20 Questions with Missouri Fellow Joseph C. Blanton, Jr.
1. Your law firm has existed in southeastern Missouri for over a century. The first name in the firm is Blanton. Please give us a little history about the firm's origins and growth.
The members of my great-grandfather's generation were editors of small town newspapers in Northeast Missouri around Hannibal. My great grandfather, Charles Blanton, had a patronage job in the Government Printing Office in Washington, DC. With a change of administrations he lost the job and moved back to Missouri. My grandfather, Harry Blanton, the oldest of his children, had started law school at Georgetown and stayed in Northern Virginia to finish. He had gone straight from high school to law school. He worked at the Riggs National Bank at M Street and Wisconsin (the building is still there; it has a famous dome) during the day and attended Georgetown Law School at night. In the meantime, his father, Charles had purchased The Sikeston Standard newspaper in Southeast Missouri in 1914. There was land rush going on in the Missouri Bootheel, which had been a swamp and was being drained by the Little River Drainage project. After graduating from Georgetown, Harry moved to Southeast Missouri and started practicing law. He ran for Prosecuting Attorney in 1920 and campaigned on horseback. He served two terms. In 1933, Senator Bennett C. Clark nominated him to serve as U. S. Attorney for Eastern Missouri. He served for four terms and at least by family anecdote lost one case. While Harry was serving as U. S. Attorney in St. Louis, my Great Uncle David Blanton, his younger brother by 18 years, had graduated from Harvard Law School during the depths of the depression. He moved back to Southeast Missouri and essentially took over the practice. When Harry's last term as U. S. Attorney ended, he moved back to Sikeston and began practicing with David as Blanton and Blanton. Bernard Rice joined the firm in the late 1950's and two of my Uncles practiced with the firm in the 1960's. My Grandfather died in 1973 when I was 13. I joined the firm in 1987. I practiced with David, my Great Uncle, for 12 years until he passed in 1999. Bernard Rice died in 2015. One of the Uncles who practiced with the firm in the 1960's, Lewis Blanton, recently retired from our firm after joining the firm when he retired as a Federal Judge. We currently have six attorneys, all from Southeast Missouri. They are as talented as any group of attorneys in any firm in Missouri.
2. When you finished law school at the University of Texas, and following your clerkship with the federal court, did you ever consider pursuing a career in New York, Chicago, or St. Louis rather than Sikeston? What was the chief consideration that brought you back home?
I worked as a summer associate at Stinson, Mag and Fizzell in Kansas City and Thompson and Mitchell in St. Louis. When I finished my clerkship with Judge Limbaugh, I had offers from those firms and several other large Missouri firms. I decided to move home to practice with my Great Uncle David and Bernard Rice and because I wanted to run for office.
3. You are now in your fourth decade of trial practice. What do you miss about the way law was practiced when you first began and what do like better now?
The good parts of the practice four decades ago are still around. The Southeast Missouri Bar is a very collegial and skilled bar with excellent lawyers. What has improved greatly is the technology available to small firms. When I started practicing we did not have Fed Ex, fax machines, email, collating copiers or unlimited Westlaw. We now have the same technological capacities the large firms have.
4. You are currently in the Master of Science in History program at the University of Edinburgh, which is an acclaimed institution globally. Tell us about your interest in history and what periods or events move you most.
My highest and best use would probably have been as a history professor. The interest started in my parochial grade school. We were supposed to read at least one book each week outside of school and do a book report. My friend Randy Dement did 125 book reports in our third grade year and I came in second with 89. Most of the books in the library seemed to be biographies. I usually read 20-30 books each year, most of them history books. I wanted to formalize my training in history and enrolled in the Masters Program at the University of Edinburgh. There are 80 people in the program from all over the world and the professors are outstanding. I am most knowledgeable about the Civil War, and 20th Century social and cultural history. I am trying to become more knowledgeable in what I will call the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history (Hegel, Fukuyama, etc.). My likely thesis topic will be analyzing the finances of Abraham Lincoln's three law partnerships.
5. Along that same line, if you could have dinner and a candid conversation with anyone from history, who would it be, and why?
Winston Churchill. He was the most consequential figure in the 20th Century.
6. In 2010, you were presented the Purcell Professionalism Award by the Missouri Bar Foundation. The award acknowledges outstanding professionalism in a Missouri lawyer who has consistently demonstrated an exceptional degree of competency, integrity, and civility in both professional and civic activities. Law for many has become a business as opposed to a profession reflecting dignity and duty. What is your utopian vision of the profession?
When I joined our firm I was told in no uncertain terms that I was to act honorably and to do the right thing at all times. My partners and I try to uphold this mantle every day. When I finish an item of business with another lawyer who has represented his or her client with skill and honor, I send a note thanking them for the reasonable and professional way they have handled the business. When the lawyer on the other side is a young lawyer, I make sure his or her boss knows that they are a credit to their firm.
7. A lot of lawyers have difficulty balancing their personal and professional lives. You seem well-adjusted in that delicate balance. What advice would you give younger lawyers in this regard?
Family should be a priority. It is important to attend the cross country meets, Halloween parties, Scout outings and little league games. Being involved in civic activities is crucial to the development of a practice in a rural area. You need to be available to help with any type of civic improvement project. I have managed campaigns for school bond issues and city sales tax campaigns and have represented a lot of charities for this reason.
8. What book should every trial lawyer read?
Scott Baldwin on Jury Arguments. He was a legendary trial attorney in East Texas. We watched one of his jury arguments in my trial practice class at the University of Texas Law School.
9. What advice would you give the younger you?
You don't have to be famous to have an impact.
10. Of all the accomplishments in your career, what do you consider your greatest achievement?
a) Being told by several business owners I had represented in difficult matters that their businesses were still open and their employees still had jobs because of our efforts;
b) Being told by my former boss Judge Steve Limbaugh, after losing a very difficult case in Federal Court, that my Grandfather and Uncle David would be proud of me.
11. To what destination do you go to find your own version of solace?
My wife Felecia and I (and our son Mark when he is home) enjoy sitting on our front porch on Friday and Saturday evenings. Our friends and colleagues frequently come by and we have some great discussions. When the weather starts improving, we receive calls and emails asking when we will be having the next porch party.
12. What is your greatest extravagance?
I still wear a suit or a sport coat with a tie to work every day.
13. What does success mean to you?
My son, Mark, is a law student at the University of Michigan. I hope he can have a successful career and enjoy being a lawyer as much as I have.
14. Lawyers tend to travel a great deal. What are some of your favorite cities or places and what fascinates you about them?
My favorite trips for depositions were to Kalispell, Montana, with two of my mentors, Maurice Graham and Jim Spain. We managed to work in a day of hiking in Glacier National Park before returning to Missouri.
15. I know you are a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan. Give us your top five selections for an all-time Cardinals team.
Stan Musial, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Red Schoendienst, and Yadier Molina. All are Hall of Famers (Molina will be) and stayed around the St. Louis area after they retired. On opening day and during the play-offs they are driven around the field in convertibles wearing red blazers and following the AB Clydesdales. Albert Pujols had a great run with the Cardinals, but did not appreciate how special it is to be a St. Louis Cardinal. He left Cardinal Nation for LA for a relatively small difference in dollars. One of the best parts of living in Eastern Missouri is getting to be a Cardinal Fan. When I took my son to his first game I told him that rule number one is that we never, ever boo the Cardinals under any circumstances.
16. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA's mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the next issue of Litigation Commentary & Review, as well as in the Diversity Law Institute's website. In a word, sentence, or paragraph, what, in your opinion, is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
We want people of all backgrounds to believe they can come to our firm for help.
17. I once practiced with a fantastic, though legendarily difficult trial lawyer named Olin Zeanah. One of my partners at that firm, beginning when we were associates, kept a list of "Zeanahisms." They were little gems of knowledge that Zeanah would occasionally impart. Did you have a trial icon or mentor in your early years of practice who shared with you the wisdom of years of practice? If so, please tell us about them.
I have been blessed with many important mentors. My parents insisted that we do our best and that we understand that we have obligations to help those who did not have the benefits we had growing up. My Uncle David was a model for me in terms of character. He was vitally concerned about his fellow man but totally oblivious to public opinion. He did not worry about what was popular. He always did what he thought was the right thing to do. The Judge I clerked for, Judge Steve Limbaugh, Sr., was a model for his tremendous work ethic and for being fair and totally unaffected. However, my most important mentor has been St. Louis attorney Maurice Graham. When I was getting started, he and I worked on many cases together. He is the most respected and best attorney in Missouri. When I am deciding what I should do in a difficult situation, I think about what he would do. Finally, my wife Felecia keeps me focused on what is important.
18. What object in your office serves to re-energize you when your mood needs an adjustment?
A poem called "The Honor Men," by James O. Hay. Its last line is "I have worn the Honor of Honors, I graduated from Virginia." My years at UVA were formative for me.
19. How would you like to be remembered in life?
Honest, principled, loyal, and patriotic.
20. What is your motto?
From David Blanton, "We are for hire; we are not for sale."