Many attorneys can trace the origin of their desire to pursue a career in the law to early in life, whether it was a parent who said they should become a lawyer, a teacher who inspired them or something else.
But not Dillon Thornbury, 28, an associate with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott & Cannon in Chattanooga. His interest in the law took shape at Central College in Pella, Iowa, as he contemplated where his interests and skills might take him.
“I enjoy reading and I write well, and those things seemed to match up with what you do in law school, so I thought it was worth a shot,” he recalls. “Some people have a crazy story about wanting to be a lawyer since they were 1, but that wasn’t my path. For me, it was about what made sense.”
Thornbury followed his instincts to the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis, where he discovered he had no interest in becoming a trial attorney.
“After going through mock trial, I realized I didn’t want to argue in a courtroom for the rest of my life,” he says. “It didn’t feel right, so I decided transactional law would be a better fit.”
Although Thornbury says his abilities would still serve him well as a transactional attorney, he realized he lacked an understanding of business. To remedy what he perceived would be a shortcoming, he registered for a joint juris doctor/MBA program.
As Thornbury followed his gut, his path took an unexpected turn. He saw a job posting for a transactional law clerk at Gearhiser while searching for an internship.
A Memphis-area native, Thornbury wanted to spend his 2L summer close to home, but he says transactional law clerkships were rare, so he seized the opportunity.
His first look at his future came as three of Gearhiser’s transactional attorneys – Lee Ann Adams, Eleanor LaPorte and Beverly Edge – greeted him from 340 miles away at the beginning of an interview on Skype.
Gearhiser awarded Thornbury the clerkship and then offered him a job as an associate during the following school year. Thornbury had enjoyed his time at the firm and says he believed it would be difficult to find transactional work after graduating and passing the bar, so he accepted.
“It made sense,” Thornbury says in an oft-repeated phrase.
Now in his third year as an attorney, Thornbury says he likes his job. As an associate, he’s working primarily in a support role, helping other attorneys at Gearhiser to complete real estate transactions, buy, sell and form businesses and complete general corporate work.
Thornbury also is doing something he never even imagined was a thing: Assisting Edge as she handles the legal details on airplane sales.
“That’s new to me. There’s no class in law school that covers buying and selling airplanes,” he says. “Learning all the Federal Aviation Administration rules and regulations has been fascinating. There’s a lot to it.”
Thornbury originally wanted to work close to home, but his time with Gearhiser has dispelled that desire.
“I was looking for a midsized law firm. You can still serve challenging clients and benefit from the other amenities of a big law firm while enjoying the family-like atmosphere of a small firm,” he notes. “It doesn’t feel like I’m working for a big corporation.”
Thornbury says Gearhiser doesn’t stop at promoting a family-like atmosphere at the office, it also gives its attorneys the ability to nurture their personal life. For Thornbury, this entails spending time with his wife, Miki.
The couple met while studying abroad in Spain during undergraduate school and married this past June.
“Miki and I are always outside on the weekends, hiking or spending time near the water, and we enjoy the local food scene. For a city this size, Chattanooga has some top-notch restaurants.”
Although Thornbury says he’s very busy as clients try to close transactions before the end of the year, the hours are still tolerable. “We work business hours because we’re dealing with mostly businesses,” he explains.
Thornberry also appreciates the local topography, especially the mountains. “Memphis is as flat as a pancake, so I love the hills in Chattanooga,” he enthuses. “It’s a total change from what I grew up with.”
Thornbury spends some of his free time on professional and community involvement. As a member of the board of the Chattanooga Tax Practitioners, he helps to select speakers for CLEs and provides input on the topics.
He’s also leveraging the skills he developed as a lifelong competitive soccer player as the coach of a team of 10-year-olds in the Chattanooga Football Club Academy program.
Thornbury began playing soccer at an early age and became good enough to earn a scholarship to play for Central College. But despite a deep love for the sport, he knew that would be as far as he would go. “Playing professionally was a pipe dream, so I became a lawyer instead,” he half-jokes.
If anyone doubts Thornbury has a sense of humor, a quick glance at the wall of his office will reveal an interesting work of art. Instead of plastering his surroundings with degrees and certificates, he’s hung a Simpsons-themed caricature of himself, his wife and their dog on one wall.
“My dad met a graphic designer in Memphis who can take a photo of you and turn you into various characters,” Thornbury explains. “I’m a huge fan of the Simpsons, so my dad sent him a picture of us. And there we are.”
Thornbury loves it. His wife doesn’t, which is why it graces the walls of his office and not his home. “I’m OK with how I look, but Miki says it doesn’t flatter her,” he shrugs.
Disagreements about the painting aside, no one is complaining about Thornbury’s career. Rather, he says becoming a lawyer was one of the best decisions he’s made.
“A lot of people can’t say they enjoy what they do, which is sad,” he adds. “But I’m truly fortunate to be here, where I like the work I do and the people I work with. It’s been a great experience.”