Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 11, 2022

Practicing law with heart, purpose

Yanez has learned that language barriers often play an outsized role in helping immigrants navigate the legal system. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Unsure what he wanted to do with his life after high school, Azarius “Zack” Yanez knew it would have to involve helping people and “creating authentic human relationships.”

 Maybe the priesthood would be a good fit, he thought, so he enrolled at a seminary college in his hometown of Miami.

But before long, he says, “I realized that my desire to be a priest was probably closer in line to my desire to be an attorney, seeking to get justice for my clients and being a voice on their behalf on whatever circumstances they’re facing.”

Yanez, 31, now concentrates on construction defects and commercial and professional liability litigation at Leitner Williams Dooley Napolitan, primarily on the defense side. Since earning his law degree in 2017, he has handled, among other things, breaches of contract, violations of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, and wrongful death claims.

“The seminary almost catapulted me to my legal career because it created a really great foundation of what it means to listen and to interact with persons and, I think, to practice law with a heart,” he says. “Unfortunately, far too often law is an exercise of the mind rather than an exercise of the heart, and I think that they can be joined together.”

Individuals are often seen as more deserving of legal defense than corporations, Yanez admits.

“Construction litigation, I think, has real consequences for many people far beyond what we can normally see,” he says. “If you’re representing somebody who owns a building, there are persons that live in that building. There are families that created memories in those buildings. If it’s a business, people rely on it to eat and shop.

“I’m doing a lot of trucking cases right now, and these are persons who are in really bad situations. They need zealous advocacy to be able to actualize justice in our judicial system.”

After law school, Yanez and wife Jenesis moved to Nashville – she did her pediatric residency at Vanderbilt – and he went to work as an assistant public defender in Davidson County.

“I loved doing public defense,” he says. “I thoroughly enjoyed advocating for persons who were sometimes in hopeless situations. But that took a heavy toll on my heart.”

Within three years, he had joined Leitner Williams in Nashville, where he used his public defender experience in a variety of civil defense cases. “Lawyers are storytellers. You have to actually listen to your client and make that connection. I think the public defender’s office was really keen on listening and learning from our clients. That’s one skill set that most definitely translated extremely well.”

Another was the ability to investigate cases. “In the civil realm, you have discovery and you have procedural aspects, but then there’s other stuff you can find on your own accord, things like social media and what people post and the technology that exists out there.”

Defending a client who was sued after his 17-year-old son allegedly rammed into another vehicle and raced away from the scene, Yanez was able to corroborate the boy’s claim of innocence through cellphone data. The case was dismissed.

But his greatest legal strength, he says, is creativity, such as requesting 9-1-1 calls when a client is charged in a car accident. He also asks lots of questions: Did anyone make a statement regarding the crash? What did they see? Is there a potential witness? What about dashcam footage?

“Following those ends up may not be fruitful, but when they are fruitful, they can be really fruitful,” he says, adding, “I can become obsessive in the defense of my clients. I think it’s important that whatever law is presented, you’re willing to knock it down or break through it.”

In August, when his spouse accepted a job at Siskin Children’s Institute, he joined Leitner Williams’ Chattanooga office. He says he is enjoying the area’s opportunities for hiking and mountain biking, and pedals around the neighborhood with his 2-year-old daughter in tow nearly every afternoon after work. His favorite pastime, he jokes, is eating, especially the dishes passed down from his Cuban-born parents, which he typically cooks at home.

His Spanish-speaking heritage also colors his practice, especially when he’s defending clients for whom English is not their primary language. “I believe that in order to have justice, you need to have [an attorney] who can zealously advocate for those people who may have cultural differences, may have different ways of speaking, or they may be accused of something and need advocates to help them navigate a pretty complex legal system that oftentimes they have no point of reference for.”

Yanez is representing a Hispanic client accused of causing a serious accident. The injured plaintiff claims he wouldn’t have struck Yanez’s client if the defendant had driven more carefully.

“Talking to [my client], you realize the fears that come with navigating the system,” Yanez says. “He doesn’t understand typical terminology like we have at a hearing. And within this Spanish-speaking community, there are all different forms of speaking it.

“If you’re from Cuba, if you’re from Puerto Rico or Mexico, depending on where you’re from, you may have a different term for these things or there may not be a term at all.”

Since coming to here, Yanez has been on the lookout for other Hispanic attorneys who share his passion for helping Spanish-speaking clients – he attends Nashville Hispanic Bar Association events – but hasn’t found one.

If other local lawyers are interested in forming such a group, he says, “I would definitely be involved and help in any way I can.”