Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 26, 2014

Spinning tales from history

Maury Nicely is a labor and employment attorney practicing with Evans Harrison Hackett in Chattanooga. He’s also a local history enthusiast with two books to his credit, and more on the way. - (Photo by David Laprad)

Attorney Maury Nicely has a story for every occasion, including a few he’s reluctant to tell. He tries to think of a story he can share from law school, and comes up empty.

“Nope, I can’t share that one,” he says after several seconds of staring at the solid wood desk in his office at Evans Harrison Hackett. He shakes his head and laughs, but remains the only one in the room who knows the punchline.

Fortunately, there are plenty of stories Nicely can tell, and has already told in two books: “Chattanooga Walking Tour & Historic Guide,” a guidebook to downtown Chattanooga, and “East Tennessee Walking Tour & Historic Guide.” A local history obsessive, he has a knack for pulling fresh stories out of the seemingly everyday details of 175-year-old Scenic City.

Take his story about Carnegie Library, now home to the law practice of Lawrence & Lawrence, for example.

“Andrew Carnegie would donate two dollars per resident of a city to build a library. So he donated money to Chattanooga,” Nicely says. “The city hired R.H. Hunt, who was known as the master builder of Chattanooga, to design the building. He designed Memorial Auditorium, the James Building, and both courthouses. He designed everything.

“But he designed the library in the days of segregation. So, the main entrance to the library was the same entrance used today, and the ‘colored’ entrance, as they said back then, was on Georgia Avenue. It’s a basement entrance. You can see it if you walk by the building.

“Carnegie wasn’t going to donate money to an institution that was going to segregate some of Chattanooga’s citizens. But this was the South, and it was 1905, so they came to loggerheads over it.

“Ultimately, Carnegie decided he’d rather have a segregated library than no library at all. People walk by that building every day, and don’t know the history behind it. But I think those tidbits about our city are really cool.”

Nicely’s “Walking Tour” books are filled with similar tidbits, many culled from countless hours of research conducted at Chattanooga’s current public library. “The public library has a great local interest section. It has tons of old photographs, clippings, and files,” he says, sounding every bit like the excitable history enthusiast he is.

“This is what I do with my leisure time,” he says. “Instead of sitting on the couch watching TV, I’ll work on this stuff. It’s fun to do.”

As an attorney with an active labor and employment practice, Nicely’s couch time would be limited as it is. Fortunately, he enjoys wrestling with the law nearly as much as he does history, as it continues to challenge and stimulate him after 17 years.

“I feel like I’ve hit a point where I have a grasp of the law, but at the same time, I’m always coming across issues that have never come up before,” he says. “I tell my clients we could spend the next three months thinking of everything a person could do to get fired, and the minute we believe we’ve thought of everything, someone would call us and say, ‘Our boy just did this,’ and it would be something we hadn’t thought of. So while I feel like I know what I’m doing, there’s enough variety to keep me interested.”

Nicely not only has to expect the unexpected, but he often has to address these issues at a moment’s notice, making his ability to quickly think through a situation and assess his client’s options a valuable asset. “I get a lot of calls where something has just happened, and my client wants to know how to handle it,” he says. “They don’t want me to research the issue for a few days and then send them a memo; they want me to talk with them for 15 minutes, and give them a good idea of where they’re going.”

To assist his clients, Nicely says he needs to know them as well as he knows the law. “Some will be risk adverse, and will do anything to avoid being sued, while others will assume they’re going to get sued at some point, and will simply try to make the best decision for their business,” he says.

Nicely would like to see changes to the labor and employment laws, which he says are outdated and in many cases counterintuitive. “Our labor laws were written for a 1930’s era workplace. But this is 2014, and the work place is different,” he says. “Within the next few years, we’ll probably see some changes as people try to amend that National Labor Relations Act, or make changes to bring it up to date.”

Born in Chattanooga, Nicely attended McCallie School and then earned an English degree at Vanderbilt University. His plan was to get a Ph.D. and then teach, but instead of going to graduate school, he worked for a sports magazine for a year. The law entered the picture during that time. “If you have an English degree, but you’re not going to teach, what else are you going to do? Plus, I had friends at the University of Georgia who encouraged me to go to law school,” he says. “I’ve met people who grew up knowing they wanted to be a lawyer. I backed into it.”

The lack of a plan didn’t hurt Nicely, who became interested in labor and employment law while attending the University of Georgia Law School and while clerking at Miller & Martin in Chattanooga. Upon graduation, he hit the ground running at Miller & Martin. “We had the largest ‘L and E’ department in the city, and I got to work with a lot of great old lawyers, many of whom aren’t with us anymore,” he says. “I was fortunate to be able to learn from Hal Clements and Ron Ingham, and travel all over the country doing labor arbitrations and defending against lawsuits.”

Nicely spent 12 years with Miller & Martin and then went in-house with Volkswagen when the German company opened its Chattanooga plant in 2009. He was there for one year. “It was great fun being on the inside of that business and helping to create its ‘L and E’ framework, but I’m not necessarily a corporate guy,” he says. “Plus, I’ve always had a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak, and am a bit of an individualist. I enjoy doing what I think is important when I think it’s important as opposed to being told what’s important.”

While Nicely says he learned a great deal while working for VW, when he was presented with the opportunity to join Evans Harrison Hackett in 2010, he jumped at the chance. He was especially drawn to working with John Harrison, an experienced and highly respected labor and employment attorney, and one of the senior partners at the firm. “It’s not every day when people like him decide to start their own firm and invite you to join them,” he says. “I knew if I passed up that opportunity, I might not get another one like it.”

Today, Nicely can’t imagine practicing anywhere else. “I’ve worked at a large firm, and it had its advantages for where I was in my career,” he says. “But coming here was a good opportunity. It’s a great place with great people.”

Nicely’s degrees are hung in a stern row on the wall to the left of his desk, and a Vanderbilt football helmet sits on top of a stack of papers on his desk. But the wall to his right, which is partially plastered with colorful children’s drawings, suggest there’s more to his life than academia and the law.

“I have two boys. Charles just turned 13, making me the proud parent of a new teenager, and William is ten. They’re a lot of fun,” he says. “When you practice law, you have to be responsive. That’s especially true with employment stuff. But I take great pride in not missing any of my kids’s plays, and not missing many of their games. One of the great things about practicing at a small firm is I can prioritize the things that are important to me; I don’t have to put my kids on the back shelf.”

Nicely is married to Jennifer Nicely, head of Memorial Hospital Foundation.

Nicely also makes time to contribute to the Chattanooga community. He’s currently president of Friends of the Festival, which organizes Riverbend, and is on the board of Bright School, which Charles attended, and which William is attending. Nicely is also on the board of Arts Build, is a past president of the Chattanooga History Center, and is a past president of Cornerstones, a local historic preservation organization.

“If you want to get involved in a community, Atlanta is a great place to be, but if you think you’re going to be on the board of the Atlanta History Center in a few years, that’s probably not going to happen. There are five million people in Atlanta, and they’re looking for the owner of the Falcons or CNN,” he says. “One of the great things about Chattanooga is you can get involved. And it feels good to be making a little bit of a difference here.”

Despite having his hands nearly full, Nicely still finds room in his schedule to follow his passion: local history. He previously wrote the script for a documentary about the Jimmy Hoffa trial, which took place in Chattanooga, and is now working on a book about the trial he believes will bring little known details to light. “It’s never been treated in detail,” he says. “But from doing the documentary, we have interviews with people you can’t interview anymore, like the chief prosecutor, Jim Neal. It’s a great opportunity.”

Nicely is also working on a biography of John T. Wilder, an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and an industrialist who was instrumental in developing the natural resources of Tennessee. “In 1863, he was on Stringer’s Ridge lobbing cannonballs into Chattanooga, and eight years later, he was the mayor of Chattanooga. That tells you everything you need to know about him,” he says.

When Nicely isn’t spinning tales from history, he’ll be bringing his experience and expertise to bear on the issues his clients face. He feels like it’s what he was meant to do. “I’m fortunate to have wound up where I am, both in terms of what I practice and where I practice. I didn’t have a plan, but I feel like I ended up where I’m supposed to be,” he says. “I really enjoy ‘L and E’ law. You hear the wildest and craziest stories outside of criminal law.”

Just not the kind of stories he can tell, apparently.