard alums to promote systemic change on social issues; and Families First, a family services organization in Atlanta.

She is also one of five Sutherland Asbill attorneys representing five Yemeni detainees being held in Guantanamo, Cuba.

Tanis is reluctant to talk about the case because others are doing more work on it, but she’s not reluctant to talk about its importance.

“To me, this is one of the most disgraceful human-rights issues facing the American government right now,” Tanis says. “The notion you could be involved in trying to correct a wrong is enticing beyond belief. To see this ugly part of our history is quite an extraordinary experience.”

In the end, Tanis’ creed is simple: Whether you are in jeans or a suit, you deserve your day in court. “I stumbled on a profession that ended up being very good for me,” she says.

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