Hamilton Herald Masthead Attorneys Insurance Mutual of the South

Editorial


Front Page - Friday, December 8, 2017

Law firm adds fourth generation


Wagner & Wagner builds on 72-year legal dynasty



When the history of Wagner & Weeks is recorded, the author will note that attorney Patrick Wagner was sworn into the Tennessee Bar on Oct. 12, 2017, after passing the state bar exam. To add a bit of flair to the entry, the biographer will mention that Wagner then became the Chattanooga law firm’s first new attorney in 30 years.

The author will begin his account in 1945 with the practice of Joseph White Wagner. The biographer will then document the passing of the firm’s baton from its founding member to his son, Joseph Church Wagner, who famously practiced law until he was 97 years old.

In a sad footnote, the author will reference the passing of Joseph Church Wagner on July 19, 2012 in a one-vehicle accident on Signal Mountain as he drove home from work.

The biographer’s work will be nearly done as he records the addition of Bill Weeks, who joined Joseph Church in 1951 after the death of Joseph White Wagner, and the subsequent addition of two of Joseph Church Wagner’s nine sons, Richard and Michael. The author will indicate that the latter is Patrick’s father and the last attorney to join the firm before his son.

The biographer will then note that no history of the firm would be complete without detailing the contributions of Brad Weeks, who made his way to the legal profession after his father’s untimely death in 1966, and David Nelson, whose legacy with the firm stretches from 1958 to 2016, when he retired.

If this long and storied history of the firm is weighing heavy on Patrick’s 25-year-old shoulders, he’s not showing it. At the moment, he’s more concerned with learning how to get through a day in court.

“Law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer; it teaches you how to learn to be a lawyer,” Patrick says. “Getting to the point where I can step in front of a judge without getting stomped by an attorney who’s been practicing for 30 years will take time.”

Patrick has been working under the tutelage of Brad, who’s been showing him the ropes.

“Before I was licensed, I would go with Brad to General Sessions Court every Monday morning,” Patrick adds. “He tolerated me breathing over his shoulder and listening to how he interacted with his clients.

“Brad has also been patient with me, especially when I’ve appeared before a judge,” Patrick continues. “He’s walked me through things step-by-step, and when I’ve forgotten something, he hasn’t yelled at me; he’s patiently repeated himself.”

Patrick will be gradually taking over portions of Brad’s real estate and property management law practice, which Brad inherited from Joseph Church Wagner when he joined Wagner & Nelson, as it was known in the early 1970s. This aspect of the firm’s work goes back to Joseph White Wagner, creating an unbroken thread from its founder to its newest attorney.

Brad is breaking with tradition, however, in his meticulous approach to mentoring Patrick.

“When I joined the firm, J.C. didn’t want to do real estate and property management law anymore, so he took me to the courthouse and walked me through it one time,” he remembers. “After that, it was up to me.”

One of the tasks with which Brad has already entrusted Patrick is the firm’s volunteer attorney position with the Chattanooga Apartment Association. It’s been his pleasure for three decades, and now it’s time for him to pass it down. “Patrick has been going to the meetings with me and getting to know our clients,” Brad says. “Establishing those relationships is important.”

While Patrick might appear to be slipping into a mold formed years before he arrived, he has no problem with learning the family practice and doing his part to carry it forward. The day will come when he’ll be able to branch into new areas, he says.

“They already practice the kind of law on which I want to focus,” Patrick adds. “I’m not interested in criminal or family law. Once I’m established and contributing equally to the firm, I’ll be able to do other things.”

Pro bono enthusiast

No one at the firm is concerned about Patrick settling into the role of an also-ran. A recent graduate of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, he’s already proven himself to be capable of carving out a legacy of his own.

During his three years in law school, Patrick took advantage of the opportunity to do as much pro bono work as his schedule and class workload would allow. In addition to donating his time and budding expertise to the elder law clinics at the University of Memphis, he provided 40 hours of pro bono service as part of an alternate spring break program. Patrick put in even more volunteer hours at the Hamilton County Clerk & Master’s office during his summers off.

Instead of viewing the work as a necessity or stepping stone, Patrick tackled it with the kind of fervent idealism found in law students who view their chosen profession as a means of helping others. This was especially true of his pro bono efforts with the elderly.

“Our founding fathers intended that the law should be simple enough that the common lay person would be able to defend himself in court. That’s no longer the case, so lawyers are necessary. If you don’t have someone watching your back, you could get railroaded,” he acknowledges.

“I chose the elder law clinics in college because I like working with older clients. They’re not as vicious as people my age and they’re usually happy to just have someone listen to them,” Patrick continues.

Patrick completed close to 200 hours of pro bono service while a law student. In response, the Tennessee Supreme Court honored him as a Law Student for Justice.

Patrick says he plans to continue his altruistic efforts as soon as he’s “no longer buried under crippling student debt.”

“Lawyers might not know how to operate on people or save lives, but they have knowledge that gives them armor and weaponry,” he points out. “You can attack and defend.”

Lacrosse evangelist

In addition to distinguishing himself through pro bono work while in Memphis, Patrick made an unforgettable mark on the city as the coach of a lacrosse team there.

His intense passion for lacrosse began forming in sixth grade when he was one of the founding members of the Signal Mountain program. He played the sport through middle and high school and into college, where he competed in NCAA Division III lacrosse.

Although Patrick also played baseball and soccer growing up, and was on the football and rowing teams in high school, he latched onto lacrosse because it was the first sport he truly enjoyed. He was also good at it, despite being “mediocre” at other sports.

“I’ve always been more on the nerdy side and have never been a big sports guy,” he says. “I pretty much played sports to stay in shape.”

During his senior year in high school, Patrick became disillusioned with the paltry resources allocated to the lacrosse team (the players had to practice on local peewee baseball fields) and what he considered to be a lack of effective coaching and swore to someday return to Signal Mountain and transform it into a legitimate program. To begin living up to his promise, Patrick coached the school’s goalies from 2012-2014 while a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

After settling in at law school, Patrick reached out to Evangelical Christian School to inquire about a coaching position. The school wound up hiring him as its seventh and eighth grade coach for 2015. After leading the team through a winning season, ESC offered him the head varsity coach position at the high school. Patrick took the job and led the squad to two consecutive state championships. Having returned to Chattanooga, he’s now the head coach at Signal Mountain.

While Patrick loves lacrosse, he became even more zealous about coaching while at ECS – but not because of the thrill of victory. “I learned there’s a lot more to coaching than running drills and yelling at kids,” he points out. “When I saw the huge impact a coach can have on his or her players, I became very passionate about coaching for reasons beyond winning.”

Because Patrick was young, his players often approached him for advice regarding social issues and other teen matters they didn’t feel comfortable discussing with their parents.

Moreover, Patrick loved taking a player whose shortcomings and mistakes had been drilled into his brain (and who was on the verge of quitting after receiving no help to correct the issues) and working with him one-on-one until he got them right.

“The kid’s whole attitude would flip because he could do something he thought he’d never do,” Patrick recounts. “Helping a kid succeed where he’s given up hope and watching him blossom into a standout player has to be one of the best feelings in the world.”

Patrick is now intent on growing lacrosse into a legitimate and respected sport in Chattanooga and securing the support and resources the Signal Mountain team “needs and deserves.”

“I want to bring a travel club team here with the help of the other local coaches so the kids can have somewhere to play year-round,” he says. “I also want to expand lacrosse to our troubled youth and the inner-city areas.

“Lacrosse has always been a rich kid’s sport; I want to help spread it around the city, not just to the private schools but everywhere, because too much untapped athletic talent is being overlooked.”

Choosing the law

Patrick’s enthusiasm for the law belies his initial reluctance to become an attorney. An admitted science nerd, he initially set out to go to medical school and become a doctor. However, a conversation during this junior year of undergrad with a relative who was a resident at John Hopkins University changed his trajectory.

“I asked him what it was like to be a doctor. He said he loved what he was doing but he was working 80 hours a week and getting very little sleep. Also, he and his wife had just had a kid, and he wasn’t seeing much of them,” Patrick explains. “He told me I would have to go through that.”

The conversation caused Patrick to reassess his future. “I thought, ‘What do I want out of life? Do I want to work, work, work, work, work, make good money and maybe enjoy it someday?’” he recalls. “I’d rather be involved in my family’s life than be stuck at a hospital for 24 hours. I’m fine with working my tail off, but I want to work to live, not live to work.”

Patrick saw the law as being able to provide the life he wanted. But he wasn’t necessarily following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, both of whom became attorneys because Joseph Church Wagner expected it. Rather, Patrick wanted to pattern his life after his grandfather – a consummate sportsman and family man.

“My grandfather was in the woods every chance he had. He also liked hanging out with his grandkids after work,” Patrick says. “He lived life on his own terms. He never even used a cane to walk. He was as tough as nails and lived life to the fullest.”

Joseph Church Wagner was also a dedicated community leader. This is important to Patrick; in addition to “working to live,” he wanted to be able to give back. “I’m all about branching out into the community and volunteering.’’

With thoughts of his “hero and role model” in mind, Patrick transferred from Millsaps College in Mississippi, where he was studying neuroscience, to UTC, where he switched to biology.

He then chose the University of Memphis over the University of Tennessee at Knoxville for law school.

“One of the coolest things about going to Memphis is I didn’t know a single human being. I was able to establish myself without relying on my family name,” Patrick says. “It’s not that the family name is a bad thing to have; I never heard anyone say anything negative about my grandfather. But I was able to not be the latest Wagner; it was just me, in a city by myself, and I grew from there. That was fun.”

The newest hire

Although Patrick had offers to practice in Memphis, he chose to return home.

“The school wanted me to stay for lacrosse,” he acknowledges, “but I wanted to be the grandkid who keeps the family business going.”

There was just one catch: Patrick had to interview for the position. “All of us put in our applications and our dads accepted us,” Richard Wagner says. “Patrick had to put in his application, too, and we voted him in.”

“We weren’t looking for someone. It was more him wanting to come here,” Michael Wagner adds.

After hiring Patrick, the firm gave him an office in the First Tennessee Bank building, where Wagner & Weeks has resided in its various permutations since the 1950’s. Although typically loquacious once he gets rolling, he calls working with his uncle, father and Brad “pretty pleasant” and leaves it at that.

Patrick is more eager to talk about his various off-duty pursuits, which include hiking, conservationism (he calls himself a “tree-hugger” who wants people to reduce their impact on Earth) and astronomy.

Get him talking about the latter and he might not stop. “I could sit under the sky with you and tell you the names of the stars, how old they are and how far away most of them are,” he says. “Then we could talk about everything from how stars are born and die to the amount of mass it takes to form a neutron star versus a black hole.

“All that stuff is the great unknown. Every time we open a door when we discover something, there are 50 doors on the other side of it.”

“We call him Sheldon,” Michael Wagner says, referring to the fictional theoretical physicist who appears on “The Big Bang Theory.”

Patrick seems to like the association. “My friends and I will set up on a dock at night in Soddy Daisy and take pictures of Saturn and the Galilean moons.’’

This is the more relaxed but equally impassioned part of Patrick that can be hard to see behind the young, driven lawyer and fiercely committed lacrosse coach.

But it’s there, between the lines of the biographer’s account.

Now, the author’s fingers are poised, waiting to tap out the next chapter in the history of Wagner &Weeks. It’s all up to Patrick.

“I’m excited to be back in my hometown and eager to see what I can do.”