When Bill Garmer was growing up in Carrollton in the early 1960s, the best show in town was in the Carroll County courthouse.
“We’d watch trials a lot, especially in the summertime,” Garmer said. “I just kind of always thought I wanted to be a lawyer.”
Garmer, who has practiced law in Lexington for more than 40 years, was installed last month as president of the Kentucky Bar Association, which oversees the state’s 18,500 licensed lawyers. He said he’s only the seventh Lexington lawyer to head the statewide professional organization in the past 50 years.
Garmer takes office at a time when the rule of law is under assault from some politicians and Kentucky’s legal profession has been embarrassed by one of its own. Eastern Kentucky lawyer Eric Conn went on the lam last month after pleading guilty to a $550 million Social Security fraud scheme that included bribing a judge.
The KBA didn’t suspend Conn from law practice until his guilty plea, even though his activities had been apparent for years. That prompted questions about how well the bar association polices unethical conduct by Kentucky lawyers.
KBA rules allow the association’s counsel to defer disciplinary action against a lawyer if state or federal proceedings are underway.
“I think it bears looking at and seeing what our procedures are,” Garmer said when asked about Conn. “There is a procedure for an emergency suspension, and we need to look at procedures to see if we need to tweak them.”
To the KBA’s credit, it helped recruit more than 50 Kentucky lawyers to volunteer their services to help Conn’s clients after Social Security officials demanded that they prove they are eligible for disability benefits. A leader in that effort, Prestonsburg lawyer Ned Pillersdorf, was honored at the KBA convention.
“I think we fall victim to the bad apples like any other profession does,” Garmer said. “We get judged by the Eric Conns of this world and not by the people who are out there every day representing people.”
Crooked lawyers make headlines, and highly paid corporate attorneys are often the face of the profession, but other lawyers work hard for little money, representing society’s most vulnerable people.
“They do it because they love it and they do it because they want to be of service to people,” he said. “I don’t think we get as much good press as the lawyers out there deserve.”
Garmer attended law school after earning his bachelor’s degree at UK and serving four years in the U.S. Air Force. After clerking for U.S. District Judge Bernard T. Moynahan, he became a trial lawyer.
Garmer’s current firm, Garmer & Prather, practices statewide, representing plaintiffs in personal injury, product liability, aviation crashes and medical malpractice cases. He was among the lead attorneys for the families of those who died in the Comair 5191 crash in Lexington in August 2006.
“I enjoy representing people who are in dire straits because of what has happened to them,” he said.
Garmer & Prather’s offices are in a late-1800s building beside the Lexington Opera House on North Broadway that Garmer bought in 1988. His law partners are Jay Prather and John Norman.
Garmer has been active in legal organizations and politics and was chairman of the state Democratic Party in 2004. He has been a deacon and an elder at Lexington’s First Presbyterian Church and has served on the board of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence since 2011.
Garmer ascended to the KPA presidency after five years on its Board of Governors and running unopposed for vice president and president-elect. Garmer took the top job last month at the KBA convention in Owensboro, and he will host next year’s convention in Lexington, June 13 to 15.
Garmer said Kentucky is recognized nationally as having one of the best state bar associations, whose members are more collegial than lawyers in many other states.
“When we go around the country and take depositions, court reporters comment on how well Kentucky lawyers get along,” Garmer said. “We don’t tend to scream and fight as much as other lawyers, although we practice our cases seriously.”