L-R James Blitch, Herbert Phipps and Judge John Ellington.
L-R James Blitch, Herbert Phipps and Judge John Ellington. (Don Morgan)

The Atlanta Bar Association recognized two bar leaders for very different contributions at a luncheon Thursday at the Piedmont Driving Club.

The bar gave leadership awards to newly retired Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Herbert Phipps for his civil rights and judicial leadership and to King & Spalding partner Catherine O’Neil for creating the Bard show. For almost 20 years, the all-lawyer musical comedies have fostered camaraderie among the dozens of bar members in the cast, and serve as the Atlanta Bar Foundation’s biggest fundraiser.

Court of Appeals Judge John Ellington introduced Phipps, saying he’d come a long way from segregated Baker County in South Georgia, where he was raised, to the Court of Appeals. Phipps served on every lower Georgia court from magistrate, juvenile, state to superior.

Ellington said that Phipps, who helped desegregate Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, among other accomplishments, has been a civil rights leader in Georgia. Ellington and Phipps were appointed to the court in 1999 by Gov. Roy Barnes.

Phipps’ civil rights work started in college, during the civil rights movement. He was active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and jailed with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Albany while working on voter registration.

Seeing the injustice around him inspired Phipps to go to law school and, after earning a law degree from Case Western Reserve University, he went to work for civil rights leader C.B. King, Ellington said.

“If you see something, say something,” has become a common phrase, but it doesn’t apply only to street crime, Phipps said as he accepted his award.

“I had to speak up about racial justice,” he said. “Many people see something and say nothing, because they’re afraid they might lose a position, a dollar or a friend.”

“I headed down this road a lifetime ago. If I saw something, I felt compelled to say something,” he said, adding that what he saw back then now “looks familiar” again.

“Do you see what I see?” Phipps concluded.

The crowd responded with a brief moment of silence and then a standing ovation.

To introduce O’Neil, cast members from last fall’s Bard show, “A Courthouse Line XII: Mock the Vote,” reprised one of its showstopping musical numbers—a witty send-up of plaintiffs’ lawyers called “Somebody to Blame,” (to the tune of Queen’s “Somebody to Love”) with soloists Courtney McBurney and Rick McMurtry.

That got another standing ovation from the crowd.

In his introduction, O’Neil’s husband, David Nahmias, a Georgia Supreme Court justice, said countless lawyers have given their time and talents to the 12 shows so far, “but at heart it was Cathy’s brainchild. She writes the scripts, choreographs, recruits the talent, directs—and even sweeps the floors at times.”

Nahmias recalled the Bard shows’ origins in 1998. O’Neil, at the time an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, was conferring with an adversary, federal defender Gregory Smith, who was the Atlanta Bar president.

O’Neil had been a performer from childhood all the way through college and Harvard Law School, and Smith noticed the show posters on her office walls, Nahmias said. Smith pitched the idea of a musical revue as a bar fundraiser, and O’Neil took him up on it.

The first show, “A Courthouse Line,” was “barely scripted, pretty disorganized and way too long,” Nahmias said with affection. But the shows quickly evolved into tightly scripted musical comedies with developed plots and characters.

The shows have fostered community among the dozens of lawyers who’ve worked on them over the years, Nahmias said, bringing together “a mix of lawyers from all over the bar—solo real estate lawyers and corporate defense ones.”

O’Neil was once in a trial with a cast member, criminal defense lawyer Don Samuel, Nahmias added. “They battled together all day and then came together to rehearse at night.”

Samuel, a Bard regular, played a hapless weatherman caught on-camera doing a very non-politically correct Native American rain dance in the 12th and latest show, “Mock the Vote,” which provided some welcome comic relief the weekend after the Nov. 8 presidential election.

The plot revolved around a hotly contested race for state bar president by three improbable candidates—each with some skeletons in their respective closets. Since it was a Bard show, far-fetched plot twists and Broadway-level singing and dancing ensued.

“The bar comes together like family—with a lot of crazy aunts and uncles, as well,” Nahmias said.

That was never more true than for the last show, when O’Neil was diagnosed with cancer the week before rehearsals began.

“The Bard family was there for me in every way,” said O’Neil, who had come out of retirement to direct the show after co-writing the script with her longtime writing partner Brian Johnson.

Noting it was “ironic to get the leadership award this year when I was so absent,” O’Neil added, “This show, more than any other, reflects my view of leadership.”

She said co-producers Maggie Vath and Alison Nazarowski pitched in to keep things running smoothly and Johnson took on directing duties, with help from other cast and crew.

“If you provide the vision and a plan, people will step up—especially lawyers,” O’Neil said. “When we come together truly with a common purpose and vision, we can accomplish great things. We can dance in unison, make people smile—and bring out the best in the profession.”

O’Neil said the shows have been “truly a labor of love for me,” adding that Nahmias and their sons, Steven and Michael, have supported her through “lots of missed dinners and late nights.”

This year her sons helped brainstorm rhymes for the song lyrics, O’Neil said, including “blue eyes, cheese fries—and Spanish guys?” Not all the rhymes made it into the show, she added.

O’Neil called Nahmias, who’s performed in all her shows, “my biggest supporter and my rock” for more than 25 years, since they met in law school. She initially cast him in dancing and singing parts but said that anyone who saw those shows will understand why Nahmias has moved on to speaking roles.

“His real theatrical talent is talking,” O’Neil said. For “Mock the Vote,” Nahmias had a cameo in a “stretch role” as a U.S. attorney, a part he once played in real life.

“I’ll see you at A Courthouse Line XIII in May 2018!” O’Neil said in conclusion, to another standing ovation from the bar.

The Atlanta Bar Association recognized two bar leaders for very different contributions at a luncheon Thursday at the Piedmont Driving Club.

The bar gave leadership awards to newly retired Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Herbert Phipps for his civil rights and judicial leadership and to King & Spalding partner Catherine O’Neil for creating the Bard show. For almost 20 years, the all-lawyer musical comedies have fostered camaraderie among the dozens of bar members in the cast, and serve as the Atlanta Bar Foundation’s biggest fundraiser.

Court of Appeals Judge John Ellington introduced Phipps, saying he’d come a long way from segregated Baker County in South Georgia, where he was raised, to the Court of Appeals. Phipps served on every lower Georgia court from magistrate, juvenile, state to superior.

Ellington said that Phipps, who helped desegregate Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, among other accomplishments, has been a civil rights leader in Georgia. Ellington and Phipps were appointed to the court in 1999 by Gov. Roy Barnes.

Phipps’ civil rights work started in college, during the civil rights movement. He was active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and jailed with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Albany while working on voter registration.

Seeing the injustice around him inspired Phipps to go to law school and, after earning a law degree from Case Western Reserve University, he went to work for civil rights leader C.B. King, Ellington said.

“If you see something, say something,” has become a common phrase, but it doesn’t apply only to street crime, Phipps said as he accepted his award.

“I had to speak up about racial justice,” he said. “Many people see something and say nothing, because they’re afraid they might lose a position, a dollar or a friend.”

“I headed down this road a lifetime ago. If I saw something, I felt compelled to say something,” he said, adding that what he saw back then now “looks familiar” again.

“Do you see what I see?” Phipps concluded.

The crowd responded with a brief moment of silence and then a standing ovation.

To introduce O’Neil, cast members from last fall’s Bard show, “A Courthouse Line XII: Mock the Vote,” reprised one of its showstopping musical numbers—a witty send-up of plaintiffs’ lawyers called “Somebody to Blame,” (to the tune of Queen’s “Somebody to Love”) with soloists Courtney McBurney and Rick McMurtry.

That got another standing ovation from the crowd.

In his introduction, O’Neil’s husband, David Nahmias, a Georgia Supreme Court justice, said countless lawyers have given their time and talents to the 12 shows so far, “but at heart it was Cathy’s brainchild. She writes the scripts, choreographs, recruits the talent, directs—and even sweeps the floors at times.”

Nahmias recalled the Bard shows’ origins in 1998. O’Neil, at the time an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, was conferring with an adversary, federal defender Gregory Smith , who was the Atlanta Bar president.

O’Neil had been a performer from childhood all the way through college and Harvard Law School , and Smith noticed the show posters on her office walls, Nahmias said. Smith pitched the idea of a musical revue as a bar fundraiser, and O’Neil took him up on it.

The first show, “A Courthouse Line,” was “barely scripted, pretty disorganized and way too long,” Nahmias said with affection. But the shows quickly evolved into tightly scripted musical comedies with developed plots and characters.

The shows have fostered community among the dozens of lawyers who’ve worked on them over the years, Nahmias said, bringing together “a mix of lawyers from all over the bar—solo real estate lawyers and corporate defense ones.”

O’Neil was once in a trial with a cast member, criminal defense lawyer Don Samuel, Nahmias added. “They battled together all day and then came together to rehearse at night.”

Samuel, a Bard regular, played a hapless weatherman caught on-camera doing a very non-politically correct Native American rain dance in the 12th and latest show, “Mock the Vote,” which provided some welcome comic relief the weekend after the Nov. 8 presidential election.

The plot revolved around a hotly contested race for state bar president by three improbable candidates—each with some skeletons in their respective closets. Since it was a Bard show, far-fetched plot twists and Broadway-level singing and dancing ensued.

“The bar comes together like family—with a lot of crazy aunts and uncles, as well,” Nahmias said.

That was never more true than for the last show, when O’Neil was diagnosed with cancer the week before rehearsals began.

“The Bard family was there for me in every way,” said O’Neil, who had come out of retirement to direct the show after co-writing the script with her longtime writing partner Brian Johnson.

Noting it was “ironic to get the leadership award this year when I was so absent,” O’Neil added, “This show, more than any other, reflects my view of leadership.”

She said co-producers Maggie Vath and Alison Nazarowski pitched in to keep things running smoothly and Johnson took on directing duties, with help from other cast and crew.

“If you provide the vision and a plan, people will step up—especially lawyers,” O’Neil said. “When we come together truly with a common purpose and vision, we can accomplish great things. We can dance in unison, make people smile—and bring out the best in the profession.”

O’Neil said the shows have been “truly a labor of love for me,” adding that Nahmias and their sons, Steven and Michael, have supported her through “lots of missed dinners and late nights.”

This year her sons helped brainstorm rhymes for the song lyrics, O’Neil said, including “blue eyes, cheese fries—and Spanish guys?” Not all the rhymes made it into the show, she added.

O’Neil called Nahmias, who’s performed in all her shows, “my biggest supporter and my rock” for more than 25 years, since they met in law school. She initially cast him in dancing and singing parts but said that anyone who saw those shows will understand why Nahmias has moved on to speaking roles.

“His real theatrical talent is talking,” O’Neil said. For “Mock the Vote,” Nahmias had a cameo in a “stretch role” as a U.S. attorney, a part he once played in real life.

“I’ll see you at A Courthouse Line XIII in May 2018!” O’Neil said in conclusion, to another standing ovation from the bar.