Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 30, 2018

Pope enjoying view from other side of the street

Ex-assistant D.A. wields lessons learned in his new practice

During his more than 10 years as an assistant district attorney in Hamilton County, Lance Pope prosecuted the kinds of cases that would test the mettle of the toughest skins in his profession, including a disturbing triple homicide case.

Today, as a lawyer with the Chattanooga firm of Patrick, Beard, Schulman & Jacoway, Pope handles trust disputes, represents clients in general civil disputes and even dabbles in family law.

Some might consider the shift in Pope’s focus to be extreme and question how his previous legal experience prepared him for what he’s doing today.

But the 39-year-old attorney doesn’t see it that way. He’s not only able to make a strong case for his past work informing his present practice, but several seismic shifts in the landscape of his life and career have made him a seasoned professional at redefining himself and thriving as he moves forward.

Pope says he’s experienced no discomfort while learning new areas of the law and handling matters within those previously foreign realms, as the skills he acquired as a prosecutor are useful in litigating other kinds of cases.

“I’ve not spent any portion of my career working on these kinds of cases, but all the litigation skills I learned at the district attorney’s office – the trial work, the evidentiary issues, how to question and cross examine witnesses – have translated well into other areas where litigation is involved.”

Besides, Pope adds, he’s enjoying the chance to broaden the scope of his practice and explore new territory.

“It’s very engaging to be involved in different aspects of the law and stay up to speed on the rules that govern them,” he explains. “It’s a lot to wrap your arms around, but over time, you learn to identify the issue, find out how the rules apply, and pinpoint how your facts fit those rules.”

Pope does occasionally find himself on familiar ground since he also represents clients in criminal cases. While this places him across the aisle from where he spent much of time, his years of experience trying cases against Dan Ripper, Ben McGowan, Lee Ortwein, Clancy Covert, Amanda Dunn and other local criminal defense attorneys taught him how the other side operates.

“As opposed to prosecuting someone, I’m defending them,” Pope says. “I review the work law enforcement did to determine if there were any problems with the investigation and how they accomplished the arrest, and then advise my client based on my review of the investigation.”

As Pope negotiates the outcome of his criminal defense cases, he often finds himself across the table from a former associate at the district attorney’s office. Rather than feeling uneasy or at odds with the person, Pope welcomes the opportunity to work toward a resolution with a close colleague.

“There’s comfort in that,” he acknowledges. “It doesn’t affect the outcome of the case, but it’s nice to work with people I know. I have a lot of respect for them.”

The feeling is mutual, says Cathy Goforth Troxell, who served as Pope’s investigator during many of the years he was with the district attorney’s office. “People on both sides of the legal equation respect Lance for his objectivity and consideration of other people,” she says. “He’s also a hard worker who doesn’t just accept what’s visible on the surface of a case but digs deep to find the details others might have overlooked.”

Troxell says Pope also is known for doing the right thing, even when it’s not popular. “There were times when other people said, ‘We have enough,’ and he said, ‘I don’t think we do,’” she adds. “He likes to look carefully into things and give them a lot of thought before he reacts.”

Pope’s contemplative nature is evident in the way he speaks. Words come deliberately and filtered down to their essence, as though he quickly but carefully measures the weight and meaning of each phrase before saying it. As he’s talking, it’s easy to picture him in a courtroom, presenting thoughtfully assembled facts to a jury, especially in his former role as a prosecutor.

As an assistant district attorney, Pope gravitated toward the prosecution of cases that involved violence against individuals, including homicides. Although he handled a variety of crimes, he preferred to use the resources at his disposal judiciously and was drawn to cases that dealt with higher-level felonies.

“The other cases that came through the office were also very important, especially to the victims of those cases, and I paid close attention to those cases as well and did everything I could to get a good resolution for the victims,” he points out. “But with limited resources, you also have to decide where you’re going to spend most of your time.”

During his more than 10 years with the district attorney’s office, Pope tried several first-degree murder cases before a jury and received favorable verdicts. He says these cases are the ones that have stayed with him, not because he had a hand in putting a criminal behind bars but because of the relationships he developed with the victim’s family and the investigators.

“I often dealt with someone who was facing the worst thing that had ever happened to them and watched them go through the grieving process. That’s a powerful thing to witness and be a part of,” Pope says.

“I also spent a lot of time exploring every aspect of those cases and seeing the work law enforcement did,” Pope adds. “To be involved in that process from Day 1 all the way to the final resolution, and to get a good outcome for both the state and the victim’s family, was rewarding.”

The rewards, as well as the challenges, of prosecuting high-level felonies were magnified in the Lookout Valley triple homicide case, in which 23-year-old Derek Morse was convicted in September 2017 of three counts of first-degree murder for killing Jon Morris, John Lang and Caleb Boozer in 2014.

The case, Pope explains, was particularly challenging for him because it involved “three needless murders.” Also, it was the only case during his time as an assistant district attorney that his office filed for life without parole as a possible punishment upon conviction.

“A life-without-parole case involves a separate sentencing phase of the trial, which is submitted to the same jury that heard the proof in the case, if they return a guilty verdict,” Pope says. “The victims’ families testified during that phase of the trial. Their testimony was extremely powerful.

“That was a difficult and truly sad case, but professionally rewarding to give those three families some sense of justice through Mr. Morse’s conviction.”

Pope generally achieved a good outcome in cases while an assistant district attorney, although he suffered a few losses, as well. Of the approximately 40 trials in which he participated, he recalls four not guilty verdicts.

In each case, the verdict surprised him because of his confidence in the evidence. “When you’re in the position of a criminal court prosecutor, you have a number of cases you could choose to submit to a jury,” he continues. “I never had any question about a defendant’s guilt when I submitted a case to a jury.”

Pope says these not guilty verdicts initially kept him awake at night wondering if he could have done something different to affect the outcome of the case. But in time, he always found sleep again due to his belief that he was careful in his prosecution of those cases.

“More often than not, the outcome of a case is more dependent on the proof you submit to the jury and the way they received it than any one thing you say or do,” he adds.

As Pope lived in Chattanooga and worked as a prosecutor in Hamilton County, he was several hours from his first home, Memphis, where he was “born and raised.”

As he grew up in the city, Pope says, there  was no beacon guiding him toward a particular career. His father was a food broker and his mother stayed home with him and his younger brother, so there was nothing in his life to spark an interest in the law or any other profession.

However, Pope did find his way to the University of Memphis and a job with a bank. He found the latter “interesting” (Pope uses this word often when discussing his various pursuits) and, as a result, earned a degree in marketing.

After graduating, Pope moved to Chattanooga to work as a finance officer at a small company a friend started. He says he fell in love with the city and everything it offered – especially its outdoor activities.

“I lived in the North Chattanooga area,” he remembers. “As a young person who had recently graduated from college and was starting his professional life, it was a neat place to be.”

Toward the end of his first year in Chattanooga, Pope asked his girlfriend, Rachel, to marry him. Armed with a yes, he took the LSAT locally and then returned to the University of Memphis to attend law school.

“As a finance officer, part of my responsibility was to review the contracts our business had with our clients, and through that process I often dealt with attorneys,” he says. “I thought their role was interesting.”

Pope earned both a Juris Doctor and an MBA at the University of Memphis. His education complete, he made a decision he says had a significant impact on his life: he returned to Chattanooga.

“Leaving Memphis to start a career and raise a family in another city was a big decision for me and Rachel, but it’s turned out well.’’

Although Pope’s interest in the law was more general than specific, participation in moot court and a clerkship with Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Robert Childers while he was in school had stirred an interesting in litigation in the future prosecutor.

“Speaking with the judge about a matter that had come up on the docket and then watching the lawyers come into court and affect the judge’s position on the case was intriguing,” Pope says, shaking up his word use.

With this in mind, Pope pursued work in litigation. After returning to Chattanooga, he landed work with a Knoxville firm that provided child support services throughout the state. The work taught Pope how to handle cases and make arguments, and exposed him to attorneys in the city who worked in the criminal field.

After one year in this work, Pope took advantage of an opportunity to interview for a position with the district attorney’s office. General Bill Cox looked upon him favorably, and hired him to do criminal prosecution.

Pope’s first day as an assistant district attorney was Nov. 1, 2007. As he handled cases in Judge Don Poole’s court, he found the work was a big leap from both the finance work and the legal work he had done previously.

Pope adapted well, and spent the next decade immersed in criminal prosecution. Then came the day Steve Jacoway, a member of Patrick Beard, asked him if he’d be interested in working at the firm. After encouraging meetings with Jacoway and others at the firm, Pope accepted the offer.

Things have been going well since he started with the firm June 1, says Pope, who has also become a member of the Chattanooga Bar Association and the local Inn of Court. As a transplant whose roots in Chattanooga are deepening, Pope likes that Patrick Beard’s only office is located in the city and that its attorneys focus on helping local people with their legal needs.

“It’s rewarding to work at a firm that’s focused on serving the local community,” Pope notes. “Our clients are the people who live here, raise their families here, and run their businesses here. I enjoy that.”

Pope’s growing love for Chattanooga extends beyond the walls of his office to the broader community. He and his wife now live in Signal Mountain, where their two children attend local schools. Rachel has become involved in the Parent Teacher Association there, and the couple has developed a set of close friends in the area.

Pope’s enthusiasm for Chattanooga’s outdoor offerings has also grown since he moved to the city. His current passion is trail running, which his slender, aerodynamic frame allows him to do competitively. He also runs with several members of Patrick Beard, canoes and rock climbs.

As rich and full as his life has become, the thing that amazes Pope most of all is how a difficult and monumental decision to relocate to Chattanooga has positively affected his life.

“We visit family in Memphis several times a year, and I’m happy to see the developments there,” he says. “But I’m even happier that we have our home and family and my career here.

“It’s a good feeling to return from a vacation and be back in Chattanooga. All of my opportunities have flowed from that decision, and that’s rewarding.”