Lauren Sherrell lowers herself onto the piano bench in the sanctuary of Lookout Valley Presbyterian Church and takes a slow breath. Her small, thin frame is relaxed as she raises her hands and begins to perform a Bach prelude. The composition begins in full stride, which sends her fingers dancing across the ivory keys and propelling a whirlwind of notes into the air. The room is empty except for her and the 300-year-old music she’s bringing to vibrant life.
In this moment – her head bowed slightly, her ebon hair falling across the back of her grey suit jacket, and her eyes focused on the keys laid out before her in a regimented line – Sherrell is a pianist. There’s no better word for a person who plays this beautifully.
Once upon a time, this was to be Sherrell’s life. To prepare, she spent the greater portion of her youth seated at a piano, practicing for up to six hours a day under the auspices of her parents, who taught her to be a disciplined student of the instrument. When the time came for her to attend college, she earned a degree in instrumental performance at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). After she graduated, years of performing and teaching piano stretched out before her.
Then something caused Sherrell to make an abrupt turn.
“I was passionate about being a pianist,” she says. “But as I started to teach, I had students who didn’t want to practice. That was a little defeating.”
Sherrell soon realized she did not want to play and teach piano for a living. The shift in her thinking after years of working toward that goal was difficult. To push past the moment, she returned to UTC and entered the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program.
“When you create art, you create it for art’s sake, but when you go into business, everything you do is about the bottom line,” she says. “Everything is about maximizing profit, minimizing expenses, and creating value. I had never thought about those things.”
But Sherrell was eager to learn. During the course of earning her MBA, she took a legal ethics class, which sparked her interest in becoming an attorney. When she told her parents she was thinking about going to law school, they approved.
“My mother said it was a great idea,” she says, “so I applied.”
Sherrell earned her Juris Doctor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and then passed the bar last year. After a brief turn with a Chattanooga law firm, she worked with Rear Admiral Vance Fry, an attorney specializing in estate planning, probate, and elder law.
She likens the experience to an apprenticeship. “I learned the things law school doesn’t teach you,” she says. “I wasn’t sure I would like estate planning when he first mentioned it, but once I started doing it, I liked it.”
Working with clients further kindled her enthusiasm. She also appreciated the non-contentious nature of the job. “In other areas of the law, people come to you in times of distress, but with estate planning, they come to you because they’re excited about passing on an inheritance. It’s more positive.”
Sherrell stepped out from under Fry’s wings this year when attorney Mitch Carter, Jr., of O’Shaughnessy & Carter offered her a place at the law firm developing an estate planning practice. She accepted, and is now working out of her office on the tenth story of the historic James Building.
The knowledge and experience Sherrell acquired while working with Fry, and that continues to mount through her current work, appears to be serving her clients well. She recently administered a local estate in which a childless client with assets valued at several million dollars was unsure about what to do with the money. Sherrell guided the person through the process of making sizable donations to several local charities.
Sherrell says she especially enjoys the opportunities she has to help people manage their money effectively. She mentions the process of a parent passing an inheritance to a son or daughter as an example. “When someone has an estate of significance, and doesn’t want to dump a lot of money on a young child, or even a child in their twenties who might not have the wherewithal to put the money to good use, I enjoy letting them know they can gift that money at certain times through a trust,” she says.
Most important of all, Sherrell says she loves her work. “I have the same drive I did when I was playing the piano. When I was learning music, I had to practice for hours and play from memory, which placed me under a tremendous amount of pressure,” she says. “Law school required a lot of work and effort, too, and I’m proud I was able to get through it.”
Sherrell still plays the piano publicly. She’s the pianist at Lookout Valley Presbyterian Church, and performs occasionally for First Baptist Church in Ringgold. (She’s playing in the latter’s Christmas program on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 11 a.m.) But rather than serving as her career, music now provides a respite from the rigors of her work. “Playing the piano is very different from practicing law,” she says. “It’s a nice way to refresh myself.”
Although Sherrell is busy carving out a career, she already understands the importance of striking a balance between the law and the other things in life. In addition to music, she enjoys hiking local trails, eating at locally owned restaurants, and spending time with her family. Her parents live in Chattanooga, where Sherrell grew up the oldest of five children.
Sherrell has also developed a sense of responsibility to her community and profession. To that end, she’s on the board of the Southeast Tennessee Lawyers Association for Women, which does charitable work locally and serves women attorneys through a variety of services.
Sherrell might have spent her youth preparing for a career that did not come to be, but in this moment – with her back straight, her hands folded in front of her, and her mind focused on serving her clients well – Sherrell is an attorney. There’s no better word for a person who practices law as passionately as she does.