Early Career


I served in the Army two years and then graduated law school in May, 1963. I took the bar exam a month later in July, while recovering from kidney stone surgery. Dad said, "I know you've been sick but you've already paid to take it."

I had nothing to lose. I gave it a try, not really expecting to pass. The results were announced in early September. The successful applicants were printed in the Sunday Memphis Commercial Appeal. I called the paper at seven o'clock on Saturday night. I gave one of the editors on duty my name and asked if he would look at the list. He came back on the line a few moments later and asked, "Is that 'Bartlett Chesterfield Durham?'" I had passed!

I let out a shout. My dad was all smiles. We went to the First Methodist Church in Ripley. The church was dark but the doors were unlocked. We knelt at the altar and said a prayer. When we left the church I saw tears in my dad's eyes. I can only appreciate how he felt many years later now that I am a father, too. I had the same feelings of happiness and pride many years later when my son Blair was sworn in as a lawyer.

My father died of a sudden heart attack the next year but I got to practice with him in Ripley while he was alive. My mother had passed away six years earlier. Judge C.S. Carney in Ripley, one of my father's friends, called Senator Albert Gore, Sr., and got me an appointment with the Federal District Attorney's office in Memphis. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

MEMPHIS 1966 - 1969

There were four Assistant United States Attorneys and we served under a great man, U.S. Attorney Thomas L. Robinson. Mr. Robinson was a fierce taskmaster whom we feared but respected. We loved our jobs and we knew Mr. Robinson would never ask us to do anything he wouldn't do himself. Any kind of work ethic I have today came from the example set by Mr. Robinson. He came early and stayed late, frequently from six AM to nine PM.

Those were tumultuous days from 1966 to 1969. We started our days with an early morning office meeting. The FBI, IRS, ATF, DEA, Postal Inspectors, and other federal agencies were our clients. We prosecuted and defended all cases for the United States in the 33 counties of West Tennessee.

I often left the office as late as nine or ten but I would remind myself how lucky I was to be there. I was a nobody, a night law school graduate, and in the most action-packed office in the city. The U.S. Department of Justice was where I cut my teeth.

I was on duty when James Earl Ray shot Dr. Martin Luther King just blocks away from my office in the federal courthouse. I went with FBI agents to the Lorraine Motel. I went to the boarding house and stood where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot.

We prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan leadership from Jackson, Mississippi, who robbed a Memphis bank to get money for the Klan. I was also a courtroom second chair to my boss in the longest criminal trial ever held in Memphis, United States v. Sims, which after six weeks ended in a conviction for bribery of government employees. I have picked a jury and tried a case to verdict in Jackson, Tennessee, in the morning, and hurried the 80 miles back to Memphis to start another jury trial in the afternoon.

The staff was diverse. There was one African American (Odell Horton, later a U.S. District Judge, now deceased), one member from the Jewish community, Henry Klein, one Memphis lawyer, Bill McTighe (now deceased), and one lawyer from the rural counties — me. They were all smarter, more experienced, and certainly more sophisticated than the country bumpkin from Ripley.

I knew I was over my head so to compensate I got to work earlier than the other staff and stayed later. I wanted their respect even though they may have been quietly amused at my lack of legal ability and my social backwardness.

On a footnote, Blair recently had a case in federal court in Memphis and the adverse counsel, Henry Klein, asked him if he and I were related. When he told Henry he was my son, Henry opened his door to Blair and has been most hospitable and helped him on small matters in the case. A blast from the past 40 years ago.

We were appointed under Lyndon Johnson and when Richard Nixon became our president we lost our jobs. I was ready for something different as I had begun getting disabling migraine headaches.


I moved to Nashville to be a prosecuting attorney in the State Attorney General's office. There it was much more relaxed. We had time to research our cases. There was no pressure to get things done this minute. The sick headaches largely went away.

It was fun being an Assistant State Attorney General. There were only eight of us on the staff in 1969. Nearly 200 lawyers now work there.

I argued two cases before the United States Supreme Court and over 100 cases before the United States Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. I was in charge of federal civil rights cases throughout the state and appeared regularly in every U.S. district court from Memphis to East Tennessee.


I began private practice in 1975 after six years in the attorney general's office. I had no clients, just a little bit of money saved, the optimism of youth and high hopes. I partnered with a fine lawyer, Henry Haile, with whom I had worked in the attorney general's office. A few months later another lawyer, Tom Moon, offered me free office space in exchange for going to court for him on a frequent basis.

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