Attorney Rachael Kapperman, 30, has a job she says has not existed before in Hamilton County.
Law clerks have come and gone at the local clerk and master’s office, but neither Kapperman nor her boss, Clerk and Master Robin Miller, say they believe the office has had a staff attorney.
Even if someone with a longer memory than Kapperman and Miller proves them wrong, Kapperman has at least secured a unique position among lawyers in Chattanooga.
As staff attorney of the clerk and master’s office, Kapperman shadows Miller, learning the different facets of her job and assisting wherever needed. This can include writing opinions, attending hearings, answering questions from lawyers and serving as guardian ad litem to children in civil court cases.
Although Kapperman isn’t trying to prove her mettle to the partners of a law firm, she still takes her work home with her.
“We do a lot of mediations with pro se parties, and sometimes, they tell you their whole story. It can be so deep, I’ll think about it day and night,” she explains. “It’s hard to stop thinking about these precious people, especially when there are children involved.”
As Kapperman muses on the difficult work done at the clerk and master’s office, she sits in luminescent contrast against a wall of old law books in a conference room. Even her concerned expression barely holds back her smile.
It’s therefore not surprising when Kapperman shifts to discussing the enjoyable aspects of her work. This includes the family-like atmosphere among the staff and the mentoring Kapperman has received from not only Miller but also from Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton and Judges Marie Williams and J.B. Bennett.
“When other young lawyers brag about the big-time attorney who’s mentoring them, I can say I’ve been mentored by four judges,” she says with a laugh. “It’s my favorite part of this job.”
While Kapperman needed to learn the mechanics of working for the clerk and master’s office, Miller says, she was already the kind of lawyer – and person – the office needed.
“Rachael has no snobbery in the law,” she explains. “She doesn’t love the big cases with all the money and the fancy attorneys, she cares about getting it right, whether it’s a $500 claim for services or a multimillion-dollar trust case.
“The impact on the individual is what matters to her. She’ll say, ‘We’re changing people’s lives; we have to get this right.’”
Miller says Kapperman’s philosophy has helped her to be a better clerk and master. “I came from a litigation background, where I represented one side of an argument,” she clarifies. “Now my job is about getting it right based on the law. Rachael grounds me so I can do that.”
Another woman of prominence is partly responsible for inspiring Kapperman to become an attorney – former Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt.
Kapperman served Summitt as a team manager while an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. As Kapperman approached graduation, the legendary coach, now deceased, asked about her plans for the future.
Kapperman had studied sociology and psychology, but instead of aiming to further her education in those fields, had decided to become a paralegal. “A family friend was a paralegal and loved it,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
After Kapperman laid out her blueprint for the future, Summitt said, “Why don’t you become a lawyer?”
Although Kapperman deeply admired Summitt and had great respect for the coach, she balked at the idea. “Law school sounded daunting. I had just finished four years of college, and the thought of three more years in classrooms didn’t appeal to me,” she says. “The idea of making money sooner sounded better.”
During this same season of life, Kapperman says she became “obsessed” with the Mesa, Arizona, murder trial of Jodi Ann Arias, who was convicted of killing her boyfriend with more than two dozen stab wounds and a gunshot to the head. Every aspect of the televised proceedings – from the prosecutor, to the evidentiary issues, to the objections – fascinated her.
As Kapperman worked on her legal assistant studies degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Summitt’s simple but piercing guidance played in a loop in her head. This, combined with her interest in the Arias case, led her to reenvision her future.
Instead of pursuing work as a paralegal after earning a legal assistant studies degree, Kapperman returned to Knoxville to study the law.
“Pat knew I could do more,” she acknowledges. “She always pushed you. Her drive inspired you.”
While in law school, Kapperman pared her areas of interest to civil litigation. A distressing internship with the child abuse division of the Knox County district attorney’s office eliminated criminal work from her list of possible careers, and she quickly lost interest in doing corporate or transactional work.
This led Kapperman to interview for a clerkship with chancellors Jeffrey Atherton and Pamela Fleenor. Miller sat in on the interview and, according to Kapperman, asked most of the questions. When the chancellors hired someone else for the position, Miller snapped up Kapperman.
“I liked her intellect, her sincerity and her spunk,” Miller says. “And I could tell she was a person of integrity.”
Miller told Kapperman the position was for one year, so as the end of those 12 months drew near, Kapperman began interviewing for positions elsewhere. When Miller said she didn’t have to leave, Kapperman was so thrilled she turned down an enticing job with a large and historic Chattanooga law firm.
“They were going to hire her as a third-year, not a first-year,” Miller notes. “I told her it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but she turned it down.”
“This office is like a family to me, and the thought of leaving everyone made me nervous,” Kapperman explains.
In addition, Kapperman’s husband, Baker Donselson attorney Cameron Kapperman, was switching firms at the time, and was going to be traveling extensively. As a newlywed, Kapperman was worried she’d never see him.
Miller is pleased Kapperman stayed.
“She’s like my law partner. We deal with serious issues, we deal with people whose feelings are hurt and we deal with lawyers who don’t always get it right – and it’s our job to somehow find the truth. I couldn’t do this job without her.”
Kapperman says she doesn’t know what the future holds, but she’s planning to be at the clerk and master’s office for as long as Miller is. If and when things change, she’s become interested in probate, but even that exists just as a hazy possibility.
For now, Kapperman is enjoying her job and the time she’s able to spend with her husband. The two recently purchased a home in the Belleau Woods community and are filling the honeymoon phase of their marriage with Vols football games (Kapperman has missed only one home game since 2008), time with family and reading.
Or, as Kapperman says, “reading literally everything.”
“We read like crazy. Part of our problem while moving was most of our boxes were filled with books.”
Kapperman and her husband were going to turn one of the rooms in their new home into an office, but then they realized they have enough books to create a library instead. “All four walls will be filled from top to bottom,” she says.
As Kapperman discusses her life, her thoughts return to Summitt, who impacted her in many positive ways. From Summitt’s famous jalapeno corn casserole, which Kapperman brings to the office on Thanksgiving, to the husband Kapperman met in law school, she’s thankful she crossed paths with the late coach. She’s also grateful for the people she’s encountered since then.
“I’m here because of the people I’ve been fortunate to know,” she says. “I’m very blessed.”