Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 22, 2014

Litigator reflects on work, life

Joshua Powers is a medical practice litigator at Baker Donelson. He spends the lion’s share of his time at the firm defending hospitals, doctors, and nursing homes throughout Tennessee and Georgia. - (Photo by David Laprad)

Joshua Powers didn’t always want to be an attorney. The son of the late John Y. Powers, a revered Chattanooga lawyer and U.S. magistrate judge, he once swore off the idea of practicing law. “I’m never going to be a lawyer,” he’d say with all of the conviction a 10-year-boy could muster.

Today, Powers is a successful litigator at Baker Donelson. He grew up, he says – with all of the convincing power a 54-year-old man with a Kenny Powers bobble-head and a SpongeBob toy in his office can muster.

Powers says he was initially put off by the hours his father worked. “He was a wonderful dad. I couldn’t have asked for a better role model. But he worked hard,” he says.

By the time Powers had graduated with a B.A. in English from Rhodes College, he’d softened on the idea of becoming an attorney. But as a child of Signal Mountain, he wanted to see more of the world first, so he signed up with the U.S. Peace Corps, which sent him to the middle of nowhere.

To be more precise, the Corps sent him to the Kingdom of Tonga, a nation in the middle of the South Pacific made up of a cluster of tiny islands. “The island I was on was so small, you could stand in the middle of it and see the ocean on either side,” he says.

Powers taught English in Tonga from 1982 to 1985. He then came even closer to attending law school, but took a sales job with Coca-Cola instead. While there, the company moved him from Atlanta, Ga., to New York City, to Syracuse, N.Y. in the span of a few years. Then a major life change finally nudged him through the doors of a law school: marriage.

“I loved working for Coca-Cola, but there’s a difference between what a 10-year-old boy and a 28-year-old man who’s about to get married says about becoming a lawyer,” he says. “I didn’t want to be married and raise a family while I was moved around the country.”

Powers graduated from Memphis State, now known as the University of Memphis School of Law, in 1992 and took a job with Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan, an insurance defense firm in Chattanooga. He lists many of the attorneys there – the old school workhorses whose names are on the letterhead – with reverence and awe. “They gave me a huge amount of work to do,” he says, “but I was working with an outstanding group of lawyers, and anytime I needed help or had a question, someone was there for me. It was a great training ground.”

Litigation was a good fit for Powers, who enjoys persuading people to take his side in a matter. He also likes being in win-or-lose situations. “You need to have a competitive streak to do what we do. That made litigation more appealing to me than doing transactional work,” he says.

After Leitner Williams, Powers worked for a short time with Phil and Jennifer Lawrence, and then moved to Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, where he intended to stay, as he enjoyed practicing law with the firm’s “many fine lawyers.” But two calls from Thomas Helton at Baker Donelson changed his mind. “The first time he called, I said I was honored, but was going to stay at Chambliss,” he says. “A few months later, he called again, and was very persuasive.”

Powers spends the lion’s share of his time at Baker Donelson focusing on medical malpractice defense. He says his work defending hospitals, doctors, and nursing homes throughout Tennessee and Georgia fascinates and challenges him.

“Whether a case involves an infectious disease or cancer, I enjoy learning about different kinds of medicine,” he says. “The challenge is to then take what I’ve learned and explain it to a jury.”

Clients also rely on Powers’s knowledge of the law. In a 2009 case, he secured a defense verdict in a two-week trial in McNairy County, Tenn., in which the plaintiffs were alleging the wrongful birth of their child. Powers’s understanding of the statute of limitations in such cases was the key to winning the trial.

Powers is sometimes called upon to defend his choice of practice, as from time to time, someone will ask how he’s able to represent a certain client. His skills of persuasion come in handy in these cases, too.

“The circumstances in some of our cases are tragic. Maybe a child has died, or a loved one has suffered a terrible pressure ulcer,” he says. “But every client is entitled to a defense, as things are not always what they seem to be. We all have an initial reaction to something like a pressure ulcer, but was it unpreventable? The challenge for me is in figuring out if it was.”

While the work Powers does is necessary for the system of law to work as intended, he does find it satisfying. “When I’m working with a client, I feel as though I’m helping someone,” he says. “They’re in a difficult situation, and it’s my job to resolve that.”

Powers also has experience in products liability, legal malpractice, and insurance coverage disputes.

Powers says he wouldn’t be able to do the work he does without the “love and support” of his wife, Katherine, an accountant. “You shoot for work-life balance, but rarely achieve it,” he says. “But she’s been great.”

Katherine’s support of Powers goes back to his pre-attorney days, when the two were friends after meeting at Rhodes. “I used to borrow her car to take out my dates,” he says, laughing. “Yeah, she’s been great.”

Powers and his wife have two daughters, Madison and Audrey. The former works for a health care company in Chapel Hill, N.C., while the latter is a senior at Centre College in Danville, Ky. Two large, hand-made cards sporting the wiggly penmanship of his then young daughters are taped below the windowsill of his office overlooking downtown Chattanooga. One celebrates a birthday, while the other wishes him Father’s Day. Above the cards on the windowsill and throughout the office are many more family pictures. Powers says he likes the reminders of what’s ultimately important to him. “I enjoy being surrounded by my family at work. It’s comforting,” he says.

Powers also gives a few of his precious hours to the game of golf and his place of worship, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Signal Mountain, Tenn. In December of this year, Powers will finish a three-year term on the vestry there. He says serving at the church, in which he grew up, is important to him. “It’s made up of a wonderful group of people who care about their community,” he says.

While the family photos and Powers’s stories of serving the community are heartwarming, there’s still the matter of the Kenny Powers bobble-head and the Sponge Bob toy. He says the former is memorabilia from a television show he likes, while the latter is a gift from Audrey, with whom he watched “SpongeBob SquarePants” when she was little. He says he didn’t mind because some of the humor on the show was designed for adults.

“Think of the name of the place where SpongeBob lives – Sandy Bottom. It’s hilarious. But he’s there because my daughter gave him to me,” he says – with all of the convincing power a 10-year-boy who swore off the law but grew up to be a lawyer anyway could muster.