Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 36, Number 1

A Teacher First and Foremost: A Tribute to Don Hall

by Victor S. (Torry) Johnson III, '74

When I started law school in 1971, I had no real thought as to what I might do. Vanderbilt is not a school that produces many lawyers who spend the bulk of their careers in criminal law, but early on, I became fascinated by the issues, problems and realities of criminal law. I soon realized I wanted to spend my career focusing on that area.

That was more than 30 years ago, and I've indeed been fortunate to work in criminal law for my entire career. There's no question that my classes with Professor Don Hall contributed to my interest in criminal law, and I know I'm not alone. In fact, I - along with my colleagues who are also Vanderbilt alumni - am convinced that Don's classes helped kindle an interest in criminal law in many budding lawyers who would otherwise never have considered the field.

Anyone who knows Don knows that he's first and foremost a teacher. He placed an extremely high value on the unique interaction between a professor and a student in the classroom. Don joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1970, just one year before I started to Vanderbilt Law School, so I had Don as a professor when he was still new to the profession. But even in those early days you could see not only his passion for teaching, but his tremendous enthusiasm for the subject matter.

That enthusiasm was engaging. After the 1L year, the upper-level criminal law classes Don taught were always popular and well-attended. Students really enjoyed the way Don brought the gritty world of criminal law to life, because, for many of us, it was totally foreign. This was before the days when at least one Law & Order or CSI program is airing on at least one television channel every night of the week, and that way of life - the way the legal system works to deal with crime and criminals - was totally unfamiliar to most Vanderbilt law students - in fact, to most people in general. (Frankly, it still is, since the real-life work of criminal law is messier, more complicated and convoluted, and - sadly - staffed with fewer gorgeous women and handsome men than you might think after a steady diet of tightly edited one-hour television shows replete with actors who spend a couple of hours a day working out with their personal trainers.)

In fact, over the years, Don helped kindle interest in careers in criminal law in many students by drafting practitioners of all types - public defenders, prosecutors (I was a frequent draftee) and attorneys in private practice - to speak to his classes and offer lunch presentations about the actual practice of criminal law. He was genuinely interested in promoting both the opportunities and the realities of the profession.

During the 37 years Don taught criminal law at Vanderbilt, there have been great strides on the technology side of criminal investigations. DNA results now are part of many cases, and criminal lawyers - both prosecutors and defenders - must have the ability to explain highly technical details to a jury. We've also made great advances in training lawyers to be good trial advocates; today, there are many more opportunities and avenues for young lawyers who want intensive training on trial techniques. Computers and internet access have made legal research faster and easier to complete. As a result, the practice of criminal law has become much more of a motion practice.

But some very important things haven't changed. Law graduates face the same financial hurdles to being able to pursue a career as public defender or district attorney, although I believe interest in criminal law has increased rather than decreased in recent years. Lawyers on both sides of the fence still deal with extremely heavy caseloads, although today they are able to provide surprisingly good client representation because of the advances of technology, which does have the virtue of making lawyers more productive. Criminal law is still a system that deals with the most basic problems of human society. Lawyers on both sides grapple with the worst of our societal ills on a daily basis, striving to provide a sense of justice while dealing with some of the most real problems we have, such as vehicular homicide, murder, sexual assaults and drug cases.

Don Hall gave many of the Vanderbilt law graduates with whom I work their first window into that world. Every day you spent in ones of his classes, you always felt he was giving you 110 percent, and he maintained the same quality and enthusiasm for criminal law, teaching and mentoring students throughout his long and successful career. He told me, along with many others, that he wanted to retire at the top of his game. He has, and I know the law school will miss him.

I also know that, if I have an interesting case and want to pick his brain, I won't hesitate to pick up the phone and call him.

Victor S. (Torry) Johnson III

Victor S. (Torry) Johnson III has served as chief prosecutor for Metropolitan Nashville since December 1987, when he was appointed to replace former District Attorney General Tom Shriver, who became a criminal court judge. Johnson was subsequently elected to fill Shriver's unexpired term, and has since been re-elected to three eight-year terms as District Attorney General.

Johnson joined the District Attorney's department in 1975 and served for eight years as an assistant district attorney, ultimately heading up the office's Career Criminal Unit, which handled some of Nashville's most serious criminal cases, before being appointed District Attorney General. During his tenure as chief prosecutor, the Nashville District Attorney's office has established specialized units to prosecute crimes such as domestic violence, drunken driving cases, child sexual abuse and major drug offenses, and established a widely respected victim liaison program.

Johnson is the founding president of the Nashville Child Advocacy Center, a not-for-profit agency that serves children who are victims of criminal abuse, and he has been an active participant in a state-wide task force focusing on the devastating effects of methamphetamine use.

Johnson has also endowed an annual lecture series at Vanderbilt Law School that features distinguished speakers who address the law and its relationship to public policy. The 2007 Johnson Lecture, "The Great Crime Decline of the 1990s," was delivered by noted criminal law scholar Frank Zimring of the Boalt Hall School of Law.