Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 25, 2021

Total immersion: Summer associates learn on the job

Abigail LeCroy, left, is a rising 3L at Emory University School of Law and a summer associate with Miller & Martin. She’s seated with her firm mentor, attorney Lara Ketcham. - Photos by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Few law firm associates would say being an attorney is easy. From grasping the vastness of the law to spending long days elbow-deep in grunt work to tackling the demands of partners, fledgling lawyers carry a heavy load.

But no new attorney who worked as a summer associate with a law firm that offered a taste of what being a legal practitioner is like can say they went in cold.

Abigail LeCroy, a rising 3L at Emory University School of Law, is one of the summer associates who’s currently dipping her toes in the rushing waters of a busy Chattanooga firm.

Her home for six weeks, Miller & Martin, has assigned LeCroy tasks in several different departments, giving her a glimpse of the vast panorama of the law.

“I’ve done discovery review and written motions for the litigation department, drafted contracts for the corporate department and am working on a 50-state survey of transfer taxes for the commercial department,” she says without batting an eye.

LeCroy had no experience in most of these matters, but says the willingness of the attorneys at Miller & Martin to answer her questions and guide her through each process helped her and put her at ease.

“Working here was a little nerve-wracking at first because I didn’t know what to expect, but everyone has been great. That’s made things less scary.”

LeCroy says her time with Miller & Martin has also enabled her to make early breakthroughs and boost her confidence. For example, when faced with writing a memo for Miller & Martin attorney Michael Dumitru, she hit a mental wall.

Conferring with Dumitru hoisted her over the obstacle. “Although I had a great writing professor at Emory and did well in my writing classes, I felt like I had forgotten how to write,” she says. “But even though he was busy preparing for a trial, he took the time to answer my questions and talk me through it.”

Anne Miller Welborn, also a rising 3L at Emory, faced a similar situation as she worked on a tax project at Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel. Like LeCroy’s memo, the assignment provided Welborn with an opportunity for growth.

“I don’t have a background in tax law, so I had to educate myself before I could even understand the question I was supposed to answer, which took time and patience,” she recalls. “Learning how to learn was beneficial.”

Cathy Dorvil, a litigator for Chambliss and the firm’s recruiting committee chair, says this was an important lesson for Welborn.

“During your first couple of years as an associate, you’ll go into a shareholder’s office and they’ll start spitting out an assignment, and you’ll be thinking, ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about, I don’t know these words they’re using and I don’t what this stuff means,’ and you’ll just be writing and thinking, ‘I’ll figure this out.’ That’s part of what an attorney has to learn to do.”

Freshly minted attorneys must also choose the area – or areas – of the law in which they want to practice, Dorvil adds. To help, Chambliss endeavors to place summer associates in practice areas that match their budding interests.

“We talk about the kinds of law they want to pursue during the interview,” Dorvil explains. “I don’t want to take someone who wants to litigate and stick them in real estate; we try to fit what we have to offer with their interests.”

LeCroy has enjoyed the same accommodation at Miller & Martin, where she expressed an interest in intellectual property and subsequently received an assignment with Charles Forlidas, a partner at the firm who does IP work.

“If you’re interested in something, the firm will work with you,” she says.

Just as important, summer associates at Miller & Martin and Chambliss rarely find themselves doing busywork and are often placed in the trenches, where they watch seasoned attorneys apply their craft and do consequential work at their side.

Mecca Shabazz, a rising 3L at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville College of Law and a summer associate with Chambliss, says this level of involvement has given her practical experience that’s just as valuable as the theory she’s learned in UT’s classrooms.

“I didn’t expect to be doing the kind of work the associates here are doing,” she confides. “If Chambliss offers me a job, I won’t walk in unprepared; I’ll know what the firm expects and will come in believing I can add value to it.”

Peter Newman, a rising 3L at the University of North Carolina School of Law and a Chambliss summer associate, echoes Shabazz’s comments and says he’s done what he feels was meaningful work for shareholders.

“I thought summers received tasks from intermediate level associates, but I’ve had a lot of face time with partners, which has been great. It’s made me more comfortable with people.”

Laura Ketcham, a bankruptcy attorney with Miller & Martin and LeCroy’s mentor, says her firm likewise places its summer associates in everyday situations to give them a notion of what it’s like to be a practicing attorney.

“We let them go to court, sit in on closings and listen in on teleconferences so they can see more of what working as an attorney is like,” Ketcham explains. “And we give them the kinds of projects we would give first, second and even third year associates. These are real projects that provide real experience.”

LeCroy says she’s grateful for the practice. “In law school, you read cases and then discuss them. But here, I’m looking at actual problems and asking, ‘How does the law apply to this?’ I’m doing actual work.”

Being in close proximity to the often-intense work attorneys do and being expected to contribute can be stressful, Dorvil admits, but it’s also a crucial part of Chambliss’ summer associate program.

“Our summer associates are busy. They want to know what it’s going to be like to work here if we make a permanent offer, and we want to know what it’s going to be like to work with them if we make a permanent offer, so part of the program involves seeing how they juggle assignments, maintain deadlines and communicate with the other attorneys.”

Welborn says knowing she’s under a microscope motivates her to put her to be her best. At the same time, she’s grateful for the leeway attorneys give her.

“Everyone knows we’re used to studying all semester, not working for a firm, so they take the time to teach us what we need to know. This makes me feel like Chambliss is investing in my education and development.”

Chambliss does invest in its summer associates, Dorvil says, because the firm hopes they represent its future.

“We anticipate that the people who come in as 1Ls will come back as 2Ls and will then probably receive a job offer. And the people who work here never leave,” Dorvil says. “We invest in our summer associates because we hope they’ll be with us long-term.”

With this in mind, Chambliss pours a significant amount of time and resources into hiring, Dorvil adds.

Each year, the firm reaches out to about 15 regional law schools, vets over 100 applicants and interviews more than half of them. Throughout this process, Dorvil and the rest of the hiring committee consider a wealth of criteria ranging from a student’s GPA to how well they do during the interview.

They also look for connections to Chattanooga.

“If there’s someone who’s never been here and has no reason to be here, we’re a little wary of that,” Dorvil explains. “This program is a huge investment, so we’re typically leery of bringing in someone who has no connection to the city.”

Being a “true blue Chattanoogan” was one of the many things that worked in Welborn’s favor, Dorvil says. In addition to growing up in Lookout Mountain, Welborn attended Girls Preparatory School and has worked in the city.

Welborn actually became interested in pursuing the law while working at CO.LAB, where Chambliss attorneys were providing free advice to entrepreneurs.

“I became interested in business law,” she clarifies. “I also worked for a nonprofit that transforms justice systems around the world, so I saw how the law can also have a social impact.”

Ketcham says Miller & Martin’s summer associates are also a long-term proposition and that the firm looks for candidates it can envision eventually becoming partners.

And while Miller & Martin also considers a candidate’s ties to Chattanooga, Ketcham says it also keeps in mind how the city is becoming a destination for outsiders.

“Historically, summer programs have been filled with Chattanoogans who had gone away to school and were coming back, but in recent years, we’ve been attracting students who have no connection to the city.”

While working as a summer associate can provide a snapshot of what practicing at a law firm is like, the programs at Chambliss and Miller & Martin also offer opportunities to take it easy and socialize.

“You spend a lot of time with your co-workers, and you want to know they like working with you, and you want to know you like working with them, so we have a ton of social events,” Dorvil says. “We want everyone to get to know each other as people outside of work.”

LeCroy says she her fellow summer associates at Miller & Martin have enjoyed their after-hours excursions, which have included a food crawl through local restaurants, eating dinner and playing video games at Forlidas’ home and more.

“It was great to see everyone outside the office and in a relaxed environment,” she says. “I want to enjoy the people I work with, so that was encouraging.”

After the dust of summer has settled and associates return to law school, the experience of working for a firm for even those six or 12 weeks can have a tremendous impact on their career, says Scott Parrish, Miller & Martin chairman.

Parrish says he’s has never forgotten his summer “clerkship” at the firm in 1989.

“We had 10 or 11 summer clerks housed in the cubicles in the law library,” he recalls. “As you might guess, there was always some discussion going on among the clerks – sometimes about work and sometimes not.”

Parrish says the sense of collegiality he felt in that cluster of cubicles, as well as during social events that included rafting on the Ocoee River, touring Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg and competing in golf and tennis tournaments, remains with him today.

“Miller & Martin is a great place to work. We have a lot of lawyers here who have been with the firm longer than me and who also went through our summer program. I think that’s one of the reasons for our ongoing success.”

As this year’s summer associates leave Chattanooga to complete what for most of them will be their final year of school, their impressions of not just the practice of law but also Chattanooga will color their thoughts as they contemplate what comes after graduation.

“There’s a misperception that you have to be in Atlanta or New York City to do sophisticated legal work, but there’s interesting work in Chattanooga,” Welborn says. “Both the work and sense of community here are impressive and exciting.”

Once again, Newman echoes the thoughts of a fellow associate.

“I get the appeal of going to D.C., New York, Raleigh, Charlotte or Atlanta, but when Chambliss made me an offer, I immediately canceled my interviews for bigger firms, in part because I was confident there would be sophisticated and impressive legal work to do in Chattanooga.

“And that’s been the case. I’m working with clients who have a national or international footprint.”

Meanwhile, LeCroy says she’s gained more confidence in not only her abilities but also her decision to become an attorney.

“I had no idea what life at a law firm would be like; when you see it on TV, it looks scary,” she laughs. “I’ve been thankful for that, and am truly impressed with the people here and the culture of this firm. It’s set a high standard for what I want next.”