Professor of the Practice of Law
Partner, Bass Berry & Sims
After earning his undergraduate degree at Duke, James H. “Jim” Cheek III was wavering between a career in law or finance.
A Nashville native, Cheek had spent his college summers working at J.C. Bradford, a storied investment firm in downtown Nashville. He started out with the humble job of writing stock prices on a chalkboard as they came off a ticker, but soon graduated to higher level work. But Cheek was also considering law school and had applied to Duke and Vanderbilt. A conversation with John Beasley ’54 (BA’52), then the associate dean and director of admissions, not only convinced Cheek that law school was his best option, but also to choose Vanderbilt. “John was a great salesperson for the law and the law school,” he said.
Cheek still has fond memories of Professors Paul Hartman—“He taught all of us how to be bold and think on our feet!”—and Elliott Cheatham, who focused on legal ethics. “Professor Cheatham would talk to you in this wonderfully soft Georgian accent,” he recalled. “After one particularly miserable classroom performance, he drawled, ‘Mr. Cheek, you know, I think you could really improve your ability to communicate if you sat in front of a mirror and watched yourself speak.’ It was very good advice that I followed, much to my advantage.”
Cheek spent a summer with Shearman & Sterling in New York and was offered a permanent position there, but opted instead to pursue an LL.M. at Harvard, aiming for a career as a law professor. Among his Harvard classmates was Tom McCoy, who subsequently spent his entire career teaching constitutional law at Vanderbilt. Both men both joined Vanderbilt’s law faculty in 1968, Cheek as an assistant professor and as an assistant dean tasked with establishing an alumni outreach program for both fundraising and network building.
Within two years, Cheek’s interest in finance and securities law attracted an offer from Bass Berry & Sims, which proved impossible to resist. “Bass Berry offered a great opportunity to develop a sophisticated law practice,” Cheek said. He quickly secured an assignment as “the briefcase toter” for smart young attorney Brad Reed ’64, whose major client was business financier and entrepreneur Jack Massey, already famed for his role in taking two major Southern companies—Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hospital Corporation of America—public. Like Cheek, Reed had earned his undergraduate degree from Duke and his law degree at Vanderbilt, and Cheek thrived under his tutelage. “Brad was three years older, and he became my mentor. Working with him and Jack Massey was a great opportunity, and I learned a lot from both of them,” he said.
Cheek also retained his passion for teaching. He credits teaching courses in securities law as an adjunct at Vanderbilt and in continuing education venues as helping him gain access to national clients and develop a national practice. Over the course of his career, Cheek would provide legal advice to many “very definite A-type” CEOs, including Bronson Ingram of Ingram Industries and Raymond Zimmerman, founder of Service Merchandise, as well as with J.C. Bradford & Co., where he initially learned about securities as an office boy during college. “In retrospect,” Cheek acknowledged, “I’ve been involved in just about every public company in Nashville and in most of the major business transactions.”
Cheek continues to practice at Bass Berry, but he is looking forward to spending more time teaching each year as a professor of the practice of law. “There’s a great deal of hue and cry about law schools not being practical and being unable to produce lawyers who have any sense of how to practice,” he said. “That stimulated my thoughts about how to develop a course that would be focused on the business of being in the law business and the practical realities of today’s practice.” The result is Law as a Business, a new course Cheek is teaching in spring 2014, along with Representing the Public Company.
Developing the curriculum for Law as a Business reminded Cheek exactly how dramatically law practice has changed since he started at Bass Berry in 1970. “We had no Xerox machines or computers,” he said. “We used typewriters and carbon paper, and you had to be pretty darned careful with the output!” The workday was also structured differently. “We had a tradition of morning coffee, and everybody at the firm was expected to be at that coffee hour,” Cheek recalled. “You learned a lot from the stories other lawyers told about the different ways people approached problems and issues. You didn’t have the proverbial smartphone dings. It was much more relaxed.”
Cheek’s Law as a Business course addresses the dichotomy between the collegiality and pace of old-style law practice and the current profit-driven model with the goal of helping students achieve the best of both worlds. The course description reads: The practice of law as a profession is increasingly being challenged by the profit-driven models being utilized by law firms. This course will examine the practical side of running the “business” of practicing law without losing the essence of what historically has made the practice of law a “profession.”