This is the second installment in a series of articles featuring families in which successive generations have practiced law. In this entry, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Shelley Rucker and her son, Miller & Martin attorney Alex Vey, trace how growing up in a home saturated with the law helped to shape his choice of career.
Alex Vey was only 6 years old when he set his sights on the most noble profession in the land.
His mother, Shelley Rucker, was a bankruptcy lawyer, and his father, Glen Vey, was a former attorney who taught civics at Girls Preparatory School, so of course Alex wanted to be a fighter pilot when he grew up.
“I was enamored with warplanes, which was no shock for a boy my age,” Alex laughs.
His mother, who’s now the chief bankruptcy judge for the Eastern District of Tennessee, picks up the story from there.
“When Alex was in first grade, his dad asked him what he was going to be for career day. Alex said, ‘Maybe a teacher,’ because by that time, Glen was teaching. Glen tried to be nice and said, ‘Your mom is a lawyer. Don’t you want to do what she does?’ Alex looked at me like his dad was kidding and said, ‘Lawyers are for girls.’”
Rucker thought her son’s response was strange until she realized how he might have arrived at his conclusion.
“We spent a lot of time with Susan Lee, a U.S. magistrate judge, and Micheline Johnson, a patent lawyer, and Linda Norwood, who’s also an attorney, and Susan Roth, who was in-house counsel at Unum. So, whenever we got our kids together, every single mom was an attorney.”
Rucker disabused her son of his notion when he was 10.
“I said something bad about lawyers, and mom sat me down and said attorneys essentially help people,” recalls Alex. “That broke through on some level.”
Today, Alex is a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School and a litigator with Miller & Martin in Atlanta, where he concentrates on white collar criminal defense. He’s speaking with his mother, who’s in her chambers on 11th Street in Chattanooga, via Zoom.
They joke that Atlanta is close enough for him but too far away for her.
“I stayed in Nashville for a few years after law school, and then my wife and I moved to Atlanta,” Alex explains. “Chattanooga was never on our radar but we did want to stay close.”
“They visit regularly but less than I would like,” Rucker adds.
The good-natured banter between Rucker and her son provides insight into the kind of discourse that took place in their home when Alex was young.
“My parents are loud, vibrant people,” Alex explains. “So, debates about religion and politics were not uncommon.”
“Our discussions had to be rational,” Rucker adds. “You had to explain why you believed the way you did, even if we were debating what to have for dinner. So Alex grew up in an environment where we talked through things.”
Alex put his informal legal education to use at a young age when he negotiated an allowance based on the chores he did around the house. At one point, he even created a list of prices and services that added up to the cost of a Gameboy Color and the newest Pokémon release.
“He’d say, ‘I’ll vacuum for this much money,’ and then he’d explain why he deserved it,” Rucker remembers.
These varied and spirited debates primed Alex for the next phase in his journey to law school: mock trial.
Before earning a law degree at Vanderbilt, and before taking undergraduate classes at the University of Georgia, Alex was a student at McCallie School in Chattanooga. Although it’s not visibly apparent on his mother’s computer monitor, he’s tall and broad-shouldered, which made him a poor candidate for a fighter pilot but a good recruit for McCallie’s football team.
Alex gave the gridiron a shot but quit the team in eighth grade due to a lack of interest in athletics. After an enjoyable stint on McCallie’s debate team, he joined the school’s mock trial squad.
The skills for reasoning and deliberation Alex had learned at home blossomed there, and the future attorney developed a passion for discussing the law.
“Despite being an introvert, I can get into performing, and mock trial was a very good vehicle for that,” Alex remembers. “By the end of high school, I decided this is what I want to be.”
Although mock trial sealed the deal, Alex says his parents laid the groundwork beforehand. “They explained what lawyers did, and then mock trial gave me the opportunity to do those things.”
Rucker realized she and her husband had played a significant role in their son’s development when she saw him teaching evidence to his teammates.
“Only his father could have taught him that,” Rucker says.
Rucker also discovered the law in high school, although her catalyst was a role in a play rather than mock trial.
A native of Chattanooga, the teenage Rucker didn’t know what attorneys did because there were none in her family. But as she performed the role of a prosecutor who falls in love with a defendant and switches sides, she came to believe the legal profession would be an enjoyable career.
“Having been to law school, I know my character would have been disbarred,” Rucker laughs. “But I liked the idea of analyzing facts and then standing up in court to present a case.”
Rucker majored in English and economics at Texas Christian University and then earned her Juris Doctorate at the University of Georgia School of Law.
“I’ve been a frog and a dog,” she says, referring to the names of her alma mater’s athletic teams. Alex laughs, even though he’s heard was he says is an old family joke more times than he could count.
Rucker already had her foot in the door at Miller & Martin’s Chattanooga office, having served there as a runner and then a summer associate, so working at the firm after graduation seemed like a logical next step. She did not, however, expect bankruptcy attorney Larry Ahern to pull her aside and ask her to become his associate.
“He desperately needed an associate,” Rucker remembers. “And since I was the second person in the department, he gave me a lot to do.”
Rucker began practicing bankruptcy law in 1982 – one year before the collapse of the Butcher brothers’ banks – and made a bid to become a bankruptcy judge on the heels of The Great Recession.
“I was ready to do something different and was fortunate to be selected,” Rucker explains.
Given who his mother is, Alex is in a rare position to receive feedback directly from a judge – which could make him the envy of the other associates at his firm. Of course, Rucker says only good things about her son.
“I’m a fan of his writing,” Rucker begins. “He does a nice job of using metaphors to get his ideas across. He’s also good at explaining technical issues, and I like his arguments in his criminal cases. He’s a good lawyer.”
For once, Alex doesn’t dispute his mother. Instead, he praises her gentle instruction when he was 10.
“Lawyers do help people. Our clients present me with their problems and then I use what I know to solve them. I like working out their issues and making their lives better.”
“It warms my heart when I hear a lawyer say, ‘Let’s solve the problem,’ rather than, ‘Let’s go to war,’” Rucker says. “The law has taken a lot of hits among the public, but those of us who made it our career want those people to see the good it can do and how it can help someone move on. It’s why we do what we do.”
Having followed his mother and father to the law, people sometimes as Alex if he plans to pursue the bench. He says maybe, but not now.
“I’m still exceptionally young in my career. I have a long way to go and a lot of stuff has to happen first. But I’ve thought about it.”
That’s certainly a better answer than, “Judges are for girls.”