As business litigator Meredith Lee is getting ready for the day, she looks in the mirror and sees what she says can be the face of a “terrible experience.”
“Litigation is difficult, stressful and unpleasant,” explains Lee, 37. “If I do a good job, my client might call me again if another issue comes up. But at the end of the day, they hope they never see me again.”
Lee, who defends clients in business disputes, understands why. A company that’s under the specter of litigation is carrying a heavy burden, she says, and even the smallest legal clashes can draw resources away from the day-to-day operations of a business.
In major disagreements, the company itself can be on the line, she adds.
Regardless of the degree of the gravity of a case, Lee says bearing the burdens of her clients is a privilege.
“We carry our clients’ concerns on our shoulders. We’re always thinking about their problems and how we can solve them. I don’t put those things away when I leave the office.”
In fact, Lee continues, the wheels in her head rarely stop turning. A wife and mother of three, she describes waking up at night and mentally going over the details of a matter to ensure she made the right choices the day before.
“I’ll wonder, ‘Did I frame that issue correctly? Did I raise every necessary argument? Did I give my client the right advice?’ I sometimes have to make a call in the heat of a moment that can either complicate things or get my client out of the woods, depending on how the other side reacts.”
The constant churn in Lee’s head sometimes reveals an unturned stone or leads her to a better resolution. It always, she confesses, produces stress.
“A former colleague said I do stress well,” she laughs. “I hope I’m also good at handling it.
“Stress is a part of my job. Solving someone else’s problems is more stressful than solving my own. Fortunately, stress gets easier as you grow up as a lawyer.”
One thing that helps Lee to stay focused and keep her cool is thinking about the positive outcomes she’s spearheaded in the past, she adds.
From giving a client counsel that led to a good result to helping someone avoid litigation, these memories run through her thoughts like calming waters.
“One of the hardest parts of being a lawyer is embracing that you are responsible for making a client whole. You have to advise them of the risks and benefits of every action they take. This is both a burden and a privilege.”
Practicing law also is a joy, Lee maintains, who handles tort cases as well. She developed this aspect of her practice after joining Miller & Martin in Chattanooga in 2014 as an associate.
“Some of the things you end up learning as a lawyer are hilarious,” Lee says. “I’m familiar with the ins and outs of strange products I never thought I’d care about. And the more I deal with the science and the experts and the causation in a tort case, the more fascinating it becomes.”
Among these products are dietary supplements, which have sent Lee digging into the knotty depths of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulations. Through her work on tort cases involving these supplements, she’s learned more about how they’re formulated and manufactured than she ever thought she’d know.
No matter the product or problem, Lee says she loves the nuts and bolts of her job.
“I love arguing legal matters,” she points out. “Debating the law is fun.”
The first attorney to go toe-to-toe with Lee was her father, Alan Corey, a former Miller & Martin attorney who left the firm’s Chattanooga office in the late 1990s to work in business.
When Lee was young and growing up on Lookout Mountain, she and her father would debate political issues, with him challenging her to state her case when she insisted she’d vote for a particular candidate or in favor of a certain measure.
Lee says this taught her to articulate a position but did not draw her to the law.
Instead, Lee studied political and social thought at the University of Virginia and protested causes that captured her heart, one of which was the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
She also studied Mandarin and participated in an immersion program in China.
Lee says she had no clear direction when she graduated from UAV, so she took a job as a legal assistant at a defense litigation firm in Washington, D.C. There, she tasted not the burden of practicing law but the excitement.
“The firm handled big cases, so the environment was fast-paced and very stressful, but even as a legal assistant, I felt like I was an important part of the team. It was a hard job with long hours but it was also fun and I took it seriously.”
The future still looked hazy when Lee left the D.C. firm and moved to China for one year to teach English. But as she experienced the country’s people and culture, her mind cleared and her thoughts came into focus. She applied for law school.
When Lee settled into her classes at the University of Georgia School of Law, the skills her father nurtured in her gave her an edge.
“The Socratic method of teaching felt familiar to me because of my debates with my dad,” she notes. “He played a huge role in shaping my ability to analyze an issue.”
After graduating from law school in 2011, Lee clerked for Judge Richard Story in Atlanta for two years and then worked at the firm of King & Spalding for one year. The birth of her first child brought her back to the Chattanooga area, husband and baby in tow.
“I’d always wanted to leave Chattanooga and see the world, but when I had a baby I felt like this would be a good place to raise a family,” she clarifies.
Seven years later, Miller & Martin has made Lee a member. Although she’s relishing the moment – even as the thought of the added responsibilities induces stress – she says there’s still one thing on her bucket list as an attorney: trying a case in court.
“I never considered becoming a transactional attorney; from Day One, I was going to be a litigator,” she says. “But I haven’t had a case go to trial.”
Lee has been on the eve of trial several times, only to help the parties reach a settlement before the judge adjourned court. While she admits to being eager to face off against a colleague in a trial, she’s thrilled with any settlement that pleases her client.
“If they’re happy, then I’m happy,” she says.
Even in those moments, Lee knows her client would rather never see her again. As she looks at herself in the mirror at the end of the day, she accepts that this is part of the burden and the privilege of practicing the law.