Attorney Courtney Bullard didn’t build her career overnight. Rather, the work she’s doing today is the result of years of laying the foundation, putting up the walls, and applying the finishing touches. Each step toward completion served as a brick, or a supporting beam, or another essential component that would allow the building to function. She is, like many career-minded individuals, a product of determination, good decisions, and time well-spent.
That does not mean Bullard had a clear vision from the beginning. Rather, like many of her colleagues in the legal profession, the early portion her journey was marked with uncertainly and false starts.
A native of “all over” (she was born in Miami, Fla., lived in Dallas, and wound up in Nashville, Tenn.), Bullard earned her undergraduate degree at Indiana University. While there, she changed her major several times as she tried to identify a field of study that was a good fit for her and that was based on a single, socially-conscious criteria: she wanted to find a career in which women were underrepresented. This proved to be challenging, but not because females had made inroads into every profession.
Bullard explains: “I wanted to do anything I didn’t see women doing. This has always been a thing with me. As a kid, I wanted to be a pilot because when we traveled, I never saw a female flying the plane. In high school, my chemistry teacher was a woman, which was an amazing thing, so that’s what I wanted to do. But as I started taking classes, I realized chemistry wasn’t my thing.”
Bullard arrived at the same conclusion after taking a stab at computer science. When she took a philosophy course, however, she knew she’d found a subject that suited her, even if her career prospects were slim.
“A career counselor told me I could earn my doctorate and teach, or I could go to law school,” she says. “I picked law school.”
Even with that decision made, Bullard was not fully sold on being an attorney as she began taking classes at Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in Memphis, Tenn. Instead, she was more certain about what she didn’t want to do.
“All I could think about was how I didn’t want to be an attorney,” she says. “I definitely didn’t want to be a litigator.”
Bullard had started to lay the foundation of her career, though, so she stayed the course, and eventually felt drawn to transactional work. After law school, she moved to Chattanooga and took a job at Shumacker, Witt, Gaither & Whitaker (prior to its fabled split) doing primarily real estate and business related work. A position at Husch Blackwell came next. While there, she began practicing labor and employment law. After a change to Baker Donelson, she concentrated almost exclusively on labor and employment law.
All this time, Bullard was putting down layer after layer of brick. Then came a job change that would dramatically alter the course of her career: the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) hired Bullard as its first campus attorney.
Bullard relished the opportunity to return to the academic environment. She also liked building the school’s law department from the ground up. “I was the only one. I didn’t even have furniture. I was responsible for handling the legal issues of 11,000 students and 3,000 faculty members, and I was sitting on the floor with my cell phone,” she says.
Bullard was up to the challenge, though. After rolling up her proverbial sleeves, she set up the office, hired a paralegal, implemented a filing system, and dove into the myriad areas of the law with which a campus attorney must contend. “As a campus attorney, your knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep,” she says. “You do everything except divorces.”
Everything included handling labor and employment issues, dealing with student misconduct and faculty grievances, delving into wills and estates, reviewing contracts, taking care of First Amendment issues, and more. In other words, laying layer after layer of bricks, and putting a few support beams in place.
It was demanding but fulfilling work, and when Bullard left eight years later, she felt the school was in better shape than when she’d arrived. “I had raised awareness of how attorneys are not roadblocks, but can help people do business,” she says.
Bullard had also placed herself in a position to move into a new phase of her career. During her last four years at UTC, Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program, and sexual assault on campus became hot button topics. Consequently, Bullard spent a considerable amount of time exploring the compliance landscape. When changes in her personal life compelled her to establish a more equitable balance between work and family, she realized she’d be able to parlay her experience at UTC into a bold new direction.
“I saw an opportunity to help educational institutions through the legal madness,” she says. “It’s one thing to know the law, but it’s another to apply it on a daily basis on a college campus, which is like no other place on Earth. There are countless divisions, and the politics are endless. Yet no college I knew was using outside counsel.”
Connections at Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams led to her pitching the concept to the firm, and Institutional Compliance Solutions was born. Bullard’s objective is to help schools understand and implement federal laws related to gender and sex.
“There are a lot of requirements. Universities are supposed to train faculty, staff, and students, there are specific reporting requirements and procedures for handling a complaint, and the reporter and the accused have rights. It’s a complicated area of the law,” she says.
It’s also politically charged. Some people claim the alleged perpetrators are being falsely accused, Bullard says, while some of the victims think the universities aren’t doing enough to protect those who are making the accusations. Then there’s the notion that universities aren’t equipped to make decisions about sexual misconduct because they’re not courts, yet they’re kicking students out of school as the result of a complaint.
Instead of dealing with the attendant headaches alone, a university can pay Bullard a flat fee for unlimited access to her expertise. In return, she’ll train students, faculty, and staff, fix compliance code, and take emergency phone calls when a complaint comes in. “I’ve handled tons of these kinds of situations,” she says, “and there’s no substitute for experience.”
Or energy, it would seem. In addition to serving clients of Institutional Compliance Solutions, Bullard is a Rule 31 mediator with a focus on labor and employment issues, and an adjunct professor at UTC. “I have a lot of energy – for better or for worse, with or without caffeine,” she says, laughing.
Despite having a full plate, Bullard is striking the work-life balance that prompted her departure from UTC. She’s not the only benefactor of this new approach; her second husband, two stepsons, and two daughters from her first marriage also benefit.
“I like to be home. Having blocks of time for hanging out with my family is a big deal,” she says. “We like to make s’mores in our outdoor fireplace and watch movies. All of us ‘go, go, go’ so much that carving out that time together is important.”
Bullard built not just her career but also her life one brick at a time. Each job she held utilized her experience and allowed her to start building the next level, and she made room for the things outside the office that are important to her, too. In a way, she’s also achieved her earlier goal of doing work few women (and men) have done. Although it would be unfair to say she’s finished building, she has reached a place where she can enjoy the fruits of her labor.
Bullard is young, and the years ahead likely hold many challenges, but she’s built a firm foundation, she’s surrounded by solid walls, and she has a roof over her head. Whatever comes her way, she’ll be ready to tackle it – for better or for worse, with or without caffeine.