Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Monday, March 13, 2017

A shared sense of giving back

McVeagh credits firm for giving him the opportunity to perform pro bono work

By David Laprad

Chattanooga attorney Alex McVeagh thinks he might be in over his head when it comes to extracurricular activities. He does a quick inventory.

McVeagh lists his volunteer work as the Hamilton County representative on the board of the Young Lawyers Division of the Tennessee Bar Association first. Through that role, he organizes legal clinics covering a variety of focal points, including writing wills for first responders and helping people who want a fresh start in life to expunge their criminal records.

McVeagh recently took part in a clinic at La Paz in which he and several other attorneys, rallied by immigration lawyer Brittany Faith, helped people in the Hispanic community establish power of attorney so their children will be cared for if they are separated.

McVeagh’s work with the state and Chattanooga YLD boards are just the tip of the iceberg. He also serves on the board of Legal Aid of Southeast Tennessee, works with underprivileged and at-risk youth through the YMCA’s Youth Community Action Program and Rotaract Chattanooga, and spearheads the local high school mock trial competition.

McVeagh also does a considerable amount of pro bono work through Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, the firm that plucked him and his energy reserves out of law school in 2013.

“If I worked for a different firm, I wouldn’t be able to do all these things. But the partners here want their young attorneys to be engaged in the community; they’re not looking over our shoulders making sure we’re hitting our billable hours every month,” McVeagh says.

“That makes sense. If you’re out in the community, you’re making contacts. Plus, it’s our ethical obligation to help other people.”

McVeagh isn’t seeking the limelight. When he moved to Chattanooga in 2013, he simply wanted to make friends and establish himself in his new home, so he started pitching in wherever he saw a need.

“I’m an extrovert; I don’t like sitting in my apartment. It was uncomfortable at times, but being a new person in the city, I wanted to get out there,” he says. “Three years later, my plate is full.”

When someone is as active as McVeagh, there’s no hiding it. His peers at the Chattanooga Bar Association noticed his extensive work with the YLD boards and presented him with the 2016 YLD Volunteer Lawyer of the Year award during the bar’s annual meeting in January.

McVeagh seems humbled by the honor. “Spending the day writing a brief for some company wouldn’t help me sleep at night,” he points out. “I love my job because of the other things it allows me to do.”

To free up his evenings, McVeagh goes full throttle during the day. As a general civil litigation attorney, he does a little of everything, with municipal law, bankruptcy and product liability defense taking up the bulk of his time in the office.

“The partners here don’t try to pigeonhole the young attorneys into being a construction or bankruptcy lawyer,” he says.

McVeagh, 30, seems almost awestruck by the scope of what he does at Chambliss given his age. From meeting with clients face-to-face to going to court, he says he has more freedom and responsibility than most young attorneys.

“What I’m allowed to do here at my age is unparalleled. The partners don’t put their new attorneys in a back room and make them write briefs all day,” he adds. “I’ve already had a jury trial and I’ve done bench trials by myself.

“I had to earn their trust and I have to work hard, but it’s been amazing.”

McVeagh is a long way from his childhood home of Lafayette, Louisiana. He grew up there as part of a close-knit family with Cajun roots that enjoyed good music, food and drink – particularly crawfish boils. He took French beginning in kindergarten, attended Catholic mass and played basketball and baseball at a small high school located on a former sugarcane plantation.

McVeagh also learned to cook like a local. “I can make a pretty good gumbo and etouffee,” he says, smiling.

In 2004, McVeagh left his home and set a course for Nashville, where he spent the next four years studying economics and political science at Vanderbilt University. Ever the overachiever, he double majored.

Although McVeagh had aspirations of becoming an investment banker or stock broker, the economy was in a tailspin as he approached graduation in 2008. Fortunately, he discovered a love for politics during his senior year and doors into that world were opening for him.

“I had read John McCain’s book about his time as a prisoner of war. I didn’t know anything about his policies, I just thought he was amazing, so when he ran for president, I volunteered to campaign for him,” McVeagh explains.

During his Christmas break, McVeagh traveled to Iowa, where he slept on floors, knocked on doors and told whoever would listen about the man he believed was a hero. He wound up being elected as one of the nation’s youngest delegates to the Republican National Convention.

This led to a spring internship with Robin Smith, the chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, which in turn led to him being hired out of college as the director of special projects for the Tennessee GOP. McVeagh served in that role through the general election.

“I realized I didn’t necessarily love politics, but I liked government,” he said. “I enjoyed the process of making laws.”

For the next two years, McVeagh served as the judiciary research analyst for the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee. He scrutinized every piece of legislation that passed through the committee, wrote summaries and drafted amendments. Surrounded by attorneys, he eventually concluded that he wanted to become one, too.

McVeagh returned to Vanderbilt to obtain his law degree and switched to clerking for the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee. He also worked at Chambliss one summer and for the Tennessee Public Defender’s Conference during his final year of law school.

When McVeagh accepted a job offer from Chambliss while he was still in law school, his family thought he was crazy.

“The only thing my family knew about Chattanooga was its reputation for being a dirty manufacturing city,” McVeagh says. “But when I arrived here, I was surprised. It reminded me of home.”

While earning a business law degree at Vanderbilt, McVeagh envisioned a future as a transactional attorney, but during his summer at Chambliss, he discovered he loved being in court.

“It brought out my competitive nature. I can’t imagine being on the 16th floor looking at contracts all day,” he says, pointing to the ceiling of the 15th floor of the Liberty Tower on Chestnut Street.

McVeagh’s office is a curious blend of lawyerly decor and personal collectibles. A large Hatch Show Print of George Washington, his favorite president, occupies the wall across from his desk, while a black and white photograph of him with political gadfly John Jay Hooker, Jr., rests on a small table by his window.

Then there’s the small fish tank occupied solely by a submerged Bernie Sanders, a Ron Burgundy bobble head from “Anchorman” and a Hillary Clinton nutcracker from 2008, among other curiosities.

“I’m in the office more than I’m at home, so I’ve tried to make this space mine,” he says.

Although it’s Friday, McVeagh seems unaffected by the long days and late nights he’s been pulling since Monday morning. If his busy schedule has taken a toll on him, it isn’t showing.

McVeagh says his work energizes, rather than exhausts, him.

“People give me grief – in a good way – about my workload because they don’t want me to burn out,” he adds. “If I was here until midnight working on a brief that might happen. But knowing I’ll be tutoring a Howard High School student after I leave here keeps me going during the day. It helps me realize this is all for something.”

McVeagh also sets aside time for himself. He reserves most of each weekend for personal time, which usually entails getting together with friends and enjoying Chattanooga’s night life and restaurant scene. McVeagh also travels frequently.

“My Saturday evenings and Sundays are for my friends and me. I think I have more friends in Chattanooga than I did at home or in college,” he adds. “Many of the people I’ve met, even in a professional setting, have turned into great friends.”

Since McVeagh has no spouse or children, he’s simply trying to make the most of his bachelor days.

“Once you have a family, you can’t do the things I’m doing now, so I’m trying to live it up, knowing the rest will come soon,” he says.

Monday morning will arrive soon, too, and McVeagh will greet it with his customary energy and enthusiasm. “I can’t imagine being in a different place or profession,” he says. “I stay busy but I enjoy it.”