ALAJ Salutes...

William Utsey

BUTLER ---William Utsey got his first look at a Choctaw County Courtroom 53 years ago when he was a junior at Southern Choctaw High School in nearby Silas. Times have changed a lot, but they have not diminished Utsey’s love of the law and his passion to help people.
 
“My civics teacher thought we should see a trial so we came into Butler,” Utsey remembers. “It was a murder trial and the lawyers were the old masters, Wyman Gilmore as prosecutor and Joe Thompson as defense attorney, and I just came away fascinated.
 
“I started working that day to become a lawyer and never stopped,” he said.
 
Utsey said he was naïve about going to college and getting into law school. He had been at the University of Southern Mississippi for several months when he got a call from the Dean of Students telling him he had not taken the required entrance exam. Utsey took the exam and preceded on to get a B.S. in Business Administration. After graduation, he applied to law school at the University of Alabama, where he met another Dean.
 
“I had applied and hadn’t heard anything and I was getting a little worried,” Utsey said. “So I decided to drive to Tuscaloosa and see the Dean of the Law School.”
 
Utsey didn’t have an appointment; he just showed up and told the secretary that he needed to see Dean M. Leigh Harrison. Harrison agreed to see him.
 
“I was just so naïve,” Utsey says with a chuckle. “I told him why I was there, and he asked me my name. Then he went over to a box, pulls out my file, and turns to me and said they were going to admit me.
 
“That’s how I got in, I didn’t realize how difficult it was to get in law school,” he said. “If I hadn’t had the guts to drive up there and see him I don’t think I would have gotten in.”
 
After graduating from law school, Utsey practiced for a while in Tuscaloosa and then in Huntsville. When he turned 30, he knew it was time to come home to his beloved Choctaw County.
 
“I knew if I didn’t come home then, I probably wouldn’t make it back,” Utsey said. “I came back, opened my office at 112 Mulberry Avenue, and I have been here ever since.”
 
“The greatest thing about being a lawyer in Choctaw County is being able to help the people who need help,” he said. “I have had the opportunity to represent ordinary people and the problems they encounter in life…and I am truly grateful to represent those folks.”
 
Utsey has had a storied legal career –from representing farmers arguing over a corn crop to helping a recently widowed mother of two keep her home. He is a lawyer’s lawyer who still goes to court most everyday, loves to tell stories about cases that involve real people with real problems and is a pillar of the legal community, both inside and outside Choctaw County.
 
And, he has seen lots of changes…most of which he attributes to technology.
 
“There is a lot more paperwork now,” Utsey said. “When I first started we had manual typewriters and therafax, Xerox was just coming out, and you went to the courtroom with one file.
 
“Now you have computers, word processing equipment and copiers, and on a really big case you could have 50 filing cabinets full of documents.”
 
Utsey first started coming to the then-Alabama Trial Lawyers Association for continuing education. He said he soon realized the “good” the association did, became involved, worked his way up the ranks, and served as president of the association from 1996-1997.
 
“I realized it was the only organization that fought to keep people’s right to go to court and to protect the practice of law,” he said. “A lot of associations do good, but they don’t participate in politics and they don’t fight to protect people’s rights.
 
“I got involved to join the fight,” Utsey said.
 
During his term as president, one of then-Governor Fob James’ major legislative efforts was tort reform. Utsey admits there were some tense moments.
 
“I remember sitting there at the Statehouse with Ginger and (Don) Gilbert just hoping that our votes would hold,” Utsey said. “It was critical and we all understood that.
 
“And, after it was all over for the day, I enjoyed the good times we had and all the camaraderie,” he said.
 
Utsey has remained involved in the association. He is a sustaining member and during ALAJ’s recent “Rolling Justice Tour” he hand wrote notes to lawyers in his area asking them to please attend a meeting in Jackson. And, he went and picked them up and drove them on the 45 minute trip to Maters Restaurant.
 
Utsey and his wife Treobye have three children: Jeff and Elizabeth are lawyers and Jake owns and operates Water Valley Hunting Lodge in Gilbertown. They have nine grandchildren who Utsey spends most of his spare time playing with, which translates into “spoiling”. He also tries to take at least one of them with him to the First United Methodist Church each Sunday.

He said he didn’t push his kids to go to law school.

“I supported their decision but I didn’t talk them into it,” Utsey said. “You need to want to be a lawyer…you don’t need somebody to talk you into it.”

We are all grateful that William Utsey WANTED to be a lawyer and for all that he has done to help people and ALAJ, he is our “Champion of Justice.”