Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 36, Number 1

The Hall Way

Professor Don Hall talks about 37 years of teaching criminal law and why it's essential to look forward to coming to work

by Grace Renshaw Don Hall

Looking back over his 37-year career at Vanderbilt Law School, Don Hall remembers the years from 1979 to 1984, when he served as associate dean, as particularly challenging.

"Dent Bostick, who was dean at the time, asked me to serve as associate dean. Put another way, he made me an offer I couldn't refuse," Hall recalls wryly.

Hall's five years of service as assistant dean left him with a lasting appreciation for the heavy and thankless administrative workload academic deans take on in addition to teaching and scholarly duties. "It was a real challenge to come to the law school each day with my mind refreshed, ready to teach, knowing that I would inevitably also have to put out some fires," Hall recalls. "I really enjoyed those years and still find it very endearing that a certain group of alums remember me as Dean Hall, but after five years, I was only too happy to turn the job over to someone else."

His stint as assistant dean confirmed for Hall that he had made the right career choice when he joined the faculty of Vanderbilt Law School in 1970. He was, first and foremost, a teacher.

Indeed, throughout Hall's career, coming to the office refreshed and ready to challenge another class of eager 1Ls taking their first class in criminal law or teach an advanced seminar that might influence the long-term career choices of a few 2Ls or 3Ls has been his intense pleasure as well as his job. "I've been fabulously lucky and fortunate to do something I loved to do for my entire career," he says. "The last day of every class I taught, I talked to my students about the career choice they would soon make. The essence of my comments was, 'Life is too short to take a job that does not bring you joy.' My litmus test was whether you can answer 'yes' to this question: 'Do you genuinely look forward to going to your office each day?' If you can answer yes most of the time, you're fortunate - and you've made the right choice. Teaching law was definitely the right choice for me, because most days, I've come into my office at Vanderbilt with a sense of genuine happiness about my job."

Hall notes that the difficulties inherent in urging students "to take a job as a prosecutor or a public defender, which might pay $40,000 to start while their classmates will start at more than three times that amount" have remained a constant throughout his career. At the same time, the legal complexity and intellectual demands of criminal law practice have increased, due to scientific and technological advances, such as dna evidence and search engines. "The legal complexity of being a good prosecutor or public defender has really ratcheted up," Hall says.

In addition to exhorting students to choose an area of legal practice for which they cherish a passion, Hall is equally adamant about demanding high standards of ethical behavior. "A criminal justice system only works if the people who work within it observe the highest personal and professional ethics," he says. He was tapped by Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, along with his former student Dianne Neal, '83, in 2006 to serve on the Tennessee Ethics Commission, formed in response to the Tennessee Waltz scandal, to develop rules and regulations for lobbyists and members of the Tennessee General Assembly. "Anyone who read a newspaper or watched television news in Tennessee in 2006 knew more about the Tennessee Waltz scandal than they wanted to know," Hall says. "The result was the state's Ethics Reform Act, which created an independent Tennessee Ethics Commission."

Speaking of Don

Former students share memories of Professor Hall:

"Law school offered a variety of memorable experiences, and my own category of enjoyable law school memories is liberally salted with remembrances of Don Hall. Here, Professor Hall in one of his fabulously psychedelic ties - all the more entertaining for appearing against an otherwise quite neutral, professorial Oxford shirt - explaining the difference between mens rea and actus reus to a reluctantly awake and increasingly entertained 1L Criminal Law class. There, Professor Hall in a baseball cap atop a most traditional white tux shirt and black tux pants, swaying and singing as the men of Vanderbilt Law's a cappella group the Headnotes belt out 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game.' In this corner, Professor Hall, at the Spring 2006 Law Review reception and dinner, face alight with hilarity and enjoyment as he listens to a 2L's tale of woe. In the opposite corner, Professor Hall, sitting behind his desk, lunch put aside as he helps me - more than once - figure out how to do what I want to do in law without driving myself crazy or exhausting my resources." –Liza Q. Wirtz, Staff Attorney
Blue Ridge Legal Services
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
"Professor Hall had an uncanny ability to convert the most complicated of concepts into understand- able, practical maxims for living as a happy, fulfilled lawyer. He inspired me to enter into the world of teaching and to become a federal law clerk to make a difference in the legal profession. I am eternally grateful for the lessons I learned from Professor Hall during law school, lessons I can only hope to pass on half as eloquently to my own students." –Christine N. Rickard, '04
Clerk, The Honorable José A. Gonzales Jr.,
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida
"Professor Hall has influenced my life and career more than any other person. He affected me profoundly as a teacher and role model during my days at Vanderbilt, so much so, that I remained in contact following graduation and ultimately chose to follow in his large academic footsteps. On several occasions during my eight years in academia, I doubted my commitment and seriously contemplated making a career change. Each time, Professor Hall subtly persuaded me to remain on the academic path, and for that I will be eternally grateful. It is not possible for me to express in words the profound respect, admiration, and affection that I have for Professor Hall. He is a treasure of a human being, and I am honored to be able to call him my teacher, mentor, and friend." –Lonnie T. Brown, '89
Associate Professor
University of Georgia School of Law
"Learning 'the law' with Don Hall on the 1979 Moot Court team was the highlight of my law school experience. While 'Coach' was very helpful in teaching us to analyze and articulate the issues, the most important lessons Don imparted to me, and probably to thousands of others, were to remain human and compassionate, keep a sense of humor, and never take yourself too seriously. Knowing him as I did in this light, I was not the least bit surprised when, on the way to the opening dinner for the 1979 Regional Moot Court Competition at Tulane University in New Orleans, Don announced to our team that he was counting on us to represent Vanderbilt in the traditions of greatness that he had come to expect in his short tenure as coach. We probed him to elaborate, and he said not only did he expect to win the competition, but of equal importance was that the Vanderbilt table was expected 'to be the loudest table at the opening night banquet.' With Don leading the charge, we did not disappoint!" –Robb Hough, '79
Director, Structured Products, RBC Dain Rauscher
Saint Petersburg, Florida
"Professor Hall and I began playing tennis regularly in 1992 when I was a 2L. Having experienced Professor Hall's considerable teaching skills as a 1L in his Criminal Law class, I was delighted to become acquainted with him on a personal level. The matches were fun - he won some, I won some - but the two things I recall most were Professor Hall's competitive spirit and his devastatingly effective slice crosscourt backhand, which would barely clear the net and then nearly die when it hit the ground as I scrambled in vain to get my racquet on it.

His tennis prowess aside, Professor Hall embodies what a law professor should be. His exams were difficult but fair, and his support of students set him apart. That I am better lawyer for having been taught by Professor Hall is a given. But I am also a better person for having been his friend. His contributions to VULS in nearly four decades are incalculable." –Barry Goheen, '94
Partner, Litigation Group, King & Spalding
"Professor Hall initially fired my imagination with his impassioned presentation of a topic I already found interesting - criminal law - but he won my life-long loyalty when he opened his office door and then his address book to help guide me in finding first summer employment and then a judicial clerkship appointment after graduation. It was clear that a word from Don Hall was enough to get me in the door with a number of people.

Since entering private practice, I have returned to Vanderbilt many times to interview law students and I, too, have come to rely on Don's word in recommending law students for employment. I understand now why those lawyers and judges relied on Don's word: It is rock solid and utterly reliable." –Anne Owings Ford, '89
Cleveland, Ohio
"I experienced Don as both an outstanding teacher and colleague, since he and I taught a legislation seminar together after I graduated. The first time we taught together, Don was going over the terms of the course. 'It's a pass/fail course,' he explained in his humorous and motivating way, 'but I hope each and every one of you will aspire to a high pass.' Ultimately, students wrote and presented their own legislation, and if Don was impressed, he would say, 'I think this is deserving of a high pass.' Even in a pass/fail course, Don encouraged excellence. His enthusiasm and passion for the subject and the decency and goodness of his character came through every time he taught." –State Senator Roy Herron, '80
Dresden, Tennessee