When attorneys think back on the things that motivated them to pursue the practice of law, they often cite the influence of a parent who was a lawyer, their participation on a high school mock trial team, or the impassioned lectures of a college professor.
But when attorney Raven Austin traces her interest in the law back to its genesis, she winds up in front of the television at her childhood home in Mobile, Alabama, where she watched episodes of “Law & Order: SVU.”
“My seventh grade teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I didn’t have any answer other than Casey Novak,” she says, referring to the prosecutor portrayed by Diane Neal on “SVU.” “It’s childish, but I grew up watching lawyer shows and I stuck with it.”
Austin might feel silly when she says a TV series attracted her to the law, but she’s not alone in fulfilling an adolescent aspiration. Much like a bright red fire truck or a crisp police uniform has the power to inspire a child, the shows Austin watched when she was young kindled a dream in her, and she grew up to help protect a city and the people living in it.
Other building blocks along the way included undergraduate work at the University of Alabama that sharpened Austin’s writing skills and a stint on the mock trial team at the Duncan School of Law at Lincoln Memorial University in Knoxville.
“At first, I thought I’d be a real estate attorney, but they never go to court, so I decided to do criminal work,” she remembers. “It’s interesting and fun and it keeps me in front of a judge and a jury.”
After graduating from Duncan in 2018, Austin became the very thing she’d aspired to be: a prosecutor.
Former Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston dropped the opportunity to work as an ADA in Austin’s lap after the dean at her law school took it upon himself to urge Pinkston to consider hiring her.
Austin became aware of the conversation when her phone rang and Pinkston was on the other end of the call. Eager to work – as many law school graduates are – she accepted the offer.
“I didn’t know I’d actually become Novak,” she says, still sounding a little incredulous at the thought.
As Austin had expected, she liked being in court. However, she hadn’t anticipated the heaviness she’d feel as the responsibility of the job pressed down on her like a ton of bricks.
Fresh out of law school at age 25, Austin often handled felony cases in which the defendants were older than she was and facing time behind bars – and she was the one tasked with deciding whether to offer probation or prosecute.
“The weight of what ADAs do was a challenge for me,” she says. “But as long as you feel that weight, you’ll be good at what you do. You don’t want to abuse the power you have.”
To expand her understanding of the law and how it applied to the cases on her desk, Austin often picked the brains of ADAs who had more experience than she did. While doing this, she never asked her fellow prosecutors what she should do, but what they would do, she notes.
“There were times when I’d disagree with them and we’d talk about it. Neither of us would be wrong because prosecutors have a lot of discretion. But hearing other points of view kept me grounded. It would have been easy for me to either lock everyone up or dismiss everyone, if I found that hard to do.”
No amount of mentorship prepared Austin for what she says was one of the most difficult parts of her job: speaking with victims.
She was often obliged to tell a victim she was unable to seek out the manner of justice they were hoping would be deployed in their case because the law wouldn’t allow it, for example. As painful as this was, it was easier than the conversations during which she had to inform a victim she wouldn’t be moving forward with their case because there was nothing to prosecute.
“Those are hard conversations to have,” Austin says, “and law school doesn’t teach you how to have them.”
Austin rose to the challenge of these discussions, though, and distinguished herself in court by putting together strong arguments and writing good briefs, says former Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz.
When Gov. Bill Lee appointed Greenholtz to the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals in May, Greenholtz began assembling a team of clerks. As he pondered who to ask to fill the last of three slots during a family getaway, his wife suggested he try to rope in the DA’s shooting star.
“Raven is an excellent thinker and writer,” Greenholtz says. “It was a no-brainer.”
There was a wrinkle, though: Austin had recently passed the Arizona bar exam and was on the verge of moving to Phoenix to work for the Maricopa County DA’s office.
Austin’s lack of carefully considered reasoning might surprise those expecting to hear a strong case for her decision to move to Arizona.
“There’s no method to any of the decisions I make,” declares Austin, who’s single and therefore free to pick up and go whenever she chooses to. “I’d visited Phoenix a couple of times, and I liked it and thought I could live there, so I applied for a job there and got it.”
Austin’s lack of a deeper motive for moving across the country might have worked in Greenholtz’s favor. Concerned she’d be gone if he waited until he returned to Chattanooga to offer her the job, Greenholtz called Austin while he was still away with his family and asked her how committed she was to moving to Arizona.
“She said she was committed,” Greenholtz recalls. “And then I told her I wanted her to come with me. I said we’d make a difference.”
Although Austin had decided to move to Phoenix on a whim, she sensibly weighed Greenholtz’s offer.
At the heart of her deliberations was her desire to someday work for the federal government. In one hand, she held her belief that experience in the DA’s office in Phoenix would help her achieve that goal. In her other hand, she placed the notion that clerking for Greenholtz could accelerate her progress.
She came to this conclusion after spending a week talking with people she respected, including many of her colleagues at the Hamilton County DA’s office.
“I’m going to do what I want to do; I don’t care what anyone says,” Austin explains. “But everyone told me to take the job, and a few folks told me I’d be dumb not to.”
Austin joined Greenholtz when he stepped into his new role on Sept. 1. Although she’s been on the job for only a month, she’s already identified the benefits.
“I’m more comfortable arguing in court than I am sitting at a desk and writing, but this job will enhance that skill,” she posits. “And it will help me when I return to court because we see the things attorneys do during a trial that maybe they shouldn’t have.”
When Austin is not in her office in downtown Chattanooga, she can be found donating her time and talents to various endeavors aimed at advancing the legal profession.
Austin annually assists with the local high school mock trial competition, which the Young Lawyers Division of the Chattanooga Bar Association hosts, so Black students will see someone who looks like them practicing the law.
She also chaired the YLD’s diversity and inclusion committee in 2021 as it worked with the Chattanooga Legal Diversity Consortium to bring minority law students from around the county to Chattanooga for a summer clerkship.
Finally, Austin is a member of the S.L. Hutchins Bar Association, an organization several local attorneys and judges founded in the late 1980s to address concerns of attorneys of color in the Greater Chattanooga area.
“I advocate for minority attorneys in general and specifically advocate for minority attorneys to be placed in state positions like the DAs office because there needs to be a better level of representation in those places.”
If Austin can’t be found working with these groups, or eating with friends at a Scenic City restaurant, then she’s probably left town to explore a far off destination.
Saying Austin is a travel buff would be an understatement. Leaned along the window of her Republic Centre office are eight identical picture frames, each of which contains an 8 inches by 10 inches map of a city where she’s either lived or vacationed.
From Charlotte, North Carolina to San Diego, and from Honolulu to Tokyo, Austin has made the rounds.
So far, Tokyo is her favorite. “It’s super safe, super clean, has great food and there’s always something to do,” she says.
When Austin travels, she likes to eat and drink her way through the city and talk with the people she encounters.
“I’ll chat with anyone because I know I’ll never see them again. But if you were to meet me in Chattanooga, I’d probably not be talkative,” she suggests.
Austin’s travel wish list currently contains Boston and a trio of ports she’s scheduled to visit during an upcoming birthday cruise, including Barcelona, Ibiza and Portugal.
The most prominently displayed map is that of Mobile, where she grew up in the suburbs, but was also “raised kind of country,” she says. She and her older brother enjoyed riding four-wheelers and horses and spending time in the woods, and she played basketball through her senior year in high school.
When Austin arrived at “‘Bama,” she stayed off the court and in the classroom – unless she was cheering on the Crimson Tide.
“That was the one strike against Raven,” Greenholtz jokes as he unexpectedly pokes his head into her office.
Until now, Austin has been solemn and spoken deliberately, but at this, she bursts into laughter. Her expression mirrors the photo in her office of her and her parents at Duncan the day she was sworn in as an attorney.
It was a proud day for her father, who owns a towing and auto body business in Mobile, and her mother, who works as a nurse.
It was also the day the dream of a middle schooler who wanted to grow up to be Casey Novak from “SVU” came true.
Austin has a new dream now – and a smile reserved for the day it comes true – but she doesn’t know when that will happen.
Until then, she has her nose to the grindstone as she and her fellow clerks help Greenholtz “make a difference.”
“A lot of attorneys clerked before becoming an AUSA (Assistant United States Attorney). Am I going to try to do that tomorrow? No, but I will at some point. I think that’s what I’m working toward, but I don’t know when I’ll try.”