Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 17, 2018

Empathy through representation

Hamill’s clients teach him about overcoming real, perceived obstacles

Hamill - David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

As an employment attorney, Doug Hamill spends his days instructing others about the law, whether it’s a client he’s representing or a defendant against whom he’s bringing a case.

Hamill’s clients have taught him a few things, as well, during his 14 years of practice with Burnette, Dobson & Pinchak. This has turned a career in which he often changes the lives of others for the better into a job that occasionally changes him.

“We had a disability case against a federal agency. Our client was a legally blind individual who worked in a nuclear plant,” he says. “When we told the facts of the case to the people in our office, everyone said, ‘A blind person can’t work at a nuclear facility.’”

The client had lost his job due to this very presumption, even though he had demonstrated he could do his job perfectly well.

Through his meetings with the client at the office and visits to the man’s home, Hamill saw firsthand the ease with which he not only moved through the world but also performed functions Hamill previously thought would have been impossible for a blind person.

“He’d come to the office and negotiate obstacles as though there was nothing wrong with his eyesight,” Hamill recalls. “He even had a huge garden he planted and tended himself. He blew me away.”

Hamill says he was able to use the case to educate more than just himself and the parties in the case.

“Most of the people who followed the case had an eye-opening experience, no pun intended,” he adds, smiling. “My client appreciated that; he felt good knowing his case might help others.”

Hamill says his discrimination clients often teach him things about overcoming life’s obstacles.

“That case reinforced the fact that we all have stereotypes, and sometimes, we’re blinded to them,” he says. “Sometimes, it takes someone like this client to show us we need to be careful about our perspectives.”

Hamill learned a hard lesson about perspective when he and another attorney at Burnette Dobson represented a young deaf girl in a disability discrimination case.

Armed with the testimony of a former employee who heard a manager say they would never schedule the girl to work because she was deaf, Hamill and attorney Donna Mikel confidently marched the case before a jury. But there was a snag.

“Our client communicated using sign language. She was self-taught and used a hybrid of the different languages,” Hamill remembers. “At trial, she didn’t like the interpreter we’d found and shut down on the witness stand because communication was hard.”

Hamill says he’s always wondered if he and Mikel lost the case because the jury thought their client’s behavior on the witness stand offered a glimpse of what she was like at work.

That wasn’t the case, Hamill points out, but it could have been their perception – and people often make decisions based on their perceptions, regardless of the facts.

“Once someone has embraced a perception, they’ll hold on to it, and it might take a mountain of evidence to remove it,” Hamill explains. “In this case, we didn’t provide it.”

In addition to representing “regular Joes and Janes” who simply wanted to work, and for one reason or another, someone took that choice away from them, Hamill has worked with a number of whistleblowers.

While he hasn’t handled anything on the scale seen in the movie “The Insider,” a fictionalized account of a whistleblower in the tobacco industry, Hamill has been impressed with his clients in these cases.

“They’re sticking their neck out, not due to a violation that affected them but because of a violation that affected either their coworkers or the general public,” Hamill says. “There’s no personal gain; they’re simply doing the right thing.”

One of Hamill’s whistleblowers – a federal agent who stood up against the corruption in his agency – reinforced in him the value of persistence.

“He went through three or four years of hell,” Hamill says. “Finally, at the end of that process, we saw some of the corrupt individuals demoted or transferred out of the agency, and his coworkers thought he was a hero – which he was.

“Because of his dogged determination, he affected policy change within his agency.”

The client might have been tenacious, but he also had a steadfast attorney at his side. There was a time, though, when Hamill was headed in a very different direction.

Circling the law

Hamill smiles again when he mentions where he grew up, but not because thoughts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, a rural town of about 7,000, stir a warm, nostalgic glow in him. He smiles, a little self-consciously, because whenever he mentions where he’s from, it strikes an unfortunate chord of recognition in people.

“It’s the town in which ‘Mississippi Burning’ was set,” Hamill says, referring to the 1988 film loosely based on the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers.

Whenever this comes up, Hamill employs a diversionary tactic widely used by the residents of his hometown: he says Philadelphia’s true claim to fame is former American football player Marcus Dupree. If that doesn’t ring a bell, he mentions country music star Marty Stuart, which usually does the trick.

Despite that notorious chapter in his hometown’s history, Hamill enjoyed growing up there. His memories including working the soda fountain at his father’s pharmacy, which was located on the town square, across the street from the Neshoba County Courthouse.

Hamill’s job placed him in the vicinity of the gossip and conversations about trials that took place when court was in session. “Whenever there was a break in court, everybody would cross the street to get a Coke and a pack of crackers,” he recounts. “And I’d hear them talking.”

Hamill doesn’t remember any juicy bits, but he does recall the excitement that accompanied the judges, who visited the town about once every three months to hear cases. However, those experiences didn’t inspire him to pursue the law as a career.

Neither did Hamill’s participation in mock trial. When he joined his high school’s team as a freshman, he didn’t want to play the part of an attorney because he was afraid to speak in public. So, he lobbied for and secured the role of a witness. It took Hamill’s coach, a skilled trial attorney, a couple of years to convince him to play the part of a lawyer. But even though Hamill liked the role, it didn’t set him on the path to becoming a lawyer.

Instead, a distaste for deadlines did, he says.

“When I started college, I was going to be a journalist,” Hamill explains. “But I didn’t like the idea of writing under deadline, so I changed my major to political science.

“Now I write under deadline all the time. That’s the naiveté of a college student.”

While Hamill was taking classes at King’s College (now King’s University) in Bristol, he told a cousin who was a law professor at Ole Miss he wanted to become a lawyer. His cousin told him he didn’t. “It’s tough, thankless work,” he said.

Hamill persisted, saying a lot of jobs fit that description. So his cousin suggested he take a year off after college and work in the private sector. If he still wanted to pursue the law at the end of that period, then he should go to school immediately, or he’d never go.

Hamill took his cousin’s advice. While at King’s College, he had interned for a Mississippi congressman. When the internship was complete, the man told Hamill a job would be waiting for him in Washington, D.C., when he graduated.

A month before graduating and on the verge of getting married, Hamill visited the U.S. capital and discovered there was no job. Undeterred, Hamill found work off Capitol Hill as an events planner for a nonprofit that taught businesses how to lobby Congress. His memories of a pre-9/11 Washington, D.C. differ vastly from what someone would experience today.

“I would take people to see members of Congress and give them tours of the Capitol,” Hamill recalls. “As long as you were walking with purpose and you knew where you were going, the Capitol police didn’t stop you.”

When Hamill’s year in D.C. was over, he did as his cousin advised and started law school. Since he wanted to practice in or near Tennessee, he attended classes at the University of Tennessee. After graduation, Hamill spent a year clerking for Chancellors Howell Peoples and Frank Brown in Hamilton County Chancery Court. His time with the men gave Hamill his first taste of employment law and placed him on the path he still walks today.

“One of the jury trials was a sexual harassment case,” Hamill remembers. “That case had some interesting legal issues, which fascinated me.”

When Hamill’s time with the chancellors was over, Harry Burnette and Steve Dobson offered him a job. “They said, ‘You must have done a lot of workers comp in Chancery Court. Why don’t you come handle our cases?’” Hamill laughs. “I didn’t know much about workers comp. Peoples handled those since he was the workers comp guru.”

Looking back, Hamill says assisting with the firm’s workers compensation cases was a good way for him to begin his practice, as it put him in court several times a year to help argue half- and full-day bench trials.

Once Hamill became comfortable in that role, Burnette and Dobson encouraged him to tackle cases on his own. “That was a great way for them to mentor me. I came in green as can be, with no trial skills, and they worked with me,” he says. “I had to learn the rules of evidence and how to think on my feet during a trial.”

Once Hamill had mastered workers compensation, Burnette and Dobson began using him on their employment discrimination cases. Eventually, Hamill started picking up his own discrimination cases, and his practice shifted nearly entirely in that direction.

Today, Hamill feels good about his work, saying it gives him a sense of professional satisfaction. “Overall, I like what I do,” he continues, “I feel like it matters. I’m helping people.”

Family life

At 41, Hamill doesn’t just have a job he likes; he has a family he enjoys, as well. It’s a good thing he likes everyone, too, because he has a full house.

Hamill and his wife, Julie, have been married for 19 years. During the last 14 of those years, they’ve had six children.

“My wife is a saint,” Hamill says, putting it lightly. “When people find out we have six kids, they ask strange questions, like, ‘Are all those yours?’ and ‘Are you Catholic?’”

The Hamills didn’t plan on having six children. They had intended to have three, maybe four. But life has been full of surprises. The Hamill brood is made up of four sons and two daughters, with the girls coming last.

“For a while, we wondered if Hamills could produce girls because my parents have three boys and my older brother has three boys,” Hamill says. (Hamill has another brother – a twin – but he’s single and has no children.)

Rearing six children ranging in age from 5 to 14 is challenging enough, but Julie adds to her work load by homeschooling every child. Hamill says this earns her an extra measure of sainthood because she can’t send them to school in August.

Fortunately, Hamill adds, she’s an excellent teacher. “She’s too humble to admit that to others, though,” he adds.

Hamill says he and Julie home school their children because it allows them to integrate their faith in Christ with their young ones’ education. Mom and dad also like the flexibility homeschooling provides. “We can do class work in the morning and then do something fun in the afternoon, like visit the museum or go camping,” he says.

Hamill is not free from home school duty simply because he works during the day; rather, he sometimes has to serve as disciplinarian. “We joke that she’s the teacher and I’m the principal, which means if a kid has been acting up, the principal has to lay down the law when he gets home from work,” Hamill says, laughing.

Even if Hamill’s kids have behaved, something is always going on at home, he notes. Add all this activity to Hamill’s responsibilities at work, his duties as a Cub Scouts den leader and his service as a deacon at Mountain Fellowship on Signal Mountain, and Hamill is perilously close to wading into the deep end of the pool.

Generally, Hamill keeps his nose above the water, he says, as he works a little later during the week so he can take weekends off. But when he’s preparing for a trial, all bets are off. “If I’m in trial mode, my wife and kids prefer for me to be at work. I’m just locked in and maybe a little grumpy,” he admits. “Other than that, weekends are for my family.”

Now that Hamill’s children are older, small slivers of free time are occasionally becoming available to him, he says. During these moments, he likes to read British naval novels.

Hamill’s favorites in this genre, which is generally set between 1780 and 1820, include the 12-book “Horatio Hornblower” series written by C.S. Forester.

Hamill first encountered Forester’s books when his wife suggested he read something other than a law book while at UT. By the end of the first novel, he was hooked, and he’s now making his way through the series for the third time.

“They have nothing to do with the law, and I’ve always liked history,” Hamill says of his attraction to the unique genre.

When Hamill closes the book he’s reading and returns to the world of nonfiction, his mind has been refreshed and he’s ready to resume the work that often changes the lives of others for the better and occasionally changes him. It’s a job he hopes to do for many years to come, with one potential difference.

“My wife is a great cook,” he says, a smile spreading across his face. “She’s always told me she wants to open a bakery next to the law office and call our place Torts and Tortes.

“Who knows? It’s a good idea.”