Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 21, 2022

‘There was always something to debate’

Lee trained well at family table

SquareOne founder and former Miller & Martin attorney Allen Corey with his daughter, Meredith Lee, a litigator and member of the firm. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Allen Corey says it seems like only yesterday when he was raising his oldest daughter.

He can easily recall spending time with her, his other daughter and his wife outdoors, where they enjoyed being together.

Corey, 66, also has crystal-clear memories of bringing her to his office at Miller & Martin when he was a practicing attorney and watching her scamper off to loot the supply room of highlighters and sticky notes.

And he remembers their “debates” as she grew older and began to process the world around her.

“Debate” is the word Corey uses to describe the frequent, thunderous and politically charged arguments he and she had over meals, while he was watching a basketball game on TV, or as they were sitting around a campfire.

“We never argued about what was for dinner, but we certainly argued over dinner,” he says.

Corey can also recall his days as a Vanderbilt-schooled corporate lawyer at Miller & Martin before leaving in 1997 to become a restaurateur with a group of friends. (He’s now the president and CEO of SquareOne, which owns Stir and State of Confusion locally and more elsewhere.)

“I came here 1981,” he says as he sits at the table in the firm’s Signal Mountain Conference Room. “It was a very collegial place with a lot of high-quality lawyers but also good people you liked being with outside the office.”

As Corey reminisces, the sound of heels briskly clicking in the corridor outside the room draws nearer until a smartly dressed woman steps in, smiles and says, “Hi, daddy.”

The woman is Meredith Lee, 38, Corey’s oldest daughter and a member of Miller & Martin.

“You look nice,” Corey says, chuckling.

“Are you laughing at me?” Lee asks, still smiling.

“A little bit,” Corey shrugs.

“This is what I’ve experienced my whole life,” Lee says, playfully rolling her eyes as she sits next to her father.

Despite his visible amusement, Corey’s expression suggests he isn’t laughing at his daughter but marveling that this is the same person who once plundered the storage room for art supplies.

“I love seeing Meredith doing not only what I did but also doing it at the same firm,” Corey says. “Like any father would be, I’m proud of her.”

When Corey says his daughter does what he did, he means practice law; he does not mean she practices corporate law. Instead of eyeballing contracts, corporate governance and mergers and acquisitions, Lee targeted the courtroom, where she now defends clients in business disputes.

Lee says their fiery showdowns helped to sculpt her intellect and ultimately were a factor in her choosing to attend law school.

“We argued about anything and everything,” she says.

“There was always something to debate,” Corey adds before declining to specify the topics to avoid becoming political. “But it was important to have a debate when we disagreed.”

Corey and Lee both recall one dispute in particular that took place when she was in high school and began with her stepping into and then quickly out of the room in which he was sitting several times before he finally said, “What?”

“She said, ‘I’m for X,’ and I said, ‘OK, state your case.’ And then she barreled through her thoughts,” Corey recollects. “When she was done, I said, ‘My turn,’ and the next thing you know, it was a blow up.

“She pounded up the stairs and then my wife came down them to make me apologize. That was how we operated – and still do sometimes. But if you can’t have a spirited and even violent conversation and then go eat dinner together, then you didn’t have a relationship in the first place.”

“It’s just a natural part of our relationship,” Lee adds. “Mom and [my sister] Kate would slip out of the room while we screamed at each other about drilling in Alaska or whatever the issue was.”

Lee says going toe-to-toe with her father wasn’t easy because he’s the smartest person she knows.

“He’s not practicing day-to-day anymore but people still say, ‘I want Allen’s advice,’” Lee says. “The law is perfect for him because he has excellent judgment. He can look at an issue and see through all the noise and identify what matters.”

Corey’s stance on many issues might have angered Lee but he had his daughter’s attention as she grew up. And as she listened and watched, she eventually saw more than a sparring partner, she saw someone she wanted to emulate.

“From my observations of him as a child and now as an adult, I think the law was a natural fit for him because he’s a counselor,” Lee says. “I also admired his care and empathy for other people. Dad always said, ‘Corey girls don’t do mean.’ He always taught us to take care of the underdog and pursue justice.”

By the time Lee arrived at the University of Georgia School of Law, she was well on the path to becoming a legal advocate and was leaning toward litigation, she says.

Essentially, her father had taught her what being a lawyer looked like, and she tailored the lessons to fit who she wanted to be.

Lee was also a hurricane force in classroom discussions.

“The Socratic method was already familiar to me. It was how we talked in my house. Learning to state and defend my opinion and then listen to and respond to an opposing opinion was the best possible preparation for law school,” she says.

Lee worked in Atlanta for three years after graduating from law school. When the birth of her and her husband’s first of three children brought her back to Chattanooga in 2013, she says her father’s good name helped her to secure a position with Miller & Martin.

Not surprisingly, Corey disagrees.

“She didn’t need me for this firm to take her up. Her resume was tenfold what mine was.”

“That’s not true,” Lee says, digging in her heels.

“It is true,” Corey counters. “Anybody would have hired her. She clerked for a federal judge – and only the best and the brightest do that – and then she worked for King & Spalding. They don’t take anyone who’s at the bottom of the totem pole. So, she didn’t need me to get a job with this firm.”

“It definitely helped,” Lee says, standing her ground.

Regardless, as Lee progressed from associate to member over the course of several years, her father, whom she’d observed as she grew up, watched her. And he says he was pleased with what he saw.

“There are a lot of good technicians, but the key to representing a client is understanding the environment around them and what they need you to do. And Meredith naturally has that kind of judgment.

“There are tons of attorneys who know the law but don’t do a good job because they’re banging away and are oblivious to what their client needs.”

But not Lee, says her father, who always has her head in the game.

“You want that in an athlete, too. You want someone who’s physically capable but also aware of what’s taking place around them. And clients of yours have expressed that to me,” Corey says to his daughter.

“Is that why they call me Allen, Jr.?” Lee jokes.

“They don’t call you that anymore.”

“They do. And I take it as a high compliment.”

“But you’ve made a name for yourself.”

“I still remind people of you when I get passionate.”

At least they’re not discussing drilling oil in Alaska.