Karl Dean recalls "very vividly" coming to Nashville to start law school at Vanderbilt in 1978, having chosen Vanderbilt because "I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life as a resident of New England, and I wanted to experience another part of the country before I started my legal career," he says. He also acknowledges that he originally planned on a career as a corporate or international lawyer. "I did not do any volunteer work at the District Attorney's or Public Defender's offices or with any other public interest organization while I was in law school," he says. "I look back on that now and regret it, because I would not have had the interesting professional career I've had if not for public service."
After graduating in 1981, Dean moved to Massachusetts to accept a job at a corporate law firm. "I had this little niche," he recalls. "If a client's kid was arrested, I was the associate they came to. It felt great going to court and having a client I could talk to." When Dean and Anne Davis, whom he had met at Vanderbilt, became engaged, Davis prevailed on Dean to make Nashville their permanent home. "My wife is a Nashville native, and I brought all my skills as a litigator to bear when we were debating where to live, so we live in Nashville," he quips. As the couple prepared to move back to Nashville in 1983, Dean decided to apply only for public service positions. He wrote to both the Nashville district attorney's and public defender's offices, and Jim Weatherly, then Nashville's Public Defender, hired him as an assistant public defender. "When I started that job, I knew I had found what I was supposed to do," Dean recalls.
Dean served in the Public Defender's office until 1999, heading the office as the city's Public Defender after running successfully for that position in 1990, 1994 and 1998. He left the Public Defender's office in 1999 to become director of Metropolitan Nashville's legal department when newly elected Mayor Bill Purcell, '79, asked Dean to join his administration. Dean loved the job because of the broad scope of cases the department's 30 attorneys fielded. "We handled all of the civil cases, some quasi-criminal cases, contracts, bonds, lots of litigation, slip and fall cases, car accidents, civil rights lawsuits, constitutional law, educational law - the whole gamut," he says. The experience was also excellent preparation for serving as mayor.
Dean spent most of his childhood in Gardner, Massachusetts, a small town 60 miles west of Boston, and began law school at Vanderbilt after graduating from Columbia University, where he majored in political science and played on the rugby team. His family was comfortably middle-class-his father worked for the time recording company Simplex and his mother stayed home with Dean and his two brothers - but Dean paid most of his own way through college, working the night shift and overtime hours during summers at a paper mill in Gardner, where he could make $4,000 a summer by working seven days a week and earning time-and-a-half on Saturdays and double-time on Sundays. He took out loans to pay his tuition at Vanderbilt.
After Dean and Davis graduated, she accepted a federal clerkship in New York and he went to work for a firm in Worcester, Massachusetts. They took turns commuting to visit each other on weekends and became engaged within a year. "That's when we had our long conversations about the merits of industrial New England versus Nashville," Dean says. "I liked where I grew up, and I still like that area, but Anne was right. Nashville has been great. It's been very easy for both of us to have our own careers here."
As the new mayor recounted his experiences as Nashville's law director to an audience of Vanderbilt law students in a November 2007 talk sponsored by the Vanderbilt Legal Aid Society, the Vanderbilt Law Democrats and the Vanderbilt chapter of the American Constitution Society, Dean was unable to resist putting on his recruiting hat. "If you don't know what you want to do," he urged the students with a grin, "you get more experience in a municipal law department than almost anywhere. You'll take a pay cut from what you would make at a firm, but I'll hire you, and your life will be better!"