Mayor Karl Dean, ’81, recounts rewards of 25-year career in public service

Oct 30, 2007

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean recalls “very vividly” coming to Nashville to start law school at Vanderbilt in fall 1978. "I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life as a resident of New England," he told a packed auditorium of Vanderbilt law students in a talk at the law school November 9, "and I wanted to experience another part of the country before I started my legal career."

Dean’s plans obviously changed. He was sworn in as Nashville’s mayor on September 21 after a 25-year legal career here that included five years as Nashville’s Public Defender and eight years as head of Nashville’s law department under former Mayor Bill Purcell, VULS ’79.

Dean initially accepted a position with a corporate law firm in Massachusetts, where he and his wife, Anne Davis, whom he met as a classmate at Vanderbilt Law School, moved immediately after their graduation in 1981. “I thought I would spend my career as a corporate or international lawyer,” he said.

But Dean soon discovered “I had this little niche. If a client’s kid was arrested, I was the associate they would go to. It felt great going to court and having a client I could talk to.”

When Davis, who grew up in Nashville, prevailed on Dean to leave New England and make Nashville their permanent home 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 (the elected head of the public defender’s office), hired him as an assistant public defender. “When I started that job, I knew I had found what I was supposed to do,” Dean recalled.

Dean’s appearance at the law school was funded by the Hyatt Student Activities Fund and sponsored by three student organizations – the Vanderbilt Legal Aid Society, Vanderbilt Law Democrats and the Vanderbilt Chapter of the American Constitution Society. He emphasized the fact that, while jobs with law firms and corporations are more lucrative, public service jobs are professionally rewarding. “When I joined the public defender’s office, I wondered if I would be working with the same quality of lawyers I had worked with at a private firm,” he admitted candidly. “I found I was working with fantastic lawyers. There were all sorts of things I could learn from them. And what was so great to me was that I felt like I was really helping people. As a public defender, you make decisions that have a big impact your clients’ lives. What you do really matters to the person you represent. If you succeed, they’re not going to have a criminal record, lose their job, [or] go to jail.”

Dean served in the public defender’s office from 1983 to 1999, heading the office as the city’s Public Defender after running successfully for that position in 1994 and winning re-election in 1998. He resigned to accept the position of director of Metropolitan Nashville’s legal department when newly elected Mayor Bill Purcell asked him to join his administration as the city’s top lawyer after Purcell was elected to his first term as mayor in 1999. Dean loved the job because of the broad scope of cases the department, which has a staff of 30 attorneys, handled. “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 said.

The experience was an excellent preparation for serving as mayor. As the new mayor recounted his experiences as Nashville’s law director, he quickly put on his recruiting hat. “If you don’t know what you want to do,” he urged the law students in his audience 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!”

After spending part of fall 2006 in what he called his “Hamlet phase of deciding whether I was going to run or not run,” Dean left his position as Nashville’s law director and entered the race as a full-time candidate last November. Although he was well known within Nashville’s legal community, most Nashvillians didn’t know who Dean was when he launched his mayoral campaign. “I knew the campaign would be an overwhelming time commitment,” he said. “I couldn’t be a candidate and be the city’s lawyer, and I saw serving as mayor as the best way to accomplish the things that are important to ensure a good future for this city. Nashville is a dynamic, wonderful place that’s grown more diverse and more interesting in recent years and – thanks to our universities – it’s constantly re-energized by an infusion of bright, young, talented people.”

Dean’s campaign emphasized the priorities he has now set about addressing as mayor: public education, public safety and economic development. He believes his background in law – both as a public defender and as Metro Nashville’s law director – is a real asset, and he flatly refused to apologize for any aspect of his service as a public defender during his campaign. “It was suggested that I was perhaps doing my job too well,” he said. “What kind of argument is that? I’m as proud of that service as I am of anything I’ve done in my life. My attitude is that this is a good thing I did. I think people are smarter than you give them credit for, and they get that public defenders are important. They understand that just because I’m defending a person doesn’t mean I agree with arson.”

Dean also frankly relishes the fact that some Nashvillians will remember him more as their lawyer than their mayor. Shortly after he was elected mayor, Dean left his car at a garage for servicing. “I hadn’t really thought through the issue of transportation, so I started walking down Church Street to my office in downtown Nashville,” Dean said. “As I passed a bus bench, a man sitting there said, ‘Hey, Karl, remember me?’” Dean, who spent months meeting people from every part of Nashville over the course of his mayoral campaign, admitted he didn’t. “You represented me back in the 1980s,” the man said. “I was accused of stealing stuff. You got me probation." The man explained that he had straightened his life out, and now had a good job with a large employer. "You changed my life," he told Dean.

“I couldn’t remember him from Adam,” Dean said, “but he remembered me as his lawyer. This shows you how important a public defender’s job is. This guy is working – he’s working, he‘s not in jail. He’s got a life and a family. Whatever else happens today, I know I helped that guy.”

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