Initiatives that impact society occasionally begin with someone asking, “What if?”
“What if our law firm hired a female attorney?”
“What if the police increased efforts to connect with minority communities?”
“What if our company was intentional about diversity?”
Or, in the case of the Chattanooga Bar Association, with current president Jeffrey Maddux asking, “What if we provided a summer clerk for our criminal and sessions courts?”
This might seem like a modest opportunity to expose a law student to the innerworkings of the criminal justice system, but for Danny Chung, a rising 3L from Lincoln Memorial University in Knoxville, it’s afforded an experience that could send ripples beyond his summer in Chattanooga.
Moreover, those with whom Chung has spent his time are saying he’s changed them as well.
Like many ideas, this one started small, with a conversation between Maddux and CBA Executive Director Lynda Hood, and spread from there to the local judiciary.
When the proposal reached the desks of Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz and General Sessions Court Judge Alex McVeagh, it transformed from a suggestion into a rolling ball.
“My job was to place this idea in the hands of people who get things done,” Maddux says. “Judge Greenholtz said, ‘I love it. Let’s do it. Let me know what you need from me.’”
After McVeagh informed the Tennessee Bar Association board about the opportunity during the TBA’s annual meeting in Memphis, Chattanooga attorney Ariel Anthony immediately introduced Chung to the judge.
Chung was there to graduate from the TBA’s Diversity Leadership Institute, which Anthony taught. Anthony felt as though the clerkship was tailor made for Chung – as did McVeagh, once he saw Chung’s resume.
“We’re beyond proud that Danny is our first clerk,” McVeagh says. “He’s not only humble but also the most impressive person you’ll ever see on paper.”
After reading Chung’s resume, Greenholtz agreed. “I looked at Judge McVeagh and said, ‘If this is what it takes to get into law school today, then I wouldn’t make it.”
The judges are referring in part to the community service Chung has provided. Born in North Virginia to South Korean immigrants, Chung grew up serving as a translator for his parents. He later volunteered with the Korean American Federation, where he mentored children who were helping their parents in the same capacity.
“They were interpreting lease agreements, bills and medical forms for their parents,’’ Chung says. “These were elementary- and middle school-aged kids, and it was difficult for them to understand what those things meant. I simply helped to validate what they were going through.”
Chung continued to serve as a volunteer while he was an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University in Utah, where he taught English to Koreans for free.
After graduating with a degree in sociology, Chung’s desire to serve others steered him to law school.
“My experiences up to that point meshed into a need to help my community,” he explains. “I couldn’t conceive of living a professional life without benefiting the people around me.”
Since beginning the clerkship in June, Chung has immersed himself in deep waters. In addition to meeting grand juries, working with the local recovery courts and observing a jury trial over which Greenholtz presided, he’s spent time in the shadows of judges Don Poole and Gerald Webb, listened to countless probation hearings and even did a little of the grunt work for which clerkships are known.
“When Danny came in, I told him I didn’t want him to write a bunch of memos; I wanted him to experience the different aspects of our system,” Greenholtz explains.
Chung did write a few memos, but he also engaged judges in intellectual discussions about the dispensation of justice. These ranged from the nature of guilty pleas to the steps the criminal justice system takes to protect the constitutional rights of the accused.
“All of that has been tremendously helpful to me,” Chung says. “I had a low interest in practicing criminal law when I arrived, but the more I’ve delved into how the sausage is made, the more I’ve realized how necessary and interesting the process is and how it works for the betterment of the country.
“That’s persuaded me to consider practicing criminal law.”
Greenholtz says Chung’s clerkship has allowed him to pay forward the benefits he received from a judicial clerkship.
“When I was in law school, I clerked for an outstanding jurist. That experience has colored the way I’ve viewed the law ever since. I’ve always wanted to give that part of my experience to someone else, although I don’t for a moment think I’ve been successful in doing that with Mr. Chung.
“But it’s important the courts provide these kinds of experiences for our upcoming leaders in the law.”
Greenholtz adds that the clerkship has not consisted of a one-way conduit of wisdom from himself and his colleagues to Chung, but that its benefits have flowed in both directions.
“When I ask Danny what he’s taking away from the proceedings in court, his insight in some cases is very different from mine,” Greenholtz notes. “That’s not only informative and helpful but also makes me a better public servant.”
McVeagh dovetails his fellow judge’s comments with what he believes is another benefit of Chung’s presence in Chattanooga this summer: Helping the CBA to become more diverse.
“The [Young Lawyers Division] is being intentional about recruiting not just quality lawyers from outside Chattanooga but also minority lawyers who can bring their life experiences and a completely different perspective to the city,” he says. “Historically, the [CBA] has struggled to represent the larger population, but we’re making an effort to change that.”
The CBA has not worked alone to provide Chung with the opportunity to work with local judges his summer, but rather has partnered with other individuals and entities in the city to bring the clerkship to fruition. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, for example, joined with the CBA to provide housing for Chung, while attorney Lee Davis donated a stipend, even though the clerkship was unpaid.
With Chung’s time in Chattanooga nearing an end and his third year at LMU approaching, the aspiring attorney is looking ahead to the steps he’ll take after graduating and passing the bar exam.
Although Chung doesn’t want to pigeonhole himself, he say he is interested in practicing cybersecurity and data privacy law.
A return to Chattanooga might also be in the cards for Chung, who’s enjoyed experiencing the sense of community that pervades the city.
“I’ve been helping the United Way on weekends, and have been impressed with how closely knit the community is. My dream would be to make a living doing what I like in Chattanooga now that I’ve kind of experienced what it’s like to live a day-to-day life here.”
This would be advantageous to not just Chung but also the broader citizenry, Greenholtz reiterates.
“The ultimate aim of the clerkship is to improve us all. When Danny asks, ‘Why do you do it that way?’ it forces me to say, ‘I don’t know, but maybe there are better ways.’
“So, the criminal court is better off for him having been here this summer, I’m better off for him having been here this summer, and all of this goes back to people like Mr. Maddox asking, ‘What if?’”