A little before 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 21, 2018, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee (UT Law ’78) entered the First Baptist Church of Madisonville, Tennessee to attend the third Expungement Community Court conducted by the Legal Clinic at the University of Tennessee College of Law. With hugs and handshakes, she greeted more than 100 people who were standing in line for free legal assistance in her hometown. The participants were her neighbors, friends, and former clients.
Before the event began, Lee thanked the judges, law students, professors, and volunteers, who spent the day helping people expunge charges and waive court costs that were keeping them from improving their job prospects, reinstating their driver’s licenses, and renting better housing. She told the participants that she was proud of them for attending the event and working hard to move past their criminal records.
For years Lee has supported the Legal Clinic, attending community events, speaking at Legal Clinic celebrations, and encouraging law students to work hard for their clients and get the most out of their clinic experience. She would explain how her clinic experience helped prepare her to open her own practice only one year out of law school.
Lee often describes how vividly she remembers standing next to her client at her first court appearance and how nervous she was. She laughs about it being an uncontested divorce.
“I had everything written down. I can remember the judge telling me to start over and slow down,” explained Lee. Then she reminds the students that they are following in the footsteps of generations of lawyers who learned how to advocate for their clients in the Legal Clinic.
Serving as an Example
At each Swearing-In Ceremony, Lee inspired students by describing her own career path as an example of the potential each student had to achieve goals that seemed impossible.
Growing up in Madisonville, Lee walked to the Monroe County Courthouse after school every day. Lee’s mother served there as clerk of the chancery court and her uncle, nationally known plaintiffs’ lawyer J.D. Lee (UT Law ’54), had a law office across the street.
After graduating from the UT College of Law in 1978, she worked for her uncle for a year and then opened her own practice. For 26 years, she worked as a general practitioner in Madisonville, handling a wide variety of work from boundary line disputes to custody cases, wills, personal injury cases, and even a capital murder case.
“I ran the gauntlet in the cases I handled and enjoyed every bit of that experience,” Lee says. She loved getting to know her clients and making a positive difference in their lives.
“That personal connection that you make with clients in a small town is what stands out to me. Many people can’t afford to pay, but in a small town, you do pro bono work without hesitation.”
During her tenure in Monroe County, Lee served as county attorney and city attorney for two of the four cities in the county, and as city judge for Madisonville. Then, in 2004, she became the first woman to serve on the Eastern Section of the Tennessee Court of Appeals in its nearly eight-decade history.
In 2008, Lee was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Tennessee Supreme Court. She sought to view every case through the lens of lawyer and client.
“I try to state the ruling so that lawyers and judges can understand and apply it — but also so the party involved can understand my reasoning, know they were heard, and see that I did my best to be fair and just.”
Rodd Barckhoff, adjunct professor and interim director of the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution at the College of Law, worked with Lee for almost 15 years when he served as a staff attorney for the Tennessee Supreme Court.
“I can attest to her legendary work ethic, intelligence, and preparation,” Barckhoff says. “Her writing as a jurist is unmistakably her voice. Read any of her majority or dissenting opinions and you’ll hear equal measures of common sense, vision, and wisdom, and, above all else, a concern for fairness.”
Lee tells students to notice that her career did not follow a well-planned straight line. She encourages them to be open to change, to take chances, and not to be afraid to fail.
Honoring Lee’s Service
“Each semester, Justice Lee administered the oath for a new class of student attorneys, impressing upon them the importance of moment, and the importance of their work to the clients they served,” explained Professor Sherley Cruz. “So, it was a sad moment for us when Justice Lee announced that she was retiring in August after serving on the state’s highest court for 15 years.”
But the Legal Clinic faculty and staff also knew it would be the perfect time to celebrate her with the Bernstein-Ritchie Award, which is given to someone who has offered “extraordinary service to the Legal Clinic.”
A Legal Clinic Swearing-In Ceremony was scheduled just a few days before Lee’s last day on the bench. The courtroom was filled with faculty, alumni, the dean, court staff, and clinic students who gathered to celebrate her.
The Legal Clinic presented Lee with the Bernstein-Ritchie Award, named in honor of two Tennessee legal giants who also taught in the clinic.
“It was really fitting to give Justice Lee the award at her last Swearing-In Ceremony for the clinic,” explained Professor Brian Krumm. “It was a wonderful celebration of her accomplishments and service. She has done so much for the clinic and the law school, and this was a way for us to say thank you.”
Upon receiving the award, Lee explained that she held both Bernie Bernstein and Bob Ritchie in high esteem and was honored to receive an award bearing their names.
“I always admired Bernie Bernstein for his commitment to equality, diversity, and pro bono efforts,” says Lee.
Bob Ritchie, heralded as one of the best criminal defense attorneys, was involved in one of Lee’s Legal Clinic cases that resulted in her first jury trial. He also was her co-counsel in another case when Lee was a young lawyer. “I watched what he did carefully and did whatever he did,” recalls Lee.
“For me, the Legal Clinic gave me the confidence and practical skills to start handling my own cases on day one,” said Lee. “It’s a foundation that every law student needs to start practicing law.”
UT Law Dean Lonnie T. Brown, Jr. describes Lee as the perfect recipient of this award. “Justice Lee is a person of great integrity, conviction, and courage. I am so proud and thankful that we can claim her as one of our own,” says Brown. “She embodies all that is good about the legal profession and is an inspiring role model for our students.”