Columbus Bar Association President and solo practitioner Andrew Dodgen is reluctant to answer the question: Why did you become a lawyer?
He’s afraid it sounds corny. But the answer tells a story of the history of a Southern city growing up out of segregation and how a white country farm boy who didn’t have a relative who’d ever even been to college was inspired by a black teacher to one day go to law school.
"It was 1970," he says, sitting behind his desk in his office in the downtown Columbus historic district. The house and others on Second Avenue were already a century old that year when his school in Troup County was integrated. He left his rural community and rode a bus for an hour to a new school for his fourth grade year. His family disapproved of the entire arrangement, especially the fact that his new teacher was African-American.
He remembers her well today. Miss Bessie Barton, as he still calls her.
"She was the most influential person in my life outside family," he says. "She saw that I was a basket case and took an interest in me."
His distress was less about school and more about home. That also was the year his parents were divorced. "Miss Bessie" did what great teachers do. She ignited in her new student a passion for learning, which, as it happened, helped him forget his own worries.
She began to talk with him about history and the United States Constitution. She lent him some of her college textbooks to read. She shared with him a fascination with President Abraham Lincoln. He still recognizes the irony, as a Southerner who grew up with the idea that succession should be legal. But that year, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer, and he credits Miss Bessie with the dream.
Dodgen went on to study history, philosophy and religion at LaGrange College on a full scholarship from the Callaway Family Foundation, funded by the founders of Callaway Gardens, the resort in nearby Pine Mountain. The Callaway scholarships were only for undergraduates. But the year he graduated, the foundation offered its first scholarship for law school.
He went to Mercer University Law School on another Callaway scholarship. He worked third shift at a convenience store to support his wife and young family. He graduated in 1986 and took a job working with Columbus lawyer Bill Moore, who was his partner for the next 25 years until Moore retired and sold the National Register of Historic Places-listed townhouse to Dodgen.
It was a period of growth and change for the city and the legal community. Dodgen recalls another milestone in desegregation for Columbus during that period, one not as widely recognized as the schools: the first integrated law practice in town.
The partners were John Allen and Bobby Peters, who now serve together on the Muscogee County Superior Court bench.
"It illustrates the value of integration, the value of people seeing us together," says Allen, who grew up in a segregated Columbus and left for college, never intending to return.
After earning a degree at Tuskegee University and a distinguished military cadet designation, he became one of the first black fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force. He served in Vietnam, flying an F-4 Phantom, earning five Distinguished Flying Cross awards, among other honors.
At the urging of an Air Force mentor, he then went to the University of Florida law school. He came home to practice. He was appointed to the state court in 1987 and the superior court in 1993. He’s been elected five times since. He just completed a term as chief judge.
Allen also serves as chairman of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, the watchdog group for judges statewide.
Allen’s former partner Peters later served as the city’s mayor and now sits on the bench with Allen. But they started out together in the 1980s as just two friends who shared office space and began filing cases together.
Allen remembers calling Peters to come and sit with him in court when he had to try cases before all-white juries. "When I first started, it was the practice to kick blacks off the jury," Allen recalls. Just having a white lawyer sit at the defense table with him seemed to help.
Allen recalls that Peters would protest that he knew nothing about the case, to which Allen would reply: "Just sit here and do something white."
Today, leaders of the Columbus bar seem proud of their diversity and their ability to work well together.
"We have some excellent lawyers here," says Allen. "It’s a laid-back practice. The rules are not lax, but you don’t have the cutthroat attitude that you have in Atlanta. We do a lot of talking."
It’s a collegial bar, says Brandon Peak of Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer, past president of the Chattahoochee Bar Association and treasurer of the Columbus Bar Association. Before moving to Columbus seven years ago, Peak practiced with Troutman Sanders in Atlanta.
When Columbus lawyers go to court, they know they’re going to have to face off against their opposing counsel again on another day. "You know it’s likely not going to be your first or your last case against these lawyers," Peak says. The system helps ensure fair dealing.
If a lawyer in Columbus isn’t honest or ethical, every lawyer in town is soon going to know it, says Neal Callahan of Waldrep, Mullin & Callahan, who grew up in Atlanta but chose to move to Columbus to start his law practice after graduating from the University of Georgia School of Law.
"When I go to court in Columbus, I’m going to know every lawyer in the room. I’m going to know the judge," he says. He likes knowing who to trust.
No one is suggesting that Columbus lawyers are superhuman. But the size and history of the bar there makes for a collegial environment.
Added Callahan, "There are a couple of lawyers in this town who will stab you in the back. But I know not to turn my back on them."