Hamilton Herald Masthead Hamilton Herald


Front Page - Friday, June 23, 2017

Phillips: Women must embrace ‘unique skill sets’

Stevie Phillips standing beside “Stevie of Arc,” a painting by Cessna Decosimo that hangs in her law office. - Photograph by David Laprad

Many lawyers have been immortalized on canvas. But it’s unlikely any of those regal portraits bear a resemblance to the painting artist Cessna Decosimo did of criminal defense attorney Stevie Phillips.

When Decosimo took brush to palette, he did not create a realistic likeness of Phillips for hanging in a conference room or the lobby of a law firm. Instead, his harsh brush strokes and blending of soft blues, browns and oranges create the faint impression of a female warrior.

In one hand, she is wielding a pen; in the other, a shield bearing the scales of justice. What appear to be thin wings spread behind her. Following the woman is a small army of females.

Phillips shuns the notion that the woman in the painting is her and says it’s a characterization of the zealous female advocate. A former client, Decosimo was merely expressing his appreciation for what Phillips had accomplished on his behalf.

But the title of the portraiture, “Stevie of Arc,” suggests otherwise. Decosimo clearly intended to portray Phillips as a champion of justice.

He’s likely not alone in his thinking. Some of Chattanooga’s men and women in blue would surely agree.

Phillips was cutting her teeth as an attorney at criminal defense firm Davis & Hoss in 2012 when a pay disparity case involving members of the Chattanooga Police Department landed in her lap.

The case had taken shape as officers began bringing similar complaints to the firm. Based on Phillips’ familiarity with employment litigation, which she had gained during a federal clerkship, attorney Lee Davis asked her to investigate the claims, identify a cause of action and propose how to move forward.

Phillips interviewed more than 30 police officers and identified several issues. “The City had made promises to them it hadn’t kept – and these were men and women who went into our streets every day and risked their lives to protect us,” Phillips says. “They weren’t asking for a lot; they were just asking for the money they’d already earned.”

Davis & Hoss filed a lawsuit and then waited four years for a jury trial. When it finally took place before Judge Pamela Fleenor last August, it was the most complex jury trial Phillips had ever argued. It was also emotional at times.

“In my closing argument, I told the jury, ‘This is your city and these are your police officers. You need to do right by them,’” she recalls.

They did. The jury awarded Davis & Hoss’ clients more than $500,000. In post-judgment motions argued by attorney Janie Varnell, with whom Phillips had partnered on the case, Judge Fleenor increased that amount to over $800,000.

“Because of the rule of confidentiality, you have a lot of proud but quiet moments as a lawyer. On those days, you feel grateful for the privilege of helping someone,” Phillips explains. “But the public moments also feel good.”

Although Phillips’ most visible victory occurred in the realm of employment litigation, she’s primarily a criminal defense attorney. In that role, she’s represented clients in state and federal cases that have run the gamut from DUI to murder – and she has won many of those battles.

But securing a not-guilty verdict – or in the least doing damage control – is only part of what Phillips strives to achieve for each client. She also aims to make sure the people she represents change their bearing and never need her in the same capacity again.

“I’m committed to listening to my clients and understanding their problems holistically,” Phillips adds. “I don’t want to just get them off the hook for what they did or even prove them innocent; I want to find out the root cause of what brought them to this place and work with other experts to address it.”

Phillips’ desire to make a positive difference in the lives of her clients can also be seen in her work as a victim advocate. While at Davis & Hoss, Phillips assisted a handful of clients who fell outside her work as a criminal defense attorney but had been referred to her because of her expertise in criminal law.

“They had been through traumatic events involving sexual assault and wanted to take legal action but didn’t understand the criminal justice process,” Phillips says. “My job is to identify a range of options, such as pursuing criminal charges, and make the victims whole and safe.”

Phillips has traveled across the country as a victim advocate and remains passionate about the work. “It’s an intense process that requires a lot of patience – but I’m dedicated to it,” she says.

In many of her roles as an attorney, Phillips demonstrates qualities often associated with women lawyers, including empathy, compassion and the ability to listen. While Phillips would not agree that women have an exclusive claim to these traits or that all women share them, she says she does believe in developing and utilizing them when they are present.

“Women have unique skill sets,” she notes. “We need to embrace those strengths and identify how they can make us more effective at what we do.”

A number of early experiences with female legal professionals shaped Phillips’ approach to the practice of law.

While a law student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Phillips participated in a legal advocacy clinic headed by former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Penny White, an outspoken advocate for judicial independence. White was also the faculty advisor for the Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy, for which Phillips was editor-in-chief.

White became a mentor to Phillips, who developed a firm belief in judicial independence while in law school.

“Judges should be in a position to make decisions irrespective of their political affiliations,” she says. “As an attorney, I should be able to walk into a courtroom and get a fair shot whether or not I supported the judge’s campaign. It’s important for me to be on an equal playing field with everyone else and to know my client won’t be slighted for his or her political affiliations.”

After graduating from UT in 2008, Phillips accepted a clerkship with Justice Janice Holder, the first female chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Following two years with Holder, Phillips spent one year clerking for Judge Bernice Donald in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. During Phillips’ time with Donald, the judge became the first African-American woman appointed by the president to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Phillips didn’t spend the entire year laboring in the judge’s chambers. Rather, in a memorable life experience, Donald invited her to teach for two weeks at the Temple of Justice in Monrovia, Liberia. (Donald had been invited to teach a course on judicial opinion writing but her travel plans were placed on hold pending her Senate confirmation for the Court of Appeals position.)

It was a vote of high confidence – and Phillips seized the opportunity. Within the confines of the Liberian Supreme Court Building, Phillips taught courses to law clerks and magistrates in training. She was greatly influenced by her students’ enthusiasm for the American system of justice.

“Liberia is a poverty stricken, war-torn, corrupt country, but my students were more passionate about the law than frankly me or my colleagues at UT,” she remembers. “Liberia modeled its system of justice after ours. To have a system of justice that’s fair, and attorneys who are champions of it, was the gold standard.”

The experience instilled in Phillips a deep commitment to justice and equality – and to supporting those pillars in her practice.

Phillips says working for both judges, each of whom had paved the way for other women, was inspiring. More than that, she carries the lessons they taught her about being a female attorney with her to this day.

“They taught me things about practicing law as a woman not by telling me but by showing me,” Phillips says. “Both of them had the same expectations for me that they had for my male counterparts in the office. And they taught me that I don’t have to act like a man to be a successful lawyer. I can be a woman; I can and should be feminine. That sincerity is powerful.”

The trip to Liberia birthed wanderlust in Phillips. A native of Chattanooga, she set her sights on California, where she planned to practice law and live on the beach. She even took the state’s bar.

After her clerkship with Donald ended and as she was waiting for her bar results, Phillips decided to scratch her travel itch. Her months-long journey took her to Vietnam and Guatemala, where she lived with a family and studied Spanish. She then backpacked southward through El Salvador and Nicaragua.

“I was hoping to be an asset wherever I wound up working because I could speak Spanish,” she adds.

When Phillips returned to Chattanooga to prepare for her move to California, she realized she had spent her desire to travel and was falling in love with her hometown. Even as the Hon. Christie Sell swore Phillips in to the California bar, the judge advised the young attorney to seek out local opportunities.

Judge Sell specifically mentioned talking with Davis.

Phillips did – and she hit it off with both Davis and Bryan Hoss. However, she intended only to volunteer and learn from them while her other plans gelled. Since the firm wasn’t hiring, this was fine by both partners.

In other words, no one saw what was coming. No sooner did Phillips have her foot in the door than she made her presence known in a big case.

“They were working on a case that had resulted in the death of a child, and it was about to go to trial. At the time, I was making a point of reading Justice Holder’s opinions. One of them directly impacted the scope of the admissible evidence. I wrote a motion to suppress the evidence and showed it to Lee and Bryan.”

Davis & Hoss agreed that Phillips was on to something. The trial was ultimately continued while the issue went up on interlocutory appeal. The case was eventually resolved out of court.

The experience had a profound impact on the direction of Phillips’ career.

“The energy on the eve of the trial and the way we bounced ideas off of each other made that the most exciting moment of my career up to that point,” Phillips says.

“There are times when you lose yourself to the task at hand – when you dissolve into what you’re doing. That was one of those moments for me. I knew if Lee and Bryan would have me – that was where I wanted to be.”

Phillips says Davis still jokes about how she showed up one day and a few weeks later hung her diploma on the wall. “There’s some truth to that,” she adds, laughing.

Phillips spent five years at Davis & Hoss working on high profile cases, flourishing in the collaborative environment the partners had fostered and learning that “every day in the practice of criminal law is an adventure.”

As Phillips looks back on her time with the firm, which ended late last year, she sees nothing but positive experiences. “I am equally fortunate to have worked with Lee and Bryan as I am to have worked with the female judges. While it’s important for women to learn from each other, it’s equally important for us to identify men in the profession who lift us up.”

Phillips was too young to stop there, though. Although the future had not yet taken form, she knew the time for change was approaching.

In response to her instincts, Phillips began to look for federal prosecutor jobs in California. Her efforts bore fruit when she was offered a position in the state’s Fresno office.

Six months later, Phillips accepted the job, and in January of this year she moved to California and began working as a prosecutor in the office’s white-collar division. Using blue-collar parlance, Phillips says the job was “really cool.”

“I worked with FBI agents, the cases were interesting, I was getting plenty of time in court but also plenty of time for research and writing, and it felt really good to stand up and say, ‘Stevie Phillips for the United States.’”

But at the end of each day, Fresno was just a job, and Phillips missed her home, family, friends and clients.

“At the lunch, the federal prosecutors had their jury trial war stories, and I had my stories about my clients – and my stories were better,” she recalls. “Plus, my heart was aching to be back working with people every day.

Upon returning home, Phillips didn’t rejoin Davis & Hoss or even seek to work for another firm. Rather, in a bid for independence, she launched her own concern: Stevie Phillips Law, PLLC. Operating out of the Ziebold Building at 809 Market St., Phillips continues to focus on criminal defense, employment litigation and victim advocacy.

Phillips is also enjoying another new development in her life – Thomas Persinger.

Phillips met Persinger after she’d accepted the job in Fresno but before she moved to California.

She admits he was a significant factor in her returning to Chattanooga.

 Persinger is a commercial fisherman who spends his summers catching salmon in Alaska. The two have a good starter life: a place on the Southside to call home, a dog named Mister Shug and evenings in the kitchen, him cooking and her sipping wine as she anticipates dinner.

Persinger has also been teaching Phillips how to fish. Or at least trying to. “We fished in the Cherokee National Forest last week,” she says. “He caught five fish and I caught none.”

“We’re just glad to be here and to be together. We had some tough moments when I was in California,” Phillips adds.

Phillips can trace her interest in the law back to Loyola University in New Orleans, where she studied history and Spanish and sought only to explore the city and eat good food until a professor she admired and respected suggested she considering going to law school.

Phillips had not yet decided what she wanted to do beyond college, so she took his advice. “I loved being in class and absorbing and processing as much information as possible,” Phillips points out. “And I’ve always had an analytical mind. I think he saw that in me.”

Even then, Phillips was interested in criminal law. She took classes on criminology and identifying trends in human behavior and was drawn to the human side of the law more than contracts and business transactions.

She continued this line of study at UT, where she took criminal and client advocacy courses.

Years later, Phillips has arrived at the intersection of everything she has learned and experienced and is now carving her own path through the wilderness that lies ahead of her. Her goal each day is to find something that pulls her in like her first case at Davis & Hoss – something into which everything she is disappears.

Phillips has hung Decosimo’s painting across from her desk in her office – not as a token of pride but as a humbling reminder of why she’s there. If anything, she sees herself as striving to become the woman in the painting.

Little does Phillips realize she’s gazing not at a work of art but into a mirror.