Memphis Bar Association

Introduction of Judge Donna Fields by David Caywood

The recipient of this award committed reversible error when she asked me to introduce her. Seriously, I feel very honored to be asked to do this.

There have been three phases in our recipient’s life:

1) Donna, the student and young person;
2) Donna, the lawyer;
3) The Honorable Donna Fields, Judge of Division VII of the Circuit Court of Shelby County.

Donna is a native Memphian and attended Memphis City Schools. She took her undergraduate work at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville where she obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology in 1970. Eventually, she went from cutting up frogs to cutting up lawyers. Her first job out of college was hitting the streets selling drugs -- actually, she worked for a British pharmaceutical company and was the first female pharmaceutical sales rep in the Southeastern U.S. Somehow or another, she got it into her mind that she wanted to associate with lawyers so she went to the University of Memphis Law School at night while she continued her drug-selling job.

Donna, as a lawyer, was in solo private practice for 28 years. She practiced in all courts, state and federal. She worked as a Juvenile Court prosecutor, Juvenile defender, appellate attorney and co-authored, with the late Judge Kenneth Turner and others, the Shelby County paternity program that has made Memphis, until recently, a model child support collection system in the country. Under our now Mayor A C Wharton, she also worked as a Shelby County Public Defender. Donna aided many disabled clients in Social Security hearings in federal court.

It was during this period of time that I got to know lawyer Donna. She came to the Bar about the time women were beginning to trickle into the profession and then came in even greater numbers. Many of the men looked upon this as a farmer would upon a locust plague. Because of my family upbringing, I had no reservations. Many women came to the Bar with a chip on their shoulders, rightfully so when men did not pay them the respect they were due. The endearing terms of “Sweetie” and “Honey Pie” were not well-received by the women.

However, lawyer Donna gave as good as she got. Let me share with you a very telling anecdote. One time I was trying to take her client’s deposition. I called and wrote seeking to obtain a mutually convenient time. No response. I did what any other red-blooded American boy would do – I sent her a notice to take her client’s deposition. Several days later, when she was coming down the courthouse hall towards me, she jabbed her finger in my chest several times and said, “You’re not taking any depositions that day – that’s the day I have an appointment at the beauty parlor to have my roots done.” She then walked off. Guess what? The deposition was not taken.

We then lost Donna as a lawyer but she went on to a higher calling. Judge Donna M. Fields was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2004 as a result of the retirement of Judge Robert Lanier. She has run twice unopposed. During her tenure, she has relied upon the advice of her favorite sidekick, Rascal (editor’s note: Rascal is one of Judge Fields’ rescue dogs. He is very polite and well behaved and loves meat and cheese.). In fact, several weeks ago, Rascal Fields was named Judge of the Year. During 2010, Judge Rascal not only did not commit any reversible error, Judge Rascal did not even commit any harmless error. The only blemish on her career as a trial judge is that she holds the record for the most days spent on an uncontested divorce.

Since going on the Bench, Judge Fields has shown an intense desire to “get it right.” When she tries cases, she exhibits her knowledge of the law. She is courteous to those who deserve courtesy and even those who do not deserve it. The most important thing is, every day you see her on the Bench, you can tell she still remembers her 28 years as a lawyer.

We could be here the rest of the evening describing her many good works. In fact, she has often been referred to as a “Jewish mother.” She was active in the Young Lawyers, served on the Board of Directors of the Senior Bar three times, been on many committees, and has been a speaker on many legal subjects. Being the “baby Judge” several years ago, she was given the task of revising the Local Circuit Court Rules of Practice. A great deal of her time on that project was spent dealing with such weighty matters as appropriate hemline lengths, what constituted a décolleté blouse, and open-toed shoes.

Judge Fields is a member of the Memphis Bar Foundation and has served on its Board of Directors for more than 10 years and has served two terms as President. She is an Emeritus Master of the Leo Bearman, Sr. American Inn of Court, a member of the Tennessee Trial Judges Association and the National Association of Judges, which gave her an award for being the outstanding new jurist.

Judge Fields is an avid scuba diver and allegedly participates in CLE programs on these trips. She enjoys traveling, photography, gardening, working with the elderly and is very interested in animal rescue groups. She is a communicant of Sacred Heart Catholic Church where is a lector and serves on the Pastoral and Finance Committees. She enjoys cooking for homeless people for the holidays in the church’s neighborhood and works with patients of St. Jude and their families. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality, which is the only organization in Memphis that accepts intact homeless male and female family members to provide housing and support in an effort to get them off the streets and have a new start in life.

The courts at the lower level are the ones people come in contact with. The trial judges, whether it is Traffic, General Sessions, Circuit, Chancery or Criminal Court, are the real foot soldiers in our judicial system. They are the ones people associate with in the judicial system. Judge Fields has always done everything in her power, even before she became a judge, to make our judicial system the finest part of our three-pronged government. She demands integrity and truth from all who appear before her, lawyers and litigants alike.

I proudly present to you this year’s recipient of the Marion Griffin-Frances Loring Award, the Honorable Donna M. Fields.

Remarks by Judge Donna M. Fields

First of all, I would like to thank the Association for Women Attorneys for this very special award. It is one which I gratefully share with many impressive women who have received it before me. I am proud to be among this group of distinguished women…and Blanchard Tual.

I have to admit to you tonight that when this organization began in 1979, I was somewhat hesitant and less than enthusiastic, because I had fought long and hard to be recognized as a success as a woman in a “man’s world.” This was not just in law. It was for 10 years as a pharmaceutical representative and later as a commercial insurance sales rep. So, when I graduated from law school in 1975, I wanted to be a lawyer…not a woman lawyer! Nonetheless, I joined the AWA and supported it from the sidelines. But, I must say, over the years, I have come to appreciate what this organization has done for women members of our profession, and what we have each been able to contribute. More experienced and perhaps older women lawyers began to share and pass along their wisdom from their time in the trenches. They/we were and are cooperative, guiding and mentoring forces to help younger women follow in the paths we had forged before and to enable them to go on to forge their own paths. These older, more experienced women lawyers who suffered the slings and arrows and persevered: Ruby Wharton, Janet Richards, Bernice Donald, Janice Holder, Julia Gibbons, Ellen Vergos, Karen Williams, Ronnie Coleman, Kay Robilio, Linda Holmes and many others.

Women who teared up when judges were mean to us, just because we were women…

Who stood up to law professors who told them perhaps they had chosen the wrong field of endeavor and that we were taking the place of a man in the law school class…

The Memphis State University (as it was known then) Administration that, in dealing with women law students, could think of nothing to say except “you will make might pretty lawyers”…

The employers who told us we were not “allowed” to attend law school at night just because we worked for them, requiring one to quit her job in order to pursue her law degree…

The lawyer employer who bragged that they had one of those “women” lawyers, as if we were an oddity…and indeed we were.

When I graduated in 1975, between 5 and 10% of the class were women. We all know that today, greater than 50% are women. But, I think I can speak for those who came before when I tell you that it was worth the price we paid to forge the way for you as we watched and contributed to the changes in the legal profession.

The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities. It remains your job to “pay it forward” and I see you and this organization doing just that.

BUT I want to remind each of you that the law and being a lawyer is not who we are, it is what we do. Expand your possibilities outside the practice of law. We never really know what the future holds. Our worlds can change in a flash – that’s just the way life is. We see this truth in the world around us again and again. I am reminded of friends, women lawyers who are no longer with us…Kathryn Hookanson, Claire Orman, Mary Margaret Weddington and others.

Never get too busy to list to or observe the wisdom of a child, or an elder, or even a pet. Our teachers come in many sizes. Whether it is family, friends, hobbies, service…or all of those…find the things that you love and make a life that will keep you sane in a seemingly insane world.

Again, many thanks for this award and God bless each of you.

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