Years ago, Craig Smith represented an agricultural credit bank from South Carolina that loaned money to a company working on a development project in Marion County.
“And in the process of the construction, the road up the mountain completely washed out and it was going to cost a million bucks to get it finished. So, the developer just went feet up and quit,” says Smith, 44, a bankruptcy, corporate law and real estate attorney who recently joined Litchford, Pearce & Associates (LPA).
A decade later, he was still handling “odds and ends” for the bank, helping enforce its rights, deal with land buyer issues and unravel the financial mess the developer had left behind. “It took a while, but everything was ultimately administered, as it should have been,” Smith says.
The long-running case is still his favorite to date, partly because it allowed him to use his analytical skills and ultimately achieve success for the client while working quietly behind the scenes. “I can joke around with people in public. But in my heart of hearts, I’d rather be by myself working on stuff.
“Some people have big personalities and they make perfect litigators,” he adds. “I am not one of those people. I’m more of a transactional person. I learned in law school that the transactional side of things certainly suits my personality a lot better.”
In January, after practicing law at several large Chattanooga firms, Smith made a deliberate decision to move to the smallest one he’s ever worked for.
“Craig brings a wealth of legal knowledge and experience in corporate law, commercial finance and real estate transactions, both locally and on a national level,” says the man who hired Smith, Mark Litchford, founder of the Brainerd-based LPA. “More importantly, Craig’s devotion to the practice of law exemplifies the three core values of the firm: dedication to excellence, serving the interests of others, and being responsive to the needs of our clients.”
Although Smith sees himself as someone who generally mulls over the facts before bolting into a plan of action, Litchford refers to his new colleague as “one of the fastest thinkers when faced with emergency situations. And he has an uncanny ability to spot issues and develop solutions very effectively and efficiently for clients.
“Additionally, Craig’s 18-plus years of legal experience in both state and federal matters has taught him to be forward-thinking in all regards, knowing that every decision requires an eye towards mitigating litigation risks, eliminating liability exposure, and evaluating other potential business consequences.
“His spirit and energy are unmatched and the firm is lucky to have him.”
A history buff who attended the College of William & Mary in Virginia before transferring to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to finish his B.A. in history and political science, Smith says he’d always been fascinated by the nation’s leaders in law.
“So many of the people I admired most in American history were attorneys,” he says. “And I thought to myself, ‘You know, I admire these men and they were lawyers. Maybe I should be a lawyer, too.’”
While studying at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, he felt at home in bankruptcy class and could see a future focusing on that specialty. But after returning to his hometown of Chattanooga to join Baker Donelson in 2005, the magna cum laude graduate spent much of his first year as a litigator.
The role, he says, took him far from his comfort zone.
“I kind of felt like a lot of things that go down in litigation are really just the attorneys sparring with each other,” he says. “And my thought was, ‘We’re supposed to be here to get a deal done, whether that is to resolve this litigation or sell this business. And I think we should be working towards that instead of trying to constantly fight with the other side.’”
So, when a bankruptcy associate position opened at Miller Martin, he says, “I went after it.”
He stayed with the firm for almost 15 years, becoming one of the Chattanooga Bar Association’s youngest members ever elected president in 2013.
“It was a big honor and it was very humbling,” Smith says. “The thing I enjoyed about my time on the board, and that surprised me the most, was getting to know so many of the more legendary Chattanooga lawyers. I think I took a lot away from some of the people that I met, based on how they practice law.”
In 2021, burnout led him to Chambliss Bahner & Stophel. “And unfortunately, it wasn’t a good fit, and that’s no one’s fault. Sometimes things just don’t work out.”
He joined LPA in January. Its small size – there are only four attorneys in the office – “has taken quite a bit of getting used to,” he acknowledges. “But I enjoy it more. I think we’re very collegial here, frankly a lot more so than I recall seeing at the big firms the last several years. The one thing that I’ve been impressed with since I’ve been out here is how closely this firm pays attention to its clients. I mean, they really treat every client as their only client.”
Although he’s retained many of his longtime banking clients, Smith has already counseled a number of small businesses at LPA. “I actually have found that I enjoy that a lot more because it’s more real to me. It’s hard to get a sense of the personality of a Bank of America, for instance. But when you’re working with these small businesses, you do get a hint of what they understand, the personality of the business based on the personality of the owners. You get to see that this is real life and they’re operating to support the family.”
In his first few months, Smith has worked on patient agreements for medical and dental offices, as well as contracts for entrepreneurs. He recently completed a license agreement for a majority woman-owned business, a project he calls “refreshing.”
“You’re really getting a sense of this client’s business and you’ve got to think about the things that they need to succeed in their business. I’ve done real estate purchases where the buyer needs just a little bit of hand-holding to get through the process. And it’s good to know that at the end of the day you succeeded in closing the transaction they wanted to close.”
Another difference, one he noticed soon after coming on board at LPA: Small firms must learn to be more efficient.
“You need to be more nimble, able to move,” he says. “All the attorneys out here are self-starters. If there’s something they don’t know, they’re going to roll up their sleeves and figure out either what the answer is or how they to do it. And I really appreciate that because, unfortunately, I think most attorneys would agree that there’s a lot of inefficiency in the way legal services are delivered in this country.”
With four active children – ages 9 and 13, plus 14-year-old twins – Smith has scaled back his volunteer work, and just about everything else, although he reads and hikes when possible and still runs three or four days a week for exercise. Most of his “spare time” is spent driving the children to athletic practices.
He does make time, however, for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga, something he started in high school when he worked on his first Habitat house. More than a decade ago, he began handling bankruptcy matters for some of the organization’s homeowners and later served on the board for a few years. “The ribbon-cutting when the house is completed and handed over to the homeowner – it’s indescribable how happy and proud the homeowner is at that point,” he says.
His two roles – attorney and parent – are not that dissimilar, he notes. “The stress level at home, trying to navigate all that, is pretty equivalent to the stress level at work. It’s like you go from one job where you’re stressed out to another job where you’re stressed out.”
On the flip side, each one brings great satisfaction that makes it all worth it, Smith says.
“The greatest joy about being an attorney is legitimately helping a client. It’s knowing that you have done a good job for the client and the client is pleased as a result. The greatest joy I get out of the other job is I get to spend time with my kids. I am actually going to really miss when all these athletic practices are gone.”