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Obituary for Associate Dean Emeritus Jim Elliott 66C 66L (1941-2024)

A. James Elliott Headshot

Arthur James “Jim” Elliott, 82,  of Hiram, Georgia, passed away on January 14, 2024, after a short illness. Jim was a lifelong resident of Georgia, born in Atlanta on October 30, 1941, to Arthur Ham Elliott and Eunice Perkins. He attended Murphy High School and Emory University, then continued to receive his Juris Doctor from Emory University School of Law. After receiving his Juris Doctor, Jim served in the Air Force Reserve. He was a brother of the Sigma Chi Fraternity, Beta Chi Chapter at Emory and was awarded Significant Sig in 2005.

Jim lived by Mark Twain’s admonition to “always do right, this will gratify some people and astonish the rest,” and the residents of Georgia are better off for it. A champion of civil rights, diversity, professionalism, ethics, pro bono legal work, and community service, Jim always did the right thing, no matter how much it upset the established status quo. Jim graduated from Emory University School of Law in 1966, where he was editor of the Law Review and the recipient of many other honors and awards. A lifelong learner, he later earned an MBA, Beta Gamma Sigma, from Kennesaw State University in 1997.

Jim entered law practice with Alston Miller Gaines, now known as Alston and Bird, becoming a partner in just over three years, successfully defending the constitutionality of 1968 Civil Rights Act while still just an associate. He came to chair both the Real Estate Department and the Professional Personnel Committee. Jim used these perches to drive Alston forward; it was the first major law firm south of Philadelphia to hire Black associates. A lifelong teacher and mentor to young lawyers, Jim encouraged excellence in law practice and insisted on the importance of pro bono and community service work.

Jim was extremely active with the State Bar of Georgia, eventually becoming its president in 1988. He truly believed in the concept of “justice for all,” growing increasingly concerned that the legal profession was becoming more aggressive and business like and less like the noble learned profession of its past, with the economic pressures of law practice driving greed and incivility. This wasn’t right, and Jim set out to do something about it. While chairing the Legal Aid Committee, for example, Jim discovered how many Georgians could not afford legal representation, so he and a group of others co-founded Georgia Indigents Legal Services in 1971 and the Georgia Legal Services Program in 1973, making Georgia the first state in the US to provide statewide legal aid to impoverished residents. Jim also helped persuade the Georgia Supreme Court to adopt the Interest On Lawyers’ Trust Account (IOLTA) program which provides significant funding for indigent legal services, ultimately convincing the Court to make IOLTA a mandatory program for all Georgia lawyers, despite significant opposition from lawyers and other Bar leaders. No other program has contributed as much to legal services programs and other public interest legal organizations in Georgia. Thousands of Georgians have benefited from Jim’s perseverance, drive, and creativity.

While State Bar president, Jim co-founded the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism and was tapped to chair the Governor’s Select Commission for Judicial Selection from 1987 to 1991 and the Supreme Court Commission to Evaluate Disciplinary Enforcement (more commonly known as the Elliott Commission) from 1994 to 1996. The Elliott Commission made a series of recommendations for reforming lawyer discipline in Georgia. These recommendations were strongly opposed by the State Bar of Georgia, which was able to maintain the status quo. This was one of the very few times in his life where, despite his tenacity, Jim’s efforts to do the right thing were defeated by the organized legal community.

Jim retired from Alston and Bird in 1996 and joined the faculty of Emory Law as an associate dean, from which he retired as associate dean emeritus in 2023. Jim had always been dedicated to Emory, serving on the Board of Visitors, as an adjunct professor, and as chair of a National Campaign, among other leadership roles. In addition to mentoring scores of students while teaching subjects which included Professional Responsibility, Banking, and Real Estate Finance, Jim developed the school's relationship with the Courts and the Bar and created an innovative program on professionalism which has been copied by dozens of other law schools. Jim also believed strongly in the value of practical legal education at a time when that concept was anathema to his more theoretically inclined colleagues. Averring that law schools have an obligation to prepare graduates to actually practice law, Jim would warn the students in his practical classes not to tell any of the other professors what he was teaching them. He was only being slightly facetious.

Jim was concerned about the future of legal education and the ability of graduates to obtain meaningful employment, and he believed in reevaluating the way the legal profession trains young lawyers. He encouraged the Supreme Court to adopt a dual track for Bar admission, adding an alternative approach involving two years of law school followed by a one-year practical skills internship. This has not been popular with the organized legal establishment, and ultimately didn’t happen in his lifetime, but that didn’t stop Jim from advocating for it.

In addition to his teaching and mentoring responsibilities, Jim was active at Emory as an associate dean, organizing law school and university wide events, promoting public discussions of difficult topics, and enriching the intellectual fabric of the university.

Jim had a unique ability to challenge others to join him in his quest for equality, excellence and out-of-the-box thinking with grace, humility, and a dazzlingly dry sense of humor. Even when they disagreed with him, which was often, his colleagues nevertheless respected and loved Jim.

Jim was a fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers, the American Bar Foundation, and the Georgia Bar Foundation, where he also served as a Trustee.

He received numerous awards during his career, including without limitation the Arthur von Briesen Award, given annually by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association to one lawyer in private practice for substantial volunteer contributions to the legal assistance movement for the poor; the James Collier Award given by the Georgia Bar Foundation in recognition of life-time contributions; the Randolph Thrower Lifetime Achievement Award, an annual recognition presented by the State Bar of Georgia to an outstanding individual who has dedicated his or her career to providing opportunities that foster a more diverse legal profession for members of underrepresented groups in Georgia; the Emory Williams Award in recognition of the important role of classroom teaching in collegiate and graduate education and to encourage and reward superior teaching at Emory University; the E. Smyth Gambrell Award, presented by the American Bar Association in recognition of excellence and innovation in professionalism programs by law schools; and the Chief Justice Thomas Marshall Award, presented by the State Bar of Georgia to honor one lawyer and one judge who continually demonstrate the highest professional conduct.

Jim is also the namesake of the A. James Elliott Community Service Award at Emory Law, which provides a modest stipend to a third-year student at Emory who engages in significant service to the general community.

Jim pushed us all to do the right thing, no matter how difficult, and never to fear pushing back against the inertia of established institutions, so long as it is done with humor, humility, and good grace. He led by an example that most can only hope to emulate. He was an extraordinary man in so many ways, doing well in his career and doing good in the community. In the words of incoming Emory Law Dean Rich Freer, “Doing well and doing good are the hallmarks of a life very well lived.”

Jim was predeceased by his parents and sister and brother-in-law, Nancy and George Lee; his daughter, Nancy L. Elliott; and stepson, Joseph H. Marshburn, IV. Jim is survived by his partner of 20 years, Phyllis Hale Marshburn; his sons, Chris Pinson Elliott of Atlanta and Charles Edward Elliott (Eva) of Celina, TX, and their mother, Christine H. Elliott; his step-children, Molly Marshburn Bell (Sean) of Powder Springs, GA, and Jeffrey Marshburn (Leela), of Dallas, GA; his grandchildren Emma J. Elliott of Atlanta, Nicholas A. Bell of Knoxville, TN, Joseph A. Bell of Knoxville, TN, Erin S. Elliott of Statesboro, GA, Ian C. Elliott of Celina, TX, and Aiden J. Marshburn of Dallas, GA; his nephews Rob Thielmann and Patrick Garver of Atlanta; great grandson, Alan Elliott of Atlanta; and special friends Leanna Rensi, Aidan Casey, Elayne Casey, and Carlee Casey, of Atlanta.  

The Memorial Service will be held in Tull Auditorium at Emory Law on March 30, 2024, at 11:30 a.m. A reception will follow in Hunter Atrium. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the A. James Elliott Community Service Award at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. Gifts may be sent to the Office of Gift Accounting, Emory University, 1762 Clifton Road, Suite 2400, Atlanta, GA 30322 or made online at