There are a couple of “walls of fame” in the sunny back offices of Rocky Hill Mediation Center. First there’s a row of photos of pols, almost all Republican, almost all signed with thanks to the center’s founder, West Knoxville attorney Billy Stokes. On the next wall is a tribute to top competitors: Pat Head Summitt, Phillip Fulmer, late boxing coach Ace Miller, heavyweight champion Big John Tate and Serbian boxer Bob Bozic in his fight against Larry Holmes.
In his 40-year career, Stokes’ own fighting streak has taken him into hundreds of lawsuits on behalf of his clients. From his beginning work in asbestos litigation and insurance company defense to his later moved toward more plaintiffs’ cases, he has argued for his clients’ interests to the best of his considerable ability.
Today, although he is still of counsel to Stokes, Williams, Sharp, Cope & Mann, in his day-to-day career Stokes is replacing much of his litigating with mediation work. As a Rule 31 listed mediator, he acts as a neutral third party to guide opposing parties toward a settlement of their dispute.
“Mediation started big about 25 years ago, at least in this legal community,” Stokes says. He was looking for something a little different — and not ready to retire — when he established the mediation center.
“I thought it would be an interesting way to think about things,” he says. Thinking as a neutral party instead of as an advocate, he says, “…is a whole different way of looking at the law. You don’t make judgment calls, and you don’t make legal calls.”
He estimates that about 85 percent of the cases he mediates are settled. Nothing said at mediation is admissible in court.
Mediation has some obvious advantages: A jury trial can be unpredictable and stressful for the litigants. In mediation, you don’t have to wait for 12 strangers to come up with a mystery number or unexpected verdict.
“You avoid the time, expense and misery of a jury trial,” Stokes says. “People are relieved that the case is settled, and they know what the number is.
“If you can find middle ground, that’s good for everybody,” Stokes says. “You hope the parties don’t have fixed ideas going in.”
Stokes grew up in Lonsdale and earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Tennessee. He wanted to be a prosecutor in his own hometown, and thought he was on a natural job track when he become a Captain, Judge Advocate General’s Corps, United States Army.
To his surprise, there was no opening in the D.A.’s office when he got back to Knoxville. He and attorney Daryl Fansler opened Stokes & Fansler in 1989. Stokes, a lifelong Republican, was tapped in 1995 to serve in Gov. Don Sundquist’s cabinet. He was Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Employment Security and later Special Assistant to the Governor.
In 2014, he ran for Circuit Court Judge in Division I. He lost to Kristi Davis, which he candidly says was not a bad outcome.
“She’s doing a great job,” he says.
After losing the election, in the spirit of trying something new, he set up the mediation center on Morrell Road, not far from the home he shares with his wife, Bay, a retired educator. (The two have two grown daughters and five grandchildren.)
This chapter of his career is particularly satisfying to Stokes. There is a moment in many mediations that is particularly valuable, he says, and that is when the parties realize there may be other sides to “the” story.
“Sometimes that’s the first time one party has heard what the other side has to say,” he says. He adds that meditation is often cathartic for the parties involved. “Someone has paid attention to their stories.”