Firm has rich history in Selma

Published 8:46 pm Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Phillip Henry Pitts, seated, is joined by attorney’s Rick Williams and Tommy Atchison. The Pitts law firm has been a part of Selma since 1891. -- Dennis Palmer

Iconic photos of Selma’s legal history line the halls of the Pitts, Pitts & Williams law firm, but they barely scratch the surface of the firm’s place in the history of one of the most historical, and often most controversial, cities in the country.

To begin to judge the firm’s historical significance, you have to look no farther than the year the firm began — 1891. It was in that same year Wrigley began producing chewing gum in Chicago, Benjamin Harrison was serving his second year as president of the United States and Congress created the US Courts of Appeal.

Also in that year, Philip Henry Pitts joined N.H.R Dawson to form Dawson & Pitts. Pitts’ son, Arthur later joined the firm, followed by his son W. McLean.

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The firm’s current patriarch, Philip Henry Pitts, W. McLean’s son, seated in a comfortable leather chair, surrounded by treasured family photos, Daniel Moore paintings of the Crimson Tide’s legacy and cigarette smoke, talks in a measured tone about a legacy of his own — his family’s law firm, which he joined after graduating from the University of Alabama’s law school in 1963.

“If you’d told me I’d still be practicing law in 2011 I’d have told you you were a damn liar,” said Pitts, smiling through a halo of smoke from the ever-present Marlboro in his right hand.

Over the years Pitts has represented every walk of life; young and old, rich and poor, black and white — it didn’t matter to him, he says. He considers himself the “people’s lawyer.” He even represented former University of Alabama quarterback Kenny “The Snake” Stabler for several years, but what it boils down to for Pitts are the three things he promises every client: “I’ll represent you to the best of my God given ability; I’ll give you a good day’s work for the money you pay me; and I’ll not let anybody run over you. I’ll stand up and fight for you.”

At 72 and after 48 years practicing law, you’d think Pitts was ready to throttle back a bit, but not Henry.

“My daddy always used to say, law is a jealous mistress, and that’s true,” Pitts said. “You can’t practice law halfway. You practice law all the way or you don’t do it.”

Pitts’ partner in the firm, Selma native Rick Williams, graduated from law school at Alabama after getting his undergraduate degree from Auburn University. He entertained an offer from one of the largest law firms in the state, but ultimately was drawn back home to what he knew best and where he felt at home – Selma and the Black Belt.

“My grandfather was a circuit judge and I was his only grandson so we were really close. Looking back on it it’s probably why I went to law school. I love Selma, it’s my home and I haven’t regretted [my decision] one bit.”

Williams remembers hunting and fishing with Pitts and other attorneys and judges from the area, but he also remembers Pitts’ excellent work ethic, one that continues to this day.

“What people haven’t seen about Henry over the years is how hard he works not only on the million dollar cases but fighting over ‘beans’ to some people,” Williams said. “I learned from Henry early on that you treat each person the same. You fight just as hard for one as you do for the other.”

Williams said one of their main goals in working with a client sounds simple, but is often missed by many attorneys.

“A lot of times when people come see a lawyer they’re in a desperate situation,” he said. “Whether it’s an accident or someone going through a divorce, they’re in a situation where they feel hopeless or they’re busted out, and they need a lawyer that can give them hope no matter what their situation is. That’s a big part of our job is to give them hope and we do that.”

The firm’s newest addition is Tommy Atchison, who graduated from Jones Law School in 2007 and practiced with the Selma firm Gamble, Gamble & Calame before joining Pitts and Williams’ firm.

“The reason I’m so proud to be here is because I love trial work. That’s why I went to law school,” said Atchison, who also serves on the Selma City Council and is involved in many civic projects. “That’s my passion is to be before a jury representing clients in court. I think I work with two of the best story tellers around; whether it’s in the courtroom, the tree stand or on the golf course, I could listen to Henry Pitts and Rick tell stories for hours.”

Atchison said it’s that art of developing the story and then delivering it that makes a good lawyer. Pitts agrees.

“I always tell people when it’s ready to try a case and I’m feeling bad or whatever, they say ‘okay, it’s time to try your case’ and I turn to Rick and say ‘it’s show time,’” Pitts said laughing.

Atchison was a law clerk for Pitts years ago. It’s then Pitts said he saw what Atchison could do.

“First time I met Tommy I saw his exuberance, his zest for life, his personality,” Pitts said. “When he clerked for me I observed his legal ability and the potential he had to be an excellent attorney.”

As for what the future holds, Pitts said he’s going to continue to enjoy his “colorful” life to the fullest, practice law full time for the foreseeable future and eventually pass his firm’s long and storied legacy on to Williams.

“It’s been a good ride, a very enjoyable ride. I’ve had a good life and I’ve seen things and been able to do things others haven’t,” he said. “One thing I do regret is that none of my children never chose to practice law. I think that’s why Rick and I developed such a bond. I think of Rick just like a son. It’s always been my goal for this law firm to be perpetuated long after I’m gone and I saw Tommy could make a good partner for Rick, in years to come, and help carry on this law firm. When I’m dead and gone I still want there to be a Pitts, Pitts & Williams and I think there will be.”