Harris’ long legacy and tenure at VTLA honored
Peter Vieth//April 11, 2016
Harris’ long legacy and tenure at VTLA honored
Peter Vieth//April 11, 2016//
Superlatives are easy to find when asking about the contributions of Jack L. Harris to the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.
“Stellar.” “Legend.” “A perfect fit for the job.”
The accolades flow when you ask colleagues and co-workers about Harris and his 38 years of service to the bar and the ideal of justice.
The retiring executive director of the VTLA leaves a legacy of vision and advocacy that changed laws, aided the helpless and built vital organizations, often while shining the spotlight on other leaders, according to those who have worked with him.
Harris has administered the VTLA for 25 years since taking office in 1990, with a one year diversion as manager of a major law office.
Administering an organization of volunteer professionals is never easy, but trial lawyers are known to be a breed apart.
“Some of us have egos. You know how it is with us trial lawyers,” said former VTLA president Thomas J. Curcio.
VTLA members are both solos and members of firms large and small. Some, especially those from the Richmond and Tidewater areas, are direct competitors in the personal injury marketplace.
“Jack’s managed to work with them all,” Curcio said. He handled the task with “grace and style and good humor,” Curcio added. “I’ve never seen him lose his temper.”
As only the second long-term executive director at the VTLA, Harris was responsible for its growth and development into a healthy and respected voice for the plaintiff’s bar, Curcio said.
With Harris in office, the VTLA added additional practice sections, including criminal law and domestic relations, to grow the membership, VTLA leaders said.
VTLA past president John E. Lichtenstein praised Harris’ “phenomenal work ethic.”
“He has incredible energy and commitment. That’s what made him so successful,” Lichtenstein said. “He is the unusual union of intellect, strength, savvy and compassion,” Lichtenstein added.
Harris was a steady hand, said former VTLA president W. Coleman Allen Jr., pointing to the longevity of other staff members in the association office. Allen noted that Harris early on pushed to create a pension plan for other staff members, not just the executive director.
And Harris was the single most important factor in the VTLA’s growth, Allen added.
“He has that wonderful, diplomatic manner,” Allen said.
During Harris’ tenure, the VTLA also expanded its amicus curiae, legislative and political action programs, including the group’s support of indigent defense funding.
Not every state has such a healthy and esteemed plaintiff’s bar organization.
“The VTLA is in the very top tier” among statewide personal injury bars, Harris said.
A collaborative approach
Cordial relations with other groups is a hallmark of Harris’ work. Harris has been witness to, and to some extent credited with, a strengthening of ties between Virginia’s statewide bar groups over the past several decades.
Once marked by jealousy and occasional sniping, the relationships among the Virginia State Bar, the Virginia Bar Association, the VTLA and the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys now are marked by collaboration and cooperation, bar leaders said.
The executive directors of the four groups regularly get together for lunch to share information on projects and positions.
“There’s a lot of stuff we can all get done when we’re all on the same page,” Harris said.
“We talk about projects for collaboration,” said VBA executive director Yvonne C. McGhee. Other plans are shared for discussion about cooperation, if possible, or just an understanding of the various groups’ positions, she added.
“He, in my mind, is a legend in the legal community,” McGhee said.
She said Harris had mentored her over the past four years, after she moved from director of the Fairfax Bar Association to her executive position with the statewide VBA.
“I value his friendship,” McGhee said.
The bar leader meetings are “almost like an executive director support group,” quipped Jill Wells Nunnally of the VADA. “He’s been nothing but a gentleman in sharing ideas and communication,” she said of Harris.
Harris’ service to the VTLA has only one gap in 26 years. There was a one-year hiatus when Harris departed in 2001 to run the office of several of its staunchest members at the Richmond firm of Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen.
The brief exodus ended without anyone’s hard feelings, it appeared.
“He did a great job at my firm,” Allen said.
“I’m really glad I did it, in the sense that I learned a lot in that year,” Harris said.
The experience exposed Harris to relationships among firm partners and the value of consensus, Allen said.
“He was a better executive director at VTLA than he had been before. He was a stronger leader when he went back,” Allen said.
Legal aid veteran
Harris’ service to the bar is rooted in his nearly 11 years as executive director of the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia, the funding arm of Virginia’s legal aid offices.
While at the LSCV, Harris worked with legal aid directors and stakeholders throughout the state to found the Virginia Poverty Law Center. Harris served at ED at the VPLC for its first four years.
Harris said working with strong personalities as an administrative chief means allowing others to lead.
“You have to recognize you’re going to have to sublimate some of your independence, your inclination to go it alone,” he said.
A key is recognizing the value of collaboration.
“There are so many things you can do collectively that you couldn’t do individually,” Harris said.
Harris said he will continue to work with the VTLA for a year in an “indefinable” role of senior policy advisor.
“I’ll try to help whenever I’m asked to, and I’ll try to stay out of things when I’m not,” he added.
Travel is also part of the plan for Harris.
“I want to take some time to see what it feels like to not have all my time committed,” he said.
Volunteer work and board memberships will remain on his agenda, Harris added. Harris hopes to continue serving on the Central Virginia Legal Aid Hotline.
“Lawyers and law firms have an awful lot to be proud of in terms of their commitment to helping those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer,” he said.