R.E.M. recorded its first album in 1981, and one person who was there from the beginning was attorney Bertis E. Downs IV, who started out providing legal services for the band and ended up managing its business affairs, a role that he continues today. Late last year, the band announced it was disbanding, but Downs said he remains busy taking care of the band's business.
Downs recently talked about his role with the band in a conversation with attorney Shawn Bratton, a part-time Gwinnett County magistrate judge, an associate at Mahaffey Pickens Tucker and a lifetime fan who grew up with the band's music. Their conversation, edited for brevity, follows.
How does a sole practitioner act as legal counsel for a world-famous band?
You don't. I've really functioned for years now, going back to the '80s, as more management. I'm still a lawyer, but the band uses a firm in AtlantaKilpatrick Townsendand a firm in Los AngelesGang, Tyre, Ramer & Brownfor actual contract work and for legal compliance issues. That kind of lawyering is impossible for a solo practitioner to do on the scale of a band our size. My role just sort of developed slowly until it became more of a management capacity in the late '80s.
What got you interested in law school? Did the law profession run in your family?
Not at all. My dad had been a minister. Both Bertis the first and second were pharmacists. I remember always being interested in law, and I really became interested as early as middle school and high school. I recall going downtown and watching the trial of the man who kidnapped Reg Murphy [the editor of The Atlanta Constitution at the time of his abduction].
Years later I went back and visited the Superior Court judge of that case, Judge Jack Etheridge. I was a freshman at Davidson College at the time and remember going to visit him during Christmas break. I went over looking for internships or anything at the courthouse I could do. Long story short, I ended up working a summer with three other college students at the Fulton County Jail. That summer I worked at the Fulton County Jail during the day, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. ,and then I went to work at the Fairmont Hotel at Colony Square.
It was the summer that the Rolling Stones did their Tour of the Americas '75, and they based their Southeastern dates at the Fairmont Hotel. I remember my main sensation being, "How can these really old guys, who are like in their 30s, how can they still be doing this?"
Did you do any clerkship as a student?
I did. I worked for Hudson and Montgomery, which is a law firm here in Athens that is still going strong. I am still good friends with them. They are a litigation firm and I clerked for them at different times over a couple of years.
You first met the guys who would become R.E.M. while you were still in law school?
Yeah. I met them very early on and began helping them over time as they needed it.
What were your first jobs out of law school?
After law school, I started teaching at the university, teaching the writing program, which was my first job. It was a way to be in Athens. The real story is that I was trying to get a job in the public sector but it was the year of the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. I was applying for jobs at the same time that everybody's budgets were completely frozen or cut. It was a terrible time to be looking for that kind of work, which is what I had thought all through law school that I would be doing. I had done legal aid and defender clinic and those kinds of things. There were very limited clinics then compared to the ones that we have now. So when I graduated, being able to stay in Athens and teach law school sounded pretty good.
Were you able to still help the band out during that year?
No. That year I was not actively involved in their career, but I came back to Athens in 1984. That was basically when they had their second record out so I came back for their second record. That was almost 30 years ago.