Keith Norman: Serving the State

March 10, 2017

Keith Norman (’81) has excelled at service-oriented leadership.

For 23 years, he has been the Executive Director of the Alabama State Bar, the licensing and regulatory authority for more than 18,000 lawyers. There, he manages 45 employees and administers licensing, admissions, discipline and continuing legal education.

In June, Norman will retire from the position and leave the organization under the leadership of Birmingham lawyer Phillip McCallum, a past president of the state bar.

“Being executive director for as long as I have, it’s always good to not wear out your welcome or stay too long,” Norman said. “You need to have new leadership come in.”

Prior to joining the bar as Director of Programs in 1988, Norman practiced defense litigation, Alabama real estate, commercial arbitration and appellate advocacy at Balch & Bingham LLP in Montgomery.

He was only the third executive director for the state bar in the organization’s 67-year history. Continuity has been a valued feature of the bar’s success, and the lengthy tenure of the executive directors proves the position seeks the person more than the person seeks the position, Norman said.

When he reflects on his time leading the bar, he doesn’t point to any one accomplishment, and he certainly doesn’t take all of the credit as he worked with a staff to ensure Alabama has one of the best bar associations in the country.

“It’s never one person. It’s like Tom Brady and the Patriots,” he said, referring to the 2017 Super Bowl champions. “Tom Brady did a lot to bring that team from behind, but he couldn’t have done it without the offensive line, receivers. Tom Brady may have been the MVP, and perhaps deservedly so, but there were a lot of teammates who contributed to the success of the team.”

Bob McCurley (‘66), who was the Director of the Alabama Law Institute for 36 years, said Norman has contributed to the success of the Alabama bar and the Alabama Law Institute.

“Fifteen years ago, when the very presence of the law institute office was challenged, Keith and the Bar met the challenge,” McCurley said. “As a result, the institute soared to new heights, expanded its facilities and expanded its service. Keith is the epitome of a leader: goal-oriented, with a sense of urgency, and not afraid to fail.”

Norman mastered a multi-faceted position, one that required him to work with state legislators, bar organizations on the national level, as well as run the state bar effectively.  During his tenure, he saw growth in the bar when the legal profession changed significantly, said Dave Boyd (‘76), a partner at Balch & Bingham.

“You’ve got to have your eye on the ball all the time to run the organization but at the same time be nimble enough and flexible enough to deal with a new bar president every year,” Boyd said. “Keith has been a master of that.”

Lawyers, Norman said, have a head start when it comes to servant leadership because they serve clients’ needs and have a duty to represent those who may not be able to afford the services of a lawyer.

“This organization, by its very nature and purpose, is a service organization,” he said. “It was only a short stop for me from being a lawyer to heading up the Alabama State Bar.”

As a child, Norman first witnessed servant leadership growing up in Opelika. He saw it in the late Yetta G. Samford, Jr. (‘49) as he helped others solve legal problems. Norman always looked up to Sanford and decided he, too, would pursue a legal career. After a stint a Duke University, he returned to Alabama for law school.

He was in the first class to start and finish in the newly built law center. He didn’t have the pleasure of taking a course in Farrah Hall, but he visited the law school when it was still housed there in the fall of 1977. If there had been any question about returning to Alabama for law school, one individual put an end to it. While visiting the campus, he and a friend went to talk with University of Alabama President David Mathews.

“And lo and behold who should walk through the door but coach Bryant,” said Norman, who had grown up as an Auburn University football fan. “I was amazed at one, how big he was – because you don’t get the full flavor on TV – and two, how big his hands were.”

Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant spoke 10 words Norman will never forget: “You need to come home to the University of Alabama.”

While at UA Law, Norman said he received a stellar education and can’t imagine he could have had better professors than John C. Payne, Harry Cohen, Larry W. Yackle, Dean Nathaniel Hansford and many others.

At the time, some of them seemed ancient to Norman, like they had been around when the laws were written. “They really knew how to make you think like a lawyer,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons the first year of law school is not very fun. It’s because they’re teaching you how to think like a lawyer.”