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Timothy L. Brooks

Tim Brooks knew early on that chicken farming was not for him. But he didn’t dream of being a lawyer, much less a judge. by April Wallace | September 28, 2014 at 2:36 a.m.
Tim Brooks is district court judge for the western district of Arkansas.

FAYETTEVILLE -- In all things, Tim Brooks is incredibly prepared.

When making an elaborate multi-course meal for his family and friends, he sets out all the ingredients, lines them up perfectly, and grates, chops, zests before turning on a single burner.

"They are fascinated with Tim and his cooking, fascinated," says wife Mary Beth Brooks. "One of my dad's favorite things is to come to Fayetteville and sit at the bar area and watch him [prepare]."

Soups, endless variations of asparagus, salmon, desserts are all homemade and carefully crafted.

"He likes to take care of his friends," says longtime friend and colleague April Shy. "One of the ways he does that is entertaining. It beats any restaurant."

And when a massive trial loomed, Brooks used that same sort of detailed preparation to dupe every lawyer in the room by knowing each document and fact he could possibly need.

Earlier this year, Brooks' reputation for 25 years of fastidious legal practice earned him an appointment by President Barack Obama as U.S. district court judge for the Western District of Arkansas.

It's a pinnacle for anyone practicing law, but even more so for someone who didn't think he could even become a lawyer.

"I thought [law] was something that other people did," he says. "Other more ... smart, more advanced, more blue-blood. I didn't think that I would ever be able to be a lawyer."

He had no context for it. His family's social circle was small and it certainly didn't include any lawyers.

"It was very intriguing, but I thought it was unattainable -- not that I knew how one attained it, necessarily, but I just assumed I wouldn't be able to."

Growing up on a farm in Fayetteville shaped Brooks' attitude toward work and life from the start.

By the time Brooks, the youngest of five, came along, his parents had done this song and dance before, and the novelty of having another child had, frankly, worn off.

He didn't play team sports because they weren't interested in attending games. He was expected to work hard for what he had and from the age of 6, he was responsible for collecting dead chickens from their chicken houses.

If he was going to help out, he was expected to know the reality of farm work -- no sugar coating.

"I knew from a fairly early age that I did not want to be a chicken farmer," Brooks says. "I wanted to do something to get off the farm. I credit that in a lot of respects for a certain work ethic, drive and determination."

He admired the success of his oldest brother, a banker. Rising from a similar circumstance to create a better life for his family seemed like a good outlook, so in attending college at the University of Arkansas, Brooks majored in business with an emphasis in banking.

He lived at home to save money and worked part time as a vault teller at First National Bank in Springdale.

Something in his attention to detail and the seriousness with which he took his position rang true for his superiors.

By the end of his first week on the job, Brooks -- just a college freshman at the time -- had the combinations to both vaults and keys to every door in the bank.

He counted the cash, which were sums of $600,000 to $1 million on average, in each vault daily and proved steadfast and thorough.

"I learned that you've got to be precise," he says. "Precise, thorough, and pay attention to detail. I don't know if it's the root of this disease I have, but I find myself being a little OCD about everything that I do.

"Not wanting to let the little things slip is something I learned [there] and carried through in the legal profession."

Anyone who has worked with him or come up against him in court can attest to that.

"He's always going to be the most prepared person in the courtroom," Shy says. "You cannot out prepare him. He doesn't have a briefcase, he has boxes and boxes [of files]."

Even at that young age, he didn't mind the quiet busy work, and soon found himself working weekends.

College wasn't much of a challenge, so the growing responsibility at work provided a balance that he was looking for.

But it all came to a grinding halt when he invested some of that money he made into the LSAT, the law school admission test, and found to his complete surprise that he was accepted to the University of Arkansas School of Law.

PREPARED PUPIL

The excitement and relief of the acceptance letter was short lived. He had grabbed the handle but feared it would slip through his fingers.

"I was so concerned about not succeeding that I poured everything that I had into it," he says. "You had to intensely prepare and be prepared every day, especially in your first year."

Since school had never required much energy beyond the classroom before, it took some getting used to.

Not long into a class by Dick Atkinson, who later became the dean of the school, Brooks learned that being ill-prepared would punish the students around him. Atkinson had a habit of calling on the peers surrounding him for the remainder of the class if he failed to answer any question correctly.

It reinforced the habit of going to all lengths to be prepared, whether the details seemed critical at the time or not.

He liked the various subjects within law and the challenges they presented, which was unlike anything he'd encountered. It had an orderliness to it, it was practical and most of all, he liked the realm of possibilities it opened for him.

That genuine, growing interest in the law, along with his consistency, started to pay off when he earned the Judge John E. Miller Memorial Scholarship, even though he didn't apply for it.

A professor had taken the liberty to do it for him, and awarded it to him off the cuff, while he was in between classes at the law school one day.

For the moment, the novelty was that he'd earned a scholarship in a time when very few were available after initially entering the school, and that he had $500 more than he'd had the day before.

Now, with some extra years and miles behind him, he is charmed by the irony of accepting an award named after another federal trial judge, an Arkansan who valued upholding the law in his home state, much as Brooks does now.

"I was fortunate enough to be able to attain this position, to be entrusted with this position," Brooks says. "It's just amazing ... that I would receive the John E. Miller scholarship and wind up as a judge on the same district court bench that he was on."

Unknowingly carrying on that legacy, Brooks concentrated on securing a clerkship. The minute his ban on working part time was lifted, he wanted to be ready.

That spring, he visited every law firm in the city of Fayetteville. Hearing "no" several times didn't bother him much, as long as he got a single "yes."

Brooks took the first job offer he was made and ran with it.

DOWN IN THE WEEDS

The offer came from Taylor Law Firm, a small operation of three lawyers who paid Brooks $7 an hour to do research and write drafts from an elevator shaft that had been converted to an office.

"He was just a big ol' kid in law school [when he arrived]," says W.H. Taylor, founding partner of the firm. "He didn't cuss or drink, [was] real quiet, real nice. He stayed like that until he started practicing with me.

"He was a very bright, competent clerk who loved to work. That's the one thing that you can say without reservation -- he loves to work."

Thankful for the opportunity, Brooks made the most of it by working full time in the summers and always accepting their offer to continue the clerkship as the semesters ticked by.

While many law students dutifully log their required three hours in the legal clinic, Brooks earned his experience in the real world. He sat in on every meeting offered to him, trailed the lawyers' research path to ensure that they were on the right track and got a handle on the writing skills needed to survive in court.

"As he matured and got into law business practice, he figured out he was just as smart as anyone else in the law business and figured out the secret -- to work harder than anyone else," Taylor says. "He's very competitive. He's very calm, but he does not like to lose. He'll outwork anybody in a lawsuit."

What he didn't realize was that Taylor Law Firm had a nontraditional setup.

Founded by Mike Mashburn and Taylor, its operations pulled in opposite directions. From Mashburn's experience in "silk stocking" law came the habit of doing defense work for large corporations. And from Taylor came work of representing plaintiffs in personal injury and criminal cases.

"These guys came together and formed something very unusual, schizophrenic," Brooks says. "Half the firm did defense work, the other half did plaintiff work. Half did civil litigation, half did criminal litigation. You didn't see that type of crossover in very many firms."

Having a front-row seat to both sides of the story early in his legal upbringing helped him grow accustomed to hard work, long hours and the advantage of a unique perspective -- to see from both sides of the aisle and not be too invested in either one.

That skill would be put to constant use years later, when he took the bench.

By law school graduation, Brooks had earned his way out of the elevator shaft with an official job offer.

He made partner within a few years and remained at the firm for 25 years, until beginning his time as a federal judge.

"I feel like Robert E. Lee after Stonewall Jackson got shot," Taylor says of Brooks' move. "If he ever quits, I hope he comes back [to the firm]."

Working there, Brooks took a page from Mashburn's playbook to be well-researched. On large cases, he would review tens of thousands of documents and learn everything there was to know about the subject -- a feat in the days before the searchable PDF.

"It fit my skill set of being down in the weeds, paying attention to detail, reading everything I could about the case," he says. "I was working as hard as I could so I knew the case better than anyone else did."

More often than not, he did know it best.

"He's extremely smart," Shy says. "There's not a lot of smoke and mirrors. He's serious about his work."

"He's totally focused and doesn't let things bother him," Taylor says. "If he had to get on a plane, fly to New York to take a deposition in the middle of a snowstorm, that's the way he did. That's the way he's geared."

He earned a reputation for being able to handle the toughest, most complex cases. By keeping his head down and staying busy from case to case, he didn't realize the hand he'd been dealt. By the time he looked up, he was appointed federal judge.

BEST RESTAURANT IN TOWN

After long weeks in the courtroom, there's nothing Brooks enjoys more than taking care of family and friends.

Colleagues say he's a prime choice for tailgating partner, dinner party host, cat sitter and someone to turn to when deciding what vehicle to buy.

His dedication to being equally active in parenting was an indication of the character that Mary Beth instantly admired.

"I saw it so much when we were dating," she says. "He wasn't the Disneyland dad, just taking them on weekends for fun. He prefers the actual brushing teeth and taking them to school, the daily grind."

The two were set up by a friend, but both having been married previously, they were cautious. When the normally reserved Brooks spoke to her for two hours before even meeting, they knew they had something special.

They married in 1999, and had a son, Sam.

Brooks provides his children the guidance and direction that he didn't have, and takes pride in having helped his daughter Kaitlin achieve her biggest dream -- that of getting into the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Having reached his perceived unattainable goal of becoming a lawyer and superseding it into the role of judge, he encourages those around him to reach higher, too.

"You can do whatever it is that you want to do," he tells them. "You should always dream big because if you apply yourself, you don't quit and persist, you can do anything.

"You might have to work harder, might have to get there through alternate means, but if you can work hard, you can achieve your dreams."

High Profile on 09/28/2014

Print Headline: Timothy L. Brooks

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