Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 16, 2022

Cates still learning after 50 years in law

In 1983, Chattanooga trusts and estates lawyer Alan Cates found himself in Huntsville, Alabama, dancing with an Internal Revenue Service appeals officer.

Cates’ client – a well-heeled gentleman for whom he’d done extensive planning – had died and left behind an estate large enough to trigger a thorough IRS audit. When the auditing agent came across a pair of complex charitable deductions Cates had recommended, she declared his client had surely been “too old, too sick and too undereducated” to have understood them and refused to allow them.

As Cates and the appeals officer waltzed through the points the IRS was contesting, he yielded on some and the agent allowed others. Meanwhile, the charitable deductions loomed like hulking animals on the dimming edges of a campfire.

“That’s what you do,” explains Cates, 77. “When you feel weak on something, you give it to them, but then you insist they give you something.”

Eventually, their negotiations arrived at the charitable deductions. When the officer asked Cates to respond to the auditing agent’s assessment, he declared, “She was right. My client didn’t have a clue.”

The CPA who’d worked with Cates on the estate was also present – and could not have looked more shocked, Cates remembers.

“Then I said, ‘Here’s all he understood: He understood that if he did these things, his family was going to get a lot of money, the charities in which his wife was interested would get some money and the IRS would get little to nothing.’”

Without blinking, Cates recalls, the officer replied: “It sounds like he understood enough.” And then he dismissed the case.

Cates, who currently practices at Husch Blackwell, says the officer’s ruling made good sense.

“Our clients don’t want to understand the technical stuff, they want to know what the result will be, and when they do, we’ve done our jobs. You don’t have to wade into the weeds of the tax law to explain something to your clients. Simply explain why you’re doing something a certain way and what the results will be.”

With more than a little self-deprecation, Cates says this is the kind of story an old lawyer will tell about his early days, when he had the vitality of a bull, a mind as sharp as iron and a heart burning with the fire of a clear and present purpose.

But nothing in the way Cates can dive into the yawning depths of the law, or the way he readily recalls decades-old details, suggests he’s anything but a man in his intellectual prime.

What’s more, his energetic stride as he enters a room, the firm handshake with which he greets and the unwavering pragmatism in his voice suggest no passing of years since he became an attorney in 1972.

Besides, Cates can still work with the vigor of the 30-something version of himself who danced with the IRS in 1983.

“I worked harder last year than I’d expected to,” Cates says as he settles into another story. (The only thing that betrays Cates’ age is the plethora of stories he’s gathered over 50 years of practice.) “I had the pleasure of working on, what was for me, a big transaction that involved 22 [Husch Blackwell] lawyers from six cities. It was my client, so I played quarterback.”

The matter involved an elaborate business transaction that had percolated out of Cates’ trusts and estates work with his clients. He says he and the other lawyers worked from 6 a.m. to midnight nearly every day for four months.

“I’ve worked with large companies on smaller mergers and acquisitions and I’m well-versed in dealing with attorneys who are out of my area, which allows me to see different points of view and synthesize information from specialists,” he says. “But that case called on everything I knew. And it called on me to learn new things.”

Cates says the constant need to learn is one of the things that keeps him engaged with the law.

“The older I become, the more I’m aware of being toward the end of my career rather than the start of it,” he sighs. “But some days, I still feel like a young lawyer. The law has expanded in complexity, and I’m still learning new things, and even the things I thought I knew have changed. And that’s stimulating.”

Enjoying what he does also gets him out of bed in the morning, Cates says. Or, rather, enjoying most of what he does. “I still enjoy 80 to 90% of what I do. I don’t care for administration, but God made young lawyers for that.”

Cates, who spoke nationally on trusts and estates matters for many years, also likes mentoring young lawyers and paralegals.

“We use paralegals to a great extent. They’re extraordinarily capable and, given the opportunity and attention, are as effective in many ways as young lawyers and more effective in many ways than old lawyers.”

Above all, Cates says he relishes the opportunity to serve as “a trusted adviser” – the person a client calls regardless of the nature of their issue. Over the sprawl of five decades, he’s assisted with family estate matters, IRS tax matters and more for everyone from hourly wage earners to high-net-worth business owners and endeavored in very situation to become their sole source for legal counsel and assistance.

“That was my aspiration from the beginning of my practice,” he says. “I wanted to understand each client’s business, family and objectives, and be able to translate those into legally effective arrangements.”

After 50 years, the thing Cates says challenges him the most about practicing law is the demand for unremitting access. While the expectation that he’ll be available at the bling of an incoming message or the ringing of his phone at a late hour sometimes vexes him, he says accessibility can also be his friend.

“COVID taught us to work remotely. That’s good. When my wife and I are in Florida, I can work in the morning, spend the afternoon engaged in recreational activities, catch up in the evening and then spend the rest of the day doing fun things. Working remotely has been a remarkable change in the practice of law.”

That said, Cates says he wouldn’t want to shutter his office and work exclusively from home.

“I like to sit down with my clients and get to know them. And I work more effectively with other lawyers when I get out of my chair and walk to their office. A lot is lost over email or the phone.”

Cates says physically separating him from his clients and colleagues would remove him from the things that mean the most to him in his profession.

Although he assisted one of the largest banks in America on a community development project in Chicago, and advised a Fortune 500 holding company on trust and estate issues, and wielded decades of legal experience while representing institutional executors and trustees in litigation, when he discusses his career, he remembers the individuals he was privileged to know – and who impacted him in significant ways.

He begins with his father, Joe Cates, who owned an electrical wholesale company where he worked as a teenager and assimilated business sense that proved helpful once he began serving clients.

Cates also mentions his American history teacher at Brainerd High School, Rye Bell, an amateur boxer and Marine Corps veteran who taught him to think about questions in news ways, and in so doing, shaped his thinking for life.

“Nothing was yes or no,” Cates recalls. “That was remarkable. It moved me in directions in which I’d never been comfortable moving. And I became comfortable doing it.”

Cates then moves on to Charles Brakebill, then executive director of development with the University of Tennessee when Cates worked there as a planned-giving officer after law school.

While at UT, Cates conducted seminars with E.J. Chapman and took baby steps in public speaking before making presentations across the country on a variety of financial topics over the next 30 years. He also learned about the importance of authenticity from Joe Johnson, president of UT at the time.

“Joe believed if you raised friends, then you’d gather money. And you had to be genuine. So, when I consulted with charitable organizations and served on their boards, I tried to be authentic.”

When Cates reaches 1975 – the year he returned to Chattanooga and opened a small practice in the Pioneer Building – he sounds like he’s skipping stones across deep waters in which he would swim for hours. He mentions John Morgan cleaning his clock in a products liability trial early on, Hugh Garner giving his practice a leg up and learning the intricacies of trusts and estates work from Ralph Shumacker while at Shumacker & Thompson.

“Ralph was without peer in his command of that area of the law. He was eloquent and articulate and had a wisdom that impressed me,” Cates says. “When I started working with him in 1989, he was older than I am now.”

Cates sounds reluctant to stop when he reaches the present, where he says contemporaries like Ron Feldman, John Culpepper, Joe Simpson and others have made his 16 years to date at Husch Blackwell some of his best. (Cates joined several trusts and estates attorneys from Shumaker, Witt, Gaither & Whitaker in moving to Husch when that firm imploded in 2006.)

A rich vein of admiration for Cates runs through Husch Blackwell and is as easy to mine as speaking with any attorney in the halls.

“I never enter Alan’s office to discuss a matter without a notepad in hand, as he’ll often have an idea to steer a matter in a direction other than I was thinking when I walked in,” says Simpson.

“He’s also very gracious. He promotes his colleagues to his clients and lifts up the practices of those around him. This has earned him the respect of the bar, both locally and nationally.”

Simpson says he especially admires how Cates encourages the attorneys at Husch Blackwell to consider whether a problem can afford the proposed solution. This can be critical in trust and estate matters, where emotions run hot and the cost of litigation could outweigh the financial benefits, he adds.

“Alan is a man of integrity and we’re honored to be associated with him in the practice of law,” Simpson concludes. “He’s still setting the standard for us after all these years and is someone we want to work to be like, both as an attorney and a human being.”

Michael Alston, managing partner at Husch Blackwell in Chattanooga, offers more effusive praise, as well as a bone he has to pick with Cates.

“Alan is the best there is – as a person, a friend, a lawyer, a law partner and a mentor to many. The one issue I have with him is that, due to his chronological seniority, he’s allowed to tee off from the up tees, which is a crime considering how far he hits the ball.

“Otherwise, he’s top drawer in every respect, and I consider it a high privilege to be his colleague and long-standing friend.”

As much as Cates appreciates the kind words of his fellow attorneys, he says his true legacy lies with his family.

“My claim to fame is I’m Dr. [Jean] Cates’ husband, Jennifer and David’s daddy, and Hanna and Rosemary’s granddaddy,” he smiles. “Jean and I hit the jackpot with our children, our children-in-laws and our grandchildren.”

Cates certainly regards his family with pride. His daughter is a psychology professor and university administrator in Colorado, while his son brokers real estate deals involving large tracts of local land. Meanwhile, his granddaughters have formed the “mia” and “papa” fan club.

“The grandkids declared one evening during dinner that grandparents aren’t like other grown-ups. Hannah said, ‘Mia and papa take us to the mall, buy us anything we want, take us to lunch and buy us a big cookie. And they buy a big Rice Krispie treat for themselves and then eat it.’

“And Rosemary said, ‘They eat it all.’ My daughter and her husband are health conscious, but I like my fried chicken and barbecue, and I have a glass of chocolate milk every morning. Mayfield 2% and Hershey’s Syrup.”

Cates is physically active enough to work off these indulgences, whether he’s outdoing Alstom on local greens, walking up three flights of stairs in The Dome Building to reach his office or pressing through his workout regimen, which focuses on flexibility and range of motion.

“I stay active,” he says. “A person loses a lot over the years.”

Cates has lost none of the personal interests he’s held over his lifetime. He’s still a constant reader, with recent conquests including Jon Meacham’s “The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross” and “The Hellfire Club,” an historical novel his wife recommended.

He also remains curious about religion and philosophy, especially the explanations people have for how humanity came to be.

“The older I’ve become, the more I understand everyone has an explanation. And I’ve become interested in understanding explanations other than the ones on which I was raised.”

Cates discusses these and other topics while teaching Sunday school at First Christian Church. He calls these sessions discussions rather than classes and uses the word “stimulating” again to describe his interactions with the people in the group.

“I no longer have prescriptions for them. I do, however, have propositions.”

One proposition Cates is not considering is retirement. Simply put, he has no use for it. His brain and body are healthy, he says, and he’ll continue to work as long as they are.

“When my clients stop calling, I’ll quit,” he says. “I’m taking more time off than I used to, but so are the clients I’ve been with for 30 to 40 years, so I can do that.”

Although rumors about Cates’ stepping back from the practice of law do occasionally circulate through the city, the attorneys who are still in the trenches with him expect to be there for a while.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alan follow in the footsteps of the late Ralph Shumacker and continue to practice law for many years to come,” Simpson says. “I believe he enjoys what he does and who he does it with.”

Cates concurs and says he’ll probably ride out his days with Husch.

“I’ve had invitations to move to other law firms in town. But I have an inertia and a sense of loyalty. The people here have invested in me, and I’ve invested in them, and I don’t want to leave that. Besides, I have nothing to complain about.”