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Front Page - Friday, October 4, 2019

A lioness and a legend

SETLAW names Magistrate Judge Susan Lee its 2019 Lioness of the Bar

In the animal kingdom, the female lion is a symbol of elegance and power. Generally leaner, faster and more cunning than her male counterparts, the lioness is a skilled hunter whose greatest asset is her patience as she waits for the right moment to leap from the brush and sprint toward her prey.

The female lion’s prowess is also seen in the fearsome agility with which she tackles her prey, holds it down with her sharp claws and crushes its throat.

Thankfully, the criteria SETLAW uses when selecting its annual Lioness of the Bar are less messy.

The Southeast Tennessee Lawyers’ Association for Women established the Lioness of the Bar award in 2014 to honor female attorneys for their exemplary legal practice, strong community involvement and dedication to furthering the careers of women lawyers in Chattanooga.

Past recipients have included the late Selma Cash Paty (2014), Virginia Love (2015), the Hon. Marie Williams (2016), Marcy Eason (2017) and Tonya Cammon (2018).

U.S. Magistrate Susan Lee joined this esteemed group on Sept. 26 when SETLAW honored her as its 2019 Lioness of the Bar.

Speaking before dozens of Lee’s colleagues, family members and friends at Pinnacle Financial Partners on Broad Street, Husch Blackwell associate Lauren Starnes expressed her deep admiration of Lee.

Starnes was 5 years old when she met Lee in 1995. Her mother was working as Lee’s assistant and paralegal at Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison, and Starnes spent many days off school at the office.

“As a little kid, I was afraid of Judge Lee and found her to be very intimidating. She has a sharp voice and a way of asking questions that scares you.

“However, I quickly realized Judge Lee was not someone to be afraid of but rather someone who deserved my respect.”

When Lee was appointed to the bench in 2004, Starnes’ admiration of her deepened. “Her attention to detail, her judicial propriety and the full consideration she gives every case, no matter how much money is on the line, makes Judge Lee a true Lioness of the Bar.

“I’ve seen her become an expert on sock design technology and federal sentencing guidelines, bounce from conference room to conference room during judicial mediation, express genuine concern to criminal offenders and give tours of her courtroom to nervous elementary school kids.”

Starnes also said Lee is a committed legal mentor. “She has mentored and impacted the legal career of many young attorneys, many of whom are here tonight.”

During her 34-year legal career, Lee has served in many roles, including attorney, mediator, arbitrator, magistrate judge and teacher to other judges.

Beyond her profession, Lee has been a wife to her husband, Miller & Martin attorney Charles Lee, a mother to her two sons, Ben and Sam, and a friend to many.

In the days leading up to the ceremony, the Hon. Shelley Rucker, judge for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, sent emails to people who know Lee asking them to reply with three nouns and five adjectives they relate to her. Rucker then divided the replies into categories that describe Lee professionally and personally.

As an attorney, people characterized Lee as civil, sharp as a tack, tenacious and honest, Rucker said during her turn at the podium.

“One of her alliterative former partners described her as ‘independent, industrious, inquisitive and incredible.’ Another respondent replied she was a ‘rare combination of excellent legal knowledge and skills.’

“My favorite comment was, ‘She can get things done.’ That might account for the single instance of the term ‘bossy,’ but even that was qualified with, ‘I mean that in the nicest way.’”

As a judge, people called Lee respected, respectful of others, fair, hardworking, careful, detail-oriented, diligent, fair-minded, intelligent, receptive and curious.

They also described Lee as empathetic and compassionate – when she can be. “Those are the words you want to describe the judge you’re likely to see when you enter the federal criminal system,” Rucker pointed out.

Both a client and a fellow judge said Lee has terrific insight. “That’s a gift for a judge,” Rucker added. “It allows a judge to focus on important facts and not the static that surrounds so many judicial matters. Insight implies a depth of understanding of the problem and the vision to see the path to a decision, if not a resolution.”

The words people used to describe Lee personally were equally impressive. The eyecatcher, Rucker said, came from her son, Ben.

“His first noun was ‘provider.’ That stopped me in my tracks. That’s not a word you usually hear applied to the wife in a traditional family situation,” she added. “My first thought was to congratulate her on raising a son that didn’t see gender stereotypes, but as I read the other words he sent, I realized it had a broader meaning for him.

“His second noun for his mom was ‘rock.’ And the adjectives he used were reliable, selfless, empathetic, loving and kind.

“The more I thought about it, ‘provider’ was a perceptive choice. Judge Lee has provided for many of us here today. I’ll bet each one of you can think of examples of her kindness. Maybe it was a question about your family that helped you carry the burden. Maybe it was homemade chocolate-covered cherries at a Christmas luncheon. Maybe it was a cooler filled with water and ice that was delivered to a friend’s home after the death of a loved one.

“She also might have shared the name of a firm that was looking for a good attorney when you were one of her interns. Her provision for those around her makes a difference in their lives.”

Rucker’s last word for Lee came from a close friend, who said Lee is the most balanced person she knows. “We spend a lot of time today talking about work-life balance, but Susan is proof it can be done. She takes care of herself.”

As a bonus before yielding the podium to the next speaker, Rucker said she even received one “hilarious.”

“Her son Sam said he once told her he was looking for a girlfriend as smart as she was, and she instantly responded, ‘Good fricking luck with that.’”

As a former law clerk to Lee, Miller & Martin associate Jessica Malloy-Thorpe saw the innerworkings of Lee’s chambers and legal mind. Her summation: “No one takes more seriously the duties of a judge to be impartial and fair, to fully hear the arguments being made by both sides and to find a correct decision after considering all the relevant legal authority.”

Malloy-Thorpe stood before the gathering as an example of the impact Lee’s influence has had on the lives she touched. “She’s been a mentor me for years and she has mentored countless others, both men and women, lawyers and non-lawyers,” she said. “I know without a doubt that I would not be the attorney or the person I am today if my path through life had not crossed with hers.”

Years before Lee became the first female to sit on the federal bench in Chattanooga and changed the landscape for women attorneys in the city, she grew up as one of seven children in Alpharetta, Georgia.

An overachiever, Lee graduated from high school early and then earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia while working as a waitress at a Holiday Inn.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Lee enrolled in the MBA program at UG because it allowed her to defer payments on her student loans and to continue waitressing, Starnes recalled.

However, when Lee learned about the combined Juris Doctorate-MBA program at the university, Lee decided to go to law school as well, despite not having a strong desire to become a lawyer. “She enrolled in the program because it allowed her to stay in school, delaying the inevitable,” Starnes said.

After graduating with her combined degree in 1985, Lee went to work for a law firm in Atlanta. She later moved to Chattanooga, where her law school boyfriend, Charles, had accepted a job at Miller and Martin.

After settling in, Lee began working at Grant Konvalinka, where she focused primarily on commercial litigation, employment law and environmental law.

As Lee climbed the ladder from associate to partner, she developed a reputation for existing at the cutting edge of the law, said Grant Konvalinka director David Higney.

“She was always achieving the next greatest thing, whether it was international commercial disputes or alternative dispute resolution,” he shared from the lectern. “She would attack it and then become an expert – and you could stare in amazement or climb on board and learn from what she was doing.”

Lee also married her law school boyfriend and started a family.

In 2004, Lee applied for the open magistrate judge position, which Congress had recently created to manage the growing caseload in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Tennessee. After an extensive selection process, she was appointed to an initial eight-year term.

“And the rest is history,” Starnes said.

Upon accepting the hefty award, Judge Lee said she felt overwhelmed and honored. “If I have had any success in my career, it’s because of my friendships and associations with you and the good people like you who have made a difference in my life.”

Although Lee is not known for her prowess in the wild or fearsome agility on the hunt, she is powerful and elegant – an intelligent and patient judge who can think quickly on her feet and accomplish great things in the courtroom and her community, explained Starnes, who added, “She is truly a lioness, through and through.”