William C. Koch, Jr. Welcomed as President of the American Inns of Court
The Bencher—September/October 2018
Retired Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William C. Koch, Jr., became president of the American Inns of Court Board of Trustees on July 1. He served on the board from 2000 to 2008, and again from 2014 to the present, including terms as secretary and vice president.
Koch has long been committed to the American Inns of Court movement, helping found the Harry Phillips American Inn of Court in Nashville in 1990, and serving as its president for 27 of the last 28 years. He helped found six other Inns in Tennessee and is an emeritus Master of the Bench of the Belmont University College of Law American Inn of Court.
Koch notes that local Inns are able to accomplish their mission by keeping their membership small enough to enable their members to become acquainted with each other on a more personal and less formal basis
“You can’t simply hand somebody a book or article and say, ‘Here, read about how to be a professional.’ The American Inns of Court promote professionalism more effectively because their members model professional behavior. What differentiates the Inns of Court from most other legal organizations is their ability to create an intimate environment in which judges and lawyers can pass down, discuss, refine, and even create ethical and professional standards for their local legal communities.” Koch says.
Following his retirement from the court in 2014, Koch was named president and dean of the Nashville School of Law (NSL), where he has taught courses in U.S. Constitutional Law and Tennessee Constitutional Law for the past 21 years. He also received adjunct appointments at Vanderbilt Law School and Belmont University College of Law. His commitment to civility, professionalism, and excellence in the practice of law is explicitly reflected in the words on the NSL logo adopted during his tenure.
The importance of those characteristics to an aspiring lawyer starts on day one. During orientation, matriculating NSL students take a professionalism oath administered by a justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. “We begin teaching our students before they even start their classes that lawyers are held to higher standards and have higher obligations to their clients and the courts,” he says.
But teaching professionalism, as with so many things in the study of law, is not a concrete notion.
“It’s an elastic concept that exists in the eyes of the beholder. I do think it boils down to some common denominators, including accountability, courtesy, humility, collegiality, and consistency. These standards are aspirational, of course,” Koch says.
“We learn the tricks of the trade and the ways to smooth out the rough edges by watching others in action,” he continues. He cites as his own role models Bill Willis, a premier Nashville trial lawyer who handled many high-profile cases (“professionalism in action”) and Judge William Russell (“he provided candid and helpful critiques of young lawyers’ performance”).
Koch served as a justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court from 2007 to 2014, following a 23-year tenure on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, including four years as presiding judge. Although he concedes the appellate court environment is more sedate than the trial court environment, he still had a role in enforcing standards of professionalism in the courtroom.
“There were certainly occasions when I was required to admonish lawyers saying, ‘That is not the sort of behavior we accept here.’ It was particularly troublesome when lawyers did their best table-pounding Clarence Darrow impersonation while their clients were sitting in the front row,” he says.
“I always tried to ascertain whether the behavior was calculated or just due to inexperience,” he explains. “Judges should try to avoid publicly embarrassing lawyers, so if it was just inexperience, I would invite the lawyer for a conversation in my office after the case was concluded.”
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Koch served the State of Tennessee in various roles, trying some 400 cases during his career in the attorney general’s office. He left his position as deputy attorney general to join Governor Lamar Alexander’s cabinet as commissioner of personnel, and later counsel to the governor. He first accepted the position of legal advisor with Alexander following his November 1978 election and then played a key role in one of the seminal events in Tennessee political history—the January 1979 swearing-in of Alexander three days early to prevent the outgoing Democratic governor, Ray Blanton, from releasing prisoners en masse after having been accused of selling pardons to criminals.
The events were compressed into a matter of hours, Koch says. “Those attributes of professionalism—accountability, courtesy, humility, collegiality, and consistency—were on full display by all of the lawyers who were tasked that day to decide whether an early swearing-in was legal. The lawyers who were advising the legislative leaders, the constitutional officers, and the governor-elect that day were consummate professionals.”
“We would not have been able to accomplish what we did that day had the Nashville Bar not expected high standards of professionalism,” he continues. “The situation was high-stakes and potentially explosive. The diplomatic conversations going on between the incoming Republican administration and the Democratic majority leadership in the legislature were civil and professional.”
As he assumes the role of president of the American Inns of Court board, Koch is focused on accomplishing the organization’s mission of providing a quality member experience by keeping the size of existing local Inns small and creating new local Inns. He also notes recent changes in the organization’s governance structure, particularly the downsizing of the board. He hopes to develop collaborative programs with other legal organizations, and to secure financial endowment for some flagship programs.
“As we move forward, we need to be sure we’ve properly aligned the roles of the volunteers and our professional staff, that our strategic goals are shared, and that all our lines of communication are robust and effective,” he says. “Professionals thrive when they are working within a community of other professionals and when everyone is trying to raise the tide that will lift all the boats.”
—By Jennifer J. Salopek
Jennifer J. Salopek is a freelance writer based in McLean, Virginia