A Truck Wreck Lawyer Faces the ‘Truck Wreck’ of the Judicial System After Years of Court Budget Cuts
The following profile article about me was written by Linton Johnson and published in the August 2011 issue of the Georgia Bar Journal. While it briefly touches on my practice as a personal injury and wrongful death trial attorney focused on commercial trucking accidents, the focus is more on background for bar leadership.
A Truck Wreck Lawyer Faces the ‘Truck Wreck’ of the Judicial System After Years of Court Budget Cuts
As the newly installed 49th president of the State Bar of Georgia, Ken Shigley knows to expect the unexpected. Having served on the Executive Committee for the past four years, he had a front-row seat as his predecessors dealt with the almost-daily surprises that come with the job and require thoughtful but often swift decisions that will have an impact on the interests of more than 42,000 members.
Some of the issues will undoubtedly be more difficult than others. But if crisis management does become necessary, Shigley will benefit from formative experience gained long before he joined the Bar or even cracked open his first law school book.
In 1967, shortly after a federal judge ordered the combination of the formerly segregated high schools in Douglasville, the student council officers of Douglas County High School gathered around a pingpong table in the Shigley family’s basement. Younger generations might view that era through the movie “Mississippi Burning” and documentaries about the civil rights movement.
The group included two 16-year-old juniors, Shigley and current Douglasville attorney Joe Fowler. “We went through the school directory and identified the students most likely to have a disruptive reaction,” Shigley said. “Then we divided that list according to which of us had a rapport with each one. Our plan was to call them and gauge their reactions. Most accepted it, though perhaps reluctantly. A few talked about what they were going to do with ax handles, switchblades and the like. Our script was to let them talk until they ran out of steam and then slowly respond with, ‘You know, that’s just what they want you to do.’ Invariably those few responded, ‘I never thought about that.’”
“Perhaps that helped let the steam off a few hotheads who reflected their parents’ prejudices. In any event, we had no problems with the students during desegregation, even though the Klan was still active in the area,” said Shigley. “But when I said that in 100 years race wouldn’t matter and suggested integrating the 1968 prom—which wound up being held the weekend after Martin Luther King’s funeral—there was a lot of pushback.”
A few months later, the same group of student leaders approached the school board about proposing a bond issue to expand school facilities and organized a door-to-door student campaign to win passage. A year later, when Shigley was student council president and Fowler was senior class president, the process was repeated. “We got some schools built, and the facilities of our high school campus roughly doubled in the year after we graduated,” he said.
Law was also in Shigley’s blood by the time he graduated from high school and enrolled at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., but he is not certain how it got there. “In ninth grade registration, filling in a blank about our career plans, I wrote in ‘law.’ I don’t know why; maybe it was from watching Perry Mason. I considered some different things—business school, teaching, the ministry—but I really didn’t feel the call to do any of that. Law was always at the top of the list.”
After graduating from Furman, he returned to Georgia to attend Emory Law School. “It wasn’t as expensive then as it is now,” he said. “I came out with $8,500 in student debt, and thought it was a lot.” At Emory, one of his closest friends was John C. Sammon, who preceded Shigley to the State Bar presidency in 1993-94.
His first job out of law school, in 1977, was with the district attorney of the Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit, which then included Douglas, Haralson, Paulding and Polk counties. Almost immediately after graduation he was prosecuting felony cases across a four-county circuit. “It was a good experience, learning to stand up on my hind legs and try a case, and once toting an unloaded machine gun into the courtroom,” Shigley said. “Back then, the bailiffs called lawyers ‘colonel,’ and some of the jury boxes still had spittoons.”
When a new district attorney was elected, Shigley left and hung a general- practice shingle down the street in Douglasville. There he practiced “front-door law,” whatever came in the front door. It included a lot of domestic relations and criminal defense, with smatterings of real estate, bankruptcy, small business organization, wills, probate, commercial collections, personal injury, workers compensation, etc. He even tried a dog custody case before a justice of the peace.
Three years later, “out of the blue,” he got an offer from Van Gerpens & Rice, an insurance defense firm in Atlanta at the time. He went to work there and for the better part of a decade, he defended garden-variety tort and insurance coverage cases throughout Georgia, including liability defense work for officials and employees of most agencies of state government, before going solo again with a personal injury practice in Buckhead, initially assisted by having plaintiffs’ cases “referred to me from people I’d tried cases against.” He maintained that practice for 16 years.
Since 2008, when he was elected as secretary of the State Bar “and saw what was coming at me,” Shigley has been of counsel with Chambers, Aholt & Rickard LLP in Atlanta, joining longtime friends in a firm that provides some backup when he is pulled away by Bar duties.
A majority of the time, Shigley represents plaintiffs in serious injury and wrongful death cases arising from motor carrier accidents, “big truck wrecks.” He is the author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (Thomson Reuters West, 2010). A frequent lecturer at Georgia and national continuing legal education programs on interstate motor carrier litigation, he has published multiple articles in state and national legal journals. He is a national board member of the American Association for Justice Interstate Trucking Litigation Group, and past chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute, Georgia Insurance Law Institute and faculty member of the Emory University School of Law Trial Techniques Program.
Since 1995, Shigley has been a certified civil trial advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy (one of 20 in Georgia) and listed in Martindale’s Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. He has been included since 2004 as a “Super Lawyer” (Atlanta magazine) and among Georgia’s “Legal Elite” (Georgia Trend).
The Bar presidency requires this truck-wreck trial lawyer to deal in depth with a broad range of issues facing the court system and legal profession. “It is invigorating to draw upon a lifetime of experiences in dealing with so many issues beyond the scope of my daily work as a lawyer,” Shigley commented. “Some might suggest that a big truck wreck is a metaphor for the challenges facing the judicial system after several years of deep budget cuts.”
Shigley’s entry into State Bar leadership came about somewhat by accident when he and his wife Sally decided to attend the 1993 Annual Meeting in Savannah as a much-needed getaway while she was still recovering from recent surgery.
“If the trip was going to be deductible, I thought I had better go to some of the meetings,” Shigley said. “I signed up for the breakfast meeting of what was then the Insurance Law Section, since Sally wanted to sleep late, not knowing anyone who was there. They had not picked a secretary/ treasurer, and I agreed to do that. The vice chair bailed, so a year later I became chairman.”
Following his term as chair, Shigley continued to serve as the section’s legislative chair, drafting and successfully advocating for new laws authorizing videotape depositions by notice rather than the former practice of requiring a detailed order or stipulation, venue over resident and non-resident defendants in a single court, and a “full compensation” rule governing reimbursement claims by health and disability insurers when an injured person recovers from a tortfeasor. “I enjoyed working with plaintiffs’ lawyers and defense lawyers coming together on proposals that made sense,” he said.
In the mid-1990s, the public, including most lawyers, was slowly being introduced to the Internet, with little or no idea what an impact it would have on our professions, our personal lives and our world. A fledging online company asked Shigley to participate in a forum on a dialup service it was launching for lawyers.
A few months later, at the meeting where he turned over chairmanship of the newly renamed Tort & Insurance Practice Section, they were discussing topics to include in the Insurance Law Institute program that fall. “I volunteered to talk about ‘practical uses of the Internet in your law practice. When I got home I realized that then, in 1995, there weren’t many. I wound up explaining what the Internet was, what e-mail was, what a website was and that at that point there were about 40 law firms in the United States that had websites.”
“That got me ahead of the curve on using the Internet,” he said. “I soon had the first lawyer website in the Southeast. I started to get some business from it, although I didn’t quite understand how. The next thing I knew, people were inviting me to speak at bar meetings and seminars about how to set up a website.”
That experience raised Shigley’s profile within the legal profession, and in 1999 he decided to run for an open seat on the Board of Governors. He lost with 49.9 percent of the vote but tried again the next year and won. In 2007, with both of his children out of high school, he was elected to the Executive Committee. An unexpected opportunity to run for secretary the following year led to another promotion.
“One thing led to another,” Shigley said of his ascension. “In the space of a year, I went from the back row of the Board of Governors to a place on the ladder to move up to the presidency.”
Shigley is a native of Mentone, Ala., which is 10 miles from Menlo, in northwest Georgia, where his parents were both educators, his father a principal and his mother a classroom teacher. “At the time, Menlo had a high school and a red light,” he said. “It hasn’t had either in a long time.” He made the daily commute with his parents across the state line and attended elementary school in Menlo. The family moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., when Ken was in the seventh grade and to Tuscaloosa, Ala., when he was in the eighth grade, before settling the next year in Douglasville, where his dad was assistant school superintendent.
These days, Shigley and his wife Sally reside in Sandy Springs, where they have lived in the same neighborhood since 1984. They have two young adult children, Anne and Ken Jr. Over the years, Shigley has served as a Boy Scout leader, youth soccer coach, elder and Sunday School teacher at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, board chairman for a child development center and board member of a Christian counseling center.
He is on the national advisory board of the Children’s Tumor Foundation NF Endurance Team, which raises funds for medical research on neurofibromatosis, the condition that made his daughter deaf. That, combined with his wife’s brain tumor surgeries and his son’s experiences with Crohn’s disease, contributed to Shigley’s interest in replicating the Louisiana Bar’s Support of Lawyers/Legal Personnel—All Concern Encouraged (SOLACE) program in Georgia as one of his main objectives for this year (see page 53).
Shigley has also run marathons in the past and would like to get back to doing that but at the moment has no spare time for training. “I’m going to be practicing law full time while serving nearly full time as Bar president,” Shigley said. “So I know there will be no time off for the next year.”
In that regard, Shigley knows the clock is already ticking on his time to get things accomplished that will, as he told the Fulton County Daily Report before taking office, “make a difference long-term.” In communicating his themes of “stewardship, calling and love” to Bar members and staff, Shigley will rely on his previous leadership experiences, dating back to high school.
“Every lesson of leadership you pick up from adolescence on really comes into play, but on a different scale and different level,” he said, “such as the ability to inspire and lead without micromanaging people. The use of the bully pulpit to get our messages across is important, talking about the need for professional and personal virtue in our individual lives. That’s the core reason I got into this.
“One thing I learned when I was a section chair is that when you’ve got a one-year term, you had better hit the ground running. You’ve got one year to do what you’re going to do. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, trying to get these things going.”
And about those unexpected events that will pop up along the way, Shigley was greeted with his first one even before he was sworn in as president. In May, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Shigley to the 2011 Criminal Justice Reform Council, which is charged with the monumental task of finding solutions that will reduce the costs, financial and otherwise, of Georgia’s corrections system without compromising public safety.
“Having been out of criminal law for almost 30 years,” Shigley said, “I’m back in it.”