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Sunday Conversation: Lee Elam, Brandon's longest-serving attorney, soldiers on

Longtime Brandon Attorney Lee Elam looks over some papers on a recent Friday in the conference room of the building that is normally closed on that day and that he now occupies at 137 S. Parsons Ave. Last year he sold the Lumsden Road law office and property he owned and occupied for 45 years. JOYCE MCKENZIE | Special to the Times
Longtime Brandon Attorney Lee Elam looks over some papers on a recent Friday in the conference room of the building that is normally closed on that day and that he now occupies at 137 S. Parsons Ave. Last year he sold the Lumsden Road law office and property he owned and occupied for 45 years. JOYCE MCKENZIE | Special to the Times
Published Jun. 25, 2018

In an autobiography speckled with humor and sprinkled throughout with the words, "God shed his grace on me," 79-year-old Brandon Attorney B. Lee Elam expounds upon his life well lived both professionally and for the greater good of the community.

He recalls his early years of having little money to fund his education and keep a roof over his head, but always finding ways that enabled him to move forward in his mission to help others in need.

In it it's also evident that Elam, who graduated in 1961 with a marketing degree from Florida State University and from Stetson Law School in 1970, cares deeply about the greater Brandon community, where he's worked and lived for close to a half a century.

For 45 of the 48 years he's practiced law, Elam worked inside his office at 101 E Lumsden Road, easily recognizable by most commuters with its eye-catching two-sided outdoor sign with constantly changing messages.

It's also where he amassed the majority of his portfolio of his more than 2,500 clients.

But feeling the need to downsize he sold that property in 2017 to attorneys Paul and Ryan Reed of Reed & Reed and moved Brandon's oldest law firm into a smaller office space inside the former TECO building at 137 S Parsons Ave.

Donelle White, a fellow attorney at the Lumsden Road location, followed him.

Tampa Bay Times Correspondent Joyce McKenzie spoke with Elam about his decades-long career as a lawyer and his life in general.

What made you decide to become a lawyer?

I had applied for the Peace Corps before entering law school at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the only state law school at the time. I would not have been able to pay for a private law school. But interestingly, when I started law school I wasn't sure I wanted to practice law. It wasn't until I really got into the study of law that I fell in love with it. Then halfway through the first semester I got an offer from the Peace Corps to serve in Jamaica. I refused it because I wanted to learn a foreign language during my service and Jamaica is English-speaking. Then shortly thereafter I got an invitation to go to Colombia, so I discussed it with my study partner. He said that if I did not take it now I would never go because I would graduate, get married and have a family and career and not be able to go.

So I finished the semester, went to the dean of the law school and told him I would be back in two years, the Peace Corps term of service. He checked my first semester grades and said that according to his evaluation I should have flunked out.

Tell me a little bit about your experience in the Peace Corps.

I was in Colombia from 1962 to 1964, and was stationed in Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia. But I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the first two months of training, which included an intensive amount of studying Spanish.

After the first two months, we were sent to New York City and worked with the Department of Social Work for a month. Then the third stage of training was in Puerto Rico and from there we were then flown to Bogota, Colombia, where our group was designated for what they called the Urban Community Development program. After that we worked in Medellin with the state, city and in rare instances the national government to better that area.

After your two years in the Peace Corps, you eventually earned your law degree from Stetson. Why did you decide to open your own practice in Brandon?

I always knew that I wanted to have my own practice. Then I was driving toward Highway 60 via John Moore Road one day I looked to my right and saw my future office. I said to myself I am going to have that building. So I called my realtor and he said it was for sale, even though there had been no sale signs outside.

My wooden outdoor sign was sun bleached so as to be illegible and I decided to replace it. I asked myself who gets the most out of their outdoor signs and chiropractors immediately came to mind. So I called Journal, the national magazine of chiropractors, and got the name and telephone number of the company who makes their signs. They came and put up my outdoor sign.

My favorite sign was 'When does football season Start: The day after the Super Bowl.' And perhaps my most appreciated was 'R.I.P. (followed by the person's name) and Godspeed.' There were more than 25 people who were remembered in this fashion.

What do you think, if anything, sets you apart from many other personal injury lawyers?

What sets us aside as a personal injury law firm is our longevity, my bilingual ability, my training as a claims adjuster, and our client dedication. I also was an original member of the Brandon Bar Association and only one of the organizers who still participates in its activities. In addition, our law firm supports many nonprofits in order to give a hand-up to our neighbors.

You mentioned being bilingual. Why was it that while in the Peace Corps you specifically wanted to learn the Spanish language? Had you studied another foreign language while in high school?

No, I didn't take any foreign language courses in high school. I just thought it would be good to know because of all the Spanish-speaking people living in Florida. And if I was going to be a lawyer, I knew I wanted to help the underserved, many of whom are Hispanic. So I became fluent and learned to read and write the language. In doing so, I have been blessed to provide free legal services to Beth-El Mission in Wimauma, and I've worked alongside Good Samaritan and Lighthouse Mission. These are basically Spanish-speaking entities for immigrants who need help of a basic nature.

Rather than downsize last year into a smaller office space, why didn't you opt to simply retire instead? After all, you've devoted more years to your career than most people and from all indications, you've made a nice living for yourself and your family as well as a good name for yourself.

I've been asked many times why I did not retire after selling my original building at Lumsden and John Moore roads. It is because I can do more for the needy as a practicing attorney than as a private citizen alone.

What would you like your legacy to be?

My dream for a legacy would be: He helped those most needy without any recognition, in the mold of Julian Craft and Bobby Dykes (two longtime but sadly deceased Brandon residents who Elam described as having servant hearts.)

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Joyce McKenzie at hillsnews@tampabay.com.