April 25, 2017

Member Spotlight: The Hon. Robert Childers

The Hon. Robert Childers

The Hon. Robert Childers of Memphis has served as a Tennessee Circuit Court judge since 1984. He is a past chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) and a past chair of the Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council.

Tell us a little bit about your career.

I began practice in 1975 in Memphis, Tenn. I had a general practice with emphasis on personal injury and family law. I was very involved with local bar association activities. I ran for a Circuit Court (state trial court) judgeship in 1982 at age 34. I came in a close second, but lost the race. A new Circuit Court position was created in 1984 and I ran against 5 other candidates and won. I was reelected without any opponent in 1990, 1998, 2006 and 2014. I have served as president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference (all Supreme Court, Appellate Court and Trial Judges in the state), president of the Tennessee Trial Judges Association, chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), and Tennessee Domestic Violence Council. I have served as a special judge on the Tennessee Supreme Court Workers Compensation Panel and the Court of Appeals.

Is it what you had planned when you started law school?

Like most people my age I was uncertain about what career to choose. I had no lawyers in my family, but my best friend had talked about going to law school and that sounded like a good career path for me as well, and I decided on pursuing that path. The only thing I had on my mind when I started law school was to prepare myself to make a living in a profession that would prepare me to help others.

What has been the highlight of your career?

I have had several highlights:

  1. Being elected judge and re-elected four times with no opposition.
  2. Helping to create the Memphis Lawyers Helping Lawyers committee in 1987.
  3. Leading the effort to re-establish the non-partisan election of judges for our county in 1998.
  4. Serving on CoLAP, and Chairing the Commission.
  5. As CoLAP chair, overseeing the passage by the House of Delegates of a Model Rule on Conditional Admission to Practice Law.
  6. Chairing the Tennessee Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council to develop statewide policies and procedures to assist victims of domestic violence.
  7. Being chosen by my peers as president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and the Tennessee Trial Judges Association.
  8. Being named Distinguished Alumnus of my alma mater, the University of Memphis.

If you could go back to the beginning of your legal career, would you have done anything differently?

I would change very little except for maybe spending a little more time on my studies. I had to work several part-time jobs all through law school in order to get through school, including playing in a rock and roll band, operating a delivery service and working for the U.S. Customs Service. That left me with precious little time to devote to my studies.

What advice would you give to someone considering law school today?

Take advantage of any clinical programs available or find opportunities to work as a law clerk, extern or intern to broaden your experience to find an area of the law that you love and can be passionate about.

What were the biggest changes you saw in the legal profession over the course of your career?

The two biggest changes I have seen are:

  1. The advent of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). ADR has resulted in the settlement of at least 75 to 80 percent of the lawsuits that are filed in court and some cases get settled by ADR before the lawsuit is even filed.
  2. Advances in technology. Technological advances have changed the way we practice law. Faxes, email, cell phones and the internet have forced lawyers to change their practice to stay competitive in the marketplace.

What has been the highlight of your work with the ABA?

Again I have had several highlights in my work with the ABA:

  1. I joined the Commission in 1999 and in 2002 I suggested that CoLAP should be doing more to assist law students struggling with impairment issues. As a result I was appointed Chair of the CoLAP Law School Outreach Committee. I gathered a select committee of law school Deans and Professors, Lawyer Assistant Program (LAP) professionals, representatives from the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC) and LAP attorney volunteers that produced several innovations to assist law students including a Law School Tool Kit to assist law school Student Affairs Deans, and the development of a Model Rule on Conditional Admission to Practice Law; and a Law Student Listserv. That work culminated in the passage of the Model Rule by the House of Delegates in 2008. The Law School Outreach Committee was so effective in helping law students that it is now a standing committee, the Law School Assistance Committee.
  2. In 2006 I suggested that CoLAP needed to be doing more to assist Judges and I was appointed Chair of the Judicial Assistance Initiative (JAI). I gathered a select group of judges, representatives from the Conference of Chief Justices, the National Court Clerks Conference, the Judicial Family Institute, American Judicature Society and the National Judicial Disciplinary Counsel organization to produce policies and procedures to assist judges affected by impairment issue. This included Judges Helping Judges, a comprehensive publication to assist judges who may be depressed, chemically dependent or who may have other mental health conditions that impair judicial performance. JAI also created the National Helpline for Judges Helping Judges. Operated through the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, any judge in the country can call this Helpline number and speak to other judge volunteers about any issue that may affect the ability of a judge to competently serve. The helpline number is 1-800-219-6474.
  3. My four years as CoLAP Commission Chair.

How did you become involved in lawyers assistance programs?

In 1986 a really good lawyer took his own life. He was a Vietnam veteran, had worked as a public defender and then had a really good private practice. He was well-rounded and popular, he played in a blue grass band, among other community activities. Several of his attorney colleagues were talking at his wake about why such a good person would take the drastic step of taking his own life when he had so much to live for. As we sat and talked each of us realized that we each knew bits of pieces of things that were troubling our friend. We realized that we needed to come up with a way to assist others that might contemplate suicide as a way of dealing with the stresses of law practice. The Lawyers Helping Lawyers committee was created shortly thereafter. In 1999 the Tennessee Supreme Court created by court rule the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program Commission (TLAP). I served as a TLAP Commission member from 1999 to 2009. Being involved with the lawyers assistance program movement since 1986 has been the most rewarding and meaningful work I have done as an adult.

If you had not become a lawyer, what do you think you would have done?

Until I was a high school sophomore I wanted to be a professional baseball player, but when I did not make the varsity baseball team I decided that maybe being a pro baseball player was not in my future. That's when I decided I wanted to become a lawyer and I believe I made the right decision.

The Hon. Robert Childers

The Hon. Robert Childers of Memphis has served as a Tennessee Circuit Court judge since 1984. He is a past chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) and a past chair of the Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council.