The speakers at SETLAW’s 2021 Lioness of the Bar award ceremony did their best to roast this year’s recipient, Hamilton County Clerk and Master Robin Miller, during an event Oct. 28 at Pinnacle Financial Partners, but each one confessed to coming up empty.
“Robin is a difficult person to roast,” shrugged Circuit Court Judge Marie Williams during her presentation with attorney Sandi Bott. “She’s well-spoken, incredibly kind, gracious, beautiful and cares deeply about her fellow human beings and her profession.”
Williams and Bott did offer a few playful jabs about Miller’s many unique diets (one of which involves eating vegetarian unless she’s in Western Kentucky and is craving barbecued mutton), her propensity for losing her eyeglasses (Miller does still have the pair she was wearing when she met President Bill Clinton) and her fondness for diagnosing others (“Bless his heart, he has a borderline personality disorder” is an example that spurred raucous laughter), but these only endeared Miller to those in attendance.
Attorney Sam Elliott, with whom Miller worked at the beginning of her legal career, only mustered a quip about how his friend and colleague is “charming in a funky way.”
Instead, the event served as a forum for each speaker to extol what he or she said were the qualities that made Miller the ideal recipient of the Southeast Tennessee Lawyers Association for Women’s highest honor – beginning with her ability to outgrow her roots.
Miller grew up in the diminutive town of Dixon, Kentucky, which Williams described as a place where the men work in either a coal mine or on a farm, and the woman typically stay there and marry them.
But Miller, Williams said, broke the mold as one of only a handful of Dixon students who attended college after high school.
“Her hometown has not yet achieved a population of 1,000, yet Robin has become a shining star in our community of about 350,000 people,” the judge noted.
Miller earned an undergraduate degree in child development from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and then a master’s degree in the same field from the University of New Hampshire.
Having found no Southern man to marry, Miller instead wedded Bob Bires, whom she met at UNH. They moved to Chattanooga in 1983, where she initially investigated child abuse cases for the Department of Human Services.
Although Miller’s father had been an attorney and a judge, she didn’t pursue a legal career until after she became a social worker. “I had no power, and all these lawyers were making amazing things happen,” Miller recalled.
Miller chose to attend the UT College of Law – her father’s alma mater. When she discovered she was pregnant toward the end of her first semester, she paused her legal education to care for her newborn.
“Robin does nothing the easy way,” Williams pointed out.
Although family and friends told Miller she’d never return to law school, she did. Miller then graduated from UT in 1992 and became the first woman litigator at Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott & Cannon in Chattanooga.
There, Miller primarily handled will contests, breaches of trust, conservatorships, noncompete disputes, domestic cases and other civil litigation.
She also, Bott noted, encountered the sexism and sexual discrimination present in the legal profession at the time.
“Robin was told to not cry or act like a woman,” Williams added. “Several big cases were not assigned to her because the wife of the partner on the files forbade him to travel with a female. And she was told Gearhiser was a sink or swim firm.”
While serving as first chair on one case, Miller noticed her second chair, the late attorney Charlie Gearhiser, was composing a list on his notepad titled “Problems with Robin.”
Fortunately, learning to swim was not one of Miller’s issues, Williams suggested. Not only did she win the case for which Gearhiser served as second chair, she went toe-to-toe with Chattanooga attorney John Konvalinka in a 14-year will contest, and her efforts in another case resulted in the Tennessee Court of Appeals holding that juvenile courts had original and exclusive jurisdiction over dependent and neglected children.
“We were a very testosterone-laced firm at that time,” Elliott acknowledged while offering his comments about Miller. “It was an all-male group, but that didn’t phase Robin one bit. She took us on and fit in without losing her femininity, and we came to respect her abilities.”
While practicing law, Miller not only tended to her practice but also supported others in their pursuit of a career in the law. Williams praised Miller for being an advocate of women in the legal profession and applauded her for mentoring young associates at both Gearhiser and Spears Moore.
Miller practiced at Gearhiser for 20 years and then spent two years with Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams before becoming clerk and master in 2014.
As clerk and master, Miller continues to help others succeed, wrote Rachael Kapperman, staff attorney in Miller’s office, in a letter SETLAW President Jessica Malloy-Thorpe read to the gathering.
“When I think of the name ‘Lioness of the Bar,’ I think of someone fierce – perhaps an aggressive attorney who dominates opposing counsel,” Kapperman, who was unable to attend, wrote. “But I see a different side of Robin that can also describe a lioness: a nurturer.”
One of the ways in which Miller exhibits the qualities of a nurturer is in her volunteer work as an interviewer for the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners character and fitness exam, Kapperman wrote.
“Robin goes beyond the standard questions to learn each student’s background and plans for the future. If the student doesn’t have a job yet, she’ll provide suggestions. She truly cares about them.”
As clerk and master, Miller oversees at staff of more than 30 employers, presides as judge over certain probate proceedings and sometimes serves as a judicial mediator.
As mediator, Miller handles contentious cases in which prior mediations have been unsuccessful, as well as in cases in which the parties are unable to pay for a mediator.
According to Kapperman, few of these cases fail to settle.
“Robin is successful as a mediator because she cares about the litigants. She wants to help them move beyond whatever issues brought them to court.”
This often involves stretching a mediation across several days to allow the parties to have ample time to tell their story, Kapperman wrote. Only then does Miller feel she can help them settle in a way that will allow both parties to move forward in a positive direction.
Miller contributes to her community beyond her work as clerk and master. In addition to serving as a eucharistic minister and a member of the vestry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, she’s a board member of Santa for All Seasons, a past board president of Chattanooga Kids on the Block and a past board member of the Children’s Advocacy Center.
However, Miller’s endeavors on behalf of local bar, which include serving as treasurer of the Chattanooga Bar Association and as a member of the board of trustees of the Tennessee Bar Foundation, took center stage during the SETLAW event.
“She champions diversity and leadership within our legal community and empowers and increases the sophistication of the local bar, providing special attention to female attorneys who might not have a mentor or other sources of guidance,” Kapperman wrote.
“Robin, you encompass the greatest qualities of a lioness. You are strong, resilient and nurturing. I have learned many things from your knowledge and experience as a litigator, your compassion for other people and your elegance in how you handle the most difficult aspects of your job.”
Upon accepting the award, Miller spoke well of her colleagues and detailed how they have inspired her through the years.
Of herself, she said only, “Your generosity overwhelms me.”