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Front Page - Friday, November 1, 2019

Shekari follows unconventional path home


Once, when Melody Shekari was very young, she accompanied her mom to the library at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to do some legal research.

Attorneys had told Shekari’s mother, a UTC student and Iranian immigrant who joined her husband in the U.S. in 1987, that nothing could be done about the day care lessee who had filed for bankruptcy and was holding their property “hostage.”

“She found a law that allowed her to lift the bankruptcy to take her own property back so they could at least figure out what to do with it,” says Shekari, 31, a solo attorney who focuses on criminal defense and contract civil matters at her office in the Edney Building downtown.

“She really got me on the legal career path.”

From her mother, who spoke no English when she arrived in the U.S., the Texas-born Shekari also inherited her passion for helping others. After a full day of practicing law, she often meets with other advocates to work on issues ranging from criminal justice reform and public education to LGBTQ rights and neighborhood development.

She advises women running for public office and, through the Young Lawyers Division of the Chattanooga Bar Association, draws up powers of attorney documents, secures passports for children, and occasionally represents undocumented newcomers in legal clinics for immigrants.

A crusader at heart, she ultimately chose to become an attorney because, she explains, “I thought that given my gender, and the way the world is, it would be a really great shield, that people would take me more seriously if I had a law degree, I could help more people. I also wanted to help my own family. I still help with [my parents’] property and investments, so it’s definitely been a huge benefit.”

After earning a degree in economics at Bentley University in Massachusetts, her master’s degree in public administration from the University of Washington and her juris doctorate from the University of Southern California in 2014, Shekari landed an environmental policy fellowship at USC, writing legal reports and monitoring the drought situation in that state.

Eager to serve the community where her family had moved when she was 4, she returned to Chattanooga in the fall of 2016 and began working in Mayor Andy Berke’s office. Struck by her passionate desire to help the underdog, colleagues soon encouraged her to run as the Democratic nominee in Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District. She lost.

Two years later, she announced her candidacy for the 28th District seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Again, she lost.

After that, she says, working for someone else was going to be difficult. “I was publicly political,” says Shekari, who now serves as treasurer for the Hamilton County Democratic Party. “It just ended up being a barrier in a lot of ways.” So she took the Tennessee bar exam and opened her own law office.

Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Alexander McVeagh encouraged Shekari to consider taking on criminal cases. “I studied the minimum for criminal law in school and never thought it was my cup of tea,” she admits. “It just wasn’t where I thought I was going.”

She handled her first criminal case in November 2018. “And I just really loved the clients and loved the work and realized there’s a lot of negotiating instead of what you see on Law & Order, at trial.

“I love Law & Order, by the way,” she adds. “My whole family does, and I still watch it.”

Shekari says she has felt right at home in her new specialty, surrounded by public defenders, district attorneys and defense lawyers. “The criminal bar here is amazing. It’s a small group, and we all know each other and get along in a lot of ways.”

So far, she has assisted clients battling DUIs, single moms incarcerated for possession of low-level drug paraphernalia, and others jailed for months without representation. Some are dealing with mental and physical health issues.

“I really try to keep in contact with family members in order to know when clients get released and how they’re doing and if they need help again,” Shekari adds. Her phone is also set up to receive text messages from clients and their families.

In one case, she wrangled a lower bond for a client who would otherwise have been jailed “on weak evidence” for five months while the grand jury decided his fate. “He was on house arrest within a month, getting a job, living life,” she says.

In addition to her criminal defense work, Shekari handles personal and business contracts. “But,” she says, “the service side of me loves the criminal stuff.”

She also relishes her volunteer causes, which include advocating for inmates who need medicine or aren’t getting released on time. “I love Chattanooga. I really do,” she says. “But I definitely feel like the activists in town are spread really thin.

“It is not an option to just focus on one issue a lot of times. We don’t have a law school that can fund clinics to help. That’s one of the reasons I came back, because I felt like I would be really needed in the community where I grew up.”

For fun, Shekari, a certified scuba diver, helps clean the tanks at the Tennessee Aquarium. “Sometimes I look the shark right in the eye. I’m like, ‘Are you coming at me?’” she says. “I prefer the sharks in the tanks to the ones in the courtroom.”

Despite the outcome, her grassroots political campaigns “100% made me a better lawyer,” she says. “What I really ended up doing was rediscovering Chattanooga. I got to meet people from all walks of life, people who’ve lived here their entire lives, and people who’d moved here a month ago. I don’t think there’s a single neighborhood we didn’t go into.”

And yes, she will someday take another stab at politics. “It is very hard to run a law practice and also do other things,” she says. “But public service is in my blood and one day it’ll all work out.”