One of Jim Sanders‘ prized possessions is a self-help book for attorneys, Francis Wellman’s The Art of Cross Examination. Sanders received the copy of Wellman’s book, which he mounted and framed, as a gift from movie director John Landis after the trial in which he and his former law partner, Jim Neal ’57, successfully defended Landis against charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment after three actors died as a result of a helicopter accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, which Landis was directing in 1983. The book was accompanied by a note from Landis that reads, “Jim, is this too late?”
The book and note were Landis’ humorous way of thanking Sanders for a job well done. Landis’ acquittal of the charges in the Twilight Zone case enabled the director, whose credits included the comedies National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers and the cult classic An American Werewolf in London, to move on with his successful career.
Sanders’ role in the Landis trial is not widely known outside of the confines of the law offices of Neal and Harwell at One Nashville Place in downtown Nashville. Neal, his former partner and mentor, received the public credit for Landis’ defense. The fact that the spotlight remained focused on the larger-than-life Neal in this and other cases both partners litigated doesn’t bother Sanders in the least; in fact, it pleases him. Sanders returned to Nashville in 1977, after serving in the U.S. Army in Seattle and then working in the Public Defender’s Office there, specifically because he wanted to practice law with Jim Neal, an attorney whose career he had watched and admired since law school.
In many ways, Sanders and Neal were similar. Both attended college on football scholarships; Sanders earned his degree in history at Vanderbilt, and Neal earned his degree while playing football for the University of Wyoming. Both grew up in small Tennessee towns. Both had a gift for thinking on their feet. Both were, as Sanders wryly puts it, lifelong “yellow dog Democrats.” Both attended Vanderbilt knowing they would become trial lawyers.
However, unlike Neal, Sanders came from a long line of lawyers and judges. His great uncle, Judge Robert L. Taylor Jr., Class of 1924, was sitting on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee when Sanders started practice. Judge Taylor’s integrity and ability to run a trial were highly respected; he was appointed by Chief Justice Warren Burger to try former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, then a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, for bribery and public corruption in 1973 and to try Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel for similar charges in 1977.
Sanders also came from a family of politicians. In one of the most unusual elections Tennessee has ever witnessed, Sanders’ great grandfather, Alf Taylor, and his great-great uncle, Robert L. Taylor Sr., ran against each other for governor in 1886, an election wags dubbed “The War of the Roses.” The brothers actually toured the state together to campaign against each other, and as Sanders relates, “There are humorous stories about them stealing each other’s speeches.” Alf Taylor, the Republican candidate, lost that election, but was elected to six years as a Congressman in the late 1800s and served as Tennessee’s governor for two years in the 1920s. Growing up in a family with a longstanding tradition of public service and legal practice, Sanders knew he wanted to be a litigator before he started high school, an ambition fueled by the 1950s television series “Perry Mason.”
True to his plan, Sanders entered Vanderbilt University as a history major in 1963 and started to Vanderbilt Law School immediately after earning his B.A. in 1967. But his course was changed abruptly by the Military Selective Service Act of 1967, which required all men between the ages of 18 and 26 to register for the draft. “You couldn’t get an educational deferment for law school, and my class was devastated,” Sanders recalled. “I was able to get into the ROTC so I could finish law school before serving, but when I graduated, I owed the government two years.”
Sanders was fortunate. While awaiting his military assignment, he was able to serve as a clerk for Judge William Miller on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. And rather than sending him to Vietnam, where many draftees ended up, the Army sent Sanders to Seattle. There, he took the Washington bar examination and spent his free time volunteering in the Seattle Public Defender’s Office to hone his legal skills and accelerate his career once his service ended. At the end of his Army service, Sanders returned to Nashville to clerk for Judge Frank Gray on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. He then moved back to Seattle and joined the city’s Felony Division as a trial lawyer. Sanders might have spent his entire career in Seattle had he not been angered when the state raided much of the talent from his division to start a new program. He quit in disgust and moved back to Nashville without a job. Within less than a year, he had joined Neal and Harwell. “I was their first hippie lawyer,” he grinned.
In the late 1970s, white-collar criminal defense was still a niche specialty. “Neal and Harwell was one of only a smattering of law firms that dealt with white-collar crime,” Sanders said, “and Jim Neal was one of a select number of attorneys people who had those kinds of charges would call. In the early years, I thought it was a tremendous break to be able to work on these cases. Of course, it was an even greater break to work with Jim Neal. I considered him then and still consider him to be one of the greatest trial lawyers to ever practice, and I tried to take full advantage of the opportunity to learn from him.”
Over the course of Sanders’ career, he has seen white-collar defense work become more mainstream as it expanded to include the defense of corporate entities as well as individuals. Sanders’ clients have included Exxon, which he defended in both criminal and civil proceedings after the Valdez oil spill, as well as General Motors, Morgan Stanley, Corrections Corporation of America, Mass Mutual, Ingram Industries and Purdue Pharma, among others. In the Valdez case, Neal and Sanders worked for more than two years to secure an agreement with the federal government that resolved the criminal portion of the company’s liability. He currently represents ExxonMobil in a number of civil cases brought as a result of a punctured gas line that affected a residential neighborhood. “I learned in the General Motors case and in the Exxon Valdez case that the rules are totally different for corporations than they are for individuals,” Sanders said.
Although cases such as those filed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill make headlines for years, Sanders emphasizes that the work required to bring such a case to trial is less than glamorous. “These cases are driven by documents, and there’s a tremendous amount of drudgery involved in preparing them,” he said. “There is no substitute for a thorough review of every bit of documentation that is pertinent to the case, and you have to do a certain amount of grindingly dull work no matter where you are in the food chain.”
At the same time, Sanders relishes the challenge of learning how myriad industries work as well as dealing with hard science, a necessity that makes each case fresh and interesting. Although Sanders is nearing retirement age, he has no plans to retire. “The wonderful thing about this kind of practice is that you often get to learn a whole new business, and there’s a huge amount of science involved, which I find utterly fascinating,” he said. “In the Valdez case, I learned how a ship is run; the responsibilities of the master, the mate and the helmsman; the rules of the sea; all about the life cycle of salmon and the worldwide economics of the fishing industry, and a great deal about the geology of the ocean floor.”
Despite the complexity of the cases he litigates, Sanders remains a firm believer in the ability of juries to reach a solid verdict. He is concerned that large-scale class action cases are now routinely settled rather than litigated. While a settlement may resolve the legal matter by “making it go away,” Sanders believes that settlements do not help law to evolve. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for individuals and companies to withstand and afford the trial process as we do it now,” he said. “But the purpose of a settlement usually is to make a problem go away, not necessarily to achieve a just result. When the system defaults to settlements, people lose respect for the law. All you have to do is look at the statistics. Nationwide, fewer lawyers are doing fewer trials, and I fear that we are losing something important to the country as a result. The jury system is one of the bedrock protections of our liberties as well as the safeguards of our freedom, and we need to keep it in good repair. One way to do that is to use it and improve it.”
In late October, Sanders and his partners, including Vanderbilt Law alumni Aubrey Harwell ’71, Jon Ross ’74, Ron Harris ’77, Gerald Neenan ’78, Phil Elbert ’81, Jim Thomas ’80, Scott Ross ’91 and Trey Harwell ’95, found themselves struggling to juggle their caseloads while coping with their grief over the sudden loss of their partner and friend Neal, who died of esophageal cancer on October 21. Although Neal, who was 81, had scaled back his practice as his illness advanced, he remained an active member of the firm. Sanders lost a close friend and mentor as well as a law partner. “Men like Jim Neal don’t come along very often—perhaps only once in every two or three lifetimes,” Sanders said. “Jim touched many important people during the most important events of their important lives. He was truly a legend from coast to coast. I miss him.”
Neal’s legacy includes something that gave him great pleasure during his lifetime: A firm that continues to hire and mentor attorneys who want to practice as trial lawyers, including Sanders’ son, Isaac, who joined the firm as an associate this fall after earning his J.D. at Vanderbilt Law School in 2010. Another son, Nathan, started Vanderbilt Law School this fall. Sanders’ Vanderbilt connections aren’t limited to the law school; he and his wife, Cheryl, also have a daughter, Courtney S. Muse, who earned her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt and is now assistant director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society and a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt.