Charlotte Divorce Lawyer Tom Bush joins Law Talk with Bill Powers to discuss the practice of law, life as a family law attorney, and the path towards becoming an attorney.
Speaker 1: You’re listening to Law Talk with Bill Powers, your resource for answers to your most pressing legal questions. Attorney Bill Powers sits down with some of today’s leading legal minds to discuss everything from legal issues and legislation to practice tips and policy. Now, here’s your host, an NBTA board certified criteria law specialist, former president of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, and renowned trial lawyer Bill Powers.
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Bill Powers: This morning out guest is the legendary Charlotte family law attorney Tom Bush. Tom Bush is not only a former law partner and friend, he’s one of the best courtroom lawyers I know. His knowledge base on a wide range of legal topics and skillsets is unparalleled. The highest compliment I can give a lawyer is to refer to him or her as a lawyer’s lawyer. Tom is that and more. Good morning, Tom.
Tom Bush: Good morning. How are you, Bill?
Bill Powers: I’m well, I’m well. Tom, thanks very much for your gift of time this morning, it truly is an honor to have you as a guest, and I hope given your extensive experience in the profession you’ll agree to have a regular guest on Law Talk. If you’re new to the law or even a more seasoned lawyer, if you truly know Tom I think you’ll agree Tom is an amazing font of information. He’s down to earth, straightforward, and a no-nonsense person. He also has some of the best sayings I’ve ever heard and on more than one occasion I used myself what I call a Tomism in court to take a very complicated legal issue and make it crystal clear and easy to understand.
Bill Powers: And I have my little abbreviations for some of these, I call them throwing rocks at alligators, sand in shoe, cloud without rain, hat with no cattle, without wood there’s no fire, and talking of forming a circular firing squad are some of the Tomisms.
Bill Powers: Tom is the senior attorney at the Tom Bush Law Group on East Boulevard in Charlotte. And while he’s handled an incredible number of different types of cases from personal injury matters to criminal defense, Tom is known wide and far as one of the best family law attorneys in not just Charlotte but North Carolina. Indeed, I can think of only maybe one or two other family attorneys who also have actually tried a murder case to a jury.
Bill Powers: I met Tom Bush through his kids, I was one of their youth leaders at church. At the time Tom was running for a seat in United States Congress, I was a candidate for district court judge in Mecklenburg County. Tom, like me, grew up in South Florida, he’s the former chair of the Mecklenburg County commission. And for the record Tom endorsed my opponent who won the election and of course so did [Bill Deel 00:03:25] interesting enough. They clearly knew something that I did not know at the time, and despite that or maybe because of that a friendship and eventual law partnership developed.
Bill Powers: Tom has some amazing life stories, including hobnobbing with President Ronald Reagan and Nancy, Tom’s path towards law school and how he got admitted is nothing short of spectacular, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever heard. His institutional memory of Charlotte, local politics and the practice of law was something that that I helped to dig into this morning.
Bill Powers: My friend, fellow fisherman and Charlotte divorce lawyer, Tom Bush, did I get it mostly right?
Tom Bush: I think you did get it mostly right. You and I go back a long time and we’ve shared a lot of things. The fishing, the flying airplanes, the occasions when we didn’t know whether to duck or pucker up in politics. We go back a long time.
Bill Powers: Well, I’d like to jump into one shared passion right now, what’s biting and what are they biting on? How’s the fishing going?
Tom Bush: Well, for everyone else, they’re biting on just about anything. For me, they’re… short of going down and spearing one of them, I don’t know where the fish are right now.
Bill Powers: Well, fishing and all joking aside is one of your passions, and in fact I’ve always admired about you is your wide range of passions and energy. Some say you’re driven. Whether it’s your-
Tom Bush: [crosstalk 00:04:56]
Bill Powers: I’m sorry, go ahead?
Tom Bush: No, go ahead.
Bill Powers: I’m just saying whether it’s your faith or your family, fishing, flying airplanes IMC conditions, working out, helping clients, you’ve always been what I call all in. So my first real question to you is where does that come from? What drives you? Is it something natural or is that an intentional part of you?
Tom Bush: You know, I don’t know. I think you were talking about the fishing. I learned at a young age that God talks to little boys somehow when they’re alone fishing. We grew up on an island and it was surrounded by what we call mangrove trees down in South Florida. I can remember fishing and thinking about what I wanted to be when I grow up and the things that I thought through, the things I wanted to do, of course I never wound up doing sometimes. I always thought I would be a member of the US Senate, I never got quite that far.
Tom Bush: But for somebody who had to stay in high school a little bit extra because he couldn’t pass high school one through the third time, and he couldn’t get into college and he couldn’t get into law school. There was times in my life where I thought well, I’m going to be on a roof in the hot summer sun putting a new roof on somebody’s million dollar home. But somehow through a couple of different interventions by divine providence I somehow got through law school.
Bill Powers: Right. And so you grew up in South Florida, and if memory serves your dad was a pilot. I think he participated maybe in the Berlin air drop at one point, professional airline pilot. You have a couple siblings and you are the oldest child, is that right?
Tom Bush: Yup, I’m the oldest one and something you never hear of anymore, I remember my dad as a senior captain ultimately with Pan American told his wife and my mom, “Mira, I made $32,000 this year, more money than we’ll ever make in our life and we’ve got this house that we bought for $13,000 and we’ll never get it paid off but I want to educate all my boys through college.” And he did it. Three of us. I had two brothers that are twins.
Tom Bush: I can’t believe what a great gift that was until I saw the lawyers that work here, all of them with heavy student loans. So I was very fortunate in a lot of ways.
Bill Powers: Right. And that’s even changed since I went to law school. It was always a struggle, obviously, and concern for students when they got loan debt coming out but now it’s… To say astronomical I think is a bit of an understatement. But you didn’t have lawyers in your family or did it skip a generation or were you the first attorney that you know of in your family that became an attorney?
Tom Bush: I didn’t even have in my family anybody that graduated from college. My dad went to Emory University after the war, pharmacy school, but never completed it. So my dad was always proud of me, always bragging about me to others, to fellow pilots and others, and he really… I thank my mother for my Christianity and I thank my dad that I was able to do some of the things I did because he always encouraged me, he was my best friend for a long time and I miss him.
Bill Powers: That’s sweet. I personally think the best lawyers I know are born to the profession. While there are things you can train people on, there are certain innate characteristics or personality types that make some lawyers better than other in court than others.
Tom Bush: Yes. I think I agree with you but you know, as you know if you see a great pianist and you can look for one second and you can see where the piano and the pianist have become one, they just are one, or you see a great pilot where the airplane and the pilot become one, there’s a natural gift. So you’re correct that really good trial lawyers have some natural gift, but I also know that no matter how brilliant you are as a lawyer, no matter how persuasive, no matter how good looking for that matter, no matter how much you hook up with a jury, preparation trumps brilliance every time.
Tom Bush: When I learned a long time ago that a good landing starts 60 miles out and if you want to prevail in a trial then you start doing your homework months before your trial. You can’t just pick up a file and walk into a case.
Bill Powers: Sure.
Tom Bush: And even preparation sometimes doesn’t work. I tell your listeners that in my… the first trial I had was a criminal trial, a man was accused of… I was defending him and he was accused of breaking into a home. And I had everything down on cards that I was going to say to the jury and when I got up to talk to the jury and get my opening statement the first thing I said was, “Ladies and gentleman I want to thank you from the heart of my bottom the opportunity to talk with you today.”
Bill Powers: Well, I think that’s true.
Tom Bush: Well that’s how it started off but sometimes preparation doesn’t do it all.
Bill Powers: True. I think there is two sayings there that come true. The first one is how do you get to Carnegie Hall and practice? And the second issue… I haven’t really thought about it so I appreciate bringing it up but I sometimes tell clients I can’t file a motion to change the facts.
Tom Bush: That’s true. And we all think lawyers have this fine line of ethical responsibility not to exaggerate, not to hint at a truth that doesn’t exist. One of the most difficult things those lawyers that have had to defend people charged with a crime are in that very difficult human desire of wanting to win, wanting to prevail.
Tom Bush: For much of my life, and I still do it to some extent, it helps my spiel if I look at the practice of trial law as great sport. It’s a sport, this is gamesmanship, and usually that might sound a little bit light but usually the client benefits from that. So to the extent that you’re in the courtroom and that you want to win but at the same time you’ve got this ethical responsibility not to misrepresent something or to create a set of circumstances that never really existed.
Tom Bush: And one of the things that in these days I’m very much concerned about, we brought some of this on our ourselves, but lawyers have never been looked at in a sense of likable. Beginning back with Shakespeare’s comment of kill all the lawyers, and of course what he meant by that was if you wanted anarchy, if you want to do away with order, if you want to do away with protecting people, then kill all the lawyers. He really said the lawyers aren’t the most popular people around, and some of that we’ve done to ourselves in some ways, but one of the most important things I think now at my age is making sure that we set examples for the younger lawyers not to cross over that imaginary line where you are creating in the mind of the trier of fact something that just plain and simply is not true.
Bill Powers: Well, that’s a great point and I hadn’t thought of that. It reminds me of something in the sport of golf, which I’m terrible at, but I’ve always admired golf being a… It’s a competitive sport but it’s also based on honor and even if someone doesn’t see the extra stroke or you accidentally hitting the ball, you scored against yourself and the definition of character in my mind is doing the right thing when no one’s watching.
Tom Bush: That’s right.
Bill Powers: And I think that’s very much what the rules of professional conduct require.
Tom Bush: That’s right. And I think the other thing is some balance. Of course, I sort of condemn myself when I talk about this. But there was a period of time where I got to know Dr. Billy Graham, and one of the comments he made was that he never wants a great pastor. He wants a good one but he doesn’t want a great one. He says a great one, and just like a great lawyer, there’s something missing in the great lawyer’s life or the great pastor’s life that somewhere, it might be his marriage, it might be addictions, it might be some other loss in life that loses… some of the benefit in life that loses because he or she is a great lawyer or a great pastor. There’s some balance that’s needed and if I had to do it over again, I think I would…
Tom Bush: What helps a lawyer more than anything is an understanding of music and understanding of art and understanding of history and understanding of the humanities and understanding of vocabulary and oratory and things of that nature, that law school really doesn’t teach you. But learning about the fine arts does, learning about history does. There’s a lot to be said for a lawyer having a very liberal education the first four years of post high school.
Bill Powers: I think it’s a good point, I also think there is an aspect of this asking why lawyers are lawyers. In fact, rather than focus on specific issues on this podcast, or practice groups, we spend a lot of time talking about lawyering, and as someone who’s dedicated the majority of their adult and professional life to the Advocates for Justice where we teach lawyers that do continuing legal education, we are helping lawyers to be better at what they do on a technical, proficiency side.
Bill Powers: I think it’s very important and something NCHA been good about, of asking why are you a lawyer? Why did you go into this? Is there a service aspect of things? I myself call myself an accidental lawyer, I went to law school because I did not want to get a job. I fell into a profession despite my best efforts otherwise.
Bill Powers: Some people would say if you’re a fan of Thomas Aquinas and natural law that you are born to the profession. And I now know myself, I know I was meant to be an attorney despite how much I’ve fought it. Tell me about your path to becoming a lawyer, what motivated you?
Tom Bush: Well, I think what motivated me more than anything was a burning desire for politics. I think that desire started maybe when I was 15, 16, 17 years old. I was working at a very exclusive hotel on an island, [inaudible 00:17:06], and I had opportunity there to be the pool boy. And as the pool boy I was putting out chaise lounges for very wealthy people in this exclusive hotel, and they would throw me a dollar once in a while or they’d be down there for a week, they’d throw me a $10 bill when they were leaving.
Tom Bush: For me, it just confirmed, because I took care of people like J. Edgar Hoover, who would be down at the hotel, and I would talk to him for 30 minutes or so every day and fascinating man. Probably the most vulgar man I’ve ever met in my life. Then I would see Mr. Nixon regularly down there. Then there were others like the attorney general John Mitchell and his wacky wife Martha Mitchell, but taking care of these wealthy people and not because I wanted wealth, I’ve never wanted wealth in my life, but seeing these people that held political power, and I thought to myself, I can do that. That person’s no more capable than I am.
Tom Bush: And so I decided that I was going to go to law school unfortunately. It took me a while to get out of high school and I couldn’t get into college, I went to junior college. Finally got into Florida State and the first thing I did at Florida State was get involved in a fraternity and go crazy over a girl and flunked out. Back to the junior college. What is now a community college.
Tom Bush: And then got back into Florida State again. By then I sort of learned that if you’re going to get yourself out of college and get a degree you’re probably [inaudible 00:19:02] take second place and discipline yourself a little bit about girls. As you know Florida State used to be a girls school.
Bill Powers: I did not know that.
Tom Bush: Yeah, and so about the time I, some years later it became coed, but it always was predominantly girls. So if you’re a boy you’re like a kid in a hobby shop. But the point was when I got out of Florida State I could not get into law school, everybody turned me down, simply because my grades weren’t even good enough and even Florida State turned me down, and one day I got a letter from the University of Tennessee that said, “I’m sorry, we can’t admit you now but we might be able to admit you next year.”
Tom Bush: And I was so troubled by it and I just wanted to not let it stop. I could fly free, my dad being an airline pilot. And I got on an airplane, I read that letter about 11 o’clock in the morning, I got on an airplane at about 1:30, and flew to Knoxville Tennessee commercially, got to the law school there, and when I did it was dark and there was this one hunched over old man in there that asked if he could help me. There were just one or two lights on. I said, “Yeah, I just got this letter from the college of law and I guess I’d just like to ask you to reconsider and let me in now, can you tell me who I can talk to?”
Tom Bush: He said, “Well, you can talk to me I’m the dean of the law school.” And he let me in. And of course I came in in March and I didn’t know the language, everybody was ahead of me, but he gave me the chance and all I did was study. I studied, studied, studied. I let myself have Saturday night and did some crazy stuff on Saturday nights where you’ve just been cooped up for six days and I made what would be the equivalent of Cs the first semester, but they say your first year you’re scared to death, your second you’re worked to death, and your third you’re bored to death.
Tom Bush: With me I just kept studying and studying and studying because I didn’t feel I had the natural gift. But I now have learned that the best trial lawyers are the ones who are not the A students in law school, the A students go on to work for big corporate firms or they teach. The trial lawyers, the ones who get right down there in the midst of it, who take on huge burdens and responsibilities, and a loss or a win has an incredible effect on people. I’ve tried a total of about 14 first degree murder cases where maybe you don’t have it, the facts have it, but you feel like you’ve got their life in your hands.
Tom Bush: Or whether it’s a big case wherein the custody of children, where these kids are going to live the rest of their life, or whether it’s a woman who has been badly damaged from a medical malpractice case or whatever it might be, trial lawyers have a heavy responsibility. And that’s probably why they have a lot of addictions. Lawyers are right up there with, believe it or not, dentists who have the most suicide rate, alcohol problems.
Tom Bush: So I learned that even though I wasn’t an A student in law school, the minute I got into the legal clinic where we were allowed to go over and represent people charged with misdemeanors under the mentoring of a private lawyer or one of the legal clinic lawyers, and the first case I tried over there I couldn’t believe it. I can actually do what I was taught. That lawyer used the word objection and leading and hearsay and the lawyer I was watching was older, he was in his 60s.
Tom Bush: And I thought oh my gosh, this stuff actually works. These rules of civil procedure and these rules of evidence and here’s this successful older lawyer in a little non-jury misdemeanor case using that terminology and using that knowledge.
Bill Powers: It’s something I’ve known about you. You’ve always been good with people and maybe that’s one those skillsets we’re talking about because Richard Nixon was not known as being all that good one-on-one. Frankly, I think Billy Graham even said that, that some of the best preachers are not… and from my own experience, found that to be true, they may be great orators and one-on-one they can be a bit stilted.
Bill Powers: And the politics aspect was interesting to me too because I think you said at one time you actually saw John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev riding in the car together and getting out of the car together considering the missiles of October incident.
Tom Bush: Yeah.
Bill Powers: So maybe you’ve had the ability just to talk to people. And understand and relate to people because I think that’s very important with clients, especially with what you do.
Tom Bush: Yeah, like I had said earlier, one of the things that politics taught me is once you take a position you’re going to create some trouble. Having served in the Florida House of Representatives and served on the County Commission in Charlotte, there were times when I didn’t know whether to duck or pucker up when I would walk into [inaudible 00:25:13].
Tom Bush: But there was something I learned. If you are solid and confident in the position you take and if you’re prepared, even your enemies appear to be at peace with you. I think that they may not agree with you, they may not even want you to hold the office that you hold, but people are dying for leadership. One thing I learned, whether it’s in the courtroom or it’s in politics, people will follow a strong leader. And a strong leader isn’t an autocrat or a benign dictator, a strong leader is one that is confident, that is comfortable in their own skin, and I think that one of the great benefits that you can be as a lawyer to someone is reassuring in your confidence.
Tom Bush: When we have people come into the office, statistics show that women, their greatest fear they have in divorce proceedings are two things. Financial insecurity and custody of their children. And when they come into the office, and their husband’s been the one that’s earning all the money and he’s a banker and she has done nothing but be a great homemaker, taken care of the children, taking care of the house, and forfeiting her own skills which she at one time had, she’s petrified. And then the lawyer can give her some reassurance and let her know that things are going to work out good, to tell her that the forums of the people that sit in the chair and if those chairs could talk, they’d come out okay.
Tom Bush: Confidence is what does that. You, Bill, know, being a part of this group, that we need every month to mentor lawyers and to refresh ourself on what the law is. And it can be that tiny little case that we looked at a couple of weeks ago that your opposition hasn’t looked at and didn’t know existed that win that case for that woman, or that it makes sure that she has her children or her financial security.
Tom Bush: So, it’s back to preparation. Preparation builds confidence. Preparation, like I said, trumps brilliance. So I think if I were writing a book for lawyers the title would be How to Be the Well Prepared Lawyer.
Bill Powers: That’s a great title, and family law, what makes it vexing is also what makes it interesting, is it’s amazingly complex. I don’t think most people realize when people get legally married that that means something more than just on a personal level, from a financial standpoint when you’re dealing with child custody, child support, post-separation support, equitable distribution, alimony, and retirement accounts and real property. It really captures every aspect of law, of finance, depending on your individual circumstances. It’s really, really, really, really complicated.
Tom Bush: It is complicated. It is. When you marry somebody, there are consequences. I think it was Solomon who made the comment, that in all situations guard your heart because it’s the wellspring of light, and once you give your heart to somebody else and once you are married and once you become one with that person, and then like a dying coal in a fire on the beach, when that relationship slowly dies and that last coal goes out, and all of a sudden your life changes and you never thought it would end that way, and no matter how much hurt, no matter how much loss, no matter how many tears, it’s not going to change. The lawyer becomes real intimate with that man who is crushed or that woman who is crushed, and you learn all the personalities and the things that people go through.
Tom Bush: Some get very depressed and that depression becomes a preoccupation with self and we call it taking care of the Lord’s [inaudible 00:30:17], trying to take care of the loving the unlovely is a pretty difficult ask for the lawyer. But the lawyer doesn’t get to choose what facts he wants. People come to us that are clearly both their mother and them love them, and they’re very egotistic, some of them are arrogant, some of them are so full of tears and uncontrollable crying that we can’t even talk to them till they get some help. So the human heart is really complex, it’s not a tinker toy, and family lawyers have to intervene in matters of the heart. So it’s an interesting practice.
Bill Powers: There also can be a type of transference of anger and anxiety towards even your own attorney due to a frustration with the system. In criminal court you have a right to remain silent and the state has the burden of proof, and sometimes even in criminal law you have to tell clients, “Listen, this isn’t sixth grade math class where the other side’s going to get rapped on the knuckles for not necessarily doing something right.”
Bill Powers: And family law, it can be very difficult to go through the process, especially if you’re dealing with someone who wants to be unreasonable, someone who wants to drag out the process. When you’re retaining a new client, I think it’s very important in whatever area of law to manage expectations, to prepare the client, to talk about the cost of things. How do you go through that? It sounds like it’s a little bit more gradual for you but how do you do that?
Tom Bush: Well, the first thing we do, and I don’t know whether other family lawyers do it or not, we want to focus on reassuring them, we want to focus on letting them know that this is your first rodeo but it’s not our first rodeo. We want them to know that if they look at the films and if the chairs could talk, as I said earlier, that this is going to be okay. It’s going to work out, and believe it or not a year from now you’ll be a totally different person.
Tom Bush: So we approach it establishing a relationship where the client, whether the client makes five or six hundred thousand dollars a year, or whether the client makes $45,000 a year as a starting police officer, to reassure them that this is a storm in life but that storms never last, as Dr. Hook says, and that sooner or later things are going to be okay again and we’re going to take your hand and walk you through it.
Bill Powers: Boy, that’s easier said than done in my humble opinion because clients… I think it’s important for them to understand that going through that storm, there’s a procedure, there’s a process, there are [inaudible 00:33:35], there are depositions, there are requests for production of documents, there are requests for admissions, there could be a mediation. And it could be a marathon. You just mentioned a year, a year from now. And divorce may… You can’t even file for a divorce unless you’ve been legally separated for the requisite period of time.
Bill Powers: And you handle some of the biggest cases not just in Charlotte but statewide, Tom, and you walk that high wire. How do you deal with that personally? Meaning do you allow yourself to both be professional and caring while also having a degree of separation?
Tom Bush: Yeah. The way I deal with it, and part of it is I’ve got a wonderful partner in life, my wife, who when I come home in the evenings she lets me vent and she lets me complain about the day and I will vent and express an opinion and she never gives me an opinion until I either ask for one or she feels [inaudible 00:34:44] reveal that I’m on course.
Tom Bush: I hate it when God speaks through Chrissy but sometimes he does, and sometimes it’s a time you’re going down the wrong path. So I have the ability to vent, which helps me. The other thing that helps me is I have just about every day of my life, I exercise. It’s a rare time, maybe once every… Maybe one or two days a month that I don’t exercise. I think the exercise, whether it’s getting on my bike or whether it’s walking, there’s something that lets my thoughts clean out my brain a little bit and let’s me come down from the day.
Tom Bush: My office realizes that when you’re in the courtroom and you’re giving closing arguments or you’re giving an opening statement and you’ve finished, you’re still grading yourself after you’ve finished for maybe 45 minutes or an hour, you’re still thinking things through.
Tom Bush: So they try to give me space when I come back in, we try to block me off so I can either get up for something or I can come down for something. But in the practice of law we do have a lot of addictions, we do have a lot of suicides, we do have lawyers and it’s very difficult not to do this, that take their clients’ burdens for them and make them into their burdens. That’s where you cross that line because if you sympathize, that’s wonderful. A little bit of empathy and the difference between sympathy and empathy is sympathy is you see somebody hurting and you feel bad for them, you want to help them. Empathy is where okay, I’ve walked this road too, I’ve been a part of what you’ve been a part.
Tom Bush: And that’s where you can get into trouble by saying I went through a divorce or I know what depression is. And so then you’ve gotten overly intimate with your client, which can cause you some problems. You tend to not be able to see where the facts are on the other side. You tend to lose your perspective in the case, and what might be important to you trying to help your client, the judge is not important about, which is a whole nother issue. People should stay out of courtrooms, if you want to know the truth, and family law.
Bill Powers: Absolutely.
Tom Bush: We have some brilliant judges but we also have some judges where you probably could take a monkey and put a robe on the monkey and they could just as good a job. We’ve got such a [crosstalk 00:37:38]. So you just, you don’t know what you’re getting in the courtroom. A lot of our judges have never been out in the private practice of law, they’ve never had to earn a living on their own, they’ve always worked for the government as a district attorney or as a public defender or as an administrative person and they become judges at a very young age without a lot of experience.
Tom Bush: So one of the greatest losses we have in this country, this great judicial system that we have, is the loss of the concept of precedent in law. We’ve become [inaudible 00:38:18] of what we call equity where we do what’s fair under the particular circumstances. We no longer have the ability to say that precedent, this is how things happened, to make it easier. F. Lee Bailey is one of the well known lawyers of a different generation, decided that he was going to try a defense for a woman charged with first degree murder of PMS.
Tom Bush: So he attempted to set up that she had such difficulty time during a certain period of time in the month and her husband was just constantly poking at her that she killed him. Well, that defense was stricken by the court as a matter of law because precedent said that that’s not a defense. But in the family court where we operate pretty much as a court of equity, what’s fair under a particular circumstance, you can’t predict an outcome because you have no precedent.
Tom Bush: A lot of our judges we can quote to them the law, we can give them the law, we can show them the case that says for instance the law says that you can’t order a house to be sold in a domestic situation prior to the house being valued and appraised. But our judges don’t care about that and if they think the house should be sold before the trial they just order it, which gets expensive because then you’ve got to try to appeal the judge but they operate under this concept of fairness instead of law, which is troubling to me.
Bill Powers: Yeah, that’s, with all due respect, that’s a note to self, especially the commentary about the bench. The views expressed by guest are not necessarily those of Law Talk.
Tom Bush: Now I’ve always known that friendship, paddle paddle, kick kick. Look out for yourself.
Bill Powers: Well, and I will say this, and I agree with you on one point, both from a practical standpoint but a financial standpoint. I don’t think in Mecklenburg County family law cases are generally held on the eighth floor. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be taking… You should be trying your best to stay out of court for several different reasons.
Bill Powers: One, court’s very expensive. Trials are very, very expensive. Just getting to the trial can be expensive. Secondary to that, despite your preparation, you don’t always know how things are going to go. And third, there are times your finder of fact, your finder of law in North Carolina is a district court judge, it’s not a jury. So I think sometimes clients are shocked to hear that they don’t get a jury trial in family law cases, but you don’t know necessarily what you’re going to get.
Tom Bush: You’re right. We use the term, lawyers use the term in a non-jury case, the judge is really the 13th juror. The judge not only determines the fact, like a jury normally would do, but the judge also determines guilt or innocence, or who’s getting custody of children or how much alimony’s going to be paid. So North Carolina is a big debate that goes on with lawyers, should we continue to elect judges? By electing judges the idea is the population can get rid of bad judges by un-electing them every four years or every eight years depending on a particular judge that they hold.
Tom Bush: The other side of it is, wait a minute, why don’t we take like in the North Carolina Bar Association and the governor and the speaker of the house and the president of the senate, appoint [inaudible 00:42:16] committees to interview judges, and then make recommendations to governors and we don’t elect our judges, instead the governor appoints them.
Tom Bush: So that’s a debate that’s raged for years. Usually you find that in a state that allows their judges to be elected, they don’t want to change that. And states that the judges aren’t elected, the research seems to indicate that though the judges are more qualified, more scholarly, more capable in the law, then in family law they have hidden biases that they don’t even know about and how they feel, whether they had a fight with their wife before they came in, whether they are a family that grew up with alcohol problems, the husband has an alcohol problem and the judge was aware of what it did to his family or her family. We all have our… We sort of determine our outlook on life from our previous experiences, and it can be dangerous when you’re determining somebody else’s life.
Bill Powers: Sure, sure. And you brought a really good point because I personally think the best judges out there are ones that you could not tell what their party affiliation would be. They may have a judicial philosophy but they’re not going to follow a political mindset in court.
Bill Powers: And when I ran there was a party affiliation and for a while it was removed, and now party affiliation’s back and I’ve gone back and forth on that issue. I think it’s fair to say we all want the best quality judge up there. I wish we would substantially increase the pay because I think that would attract the best and the brightest, for lack of a better term.
Tom Bush: Yeah.
Bill Powers: Tom, well as expected I’ve imposed upon you longer than I said I was going to and I have, gosh, I probably have 100 more questions to ask you, so what I would probably do is maybe we just put a pin in it and leave these questions for another podcast. I will ask you, in closing, because you brought up some really interesting points, and one of which was the fact that a lot of lawyers deal with these different issues and different problems and in fact, in the studies I’ve read, that more than half, I think it’s more than half of lawyers who have 10, 15 or more years of experience would not go back to law school. I think you would.
Bill Powers: But if you were not an attorney, what would you do? Because you have a lot of different interests. Would you be a pilot? Would you be a preacher? Would you be a professional fisherman? What would you do?
Tom Bush: That’s a wonderful question. I certainly don’t regret going to law school. I tell younger lawyers, “When you obtain a license to practice law, you just obtained a license to make a lot of money. And if you can make a lot of money then you can provide for your family, you can do a lot of things, you can give generously.” Biblically, you and I know that when much is given much is expected. So a law license, short of a medical license, is a wonderful thing to have.
Tom Bush: So I don’t think I would regret the practice… learning how to be a lawyer, becoming a lawyer and being involved in the law for so long. If money was no problem, I would have… my heart’s always been in politics. I would have wanted to be a member of the United States Senate, I would have wanted to be part of a president’s cabinet, I would have wanted to be chasing that degree to the highest level. I did chase it, I did have some success. I also had some losses. That was good for me, to do that.
Tom Bush: I think if I could do it now, I would fly single engine airplanes for Samaritan’s Purse or for some other organization. There’s a group of pilots that fly these little socks to for dogs that go into earthquake locations and other places to find and to rescue people that are under a lot of cement, bridges, and their paws get raw.
Tom Bush: So this group of pilots, whenever there’s a disaster anywhere, they fill up the airplane with these little socks to put on the dogs so that when they’re looking for… when they’re trying to help out, whether it’s local police or whether it’s specialized people with specialized training with their dogs, and that would just be great fun.
Tom Bush: If somebody doesn’t have the money to get educated, if they can’t get educated, I think the next best thing is travel. Travel is a wonderful education. I see it, commercial airline pilots and flight attendants that I know, that some of them never were able to go to college, but they were able to get on as flight attendants or they were able to work their way up and become pilots. The military, wonderful way to get educated. So we all don’t have to go to law school, and a lot of us can become successful and a lot of us can become knowledgeable through other ways.
Bill Powers: Sure. And I want to clarify a point because I think what you were trying to express maybe to law students or people interested in going to law is that there is a potential to make a good living, but also there is a tremendous responsibility associated with that, and I will just add, and Tom I’ll let you disagree if you want, generationally things have changed substantially where you’re Tom Bush, you’re known in the entire state and cases, big cases come to you regularly based on a lot of years of work and training. Younger lawyers are coming out with a quarter million dollars or more of debt. You didn’t have that.
Bill Powers: Even if you do well, which there’s a potential, but there’s also potential of not doing well, you can make a fair amount of money to pay back that debt and not be in a job or an area of law that you enjoy. I worry about younger lawyers taking cases, taking jobs predicated on the, for lack of a better word, a mortgage on a very, very expensive education versus something that they’re passionate about. Do you agree with me on that?
Tom Bush: Excellent point. I think that you hit a bullseye on that one, that you forfeit a lot to become a lawyer. And what the public doesn’t know is we undergo some pretty strong scrutiny. Number one, we have to be fingerprinted, number two, we have an all day exam on nothing but lawyer along with a total of three days of [inaudible 00:50:06] before we become a member of any bar in the country. We are ruled daily by ethical considerations that the average human being is not under.
Tom Bush: If people knew what we had to do and live every day with is this a conflict of interest? Is this… Can I go into business with this client? Can I take this fee as taking a lot if they’ve got in the mountains, they can’t afford me but they want to give me a lot, they say that’s worth $50,000 up in the Appalachian Mountains somewhere. Can I do that?
Tom Bush: And we are so elevated in our ethics that we’re not even able to do something if it gives a perception of a conflict, regardless of whether it’s a conflict or not. So the public on the one hand ought to be reassured that nobody is monitored, looked at, regulated, and subject to discipline than lawyers in the North Carolina State Bar, and the Florida Bar and other bars, they don’t mess around. You can find yourself, if you touch a trust account when you shouldn’t, you can find yourself with anywhere from being disbarred for five years to a suspension. We can’t have any type of sexual relationship with a client, we can’t have any business relationship with a client without certain safeguards, and even those safeguards are frowned on to get involved with a client.
Bill Powers: And to my young lawyers-
Tom Bush: We’re really under a lot of scrutiny.
Bill Powers: To younger lawyers and to law students I’d also say it’s not as crystal clear as you think, it’s very, very, very complicated you can go in with the best intentions and make a mistake. And that’s true whether from an ethical standpoint or professional standpoint where you can go to every CLE, you can do… You’re only required to do 12 a year, you can do 100 CLE hours a year, you can teach CLEs and we’re human and it’s possible to make a mistake, and that’s…
Bill Powers: Maybe that’s where we pick up the next time we do this, Tom. So once again, I do want to thank everybody for listening to Law Talk. I would invite you to please tell your friends and family about it and we’d love to make it as easy as possible for them to do download episodes and listen. And Tom, thank you so much for your time.
Tom Bush: You’re welcome. I enjoyed it, thank you Bill.
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