When a physician gets a phone call from a lawyer’s office it can strike fear in his heart. There is often an overriding anxiety of a medical malpractice suit lurking somewhere in his mind whether he will admit it or not. Even the wording of the allegations in a malpractice document such as, “–did willingly and knowingly commit the error of —” are painful and distressing for a conscientious doctor. Just the mention of certain lawyers’ names evoke the same fearful response. Such was not the case when I received a phone call at my office one Monday afternoon from the El Dorado attorney Dennis Shackleford. I made an appointment to be in his office on the following Thursday afternoon.
Dennis, who was a personal friend was well-known in Arkansas for his outstanding legal defense work in medical malpractice cases. He occasionally asked me to review a case for him regarding allegations made against a physician from another part of the state but never against a local doctor. In addition to the generous monetary benefit I received from such a review I really enjoyed the legal discussions with Dennis, because I always learned something new from him. At one point during my training years I considered law school in addition to my medical training and had an abiding interest in the law. Pop used to tell me in a half-kidding way, “If you have a degree in law in addition to a medical degree you can write your own ticket working for a big insurance company!” I liked the part of “writing your own ticket”, but was not enthused about the “big insurance company” part!
Before my discussions began with Dennis he would frequently ask about our son John who was in law school during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.When John graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville in 1992 he began searching for just the right professional fit to begin his practice. He and his wife Gina enjoyed their three years living in Northwest Arkansas, had many friends and a great church in the First Baptist Church of Springdale (now Cross Church). Initially their preference of location was to remain in the area, but available positions for a new and inexperienced lawyer were scarce. Gina had a good job working as an accountant for J B Hunt Trucking, which supported them financially, and to supplement her income John got a job in the produce section of Harp’s Grocery. He also worked for a short time at George’s Chicken in general maintenance. Cathy and I were greatly concerned for our lawyer son doing such non-legal work and were very diligent in those days to pray for John’s employment.
This particular afternoon when Dennis asked about John’s status I told him John had graduated but was having difficulty finding the right fit for employment. By this time John had taken and passed the Arkansas Bar examination, so he was ready to start his legal career. Dennis said, “I’ve got a good suggestion for him. Judge Harry Barnes from Camden has been just appointed by President Bill Clinton as Federal Judge for the Western District of Arkansas, and he waiting for confirmation from the United States Senate. Federal Judges always hire legal clerks to assist them, and those clerkships are highly sought by young, aspiring lawyers. “Why don’t you give Harry a call and see if he would consider hiring John as his clerk? I doubt he has hired anyone yet.” I was acquainted with Judge Barnes because about a year previous another attorney friend, Worth Camp invited Cathy and me to join him and his wife Janice along with Harry and Mary Barnes for an evening meal. Cathy and I really enjoyed our time that evening with the Camp’s and Barnes’.
I went back to my office and called the number Dennis gave me and Judge Barnes immediately answered which I considered miraculous. I identified myself and the judge remembered our previous dinner meeting. I told him about my conversation with Dennis and wanted to know if he had already hired a clerk which he hadn’t. I told him about John, and he said he would love to interview him because he had “a stack of applications” from all over the country but liked giving preference to local people. “When can John be here for an interview,” he asked. I said, “I think he can come down from Fayetteville tomorrow afternoon.” “I look forward to meeting him,” the judge said as we concluded the call.
John was excited to meet and interview with Judge Barnes the following afternoon, and they immediately clicked. At the end of the interview Judge Barnes told John if he was confirmed by the Senate then John would be his law clerk. How excited we all were with this sudden and unexpected blessing! Both Cathy and I firmly believe Judge Barnes saw the outstanding character qualities in John and made the best choice for his first law clerk.
The two years John spent clerking in Judge Barnes office were the perfect beginning for him. He not only learned the many intricacies of jurisprudence from an outstanding judge but was able to meet and know a large number of attorneys in the Western District of Arkansas. The law department at Murphy Oil Company, whose national headquarters are in El Dorado saw the great potential in John and hired him as an Associate Attorney in 1995. He has since risen in the corporate ranks of Murphy Oil, and when the corporation split to form Murphy USA in 2013 John became Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Murphy USA.
We never know the impact of a phone call or a meeting until looking back we see where God has directed. His promise is made real when we trust Him with all of our heart and don’t lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3: 5,6). Cathy and I will always believe the appointment that afternoon with Dennis Shackleford was ordained by God.