Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 29, 2020

O’Kelley finds way to Baker Donelson shareholder

Attorney Mary O’Kelley is a member of the long-term care transactions team at Baker Donelson in Chattanooga. She says helping her clients during the pandemic has been especially rewarding. - Photograph provided

Mary O’Kelley grew up hearing her father, the late Stewart Jenkins, talk about the cases he was trying in court. By age 12, she decided she was going to follow in his footsteps and become an attorney.

After O’Kelley began to practice international business law in 2000, Jenkins would playfully tell his daughter she wasn’t a real lawyer because she “couldn’t find the courthouse.”

“He was the kind of old-school lawyer people paid with chickens and eggs,” O’Kelley reminisces. “And I was a big firm lawyer that did corporate and transactional work.”

Jenkins had been practicing in Chattanooga for more than 40 years when he died in 2007. Five years later, soon after O’Kelley returned to the city, she thought of his teasing as she and a friend lost their way while trying to find the courthouse.

“We were going to a luncheon at the courthouse and ended up at the county prison,” O’Kelley says with a laugh.

One can only imagine the ribbing Jenkins would have given his daughter this month when Baker Donelson announced it had elected her as a shareholder. O’Kelley was one of 15 attorneys across the firm and one of three in Chattanooga to receive the honor.

O’Kelley was also one of seven women to achieve that benchmark.

She credits Baker Donelson with cultivating an environment in which she was able to thrive. “I came in on a reduced hours basis because I had two small children, and I had my third child almost three years ago,” she adds. “When I came back from maternity leave, I switched to the shareholder track. The firm has been very supportive every step of the way.”

As O’Kelley’s father suggested, she’s not the kind of attorney who spends a lot of time at the courthouse. Rather, offices, conference rooms, telephone calls and her computer serve as her venues of practice.

“I’m drawn to the generally less adversarial nature of a transactional practice,” she acknowledges. “We’re always advocating for our clients, but ideally, both sides in a transaction end up with a positive result and are happy with the outcome of the deal.

“That’s rarely, if ever, the outcome in litigation. Generally, someone wins and someone loses, and it’s a fight the whole way.

“In transactions, we’re all working together to get the deal across the finish line as efficiently as possible, and generally, everyone is more or less satisfied with the result.”

O’Kelley is a member of Baker Donelson’s long-term care transactions team, which is headquartered in the firm’s Chattanooga office. Her practice with the group primarily involves finance and mergers and acquisitions in the long-term care industry.

“When a buyer is looking to acquire an assisted living facility, they typically get a bridge loan while they work on obtaining HUD or Fannie Mae financing,” she explains. “I would represent the lender and we would handle the due diligence and documentation of the loan.”

Occasionally, O’Kelley represents buyers and sellers in these same types of transactions.

She says this work is rewarding, especially now, as the coronavirus pandemic challenges the long-term care industry in unprecedented ways. “They’re trying to do their best for the elderly and our country,” she says. “It’s a difficult business, but I’ve seen a lot of dedicated providers, and it’s gratifying to be able to help them.”

O’Kelley also handles commercial real estate and financing transactions for clients outside the long-term care arena.

She built her practice at Baker Donelson on a foundation of commercial real estate and finance, which she laid in Atlanta during the first phase of her career.

O’Kelley moved to Atlanta after earning an undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University and her juris doctor at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, New York. Although fond of her native Chattanooga, she was drawn to what she says she believed was the glamour of international business transactions, and that Atlanta would better suit her goals.

“Atlanta was a good fit for what I wanted to do,” she says. “And I was 24 and wanted to live in a big city.”

O’Kelley quickly discovered that her international work came with hassles she could do without, including disparate time zones and “people taking off the month of August.”

It also lacked the allure she initially perceived. “It’s not like I was jetting off to Buenos Aires to close deals,” she says.

When O’Kelley realized she could do the same kind of work domestically without the hassles, she narrowed her focus. After the economy dipped in 2001, she switched to finance, which has been her bread and butter ever since.

While in Atlanta, O’Kelley practiced with two firms, including what is now Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton for seven years and then a small commercial real estate firm for five years. When her husband, architect Jamie O’Kelley, decided to start his own firm, they eyed a move to Chattanooga.

“We had two small children, and we both have family here, so I sent my resume to a couple firms, and within two weeks, I had an offer from Baker Donelson,” O’Kelley recounts.

Baker Donelson needed an attorney in its long-term care transactions team, O’Kelley says, and believed her expertise in commercial real estate and finance background would benefit the group. All she needed to do was learn the regulatory and business aspects of long-term care and then begin to engage clients.

O’Kelley has accomplished this and more. Not only has she succeeded professionally at Baker Donelson, she’s become a part of a family at the firm. In particular, she describes the long-term care transactions team as close-knit and a source of many friendships.

“When I came to Baker Donelson, I was skeptical of it being one of (Fortune Magazine’s) ‘100 Best Companies to Work For,’ but it’s a great place to practice,” she adds, her voice on the phone conveying a smile.

O’Kelley’s voice brightens even more as she discusses her family. Although working from home can be challenging, she says she has a great workspace and an equal partner in parenting, both of which make a tremendous difference.

“I’m proud my daughters and now my son see daddy can cook dinner and put them to bed,” she says. “Daddy can work, mommy can work – we both can do everything. I’m lucky in that regard, and I wish all women had that opportunity.”

O’Kelley strives to make the most of the quality time she spends with her family, whether she’s baking with her daughters, playing with her son, or watching a movie with everyone.

She also likes to tend her garden, which serves as a stress reliever. “My garden is a restful place for me to be,” she says.

Although focused on family and work, O’Kelley also makes time to serve her community. Previously, this involved serving as co-chair of the Parent Teacher Association at Thrasher Elementary School. Currently, it entails sitting on the board of the Association for Visual Arts.

“Art is one of the keys to having a thriving, engaged community,” she says. “I believe we should increase access to art through public displays and galleries where everyone from professional artists to high school students can exhibit their work.”

As O’Kelley discusses the different ways in which she’s able to apply her knowledge and skills as an attorney, she’s compelled to express gratitude for the nurturing influence of both her father and mother when she was young and contemplating her future.

“My parents raised me to ask questions, to think critically, and to argue my position respectfully,” O’Kelley says. “They never told me, ‘Because I said so,’ when I asked them, ‘Why?’ Rather, they always encouraged debate and discussion, which shaped me in ways that made the law a natural fit.”

Years later, when O’Kelley discovered her office at Baker Donelson would be on the 17th floor of the Republic Centre, she snapped a photo of Lookout Mountain from her window and sent it to her mother.

O’Kelley’s mother said her father’s office was on the same side of the same floor when she was born. “It felt intentional, like he was with me,” she says. “It was surreal that I was practicing law in Chattanooga but he wasn’t.”

If Jenkins were alive today, O’Kelley imagines he would be pleased with her and her decision to practice at Baker Donelson.

“My father was always supportive of me, and often said he was proud of me,” she says. “I believe he would also be impressed with Baker Donelson, both in terms of the quality of the lawyers at the firm and the efforts the firm makes to increase diversity, support women in the industry and help the community.

“He would be proud that I’m associated with such a firm.”