The Power of a Mentor
By Judge Marshall L. Davidson III
Most legal professionals probably do not readily think of themselves as having much influence on how others think, act, and otherwise manage their personal and professional lives. But the reality is much different.
Chief Justice Frank F. Drowota III, probably had as much or more influence on the shape of Tennessee law than any justice to have ever served on the Tennessee Supreme Court. He was one of the longest serving and most beloved justices in Tennessee history, and he was my mentor for nearly 30 years. He passed away on April 15, 2018.
The Making of a Supreme Court Justice
Judges, like everyone else, are shaped largely by their life experiences. So it was with Drowota. He grew up in the Nashville church where his father served as the pastor and, despite what they say about preacher’s kids, Drowota maintained that he rarely misbehaved as a boy.
However, there was an occasion when his father took him outside to spank him with a switch. Pastor Drowota said his son, “this will hurt me more than it does you.” Young Frank replied, ”Dad, I really don't want this to hurt you, so let's just call it even.” To his surprise, his father agreed, and so began Drowota’s emerging talent as a skilled mediator.
Fast forward to 1970 and Drowota was practicing law in Nashville when he was appointed to the Chancery Court of Davidson County where, as it turned out, was the site of his most embarrassing moment as a judge. It happened during a trial when he leaned back in his chair as he normally did, but this time the chair flipped backward, catapulting him onto the floor and sending his feet flying toward the ceiling. Drowota described the incident as “every judge’s worst nightmare.” But he also described it as a lesson in humility.
After spending four years in the trenches of a busy trial court, Drowota was appointed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals where he served until his election in 1980 to the Tennessee Supreme Court at the age of just 42. He earned the respect and confidence of his new colleagues and they selected him to serve as chief justice not once, but twice. He served 25 years on the Tennessee Supreme Court, the second longest in state history. Not bad for someone who, while serving as a young naval officer, had to find a quiet place aboard an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea to take the law school admissions test.
Contributions to the Law and Legal System
During his more than 30 years as an appellate judge, Drowota participated in more than 4000 decisions. He authored at least 1000 majority opinions and, in all, roughly 20,000 cases seeking review by the Tennessee Supreme Court passed over his desk. There is no area of Tennessee law without his thumbprint.
Although the earthly career of this just and able judge may be over, the anchor points he drove deep into virtually every area of Tennessee law will guide lawyers, juries, and judges for generations.
The Man Behind the Robe
When Drowota was sworn in as a new judge, his father’s advice to his son came from Micah 6:8, “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” This came to describe not just how Drowota approached his role as a judge, but it describes how he lived his life. He treated everyone fairly and respectfully. He was thoughtful, he was considerate, and he was genuinely interested in the lives of those around him, something that was obvious to me from the outset of my time at the Tennessee Supreme Court as a new, impressionable lawyer.
On my first day on the job as Drowota’s law clerk, he had me in his office explaining his expectations and housekeeping matters one expects to hear the first day at any new job. At the end of that lengthy discussion, he said “I want you to remember one more thing. Around here, we work hard and we play hard.” He then explained the importance of a lawyer striving to live a balanced life, “for when we neglect the people and the causes that keep us anchored, we tend to drift, personally and professionally, in ways that often are not good.” His advice made a huge impression on me as a new lawyer and, more importantly, as a new husband and father in my twenties.
When I turned 30, Drowota said to me, “cherish the time with your children, for they will grow quickly.” He was so right.
When I turned 40, he said “be sure to enjoy the little things in life, for one day you will realize those are the big things in life.” So very true.
Then, when I turned 50 and he swore me in as a judge, he gave me the same advice he received at his own swearing in decades before: “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
Of all the lessons I was privileged to learn while working at Tennessee’s high court for more than 20 years, I am most grateful for wise insights such as these that have less to do with the law, but everything to do with life.
The End of a Life and the Beginning of a Legacy
In late 2017, Drowota was diagnosed with ALS. He shared the news with me during one of our regular lunches—lunches we had shared for decades. I was stunned at the realization that my friend and mentor for most of my adult life had a terminal illness, and an awful one at that.
Drowota’s condition deteriorated rapidly and, about a month before he died, I received an email from him. The subject line read, “Special Request.” I knew what it probably said and dreaded opening it. In it, Drowota said that his time was short, and he asked whether I would speak at his funeral. I replied that I would be incredibly honored to do so. I then closed my office door and tried to absorb how the person who had so influenced my life in so many ways, and for so long, had just said goodbye.
In one of the last emails I got from him shortly before he passed, he wrote, “I’ve lived such a great life.” I wrote him back saying “you have indeed lived a great life and, in so doing, have had a profound influence on many, many people, for you taught us how to be excellent lawyers, judges, husbands, fathers, friends, and citizens.” Through inadequate words, I thanked him for his mentorship, his friendship, his example, and his counsel.
For decades, Drowota unselfishly shared his keen insights with me and others about our legal system, which he loved. He cautioned me to never forget that behind every case name and docket number there are real people with real problems. He taught me how to be a judge, how to manage a court system, and that integrity, honor, and dignity really do matter. And I learned from him, particularly at the end of his life, that while there are lots of things in our lives over which we have little control, our influence on those around us is not one of those things.
But as I reflect upon this man’s life, one lesson is crystal clear to me—every person, regardless of role or title, is influencing other people, both at work and away from it. We would do well to never underestimate the extent, depth, and power of that influence.
Judge Marshall L. Davidson III is Presiding Judge of the Tennessee Workers' Compensation Appeals Board. He is a Master of the Bench of the Belmont University College of Law American Inn of Court in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also a member of the Editorial Board for The Bencher.