“Entering his sixth year as a trial lawyer, and his fourth as a partner at Pate, Johnson & Church LLC, Thomas D. Church recognizes that his first five years of practice have been unconventional. Especially the last few, which took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic and political turmoil in the U.S.
While Church’s name was added to the firm in October 2019, a little more than two years after he graduated law school, he believes his career really took off in 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic. “I started representing inmates across the country who were elderly or had medical conditions that put them at risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19,” Church explained. Church filed dozens of motions for “compassionate release” in over a dozen states and helped many inmates get back home. “It is the most important thing I have done in my life,” says Church.
One man hired Church months after he had just been sentenced to six years in prison. Church won a motion to reduce the man’s sentence to house arrest after proving he was allergic to the COVID-19 vaccine and at risk from Covid due to his age. Church helped several other inmates get their sentences shortened, including some serving life, after proving that they had received excessive sentences.
Church believes that he was fortunate to be hired out of law school by the more than 25-year-old firm now known as Pate, Johnson & Church. Most of Church’s cases are federal criminal cases or felony charges in Georgia. His federal cases have taken him from San Diego to New York City, and everywhere in between. His cases in Georgia span across the state as well. “I’ve had cases in the northwestern corner of the state near Chattanooga all the way to Savannah. I’ve learned more about Georgia in the past five years than in the previous 25 years living here.”
The 32-year-old attended middle and high school in Columbus, Georgia. But the Emory University and University of Georgia School of Law graduate has a much broader, international background than that would suggest. His parents are both archeologists who met in Peru, where his mother is from. His younger brother was born in a Peruvian hospital, and Church recalls growing up there for several years as a child. Church is proud of his Peruvian heritage—“Amo la patria.”
Church’s upbringing also means that he is fluent in Spanish, which he describes as “a boon for our practice.” Church says he has close relationships with his Spanish-speaking clients, who often provide repeat business or refer their family members to Church’s firm.
Church’s profile on the firm website states that he became a trial lawyer to represent people, rather than big corporations and powerful government agencies, but his path was not set in stone. “In law school, I was going for the business litigation route. Besides maybe estate law or family law, the last thing I wanted to do was criminal law. But I was struggling to find a job after taking the bar, and people at UGA who were looking out for me put me in touch with Page Pate, one of the best trial lawyers in the country. I realized most people don’t get opportunities to get mentored by someone like that.”
It was only after he was hired and passed the bar exam that Church told Pate and Jess Johnson, another partner at the firm, that he had been arrested twice on misdemeanor charges when he was 18 years old. “I told them I had served a little time in county jail, and Page told me that gave me more credibility in his eyes. It was then I knew I was at the right place because you’re not going to be a good trial lawyer unless you know what’s at stake for the people you represent,” remembers Church.
Perhaps Church’s brush with the law as a teen strengthened his backbone. During his last year in law school, he was selected to participate in a week-long seminar led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Church considers “ideologically opposite” from himself. He had to apply for the seminar, and only a few students were chosen. As Church recalls, “My application was about how I disagreed with Justice Thomas’ judicial philosophy but felt the best way to learn would be to challenge my own ideas. And I tried my best to challenge his as well. We didn’t end up agreeing on much except for Georgia football, but at the end of the seminar, as we each lined up to take pictures with him, Justice Thomas said to me as we were shaking hands, ‘This guy is going to be my lawyer, because he can make an argument for anything!’”
That is, of course, a compliment and a challenge for any budding attorney. But so far in his practice, Church says his biggest challenge has been dealing with the emotional side of his work, taking on the burden of representing people charged with serious crimes and being there for their families. “The client is rarely the bad person the prosecution makes them out to be, and the families are almost always innocent,” Church says.
“I had to build a lot callouses,” he explains. “I am grateful for my close relationships with my clients, but I couldn’t stop thinking about their cases even when I was off the clock. I felt the need to return emails from clients or their families right away because I knew how important it is to them. I had to learn how to establish balance and boundaries. Criminal practice can consume you if you let it. It is also adversarial, so you’re often fighting against a system where the prosecutors have way more power than you do.”
Fortunately, Church also describes himself as a “people person,” and he has great relationships with some prosecutors. “You can’t look at this work purely on a win-loss basis. Most of the time, there’s at least some evidence supporting the charges against your client. In some cases the evidence of guilt is overwhelming. If you can’t get the charges dismissed or the evidence thrown out, the name of the game becomes damage control. Sometimes that means keeping someone out of prison, even if you can’t avoid a felony conviction. Sometimes it means a shorter sentence or getting someone to better facility.”
Of course, getting an unqualified win is the best, Church acknowledged. “Those moments carry you for a long time. Nothing puts the wind in your sails like someone telling you you’ve given them their life back.” Many of Church’s former clients have left him Google reviews thanking him for doing just that.
Among the cases Church handles at both the state and federal level are drug trafficking cases, white collar crimes, immigration offenses, sex crimes, and appeals. He has gotten unqualified wins in several of them, including getting racketeering charges dismissed in Fulton County after filing a motion challenging the indictment, winning a motion in a federal bribery case after proving that the government breached a plea agreement, and securing injunctions against district attorneys and sheriffs prohibiting them from raiding stores that sell CBD and other hemp products.
In 2018, Church recalls a very different case where two PhD students in the United States were arrested for taking stem cells to Iran, which is under sanctions prohibiting trade with the U.S. “Our client was a biologist who moved here from Iran to start a life here with her family,” he explains. “She was charged with a federal crime for bringing research materials to her mentor in Iran, who is a world-renowned doctor. It was political, and we were ultimately able to get those charges dismissed.”
In another memorable and more local case, Church represented a former high school classmate who was convicted of a felony several years ago and received a long probation sentence. When Church heard about it, he reached out to the classmate and took the case pro bono to get his probation terminated. Church told the judge, who graduated from the same high school decades earlier, “I know this man, we both graduated from Columbus High School, where he was a standout student. I’ve got my yearbook where he was voted a Class Favorite. He deserves a second chance, and this community is better off with as a full participant in it.” The judge granted Church’s motion.
Besides pro bono work, Church says his firm puts its money where its mouth is, noting that Page Pate is a founding member of the Georgia Innocence Project, an independent nonprofit organization in Georgia dedicated to helping individuals who have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. The firm contributes to several other local causes and organizations.
Even after a case has ended, Church says that the firm’s attorneys don’t just walk away. “Page has borrowed the old Georgia slogan, ‘finish the drill.’ We stick around for clients and their families if they need anything after the case is over. That’s one thing that sets us apart – how much of ourselves we put into our clients. It’s the philosophy that drives this firm.”
That Church has found early success as a trial lawyer shouldn’t surprise anyone. While in law school, Church was a member of the school’s Moot Court and Mock Trial teams. He won awards for achieving the highest marks in his Torts and Constitutional Law classes. He also served as a research assistant to Professors Dan Coenen and Michael Wells, experts in constitutional law and civil rights law.
Church points out that his partners, Page and Jess, also graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law. Recently Pate, Johnson & Church mined UGA’s law school again, hiring Kate Forrest, who attended UGA with Church, and Whitney Baker.
The firm obviously struck gold in hiring Church. In just his third year of practice, he was selected as one of the Top 40 Under 40 Criminal Defense Trial Lawyers in Georgia by the National Trial Lawyers. Membership on that list is by invitation only and usually for lawyers who have practiced for at least five years. Church has also been selected by Best Lawyers as “One to Watch” in 2021 and 2022. Most recently, Church was recognized by Super Lawyers as a “Rising Star” for 2022 and 2023.
Church, however, doesn’t brag about his own accomplishments. “I have been very fortunate to work with Page and Jess,” he emphasizes. “I did not build this law firm. It was already an elite firm when I got here, but I am proud of my contributions so far. I have been able to handle cases all over the country involving all kinds of interesting and exotic issues, and I’ve gotten to help a lot of people along the way. I really am a lucky man and am excited to see what lies ahead.”