“I got to give an opening statement, cross-examine witnesses and give a closing statement. I was totally hooked at that point on having a career in the courtroom,” he said.
Since then, he has served as the press secretary for Congressman Buddy Darden and was elected president of the State Bar of Georgia in 2010. He practices law at Akin and Tate, a firm that dates back to 1836.
Name: Lester Tate
Occupation: Trial lawyer at Akin and Tate
Family: One son, Sam (23), a senior at Kennesaw State; and a daughter, Grace (20), a junior at the College of Charleston
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Georgia Tech and a law degree from the University of South Carolina School of Law
What led you to taking up law as a career?
A: I watched a lot of “Perry Mason” reruns as a kid. Then, when I was in college, I took a law class where we did a mock trial. I got to give an opening statement, cross examine witnesses and give a closing statement. I was totally hooked at that point on having a career in the courtroom.
In 2010 you were elected president of the state bar. Would you consider that moment, or another, the highlight of your career?
A: Being elected president of the State Bar of Georgia is definitely the greatest professional honor that’s ever been bestowed upon me. While many industries and endeavors in our country lag behind Europe and Asia, our judicial system is the envy of the world. So, it was a great honor to represent the lawyers and judges in our state who have helped to make this system great. It was a great experience that has left me with wonderful memories and friends throughout the state.
I’m also very proud of some of the things we did, like passing a new evidence code through the Legislature, something that the bar had been trying to accomplish for over 20 years. We also paid off the mortgage on the State Bar Center in downtown Atlanta five years early. It meant a lot to me to be able to burn the note as president since I had voted to buy the building as a freshman member of the Board of Governors in 1997.
Is there a particular case, or client, that made an impression on you?
A: There have been many, but one that comes to mind is a wrongful death case I tried a few years ago in Meriwether County. A stop sign maintained by the Department of Transportation had been knocked down and left laying in a ditch, despite records which showed DOT employees had regularly passed by the downed sign and done nothing to fix it. A young mother, unfamiliar with the area, pulled in front of an oncoming truck and died on the side of the road with a stranger holding her hand. The jury returned a $1.3 million dollar verdict. My client, the woman’s husband, who had been left to raise their son alone, began crying after the verdict was read. He had been working two jobs in addition to his wife’s job just to make ends meet and he had no idea how he could do all that was he doing and still raise their son. While we packed up a week’s worth of trial exhibits, he just sat there crying. Finally, his sister and I help him up and walked him out of the courthouse. He had suffered a great tragedy but he now had some justice and a way forward. I’m also pretty sure that no more stop signs will be left laying in the ditch in Meriwether County.
In past years you have been active in various levels of politics and political commentary. How did you become involved in the political scene?
A: After college, I spent almost three years working in Washington, first for Sen. Sam Nunn and then for Congressman Buddy Darden. Buddy, probably because he had just been elected to Congress and didn’t know any better, made me his press secretary. I was only 22 years old, the youngest press secretary on Capitol Hill and had no idea what I was doing, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. Buddy became my lifelong friend and mentor, and I became totally enthralled with the political process. I think it’s important for every citizen to be involved and to speak out on issues they think are important.
Is there a particular piece of legislation relating to the judicial system you would like to see passed?
A: I’d love to see Georgia phase out the use non-lawyer judges. Let me be clear, there are many non-lawyer judges who have done a great job, but overall people expect to have a lawyer preside over cases when they go to court. You expect a degreed, certified teacher to teach your kids in school; why shouldn’t you have [a] lawyer to consider the weighty and sometimes complicated legal issues that [affects] people’s lives?
If you had a dream job, what would it be?
A: I think that deep down being a small town lawyer with a statewide or national reputation is now and has always been my dream. This week I had the opportunity to introduce Bobby Lee Cook, the real life Matlock, at a dinner in Atlanta. He’s in his 80s but has built what, in many respects, is an international trial practice from main street Summerville, Ga. A trial lawyer in private practice has tremendous independence and a tremendous capacity to do good. So, as I told the folks at the dinner this week, when I grow up, I want to be Bobby Lee Cook. That’s my dream job.
What is your greatest achievement?
A: Being a dad and raising two wonderful kids! They’re both off in college now and I couldn’t be any prouder of them.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A: Probably a lot! Two things that come to mind, though, are that I have occasionally voted for a Republican and that I seriously considered becoming a high school football coach instead of a lawyer. Football has always been one of my great loves, and despite being what some would call a “yellow dog Democrat,” I strongly believe that candidates should be evaluated by who they are instead of simply which party they belong to.
Do you have a personal motto?
A: I strongly identified with the saying from television’s “Friday Night Lights”: “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.” My parents taught me that putting your whole heart and effort into something is the only thing that’s acceptable.
If you were to write your autobiography or memoirs, what would the title be?
A: “A Higher Briar and a Bigger Berry.” My grandmother frequently used that phrase, and it meant that you were striving to do and become something better than you are. No one in my family had ever attended college. She ingrained it into me from childhood that I was going to college and it worked. I was the very first in my family. We should all be, in some way, striving to become something better than we are.