AIKEN - Reginald Simmons was 12 when he heard his grandfa-ther say he wanted a lawyer in the family.
He admits that he didn't take his elder's wishes seriously at the time.
"I said I didn't want to be a lawyer. I didn't think I had the ability," said Mr. Simmons, now 39. "But he still planted a seed."
Today, that seed has grown and blossomed.
In an interview in his Aiken office, Mr. Simmons explained how he evolved from a youth advised to settle for less to the owner of a law firm with offices in Aiken, Augusta and Atlanta.
His clients include the "Godfather of Soul," James Brown.
In addition to the responsibilities of his law firm, Mr. Simmons pastors a newly formed nondenominational church, Universal Ministries Christian Fellowship in Augusta. The first church service is scheduled for today in the auditorium of Tobacco Road Elementary School.
He's also a licensed real estate broker and a licensed sports agent with the National Football League's Players Association. He recently signed his first professional football prospect from Louisiana State University.
Yet this father of two remains modest about his accomplishments. Resting an index finger against his lips, then gently stroking his chin, he said, "I hardly ever look back."
A softness settled in his impermeable, hazel eyes when he discussed growing}He grew up in a family that was short on money but rich in love. He said the price of his first car was more than the mortgage on his two-bedroom childhood home.
His deep, commanding voice rose when he spoke of his father, the late James Simmons Sr., a waiter who didn't make it past third grade, and his mother, Ruby Simmons, who received her high school diploma when he was in the 11th grade.
This Aiken native, who clings to the biblical adage "To whom much is given, much is required," developed a work ethic early that was influenced by his parents. In the eighth and ninth grades he worked summers. While in high school he held down two jobs: one full-time at a local mill, the other driving a school bus after school.
"I always wanted my own job and money," he said.
Describing himself as a student without direction who wasn't expected to go to college, he said school counselors advised him to take vocational classes.
But after graduating in the top quarter of his class of 650 students at Aiken High, he decided to attend North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, the alma mater of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the late NASA astronaut Ronald McNair.
"I blossomed after I got there," he said, flashing a mischievous grin.
During his college years he joined the Army ROTC and majored in recreational administration.
History repeated itself when he decided his junior year to go into military intelligence. His mentor suggested that he settle for being a tanker because it wasn't as difficult to get into.
He was commissioned in military intelligence anyway, and his leadership skills took shape.
"My momentum picked up," he said. "I began to seek leadership positions in school."
After completing college, he entered the Army and left as a captain. He then attended law school at American University-Washington College of Law.
After law school he became licensed to practice in South Carolina and Georgia. He opened his practice in 1987.
It was scary, he admits.
"You wonder, `Am I going to make it?' or `Is it going to work?'°" he said, sliding his chair closer to his desk. "Then you jump in with both feet and go for it."
It was rocky at first: Hours were long and money was tight, he said. But over the years his practice has grown.
Asked which case had the biggest impact, he cited an incident involving an Aiken man shot by a deputy sheriff in 1993. The man filed an excessive force lawsuit.
"He prevailed," Mr. Simmons said, raising an eyebrow. "The system worked."
Mr. Simmons had only been practicing about four years when he had the opportunity to work on Mr. Brown's case. Mr. Brown was sentenced to six years in prison in 1988 for aggravated assault and failing to stop for police. Mr. Simmons represented him at his parole hearing, and Mr. Brown was released after serving two years.
"I see some of myself in Mr. Simmons," Mr. Brown said. "When I was behind bars he was working every day, and he never slacked up. He did something that nobody had done. The day that I got paroled, he did a lot of work. When he finished I figured I would see a bill for at least $50,000. I saw a bill for zero. He said, `You don't owe me any money."'
Mr. Brown's gratitude to Mr. Simmons can also be heard on his 1995 version of the song It's a Man's World, recorded live at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
"Young Reginald Simmons drove up and down the road everywhere he could trying to get me out, but he finally did it though," Mr. Brown says during the song, asking Mr. Simmons to stand and be recognized in front of a cheering audience.
Mr. Simmons is no stranger to the spotlight.
On his office walls hang numerous pictures of him with celebrities, including Mr. Brown, actor Sherman Hemsley (George Jefferson from The Jeffersons), billionaire Donald Trump and rapper M.C. Hammer.
"Mr. Brown gave me an opportunity to display my talents at his parole hearing and in the entertainment industry," Mr. Simmons said. "He took a chance with me, notwithstanding or despite my experience at the time."
Mr. Simmons said he'd like to see the system work for all of his clients.
"Every client's not happy," he said. "You're not going to bat 100 percent, but we're in the high 90s."
Although he's candid about his past, Mr. Simmons elaborates little on his future. He doesn't rule out becoming a judge down the road.
But he says his primary goal is expanding his church.
"For me, the ministry is a much higher calling than what I do as a lawyer," he said. "I didn't choose to preach. I was called and I answered."
Mr. Simmons said he wants to influence people in the community through his ministry.
"I want to be a voice crying in the wilderness telling folks about Jesus first and primarily," he said. "Everything else flows from that."