Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 24, 2023

A head start on legal career

Internship program a win for students, law firms

At 18, Brainerd High School senior Maurquez Thompson already knows what he wants to accomplish during the next five years. He expects to attend college and then law school. Along the way, he’ll complete internships that will acquaint him with corporate law.

“I plan ahead five years so when I arrive, I can look back and be proud of what I’ve done,” says Thompson, an intern with the law firm of Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel.

As Thompson completes his last semester of high school and looks ahead to college in the fall, he’s weighing offers from 28 schools and $450,000 in scholarships. Among his suitors are Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Morehouse College in Georgia and UCLA.

“A big part of my decision will hinge on my ability to enter law school without any debt from college,” Thompson says.

At 137 years old, Chambliss knows what it wants as it lays the foundation of its next generation of attorneys: people like Thompson, says Penny Murray, human resources director at the firm.

“I fully expect we’ll all be working for Maurquez some day.”

Ensuring Chambliss develops leaders who can carry its legacies and clients forward requires more than pursuing top graduates from law school, Murray continues, it also involves building a recruiting pipeline that reaches all the way to local high schools.

A key component of this conduit of talent is the firm’s participation in Step-Up Chattanooga, a Public Education Foundation program that facilitates paid internships at local companies, nonprofits and public agencies.

Now in its eighth year, Step-Up includes work-readiness training that teaches high school students how to build a resume and conduct themselves during an interview.

These soft skills are critical, says Jeff Rector, Ed.D., manager of business partnerships for Step-Up, because the program guarantees interviews, not jobs.

“We teach students how to introduce themselves, how to shake someone’s hand and the importance of looking a person in the eye. Then the onus is on them to practice and perform,” Rector explains. “A lot of our employers tell us Step-Up students interview better than college graduates.”

Chambliss began participating in Step-Up in 2016 with an eye on nurturing an interest in the law among the city’s youth and promoting itself as a possible professional home for students who stay the course.

“We love to develop new talent, but it’s difficult to recruit and retain people because there’s a lot of need out there and a lot of competition to find the best and the brightest,” says Murray.

Chambliss spares no opportunity to cultivate aspiring legal professionals. In addition to a long history of working with interns, the firm provides paralegal apprenticeships through a partnership with Chattanooga State Community College, offers mentoring to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga business students through its Stophel Scholars program and regularly invites local students to its home in the Liberty Tower on Chestnut Street for meet-and-greets and job shadowing.

“During fall break, we welcomed kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Chattanooga for a tour and talked with them about the various careers in the legal profession,” notes Murray.

These efforts do more than identify talent for the firm; they also provide vital opportunities for young people in Hamilton County, including those in underrepresented populations, says Rector.

“We’ve had two major companies in Chattanooga tell us if a college graduate applies for a job at the company and they didn’t complete an internship, they toss the resume.

“And 89% of employers say students have a competitive advantage when searching for a college internship if they completed an internship while in high school.”

One reason employers give ample weight to the internships on an applicant’s resume is the real-world nature of the modern apprenticeship, continues Rector. Interns are no longer relegated to fetching coffee and filing papers, he says, but are often given substantive work to do.

This was the case with Chambliss’ first Step-Up hire, a student from Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences, says Donna Burns, human resources manager at the firm.

“She knew how to communicate, stayed on task and was eager to learn, so we took her to the courthouse to meet the various judges and allowed her to shadow attorneys when they were doing work on which we could include her.”

Chambliss also exposed Isiah Robinson to the full scope of legal field when he interned for the firm the summer after he graduated from high school. Not only did he spend time in court, Robinson says, but he also drafted briefs and pleadings while working with litigator Bill Dearing.

When Robinson began taking classes at the University of Tennessee College of Law several years later, his practical experience gave him an edge over the students who had none, he says.

“I was able to gain more insight from what was being taught in class.”

The CSAS student ultimately did not become an attorney, Murray reveals, but rather became a social worker. Instead of cementing her initial interest in the law, her internship at Chambliss convinced her that her ambitions lie elsewhere.

Burns says this was still a win for the student and the community, which made Chambliss’ investment worthwhile. “We realized part of this experience allows students to see what they really want to do, and in that sense, it was a good result because she found her passion.”

“We put a lot of pressure on high school students to figure out what they’re going to do after they graduate,” says Rector. “If they don’t know what they want to do, I tell them to do an internship anyway. An important part of figuring out what you want to do is discovering what you don’t want to do.”

Robinson, on the other hand, is now a civil litigator with Chambliss. He says his time working with Dearing not only stoked his interest in litigation but also seeded his love for the firm.

“Everyone I met was friendly, welcoming and answered all of my silly questions,” he recalls. “That played a big part in shaping my career.”

An internship at Chambliss is the first leg in Thompson’s quest to become a corporate attorney.

A Step-Up intern, Robinson describes himself as an average southern boy who loves fried chicken, spending time with his friends and volunteering at the Humane Society. But the Avondale community youth is anything but ordinary.

Murray says Thompson is “incredibly bright,” which offers some insight into the reasoning behind the wealth of opportunities colleges are laying at his feet. But he’s also “remarkably thoughtful,” she adds.

“Maurquez will stop by my office and ask how my daughter is doing. He’s great to have around. We’re going to miss him when he goes to college.”

Thompson, who’s the last of 10 siblings, says he’s simply a product of the people in his life.

“I come from a family in which my parents didn’t have the opportunity to earn a four–year degree,” he says. “But I can look up to my oldest sister, who earned a master’s degree and became an insurance agent. Her grit inspired me. I want to not only match her accomplishments but push the bar for our family even higher.”

Thompson’s seventh grade teacher sparked his interest in the law when the educator noted his propensity for arguing and suggested he become an attorney.

“I’ve always liked to debate, especially during history class,” Thompson explains. “Everyone will agree on a point but I’ll have to find a way to disagree.”

Another teacher suggested Thompson watch “13th,” a documentary that explores the history of racial inequality in the U.S. The film’s portrait of how mass incarcerations have disproportionately affected people of color intrigued Thompson and deepened his interest in the law.

“I feel like there’s a need to address that and I want to be part of the change.”

Thompson has unlocked many of his own doors but says his internship at Chambliss will open more that otherwise would remain closed.

Statistics from Millennial Branding support Thompson’s belief. For example, 60% of employers say students need to focus on their careers while in high school.

In addition, 90% of employers say high school internships help students get into better colleges, while 83% say internships lead to better paying jobs.

Thompson might have a tendency to think ahead and calculate the value of each internship, college scholarship and volunteer opportunity, but he says he’s also enjoying the moment as he works at Chambliss.

“When I first arrived, Mr. Rick Hitchcock asked me to create an index of his old cases. I went through 15 boxes. But every file contained a history lesson or taught me about something incredible that happened before I was born. I learned how Riverbend started and how Mr. Hitchcock solved a dispute between the city and the firefighters. It was amazing to be in high school looking at this stuff.”

Chambliss has a long memory when it comes to past clerks. For example, the firm hired Robinson several years after he interned there. But Murray says the Chattanooga practice is being more intentional than ever about staying in touch with former clerks and associates in an effort to keep the talent pipeline flowing in its direction.

And it’s working, she adds.

“Our current summer clerks and associates and even folks who have clerked here before but are practicing in another city have asked about job openings here. We’re leaving a positive impression on them.”

Whether Thompson returns to Chambliss someday or ends up practicing elsewhere, he says he’ll never forget two valuable lessons he’s learned at the firm.

“Mr. Hugh Moore said when I become an attorney, I’ll need to look at the good and the bad that can come out of a scenario. Usually, the bad that comes of it is you lose a case and then keep going,” he says.

Thompson smiles as he prepares to convey the second nugget of wisdom he’s received at Chambliss.

“Mr. Hitchcock said when someone asks me what kind of attorney I am, I need to ask them what kind of attorney they need, and that’s how I’ll make money.”