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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, December 25, 2020

Fox leaving more behind than a view


Outgoing Legal Aid of East Tennessee director happy with progress during tenure



Sheri Fox will step down as executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee Jan. 15 to begin a new chapter in Savannah, Georgia. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

After nearly 20 years of practicing law, Sheri Fox finally has a corner office.

She took up residence in the space when Legal Aid of East Tennessee – where she serves as executive director – moved into its new home on the fourth floor of the Krystal Building in downtown Chattanooga in November.

Not only is it Fox’s first corner office, it’s also the largest workplace she’s ever occupied, she says.

And it’s all hers – until Jan. 15, when she’ll leave Legal Aid ahead of moving to Savannah, Georgia, to begin the next chapter in her life.

“I’m excited about moving somewhere warmer and closer to family and friends, including my children,” she says.

Before Fox leaves the Scenic City for a more temperate clime, as well as the warmth of familial bonds, she’ll tie a bow on an industrious five years with Legal Aid.

Fox joined the nonprofit law firm in early 2016. During her tenure, staff attorneys served 51,034 clients and pro bono volunteer attorneys handled 4,381 cases, returning $255 million to the local economy, Fox says.

“I had two goals when I became executive director: strengthening and growing Legal Aid so we could serve more people more effectively and making sure the firm could take advantage of the new opportunities and meet the challenges I saw on the horizon,” Fox says.

“Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the Legal Aid team and the support of the legal community and our funders, we accomplished both of those objectives.”

In one key initiative, Fox spearheaded efforts to diversify and increase the firm’s funding. Through this endeavor, Legal Aid secured several statewide grants in partnership with legal aid organizations across Tennessee.

The additional resources helped the firm to not just weather the pandemic but bolster its delivery of services during the crisis. “A year and a half ago, COVID would have had a much larger negative impact on our ability to help people,” Fox adds.

Fox also found ways for transactional attorneys to support Legal Aid. She recruited Husch Blackwell to help negotiate the firm’s lease in the Krystal Building, for example, and enlisted Baker Donelson’s assistance on labor and employment matters.

Lawyers and staff from Miller & Martin and Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel in Chattanooga and Kramer Rayson and Woolf McClane in Knoxville also contributed their time and resources.

“Outside counsel has been huge for us,” Fox says. “The attorneys provided their time and expertise, and we didn’t have to spend any of our budget on paying for those services.”

Before joining Legal Aid, Fox did civil defense work at Baker Donelson for 14 years. During this stretch of her career, she gained experience at both the trial and appellate levels in state and federal courts and became a shareholder.

Fox also served on Baker Donelson’s Pro Bono Committee and became a steady volunteer with Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Project. The Tennessee Supreme Court recognized her involvement when it named her an Attorney for Justice – a designation the court gives to attorneys who do at least 50 hours of pro bono work over the course of a year – on multiple occasions.

Marshall Peterson, who chaired the search committee that recruited Fox, said Fox’s legal experience and commitment to civil justice led to the board’s unanimous decision.

“I’m confident Ms. Fox’s energy and perspective will serve the people of East Tennessee well,” Peterson predicted.

Russell Gray, managing shareholder of Baker Donelson’s Chattanooga office, also lauded Fox’s commitment to pro bono work and said she has a knack for “generating creative ideas and making those ideas become reality.”

“Sheri will have a positive impact not only on Legal Aid but also on the community,” Gray forecast.

Fox says her desire to help people who couldn’t afford a lawyer spurred her to leave Baker Donelson and join Legal Aid.

“I wanted to help people. At Baker Donelson, I often represented defendants against self-represented parties who didn’t understand the law or the legal process and, as a result, were quite disadvantaged. I believed I had a calling to help Legal Aid ensure access to justice for everyone.”

Fox says she will carry this calling with her to Savannah, where she’s arranged to practice with a small plaintiff’s firm. “I’ll still be representing individuals and helping them access justice,” she says.

Fox calls her departure “bittersweet” and says she’s been saying “thank you” instead of “goodbye” to her colleagues at Legal Aid and in the broader Chattanooga legal community.

“The last five years have been some of the most rewarding and most challenging years of my professional life. From attempts at the federal level to defund Legal Services Corporation to the Gatlinburg wildfires, Chattanooga tornadoes and coronavirus pandemic, it’s been an exciting time to lead a nonprofit law firm.

“I’m proud of the many things we accomplished in a such a short time, and encourage everyone who supports Legal Aid to continue to do so. You’re making a big difference, both in the individual cases you handle and your overall support of the community.”