Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 14, 2022

‘Dirt lawyer’ digs title work

Heath finds fun, pressure in role as title attorney

Attorney Liza Heath is a title insurance agent with First Title Insurance Company in Chattanooga. She says her work has several things in common with other areas of legal practice, including long hours and tight-lipped clients. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

By David Laprad

Liza Heath was inspired to become a lawyer as a child while watching episodes of “Perry Mason.” As the famous fictional detective won hard-fought cases, she saw herself someday battling for justice on behalf of underdogs.

Years later, Health bowed out of work in Hamilton County’s juvenile court when she realized she didn’t have the stomach to handle delinquencies and chose to focus on title insurance.

“Those children were not receiving the best services, so I was unable to help them in the way they needed me to,” she says. “I had some great ideas about what I would do as a lawyer but then went in a different direction.”

Becoming a title attorney instead of a litigator didn’t remove Heath from the good fight. Instead, she says, it taught her that justice does not always look like a victory in court.

Earlier in the day, justice took the form of her legal expertise and words of reassurance to grieving parents.

“Their 23-year-old son had died in an accident and they didn’t know what to do with his house. Even though they were incredibly sad, they needed to figure out how to sell it – and he’d died without a will.

“I’m able to work through issues like this and help people relax. That’s what happened this morning. The father said, ‘You’ve taken a lot of pressure off of us.’”

It was all in a day’s work for Heath, who co-owns First Title Insurance Company and calls herself a “dirt lawyer” rather than a title attorney. While this might summon images of a farmer eking out a living on poor land, it refers to the laborious work Heath does to ensure a patch of earth has a proper chain of ownership.

She uses her work on the downtown headquarters of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, which was completed in 2009, as an example of what a dirt lawyer does.

“I searched the title on that project. We had to go back really far and pull what used to be a lot of little shanties apart and then put them together. That was a huge project. It was also fun.”

Calling herself a dirt lawyer allows Heath to put a lyrical spin on highly technical legal work. Strip that away and she’d have to tell people the dryer version: that she ensures the warranty deed and deed of trust are properly completed, executed and recorded after a real estate transaction.

“Most attorneys don’t like to do this work because they think of it as very specialized,” Heath suggests. “A title insurance agent must also be licensed and qualify for certain financial obligations.”

Despite operating within a niche, a title attorney has several things in common with litigators and other transactional attorneys, Heath says.

For instance, a title attorney is not excused from the long and grueling hours of work their colleagues in other areas of practice experience. Rather, Heath often sees a day at the office stretch into an evening at the office as she labors to complete a lengthy and involved to-do list.

“We work like a factory here. Get orders in, get orders out, close it. Get the job done.”

Like her counterparts who practice in court, Heath also often finds herself contending with clients who are reluctant to reveal everything they know about a matter. This can turn her title work into a fact-finding mission.

“People don’t always want to tell me everything up front,” she says. “They often hold something back for whatever reason. So, my first challenge is getting people to open up and talk with me.”

Heath says her second challenge is getting the person to listen to her without being defensive, as was the case with an individual seller who had a deed from a will that came out of her sister’s estate.

“She told me, ‘I received the property through my sister’s will. And it says I own the property.’ And I said, ‘You own your sister’s interest through the will. However, when your sister passed, she owned only 50% of the property. Your mother owned the other 50%, and when she passed 18 years ago, her will left it to her five children, two of which are dead. And their heirs will have to convey.”

Heath says the solution to every disagreement – and every properly completed, executed and recorded deed – is thorough research.

“I look very closely at deeds. But it’s still difficult to then say in a genteel way, ‘You own only your sister’s share, not the whole thing.’”

Lastly, there are times when Heath feels as though she’s carrying the weight of another person’s problems on her back – much like a criminal defense attorney whose client is facing imprisonment.

“This job comes with a lot of pressure because people have to live their life. They need to close because they have to move into another house, and they have to get everything done over the weekend because they can’t take time off work. There are so many pressures.”

Despite the complexities and rigors of Heath’s work, she says she enjoys what she does.

“I’ve done this since I graduated from law school. I like real estate because the answers are usually clear. But really, I just like dirt law.”

Although Heath was born in Miami, she considers herself a Chattanooga native because her family moved to the Scenic City when she was 3.

She attended undergraduate school at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, before moving westward to earn her law degree at the University of Memphis College of Law.

Heath performed her first title searches while she was an undergraduate student. She then worked as a research assistant for the real property attorney professor at the University of Memphis, further paving the way for her life’s work.

Family brought Heath back to Chattanooga in 1987, where she dug into title work for a company with an office in The Maclellan. She also took cases in juvenile court during this stretch of time and later served as a magistrate setting bonds during the night shift at the Hamilton County Jail.

When the title company for which Heath was working relocated to Atlanta, she thought her title work days were over. Then her brother, Ray Fox, owner of First Title Insurance Company, asked her to join him.

“He wanted to retire, so he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Heath recalls.

In 2014, Heath and attorney Jeremy Ames purchased First Title and the Broad Street building in which it now resides.

To cope with the stressors of not only being a title insurance agent but also a business owner, Health employs a three-pronged strategy.

First, she exercises, whether that involves riding her bicycle or some other physical activity. Next, she takes weekends off – when she can. Lastly, she travels with family and friends – again, when she can.

Although Heath’s work never relents, she does make time to see her two sons, one of which lives in Germany and works as an archivist and the other of which lives in Nashville and is a chemical engineer.

“Visiting with family is a big part of my life and the best part of it,” she says. “I recently returned from London with my son who lives in Nashville.”

At the end of these much-needed and all-to-brief excursions, Heath’s work as a dirt lawyer is always waiting for her. It might not be what she once envisioned herself doing as she watched Perry Mason win hard-fought cases, but she’s glad she still fights for justice in her own way.