2014 Turman Award Winner
By Michelle Valigursky
“There is no better extension of a liberal arts education than legal training,” says Chilton Davis Varner 76L, the 2014 J. Pollard Turman Alumni Service Award recipient. “Each case is different, and you have to learn a lot about the subject matter of each case. You end up, in some ways, being a great generalist, even if you are a trial lawyer by trade.”
Varner is far more than a generalist, having become King and Spalding’s first female litigation partner in 1983 and the first woman elected to the firm’s management committee in 1995. She is the senior partner in the firm’s product liability practice and has represented companies such as ExxonMobil, Nissan, American Airlines, 3M, UPS, and Merck.
At the onset of her career, Varner juggled marriage and motherhood but vowed to become a greater part of the intellectual life of Atlanta. Her daughter was five before Varner entered law school. “Emory has been very good to me. The law school gave me a great education at a time when there weren’t that many married women entering the field of law. Emory took a risk with me, and with a third of the class that I joined. That was an enormous statement that they were eager to train women to be good lawyers,” she says. “I loved the competitive part of trial law. I loved the fact that writing and speaking were so important in that particular arm of the law.”
Varner, now an emerita trustee, served on Emory’s Board of Trustees from 1995 to 2013. She is a past president of the Emory Law Alumni Association and has been recognized as an Emory Law Distinguished Alumna. In 2012, she was also the inaugural recipient of Emory Law’s Eléonore Raoul Greene Trailblazer Award. Though she is an active community volunteer, she reflects about her immersion in Emory life: “Service on the Emory board has been far and away the most rewarding.”
Varner’s leadership has been lauded. In 2004, US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed Varner to the Advisory Committee on Federal Civil Rules (which governs civil practice in all federal trial courts), and Chief Justice John Roberts reappointed her for a second term in 2007. In March 2012, Benchmark named Varner Georgia Litigator of the Year and cited King and Spalding’s product liability practice as the best in the fourteen-state region. She has been selected for the short list of leading women lawyers by the National Law Journal, Benchmark, Law360, Chambers, the American Lawyer, US News & World Report Best Lawyers, the International Who’s Who in Product Liability, and LMG Life Sciences.
“My skill set was pretty well suited to the practice of law,” she says. “I was able to balance family and going back to school because my husband was very supportive. I have never looked back.”
Established in 1998, the Turman Alumni Service Award is one of the highest honors of the Emory Alumni Association. J. Pollard Turman 34C 36L was an influential humanitarian whose support of higher education and cultural organizations benefited institutions throughout Georgia. In 1996, through the generosity of the Tull Charitable Foundation (which Turman helped form) Emory established the award to pay tribute to his lifelong contributions to the university. In 2005 the Tull Charitable Foundation elevated its level of financial support to Emory through an annual pledge of $25,000 in honor of the Turman Award recipient.
As the 2014 J. Pollard Turman Alumni Service Award recipient, Varner has designated her gift to benefit Emory Law.