Past & Present

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A partner at the law firm of HunterMaclean, John M. Tatum is entering his 51st year as an attorney in Savannah. That’s a lot of good stories about law and order.

John Tatum, HunterMaclean.

What drew you to the legal profession?

JOHN TATUM: The best lecturer I had in college was an economics professor who taught a course that included anti-trust law.  I thought the subject was fascinating and decided while taking this course that I wanted to be a lawyer.

What has been the most memorable moment of your career?

Several moments come to mind, so I will randomly pick one. In the mid-1970s, early in my career, we were legal counsel to the Sapelo Island Research Foundation, which R.J. Reynolds Jr. had established. Reynolds Jr. bought the island during the Depression from Alfred W. Jones, who had inherited it and Sea Island, including The Cloister, from his uncle. Reynolds Jr. died in Switzerland in 1964, leaving Sapelo Island to the Foundation. In 1974 or 1975, the Foundation and the State of Georgia announced that the state would purchase the island for half its appraised value. Soon after publication of this news, Reynolds Jr.’s second wife, Marianne O’Brien, a movie star during the World War II years, filed a suit in McIntosh County Superior Court against the State, the Foundation and its directors, including Dr. Annemarie Schmitt, Reynolds Jr.’s fourth wife and widow. In this suit Marianne claimed ownership of the Island by virtue of a handwritten “gift” deed signed by R.J. Reynolds Jr. on a restaurant napkin. 

As one would expect, this case  involved a lot of lawyers in Savannah, Atlanta and New York. There were several motion hearings at the courthouse in Pembroke before Judge John Harvey, who loved to play tennis. After these hearings, the judge would invite all the lawyers to his home, and he and I and others would play some tennis before going home. Judge Harvey granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and Marianne appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.  As you can see, this case presents some memorable moments, but one is certainly the moment when we received the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1976 affirming Judge Harvey’s decision that because the gift deed recited that it was given in consideration of “love and affection” and Reynolds Jr. was married to his first wife at the time the deed was written, the promise violated public policy and was void.   

How has the landscape of what you do changed in the time you’ve been doing it?  

When I started in 1968, I spent a lot of time at the courthouse — the Savannah Bar was much smaller and we tried a lot more cases. I went through a ten-year span of trying an average of five cases a year. This also meant that I handled a lot of appeals. For better or for worse, this is no longer true. Civil cases rarely reach trial now. A contributing factor that induces parties to settle is the enormous length and expense of the process, but being forced to settle because it may be cheaper than winning the case is not justice, in my opinion. The cases I have handled in recent years are far more complicated than the cases I handled as a young lawyer. And for some reason, it takes far longer now to get necessary rulings from the courts. 

What do you enjoy about practicing in Savannah?

What is there not to enjoy about practicing in Savannah? I live less than a half mile from my office. I can walk home to lunch if I want. I know all of our judges, and I get to work with people that I enjoy being around.

What’s a motto or piece of advice you might share with a young attorney embarking on his/her career?  

Be honest and truthful at all times, and tell your client what he/she needs to know, not what he/she wants to hear.