Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 26, 2021

Legal legacy finally lures Leitner’s Leech

Eschews father’s advice on ‘easier way’ to make living

Will Leech is a civil insurance defense attorney with Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan. He says his favorite part of practicing the law is untangling the legal knots his clients bring him. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Will Leech grew up in the shade of a tree that stood tall in the legal profession in Tennessee during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

His father, Bill Leech, was attorney general of the state from 1978 to 1984, and thereafter remained a formidable litigator at a large firm in Nashville until his death in 1996.

But the elder Leech never pressured his son to become an attorney. Instead, he encouraged him to pursue his own interests.

He also offered two pieces of advice about becoming an attorney his son has never forgotten.

“He loved to say there are easier ways to make money,” says Will, 42. “He would say if I wanted to earn a good living, then I needed to become a stockbroker or a financial investor because the law is a lot of work and a hard way to make money.”

Conversely, the former attorney general told his son the law would be a suitable profession for him if he enjoyed reading, writing and learning new things.

Will did – and still does today as a civil insurance defense attorney with Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan in Chattanooga.

“No two cases are the same, so I’m always learning about a new industry, piece of equipment or set of regulations,” he says. “I had a case that involved electrical schematics. I had no knowledge of electrical or mechanical engineering, but I enjoyed learning about those things.”

Will’s appetite for knowledge dovetails into the thing he enjoys the most about being an attorney – solving legal puzzles.

“I love when a client who’s either being sued or needs to sue someone comes to me with their set of facts and I have to figure out the solution to their problem.”

In addition to having a father who was an attorney general, Will had a grandfather who was a chancellor. The notion of joining what he calls “the family business” initially did not appeal to him, so he leaned into a liberal arts education, studying history as an undergraduate at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and English while doing graduate work at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

But a curious thing happened: Whenever Will would choose a topic for a paper or other academic project, he would gravitate toward the legal field. Remembering his father’s advice about the law being a suitable profession for the bookish, he decided to become an attorney.

Will was 29 when he sat down for his first class at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis.

In 2011, he recalled his father’s words about the law being a hard way to make a living as he remained in Memphis to work.

“The housing bust had caught up with the legal profession and it was difficult to find a job, so I took criminal cases for the first year and a half of my practice,” he says. “That’s a horrifying experience for someone fresh out of law school – ‘Here’s your first case; your client is in jail.’”

Eventually, Will caught wind of a job with one of his father’s former law partners – Tom Mink, who had a civil litigation practice in Nashville. Thrilled to leave the criminal courts behind, he dove into the civil side of law, functioning first as a glorified paralegal and eventually working his way up to arguing a case before the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“It was a case of first impression that answered an important question about the priority of suing in a wrongful death action,” Will recalls. “We knew we would lose, but we also felt like we needed to fight for our position, so we did.”

As Will expected, the court sided with the opposition, teaching him a lesson about the law he doesn’t recall his father passing down.

“If you know what the outcome of a case is going to be but you feel like arguing it is in your client’s interest, then you should put in the time and effort,” he reasons. “The court was right, even though I didn’t think so at the time.”

A convergence of two events brought Will to Chattanooga.

First, Nashville outgrew his interest in being there. He was living in Spring Hill, which required him to spend three to four hours a day in his car just to commute to and from work.

Next, Will had a case with attorneys from Leitner. Although the events that had brought everyone to the table were traumatic, the lawyers from Chattanooga impressed him.

“I admired how they treated the plaintiffs and the other attorneys, their level of preparedness and their analysis of the case,” Will remembers. “I thought, ‘If I’m ever looking for a change, I’d like to work with them.’”

When Will learned Leitner was hiring in 2019, he applied and was invited to join the firm.

Now he’s seated in a conference room in which portraits of three of the firm’s named partners overlook the space, including the late Charles “Buz” Dooley, Tom Williams and Paul Leitner.

Gary Napolitan does not grace the same walls, but his presence is felt throughout the firm, where he continues to practice.

The portraits, as well as his family’s long history of practicing the law, brings Will to a moment of reflection.

“I feel a sense of legacy, not just because of my dad and granddad and these men on the wall, but also because of the evolution of the law in Tennessee and America,” he muses. “Even though I do civil litigation defense, it’s still an integral part of how our Republic works and it matters.

“It certainly matters to the people who are being sued, or having to sue, and it sets precedent.”

Will says his father passed down more than words; he also provided a model of conduct his son admired and strives to emulate today. This is especially true when it comes to how to treat those who come to him with legal knots to untangle.

“I grew up on a farm in Santa Fe, a small town south of Nashville. Through the years, people would show up at our house with bottles of whiskey and country ham looking for help. It didn’t matter if they were a farmer or a CEO, my dad would talk with them.”

With this in mind, Will became active with the Chattanooga Civitan Club soon after his arrival in the city. But instead of thinking of his volunteer work as a service he’s providing others, he considers the opportunity to contribute to the community in which he lives to be a gift.

“I had been in Chattanooga for a week when Gary and Tom said, ‘You’re going to Civitan with us.’ It’s tough moving to a new city at 41, especially when you’re single, and being involved with that organization has helped me to feel like a part of Chattanooga. It’s been a blessing.”

As Will settled into the city – as well as his forties – he began to think about his own legacy. He has no children to receive the kind of wisdom his father passed down, so he’s focusing on the one thing he can do until that changes.

“When family members and friends who were older than me would ask my dad about going to law school, he’d always say, ‘The world has too many lawyers, but not enough good ones.’

“I hope to be the kind of attorney that would make my dad proud.”