In Albany, Georgia, a roughly Auburn-sized town about 60 miles from the Alabama border, Joe Durham has his law practice, dedicated to civil litigation.
And when Tucker Smith, a family friend and member of Auburn’s Bass Fishing Club, asked for help, Durham said he'd do what he could. Auburn had just handed down a year-long suspension for violations of the University’s COVID-19 policy, and Smith figured Durham’s law knowledge could assist them in the appeals process.
“Tucker was like, ‘Man, can you help us?’” Durham recalled. His legal advice certainly would end up helping them, team members would say, but other things made Durham a good person to consult for their situation.
“I happen to represent a number of the most famous professional, full-time anglers in the world,” Durham said. “And have maintained a very close personal friendship with a number of them.”
He struck up a friendship with professional fisherman Aaron Martens a while back, which led to meeting more and more professional fishermen, which led to representing them when they needed it. Through his work, he feels like he’s able to combine two of his passions: fishing and the practice of law.
“I love the law, and I believe the good Lord gives everyone a special talent, and I am fortunate to know what my talent is,” he said. “And at the same time, I love to fish.”
So now, he represents Martens, Kevin VanDam, Randy Howell and several other professional fishermen. This is only part of his practice, though; Durham says he’s devoted to professional negligence, personal injury and wrongful death cases. In his own words — “I always like to help the little man against the big dude.” It seemed to him that the team could use some help, so he was happy to get involved on its behalf.
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He and Logan Parks, president of the club, talked on Zoom and over the phone about the details of the team’s suspension, most of which Parks chose not to share. After reviewing the records of the team’s practices and tournament involvement, which he said Parks meticulously kept, Durham started sending emails to Bobby Woodard, senior vice president of Student Affairs, laying out the team’s case for a lightened suspension.
“The most important thing was Logan, the team president, had done such an outstanding job, and I cannot say enough good things about him in terms of ... keeping everything together,” he said.
Durham said that some of the team’s alleged violations of COVID-19 policy were times when members were fishing independently of the organization, although there were other times when the team did break the COVID-19 policy for club sports at Auburn. With the facts he had from Parks and the team, Durham helped Parks prepare to present his case at the team’s appeal meeting on March 30.
“Communicating through him was a big help,” Parks, senior in supply chain management, said. “I feel like you get an attorney involved and people definitely take you more seriously.”
After the meeting, Student Affairs significantly shortened the team’s suspension to end on April 22 rather than Dec. 31. It was a win for the team, Parks felt. It was sort of like what Durham tries to do at his law office — make sure the individual gets treated fairly. But in the past, he wasn’t necessarily on the side of the underdog. Durham spent the first three-quarters of his career representing large businesses, insurance companies and institutional clients before realizing that what he really wanted out of his job was to make personal connections, which those corporate environments didn’t provide.
“I learned that when you represent someone, a person or a small group, and you get them a good result, you can change their life and they’ll never forget you,” Durham said.
While not as much was at stake for the bass fishing team compared to some of the cases he's managed, he’s still received an outpouring of thanks from parents and supporters of the team for his help.
“I have gotten a multitude of emails from parents of individuals on the Auburn team, and I don’t know their children, I know they’re on the Auburn team is all, extending me a heartfelt thank you for doing that,” he said. “And that makes it all worth it for me.”
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