Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 3, 2023

Comic relief

R. Dee Hobbs uses humor in private practice, Hamilton County post

Hobbs is a litigator and co-founder of Bell & Hobbs. He also serves as assistant attorney and senior trial counsel for Hamilton County government. - Photograph provided

The trial was a particularly difficult one – his clients were charged with a violent carjacking, and the evidence was overwhelming – so R. Dee Hobbs decided to interject his favorite lawyer joke to make the point that the prosecution’s evidence was merely circumstantial and, at the same time, maybe lighten the mood in the courtroom.

 Turning toward the jury, Dobbs began his joke with the engineer and the accountant, both of whom, when asked what 2 and 2 equals, said “4.” Presented with the same question, Hobbs told the jurors, the attorney “closes the blinds, looks outside the door to make sure nobody’s listening, leans over the desk and says, ‘What do you want it to be?’”

 The legal experts got it immediately. The prosecutor shook his head and smiled. The federal defender started laughing. The judge grinned.

 Dead silence from the jury.

 “It was entirely over their head,” Hobbs recalls, laughing heartily. “When [the judge] saw that, he got so tickled that Dee had bombed his joke [that] he had to turn his head away from the jury.”

 The awkward quip had no effect on the verdict, Hobbs says. “They were ready to convict these guys and go home, and that’s exactly what they did. Bombing the joke was just something that the judge and the other two lawyers could laugh at me about for a long time.”

Most of his wisecracks, including the self-deprecating ones, go over better than that, says Hobbs, 67, a litigator, co-founder of Bell & Hobbs, and assistant attorney and senior trial counsel for Hamilton County government. “If I can make a joke out of it, I will. I’m a frustrated comedian. I had three friends from high school who became professional comedians, so at one point I told my mom I thought that’s what I was going to do, to which she replied, ‘But son, you’re not funny.’”

During his 40-year legal career, Hobbs has handled everything from criminal defense and personal injury to bankruptcy and estate work, in both civil and criminal courts. He has practiced at firms large and small, gone solo, and represented cases for the county attorney’s office since 2001.

Once, when a colleague dropped him off for a 3 p.m. City Court appearance for a marijuana possession case the day they flew back to Chattanooga after litigating an out-of-town securities fraud matter, the other lawyer laughed and said, “You know, I just don’t deal with too many attorneys who handle a civil claim for a plaintiff in a securities fraud case and then go represent a drug dealer.”

Changing courses

Named by his dad for Dee Fondy, a first baseman for the Chicago Cubs in 1956, Hobbs went on to play football and other sports in his hometown of East Ridge. But a serious knee injury as a freshman player at Maryville College sidelined him from the game, and he transferred to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The accident also caused him to study harder and achieve a much higher GPA than he had in high school.

A history major, Hobbs later veered toward law at the encouragement of college professors who thought he’d be a good fit. But he was in no hurry to change course – all he’d ever wanted to do was teach and coach, and he was doing both – so he borrowed a test booklet, took a practice Law School Admission Test just one week before the real LSAT, and applied to only one law school, at the University of Tennessee.

“I sat on that acceptance until the last minute,” he says, “because I [already] had a job.” To help fund his law studies initially, he coached the offensive line at Maryville College while commuting to classes in Knoxville.

In 1983, two days after graduation, he married his sweetheart Lisa and was soon practicing back home in Chattanooga, primarily as a litigator. “I think pretty good on my feet,” he says. “As a teacher, I was expositing a great deal. I still think there’s a very important educative aspect to trying a case. Ultimately, you’ve got to present something that people are going to accept.”

In his first jury trial, which took place a few months after he joined Poole, Lawrence, Thornbury & Stanley, Hobbs represented a man charged with escaping from prison with just three weeks left to go on his sentence. “The problem with an escape defense was that he was gone for three and a half years. It was kind of hard to say he hadn’t escaped,” Hobbs says.

In court, the defendant sported long hair, a beard and a menacing stare. “He asked me at one point if he should look at the jury,” Hobbs remembers. “I said, ‘I wouldn’t if I were you.’”

Hobbs lost the case but, he says, “I realized I could kind of see myself doing this long-term.”

After practicing for several years at Stophel & Stophel, in 1989 he went solo and became co-owner of a company that bought loans from failed banks. In 1992, he joined Bell Turner Murphy Wilson & Hobbs, now Bell & Hobbs.

 His most memorable case, although by no means a headline grabber, is the one that makes him smile. After a four-week trial involving a contested will, Hobbs secured a favorable verdict for his client. “From all appearances, there was simply no way that we could prevail in this. I have to think that’s some pretty good lawyering because most anyone would’ve looked at the central facts in that case and said … the will has to be overturned. But the devil is in the details sometimes and I was able to bring those things out to the jury. It may have been among the best work I’ve done.”

County work a priority

Despite his own busy caseload, he says, his legal work for Hamilton County comes first. Dobbs notes that he has handled more than 300 government cases since 2001, when he started as special counsel.

Assistant county attorney since 2012, he primarily defends against civil rights claims, many of which involve the operations of the Sheriff’s Department simply because of the “subject matter,” he points out. “You have jail litigation. There’s violence in jail. When people come into jail, they’ve got drug issues, so you’ve got medical care issues, you’ve got suicide issues. Just about all the crisis points of society actually are personified in jail. Drug culture, you name it. Gang culture, yes. Not handling your issues, family problems – that’s why they’re in jail. Plus, out on the road, you’re arresting people, in high-speed chases, [encountering] guys with guns. It just generates more claims than, say, public works.”

Hearkening back to his first love – teaching – Hobbs has coached local youth teams, trained sheriff’s deputies in criminal law issues, and now lectures to law enforcement groups statewide and beyond. “What that makes me do is to make sure that I know, at all times, what the basic principles are in defending a civil rights claim. And this is an outlet for me to learn and relearn and look at different facts and situations and see what courts are doing. It’s kind of like practicing for an athletic event, and I do it through teaching.”

Two of Hobbs’ four grown children are lawyers, something he says he never pushed for, nor even envisioned. Son Brient, a coach like his dad, is an Air Force JAG officer. Daughter Mackenzie is a first-year, white-collar criminal defense attorney in Nashville.

Helping clients resolve their problems is, for Hobbs, the best part of practicing law. “I would like to think – and I hate this phrase – that at the end of the day, most people will recognize that I’ve tried to act fairly, even humorously and certainly compassionately.”