Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 19, 2019

Finding good on ‘both sides of the V’

Peers return some of the love they get from ever-positive Hollis

Talk with attorney Joe Hollis Jr. for a few minutes and one thing will become clear: He has something good to say about everyone and is lavish in his praise.

Hollis calls the founding partner of his firm, the late Josiah Baker, a “dear, generous friend.” Baker’s wife, Betty, the former receptionist at the firm, was “a joy and a gracious lady.”

Hollis also admires all the attorneys in Chattanooga and says the city has a good selection of judges in its courts. “I have found virtually all the attorneys and judges I work with to be very practical, considerate and accommodating,” he says.

Moreover, Hollis describes Shelter Insurance, a company that has provided him with business for 30 years, as “loyal and just great to work with.”

Moving closer to home, Hollis’ uncle, retired state judge Donny Peppers, is “a great guy.” Another uncle is “the sweetest man he’s ever known,” while his mother was “the sweetest person you’d ever meet.”

The 60-year-old Hollis is not just putting his well-bred Southern manners on display; this is how he sees people.

It’s also how others see him. So, when the County Commission polled the Chattanooga Bar Association regarding which attorney they would like to see succeed retired General Sessions Judge Clarence Shattuck, it’s no wonder Hollis was their No. 1 choice.

Actually, Hollis not only topped the list of the 19 lawyers who threw their hat into the ring, his 57 votes outdistanced the bar’s second choice, Collegedale Judge Kevin Wilson, by 20 votes. A little more than 200 local attorneys participated in the poll.

“I was shocked,” says Hollis, who’s either being gracious or was genuinely surprised. “I’m grateful to the members of the bar for their expression of faith in my ability to serve as a judge.”

Of course, Hollis says all the other attorneys who stepped up to be considered would have been excellent choices. “I wanted someone who would treat the lawyers and the people who appear before the court with dignity,” he adds. “All of them were good candidates.”

That includes Judge Gerald Webb, the County Commission’s ultimate choice for the appointment. “He’s going to be an excellent judge,” Hollis points out. “He has the ability and the right temperament.”

After being passed over for the position, Hollis returned his attention to what he’s been doing since he joined Baker’s firm in 1985: representing defendants and plaintiffs in insurance cases.

“I do both sides of the V,” Hollis says, referring to the “V” that stands for “versus” in the separation of parties in legal cases.

For the most part, Hollis is an insurance defense lawyer. “If you’re tooling along in your vehicle and you plow into somebody, and Warren & Griffin or The Insiders are hired to go after you, I defend you through your insurance company.”

Hollis also represents the occasional plaintiff, but only in cases involving a serious injury. “I don’t do whiplash,” he explains.

His most recent plaintiff had “traumatically lost his leg in an accident.” Without going to court, Hollis was able to secure the man enough money to buy a house, car and Bluetooth-enabled leg. “You couldn’t tell he’d lost a leg,” Hollis enthuses.

Hollis is also still basking in the warm afterglow of another case that allowed his client to purchase a home for herself and her daughters. “Those cases are few and far between, but it’s gratifying to help someone in that way,” he says.

Hollis is just as willing to talk about the cases that didn’t end well. In one, he represented a client charged with vehicular homicide. The man had never been involved in a criminal matter and was stunned by the turn of events in his life.

“He’d exercised poor judgment one day, which led to a situation in which he was in a vehicle without knowing he was,” Hollis recalls. “We turned over every stone that might reveal mitigating circumstances and used every expert we could come up with, but we couldn’t find anything.

“That one stays with me because I knew the train was coming and I didn’t know how to get out of the way.”

No matter which side of the “V” Hollis is working, he says his job is the same: prepare his clients for what lies ahead. “Most of my clients are scared, and it’s up to me to calm their anxieties and protect them without sugarcoating the truth,” he adds.

Hollis has practiced insurance defense nearly his entire career, with his mentor, Baker, grooming him to contribute to the firm’s bread and butter. Hollis’ early assignments and roles with the firm, however, made him wonder if he’d chosen wisely when he’d decided to become an attorney.

“In the beginning, Jody would drop last-second assignments on me like bombs, particularly if I had a vacation or weekend getaway planned,” he remembers.

“One particular event involved me working with him on a land issue, which required an impromptu visit to an overgrown piece of land next to a highway. There I was in a business suit with a machete in hand cutting brush to find survey pins.

“My wife picked me up on the side of the road that afternoon in my sweat-soaked suit for our trip out of town.”

Hollis also paid his dues as Baker’s bag man. “I would carry his bag into court,” he says.

After a couple of years, Baker started asking insurance companies to call Hollis directly. With that shift, Hollis’ personal practice picked up steam. “Lawyers are notoriously territorial with their clients, so that was generous of Jody,” Hollis says. “I’ll always respect him for that.”

Hollis didn’t take all his cues from Baker. The elder attorney was known for his fiery, bellicose manner in depositions and the courtroom, which was in opposition to Hollis’ kindly, even-tempered disposition.

“I thought, ‘I can’t practice like this. That’s not me,’” Hollis recalls. “I get more out of people when I’m nice to them than when I’m trying to be someone I’m not. I treat the opposing client firmly but with respect.”

Hollis says he also treats the attorney on the other side of each case civilly. “I’m a big believer in not burning the other lawyer over silly things and not trying to catch people on a technicality, and if that means my clients owe something, then so be it,” he acknowledges. “That’s probably not the best approach for an attorney, but we’re trying to find justice.”

The admiration between Hollis and his fellow lawyers has not only made the insurance defense attorney’s job a pleasure, it’s made it possible for Hollis and his fellow attorneys to find the justice they seek.

“There’s no substitute for the decades of experience we’ve enjoyed together,” Hollis says. “Although cases can be heated at times, our mutual respect for one another has always been the key.”

Despite being a natural for the role of gentleman lawyer, Hollis originally considered a different profession: dentist.

“I could have had a white coat and name tag that read ‘Dr. Hollis,’” he says, pointing at the left side of his suit jacket. “Then I read an article about an uptick in dentist suicides. They spent every day bent over, looking into dirty mouths, and couldn’t take it anymore. That didn’t sound like something I wanted to do.”

Hollis’ uncle was a practicing lawyer in Lafayette at the time and made going to court look more appealing than pulling bad teeth, so the 18-year-old Hollis changed his bearing.

Lawyer or dentist, school wasn’t going to be cheap and Hollis’ family wasn’t well-heeled or highly educated. At that time, his uncle was the only person on either side of the family who’d gone to college.

Fortunately, good grades in high school made Hollis eligible to receive one of two scholarships for male students from Wheland Foundry in Chattanooga, where his dad worked as a trucking supervisor. Hollis secured the scholarship, which paid for two years at Young Harris College in Georgia.

“I would not have been able to go to college without it,” he says.

After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia, Hollis worked for a year to save money for law school and then set a course for Mercer University School of Law in Macon. He partly paid for his second and third years at the school by doing title searches for “$100 a pop.”

Hollis went from law school to working as Baker’s bag man. With the exception of a merger with Rainey, Kizer, Reviere & Bell last year, he’s been with the same firm ever since. “When I signed up to become a judge, I didn’t even have a resume,” he explains.

Hollis’ practice extends from Hamilton County to about 20 surrounding counties and he handles cases in both Tennessee and Georgia, giving him a broad reach. Thankfully, he likes his work.

“I love the medical side of the law. I love learning about surgeries, I love meeting with doctors when I have to hire an expert and I love going into a deposition with a doctor and seeing if I can score few points for my side,” he says. “I believe I would have enjoyed a medical career.”

Hollis does lament one change in the practice of law since he learned the ropes: the reliance on email and other less personal forms of communication instead of telephone calls and face-to-face conversations.

“The practice of law is not as focused on relationships as it once was,” he adds, sadly. “I used to deal with a single adjustor on each case and enjoyed talking with them on the phone. But their case loads have increased and they no longer have the time for that. So, everything is done over email.”

When Hollis was young, his mother ran a hair salon out of their Lafayette home. An only child, Hollis spent hours talking with her clients, and over the years, learned the pleasure of a good conversation and the joy of a stranger becoming a friend.

This makes the remote nature of electronic communication feel aloof and unsatisfying. “We just swap emails discussing how to resolve a case,” he says. “I’m a relationship guy, so I struggle with this.”

That said, Hollis says becoming an attorney was a good choice. “It’s provided an income for my family and I’ve enjoyed the flexibility, even though we’re working for someone else now and they’re all about billable hours, billable hours, billable hours,” he says, smacking his right fist into his left palm.

Hollis has appreciated the flexibility his job affords because it’s allowed him to be with his twin children during important moments. Of course, as a husband and father who’s as focused on his family as he is his career, he can’t think of many moments that weren’t important.

“I was at every Boy Scout meeting, campout and merit badge weekend with my son, Jay,” he says. “I didn’t want to miss any of them. He has 50 merit badges, and every badge represents at least two weekends we spent together.”

The time and attention paid off, as Hollis’ son recently became an Eagle Scout. Hollis is also proud of his daughter, Lindsey, who’s made a name for herself as a state champion golfer.

With both of their teenagers poised to leave for college, Hollis and his wife of 28 years, Julie Hollis, are bracing themselves for heartbreak. At the same time, they’re excited about what tomorrow holds for their children.

Hollis is hoping it isn’t a career as an attorney. “I’d like to see them do something other than practice law,” he says. “If I have a regret, it’s the number of hours this work takes you away from family.

“I’m a regular Ward Cleaver; I just want to be around my wife and kids. But it’s a grind to be a litigating lawyer because of the late nights and weekends.”

Hollis has made time for other things. He’s volunteered as a member of the committee that chooses the Chattanooga Bar Association’s annual Liberty Bell Award recipient and has served as a deacon at Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church, where he and his wife are members.

But Hollis has always given the bulk of his time to his work and his family.

“When I saw the results of the poll, it felt good to know where I sit with my peers,” he says. “All I’ve done is work as a lawyer and tried my best to take care of my wife and children. That’s been my focus for 34 years – and it’s not going to change.”