Commitment to law lands Orr at head of GTLA

Atlanta Business Chronicle – by Deborah Held Maslia Contributing writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

Despite an illustrious legal career spanning 43 years that has brought him much attention and numerous accolades, plaintiff trial lawyer W. Fred Orr II is still a modest man.

The recently installed 52nd president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association (GTLA) is humbled by his appointment.

“I never expected to be president [of the GTLA],” he said.

But when the call came in 2006 telling him he’d been nominated to be fast-tracked into this leadership position, “I couldn’t refuse,” Orr said. “I was stunned, flattered and honored, and still a little shaken, that I am where I am. So many other people worked long and hard.”

Orr built his reputation through hard work and fairness. As president of the GTLA, Orr will direct a 50-year-old membership organization of more than 2,000 Georgia attorneys, all dedicated to protecting the public and ensuring the public’s right to the civil justice system.

Orr credits the GTLA for teaching him the skills that not only helped him define his views as a trial lawyer, but served as the foundation from which he built his career.

Orr spent much of his career in downtown Decatur, where he has been working in the same “old-fashioned, two-lawyer practice” with law partner James G. “Smokey” Edwards II, for more than 32 years. The pair opened the doors to Orr and Edwards P.C. in 1973, next to the historic courthouse.

Laying down roots inside Atlanta was a natural move for Orr, who not only attended undergraduate and graduate schools at Emory University, but grew up in the public school system of southwest Atlanta, attending then-Brown High School, where he made quite an impact as a student leader and athlete.

Although setting up shop in Decatur was the natural choice, pursuing a law degree was not.

“I didn’t know any lawyers, had never been in a law office, but I was always interested in politics and law,” said Orr.

Orr had been offered scholarships to attend both Emory University and Georgia Tech after graduating from Brown High School. Though a fan of the Yellow Jackets then and today, Orr opted for Emory, where his older brother was already enrolled as a student (and could offer a free daily ride to school). At the suggestion of a fellow student, Orr pursued a law degree.

“I really fell in love with law in law school,” said Orr.

A stint at an Atlanta real estate law firm brought Orr his first taste of litigation. He was named the firm’s first trial lawyer without any trial experience.

Enter the GTLA, which offered legal seminars. Orr attended them all. He went to the courthouse and watched the performances of litigators. A quick study, Orr soon became legendary as a criminal trial lawyer, defending those who couldn’t afford their own lawyers.

“I had decided that I did not want to put people in prison,” said Orr. “I just believed [they] were all innocent because they said they were, and I wanted to defend them. I believe firmly that everyone’s entitled to a complete and adequate defense in a criminal case, and it’s the burden of the state to prove them guilty. People shouldn’t go to prison just because they’re charged with a crime.”

Eventually, Orr brought his talents and fair-mindedness to the prosecution. He has specialized in complex civil cases and jury trials for the past 25 years, most recently those involving medical malpractice.

Despite having served as lead counsel for the plaintiff in hundreds of federal and state court cases, what Orr will long remember, and likely be remembered for, is being called to serve as part of the defense team in the criminal trial of former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.

“Bill Campbell was my first criminal case in over 25 years,” said Orr.

The ever-modest Orr “couldn’t say no.”

The team was successful: Campbell was acquitted on all bribery and corruption charges. However, Campbell was convicted on three counts of tax violations.

“I’ve been know to tilt some windmills,” said Orr, who, at nearly 67 years old still plugs away at work seven days a week.

“I’m not sure that I’ve ever been satisfied with the status quo of anything. I hope to strive for the best at all times, particularly in my practice and my relationships.”

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