ROXBURY, NJ – He comes close, but Succasunna lawyer Marshall Gates is not quite Atticus Finch.
For one thing, he’s not tall enough. The Roxbury lawyer is a way shorter than 6-foot, 3-inch actor Gregory Peck, who portrayed Finch, the bold, beloved, fictional country lawyer in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Also, Gates is a passionate Yankees fan. His law office is adorned with Bronx Bombers stuff, he has season tickets and he’s collected thousands of baseball cards.
Nothing suggests Finch similarly “bled pinstripes,” as they say. In fact, author Harper Lee gave Finch few, if any, baseball propensities. The homespun Alabama attorney didn’t take his kids out to catch fly balls or field grounders. He wouldn’t even play football. He read them books and spoke to them using big words.
Nevertheless, if you look beyond these differences you might discover that Gates, a TAP into Roxbury sponsor, has a lot in common with Finch. For starters, there’s that country lawyer thing. Roxbury is hardly urban, but when Gates grew up in the 1950s, the town was still downright pastoral by comparison.
“I lived on Eyland Place when we first came here when I was little,” said Gates. “The road wasn’t even paved. There was a farm across Route 10 in the area where Kuiken Brothers is now. Animals used to graze there and there were no traffic lights on Route 10.”
Gates has risen to the high echelons of his profession, handling death-penalty criminal cases and complex civil matters where big money was at stake. But he’s not lost sight of his Succasunna roots. In fact, he embraces them.
“I grew up in this town and I went to school here,” he said. “Other than when I was away at college, I’ve been here my whole life, so I consider myself a part of the community.”
Gates has been married for 43 years and he has three children, all educated in the Roxbury school system. “A lot of my clients are people that I’ve known for years from around the community,” he said. “I see myself as sort of an updated version of the old country lawyer.”
As a youngster, Gates was in the Boy Scouts and other Roxbury organizations, activities that sparked an interest in civic affairs. He would go on to become an assistant Scoutmaster in Roxbury, a Little League and soccer coach, a president of the Lions Club, a president of the Roxbury Area Chamber of Commerce and a township councilman from 1990 to 2003.
His success in Roxbury politics is impressive because Gates is a life-long Democrat in a predominantly Republican town. “I won four elections in this town and I was always a Democrat,” he said. Gates lost his election bid to former Roxbury Councilman Martin Schmidt, a Republican who, after 12 years in office, was recently ousted by a Democrat.
He said it was his skill on the school debate team that prompted him to consider becoming a lawyer. He discovered an ability for rhetorical persuasion.
As did Atticus Finch, Gates prides himself on being a good listener and a strong believer in thoroughly understanding his clients’ concerns.
“The thing that I’ve always prided myself on is responsiveness to the client and personal service,” he said. “One of the biggest complaints people have about their lawyers is that they don’t answer their phone calls … People are coming to you and they have problems and questions. You have to talk to them and explain things to them. What I like to do is give personal service.”
As he spoke, Gates pulled out of a stuffed desk drawer – one after another – “thank you” cards from clients. He can remember each case and the people involved.
“I handle the cases myself which allows me to know what’s going on with each file,” said Gates. “I think that’s something people like. What it means is that I’m the one working on your case. I’m your interface. To me that’s important. That’s why I’m in this field, to help people with their problems.”
Gates, a Rutgers University and New York Law School graduate, began practicing law in 1973. He’s been a certified civil trial attorney since 1983. He’s served as both a municipal prosecutor and a municipal public defender and he is admitted to practice before both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
A law practice so lengthy can cover a lot of ground and Gates has pretty much seen it all. From his small office, with a wall displaying his collection of political buttons, he has handled thousands of municipal and superior court cases and represented clients in commercial law, land use, trusts, zoning, tax appeals, contracts and more.
“Some of the most personally rewarding matters I had over the years were where I really helped people,” he said. “I remember getting disability benefits for a lot of people who deserved them. I remember saving a piece of property for a woman, land that had been in her family for generations and was in jeopardy of being lost when she married a ne’er-do-well.”
Gates is also proud of winning big settlements for people who were “egregiously injured in all types of accidents ,” including car crashes, falls, gunshot wounds, dog bites, product failures or when unsafe machines left them severely injured.
“All those things were rewarding and personally satisfying for me because I could help people that needed help,” he said. “And that’s why I became a lawyer in the first place.”