Port of Savannah

James L. Pannell

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a five-day series of stories on the Savannah legal community. Tuesday: History and “the book” are intertwined in everything in Savannah, including the practice of law.

Jim Pannell picks up his binoculars and looks out the window of his 10th-floor office at a huge ship passing by on the Savannah River. He’s not looking at the mountain of colorful containers full of cargo. He’s looking at the bridge, where the captain, as usual, is getting navigation help from a local pilot.

“We represent the pilots,” says Pannell, a partner at Gray Pannell & Woodward. Harbor pilots have guided ships into ports through ages, Pannell says, noting that James Joyce mentioned one in Ulysses. They go out in small boats to meet the ships. The pilot boards and helps the captain find the safest part of the channel to avoid rocks or obstacles. Pannell points to a tiny ladder running up the side of the ship in the distance. That’s how the pilot gets on board. The job has become more critical than ever with the increasing size of modern ships.

Representing the Savannah Pilots Association in contract negotiations with the Georgia Ports Authority and other matters is only a small part of Pannell’s work. He once had a general practice, specializing in “whatever walked in the door.” He also served Savannah in the state House of Representatives from 1985 to 1990. He’s now primarily a bond lawyer.

Still, the Port of Savannah affects his work and that of most other lawyers in town—and most businesses, for that matter. Lawyers who don’t represent the port or related businesses might be suing them—over contract disputes, injuries or cargo gone missing. Certainly, the port is one of the main reasons Pannell cites for the growth he’s seen since he moved to Savannah 39 years ago. The State Bar of Georgia lists about 1,200 members in Savannah. Pannell estimates the city now has about 700 practicing lawyers. When he came to town, he says, the number was 300.

Savannah’s Big 10 law firms

Firm Lawyers
HunterMaclean 60
Bouhan Falligant 27
Oliver Maner 27
Ellis, Painter, Ratterree & Adams 19
Brannen, Searcy & Smith 15
Brennan & Wasden 13
Brennan, Harris & Rominger 12
Weiner, Shearouse, Weitz, Greenberg & Shawe 12
McCorkle & Johnson 6
Savage Turner Pinckney & Madison 6
Source: Firm websites

It was 1974. Pannell had just graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law and was looking for a job. By chance at a Georgia football game, he met a lawyer from Savannah, Thomas Gray Jr. (UGA Law 1961). Gray suggested that Pannell might join his practice. The two remain partners to this day. They left what was Oliver, Maner & Gray in 2008 to form their own firm.

Pannell is a native of Chatsworth in northwest Georgia, the son of the late Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Charles Pannell Sr., who also served in the Georgia Legislature. The younger Pannell grew up around statewide politics. He recalls being an office boy for a campaign his father helped lead to elect Governor Carl Sanders. He ran errands around Atlanta and stayed at the downtown campaign hotel. His brother, Charles Pannell Jr., is now a senior U.S. District Court judge in Atlanta. When Jim Pannell decided to take a look at Savannah, he saw opportunity. He figured the presence of the port, the completion of two interstate highways—I-16 and I-95—that made getting there easier and the development of resorts at nearby Hilton Head Island would have to add up to an economic boom.

“I thought it was going to grow,” says Pannell. “Twenty plus years later, it happened.”

Although the region’s progress turned out to be much slower than he expected, it was steady nonetheless. The population of the Savannah Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area, or SMSA, grew 18.6 percent in the decade between 2000 and 2010, to 355,576, according to the Savannah Economic Development Authority. The city population was 136,286 in the 2010 U.S. Census, making Savannah the state’s fourth largest city.

Pannell has plenty of thoughts about why Savannah has grown in recent years. He cites the work of author Jim Collins in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, and says Savannah’s leadership kept doing good things until they saw great results.

For example, Pannell mentions Doug Marchand, who took over as executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority in 1995. Marchand stopped looking at the port as a government agency and started seeing it as a business, Pannell says. Marchand made himself available to politicians, business leaders and reporters to sell his passion for helping the port live up to its potential. In the 15 years that he held the job, the amount of cargo passing through the port quadrupled.

Marchand stepped down in 2010 but the growth continues under his successor and former chief operating officer, Executive Director Curtis Foltz. In his 2013 “state of the port” address in September, Foltz reported another record year for cargo and new leases for more than 1 million square feet of warehouse and distribution space the port developed under Marchand. The ports in Savannah and Brunswick support 352,000 jobs and contribute $18.5 billion of income across the state.

A long-planned effort to accommodate ever larger ships, the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, got a green light this year with the resolution of a federal lawsuit involving state, federal and environmental groups. The state set aside another $50 million for the project, bringing the total to $231 million. With environmental concerns addressed, Congressman Jack Kingston announced a House of Representatives committee had cleared the way for federal funds to be assigned to the expansion. Kingston said every federal dollar invested in the port yields $5.50 in economic benefits.

If the port has been a rising tide that lifts all boats, it hasn’t been the only one. Other growth factors cited by Pannell have little to do with the practice of law, but still support a lively downtown and a growing population for residents and visitors.
One is the Savannah College of Art and Design, which took over decaying buildings in the historic district, restored them and made classrooms and studios for students. Since opening in 1978, SCAD has increased its enrollment to nearly 10,000. The students enliven downtown Savannah with their presence, maybe more than old-time residents wanted. Suddenly, it was hard to find a parking space and the streets seemed full of “kids who weren’t afraid of being mugged, maybe even if they should have been,” recalls Pannell. Undeniably, SCAD has become a stabilizing force for the city.

Paula Wallace, founder and president of SCAD, joins the port as a driver of the economic engine that is Savannah. Another Paula has had a big economic impact as well, Pannell suggests. Paula Deen has boosted Savannah as a tourist destination, he says. Since her cooking show went on television, he’s noticed long lines outside her downtown restaurant, The Lady and Sons, with people waiting to get in.

Deen has became a source for legal business lately as she battled a lawsuit against a second restaurant she partly owns and drew national criticism for her admission in a deposition that she once used a racial slur. She settled the lawsuit in August, after losing a string of book and television contracts. Meanwhile, the lines continue to form outside The Lady and Sons, Pannell notes.

One more event that put Savannah on the map is tangentially related to the practice of law: the 1994 publication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Pannell recalls seeing people walking around Savannah with the book in hand, using it like a map. It set an endurance record for The New York Times best seller list, staying there more than four years.

Midnight author John Berendt paints a colorful picture of life in Savannah, telling the story of antiques dealer Jim Williams, who became the first person in Georgia to be tried four times for the same murder. He finally was acquitted in 1989 and died a year later. The book features a cast of lawyers, as well as a drag queen, a voodoo priestess and an inventor in possession of a deadly poison he contemplates spilling into the water supply. Referred to locally as simply “the book,” the work was made into a movie and is still on sale in book stores and gift shops in Savannah.

“I’ll tell you what the book did,” said Pannell. Before, when he traveled or talked to lawyers in New York or other cities while working on bond deals or other legal matters, he identified himself as being “from Savannah, Georgia.” Then, he said, “people didn’t know where it was.” Now, he says, “I just say I’m from Savannah.”

Pannell admits to missing the mountains of North Georgia where he grew up. “For a long time, I’d get a physical ache when I’d see a hill,” he says. But he never regretted the move to Savannah.

Especially satisfying for Pannell is that his firm includes another Pannell partner, his son, Jonathan Pannell. After working in Atlanta for the Troutman Sanders Public Affairs Group and graduating from Georgia State University College of Law, Jon chose to join his father and Gray at Oliver, Maner & Gray. He left with his father and Gray to form the new firm. With their focus on bond work around the state, they say they find it’s more efficient to work together in a smaller firm that doesn’t have the conflicts inherent with a bigger client list.

Jon Pannell’s analysis of the move back from Atlanta is that there’s just as much work for a lawyer in Savannah, but, noting the history, the culture, the festivals, the coast and the beaches, he says, “It’s a better lifestyle.”


CITYFOCUS: Read all the articles in the Savannah series

James PannellDAY 1
Port Of Savannah Has Been A Rising Tide That Lifts All Boats
• Savannah’s biggest law firms by census

Leamon HolidayDAY 2
Historic Building Was Scene For John Berendt’s Book, Now A Law Firm
Big Names In Legal Community Made Appearances In ‘The Book’
Savannah Resident Pens A New Take On ‘Midnight’

General James OglethorpeDAY 3
Sorry General Oglethorpe, But Lawyers Are Thriving In Savannah
Savannah: Like Charleston Only “Grittier”
Savannah DA Toppled Boss To Win Top Prosecutor Job

Catherine Bowman & Wendy WilliamsonDAY 4
Members Of Savannah’s Bar Associations Work Well Together
‘Johnny Cracker’ Takes The Tough Criminal Cases

John TatumDAY 5
An Inside Look At The Biggest Firm In Small Savannah
From Little Acorns Mighty Lawsuits Grow
Sometimes You Can Fight City Hall—And Come Away With The Biggest Verdict In Town