The full life of a larger-than-life lawyer

At 106 years old, James Bass ’34 is Harvard Law School’s oldest living alumnus

If you’ve been alive for almost 107 years, you’ve probably seen more than most people. You lived through the Great Depression and two World Wars, witnessed civil unrest in the United States swell into a wave of protest and change, watched in astonishment as man landed on the moon — and, if you’re a lawyer, you remember a time when the discovery phase didn’t yet exist.

Born in 1910 in Nashville, Tenn., James O. Bass ’34, by all accounts, has always been an impressive man. Large in stature and even more so in spirit, he was widely known from a young age for his commanding charm and quiet intelligence.“Mr. Bass’ demeanor and politeness to everybody was an example to all of us of how we should deal with adversaries, judges, and clients,” says William Ozier, a longtime lawyer in Bass’ Nashville firm Bass, Berry & Sims. He credits “Chief,” as Bass is often called around the office, for making him the lawyer he is today.

“I learned so much from him,” echoes Jim Cheek LL.M. ’68, another attorney who has worked in Bass’ firm for several decades, “not only from his lawyer skills but also from his people skills. He’s extraordinary in his ability to create confidence and respect among people, and that carried into the courtroom and into his work relationships.”

“And there wasn’t a stone left unturned when he addressed a legal issue,” adds Jim Tate, another longtime Bass, Berry & Sims attorney.

And indeed Bass is equally well known for his extraordinary preparation and commitment to excellence, believing the two to be inherently linked.

“Good presentation is the offspring of sound and thorough preparation,” he once said at a company retreat. “Now I certainly do not minimize the value of an effective argument before a court or jury, but no longer is the loudest or most flowery oratory able to carry the day. The substance is what is most important, and the substance depends on preparation.”

Many of the lawyers Bass has mentored over the years point to a meeting he had with one of his clients to illustrate. It was during the 1950s, and Bass flew to New York City to convince this particular company that it should bring a suit for damages. By the end of the conversation, he had persuaded them to file — then immediately opened his briefcase and handed them a completed brief for the suit he had only just convinced them to bring. They won.

“He was known for his thoroughness,” says Ozier, “particularly in writing. He would revise briefs until someone had to literally take it out of his hands at the last minute to file it. He struggled for perfection always, and taught us all to do the same.”

The Makings of a Wise Counselor

As a young child, Bass skipped two grades in elementary school, and later, as a young adult, he attended the University of the South at Sewanee on a four-year scholarship, graduating in just three.

His father, Frank M. Bass, who co-founded Bass, Berry & Sims in 1922, was a lawyer, as was his brother Frank Bass Jr.

“So I was exposed to the legal profession a bit during my lifetime,” says Bass with a laugh. “I suppose, however, that I never seriously entertained the idea of not practicing law.”

He attended Harvard Law School from 1931-1934, living in a Cambridge boarding house at 40 Kirkland St. After graduation, he returned to Nashville to join his father in their family law firm. He walked to the local courthouse every day to observe court proceedings and look for lessons to bring back with him to the office.

On one of those days, about three years after he graduated from Harvard Law School, Bass was approached by a group of Nashville civic leaders who encouraged him to run for a seat in the state House of Representatives. Bass was already known at that point for his ability to bring people together and effect change.

“I was intrigued,” he says of the opportunity. “I wanted to see how the state government really operated. “ Bass campaigned on a platform to reform the Justices of the Peace (JP) Court system.

He won the election, and, at the age of 27, he introduced legislation to replace the JP courts.

“I had to completely tear down the old system and create a new one,” says Bass. “Prior to that, if you had a small claim, you would take it to a judge who got paid by the litigant. No one was happy with it. So I went to the Speaker of the House, who I knew very well, and I said, ‘I’m going to make this House Bill #1.’”

The bill was approved and replaced the old JP system with a general sessions court – a change that was replicated statewide in subsequent years.

Although he didn’t intend to continue with public service, Bass was again approached to run for office, this time by a group of local businesspeople who wanted him to run for a seat in the state Senate. He won again and served as a Senator for two years, finishing his term in 1942. In the 1960s, when Nashville was embroiled in a rising tide of civil rights protests, Bass helmed a committee of community leaders to negotiate conflicts between business owners and civil rights advocates. The committee helped end segregation at several restaurants, hotels, and local hospitals. He also later served as the head of the Nashville Bar Association.

“Mr. Bass instilled in us that we were privileged people in this community and that we had an obligation to give back,” says Cheek. “But he never wanted the spotlight. He was always the wise counselor to those who led the community. He exemplified a public citizen.”

During the 1930s and 1940s, serving in public office was a part-time job, and Bass simultaneously spent a lot of his time at Bass, Berry & Sims working to build up his litigation practice.

“There were a lot more jury cases then,” says Bass, who developed a reputation as an excellent trial lawyer, “because people settled less.

“Trying cases was my favorite part of practicing law. It was a lot of fun, and I would still do it now if they would let me,” he adds with a laugh.

But his litigation practice would be temporarily put on hold in 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, Bass joined the U.S. Army and applied to be a judge advocate. His application was accepted, and he left Nashville for Ann Arbor, Mich., to attend the army’s Judge Advocate school.

“When I finished my Judge Advocate training, I had orders to report to the 104th division, then in training in Oregon,” he says.  The 104th soon became a well-known combat division, arriving in Normandy, France, shortly after D-Day and continuing in northern France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.

The Bass Legacy

When Bass returned home from the war, he turned his attention back to Bass, Berry & Sims, helping to guide it into an era of expansion and growth. By 1948, the firm was comprised of six lawyers with a client roster that included Vanderbilt University, First American National Bank, and BellSouth, among many others.

“Mr. Bass has been central to the culture and reputation of Bass, Berry & Sims,” says Tate. “His personality has permeated who we are as an institution. At other firms, the ‘Mr. Bass’ of the place was an autocratic leader, but our Mr. Bass was anything but. He led by example.”

“We were all one family together,” says Tate, “And that culture of family is what has kept Bass, Berry & Sims alive and thriving for decades, and continues today.”

“I think it’s what has set us apart,” adds Cheek. “There are a lot of strong firms with great lawyers, but we had a sense of camaraderie that made us different.”

Today the firm includes more than 60 practice groups in four offices and provides outside counsel to more than 35 public companies. As of June 2017, it employs more than 270 attorneys and 200 staff firm-wide, and Bass still considers them all family – including, of course, his two sons, Jim and Warner, who drive him to work every day.

When asked why he hasn’t retired yet, Bass is known to say, “What else would I do? This is my family.”


James Bass turned 107 on July 12.