As Scott Parrish arrived at Miller & Martin for his first day as a summer associate, he didn’t know he’d stepped onto a path that would extend decades into the future.
As a law student afforded an opportunity to spend his summer break at a firm, Parrish was looking forward to expanding on the knowledge his professors at the University of Georgia School of Law had passed on to him and getting his feet wet in the actual practice of law.
He also was eager to go whitewater rafting and play golf with his fellow clerks, not only because those activities would be fun but also because they’d allow him to become acquainted with the firm’s attorneys in an informal setting.
Parrish had no idea Miller & Martin would eventually offer him a position, enable him to develop a successful litigation practice and one day elect him to be chair and serve as managing member.
So, as he welcomed the current crop of summer associates at the firm, he smiled at the thought of what tomorrow might hold for them.
“When I was a clerk, I didn’t think about becoming chair someday,” he laughs. “But you have to start somewhere. Every managing partner before me has been an associate at the firm.”
Summer associate programs like those Miller & Martin hosts annually are part of a tradition in the legal profession that preceded even Parrish’s participation over 30 years ago. These clerkships serve a dual purpose; in addition to allowing a firm to vet potential hires, they give law students an opportunity to immerse themselves in a firm environment, gain practical experience and even test the waters of different practice areas.
As such, both summer associates and the firms that accept them enter into their brief time together with certain expectations. And – as Parrish first learned as a clerk and has since witnessed as a managing member of Miller & Martin – a firm and its clerks must rely on each other to accomplish those objectives.
Among the clerks Parrish welcomed to the firm this summer was Kristen Brown, a Georgia State University College of Law student who began her legal studies after working full time for several years.
Like Parrish when he was a summer associate, Brown, 31, is says he thrilled to be spending a portion of her summer break at Miller & Martin. Her calendar has included social functions, which this year has involved dinner parties at the homes of the firm’s attorneys, kayaking on the Tennessee River and a family picnic at Coolidge Park.
“We want to expose our clerks to the social aspects of the firm so they can get to know the attorneys on a personal level,” Parrish says. “But we also introduce them to as much of the legal work we do as possible.”
Brown says she’s intent on absorbing as knowledge as she can during her six weeks at Miller & Martin. As a student who’s undecided about the type of law she wants to practice, she says every project is an opportunity to find out.
“Coming in, I had an interest in IP work,” Brown explains. “And since the firm allows you to select your projects, I was able to work on a couple of IP matters. But I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself in one practice area, so I’ve done some litigation work, too.”
Brown says she’s appreciated the opportunity to explore different practice areas, as it’s expanded her perception of her potential. For example, while she initially believed her personality would be a poor fit for litigation, she’s warmed up to the idea and believes the experience will impact the decisions she makes as she enters the practice of law.
“If you express an interest in something, the firm will foster it. And when you’re not certain about what you want to do, the ability to diversify your experience is helpful.”
As a clerk, Parrish both sat in on depositions and court hearings and observed business transactions, which he says gave him a solid understanding of the kinds of law the firm practiced and a feel for the caliber of attorneys it employed. By the end of the summer, he believed Miller & Martin would be a suitable place for him to practice law.
“It was a good experience,” he says, “and we’re trying to replicate it today.”
Because Miller & Martin’s summer associate program is essentially a recruiting effort, the firm carefully selects its candidates and then monitors and evaluates their work. Good interpersonal skills and the ability to write well will weigh in an associate’s favor, as will good grades and participation in extracurricular activities.
However, Parrish says the question of whether or not Miller & Martin will offer a job to an associate often comes down to a single question: Would the individual be a good fit for the firm?
Of course, this question is analogous to an onion with many layers.
“We try to grow organically in active practice areas,” Parrish explains. “During the last few years, for example, commercial real estate and mergers and acquisitions have been hot areas, so we’re shoring up on commercial and corporate lawyers. Now litigation is heating up, so we’re looking for people who want to be litigators.”
Even when a summer associate can fill a need at Miller & Martin, there are other points to consider, Parrish adds.
“This firm has been around for 155 years, due in large part to our sophisticated clients and the good people we have working here. We need individuals who are intelligent and dedicated to becoming good lawyers.”
While the specter of employment looms large over each clerk, Parrish says Miller & Martin’s summer associate program is as much about serving the students as it is feeding its pipeline. To that end, the firm’s attorneys don’t simply assess a summer associate’s work and temperament, they also educate, provide constructive feedback and encourage.
If a summer associate then leaves without receiving or accepting an offer of employment, that person is still richer for the experience and might eventually become a better attorney as a result, Parrish adds.
Brown says her time at Miller & Martin has helped her to become more at ease with learning to become an attorney.
“All of this is new to me, so I’m still not entirely comfortable. But I’ve learned to be OK with being uncomfortable and to throw myself into projects. And that’s taught me about the art of practicing law. For example, when I’m working with a particular attorney, I know it’s important to learn their style and how they communicate.”
Over the years, Miller & Martin has watched many former summer associates become success stories at the firm. Like Parrish, those attorneys now populate its offices in the Volunteer Building in downtown Chattanooga, as well as the firm’s offices in Atlanta, Nashville and Charlotte, North Carolina.
One such success story is Erin Steelman, 28, a litigation associate in Miller & Martin’s Chattanooga office. The daughter of Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman, she participated in the firm’s summer associate program in 2018 and 2019 and then joined the firm in 2022 after serving as a judicial law clerk in U.S. district court for two years.
Erin originally wanted to practice criminal law after watching for father advocate for clients and developing a heart for people who needed representation. But she changed her bearing after seeing the civil side of the law while clerking at Miller & Martin.
“If I hadn’t been a summer associate, I doubt I’d be here. I’d be prosecuting criminal cases because that was the exposure I had. But the firm allowed me to explore other avenues and provided mentors I could talk with and trust. I felt like the people here cared about me, and because they cared about me, I believed they would invest in me and help me to succeed. And that’s been the case.”
After nearly nine months at Miller & Martin, Erin says the camaraderie and support she received as a summer associate was not exclusive to the program but a genuine expression of the firm’s culture.
“The people here really do love their jobs, even on the days when the practice of law isn’t as exciting as we’d like it to be. And they have a connection that makes a difference. We’re not just colleagues; we’re also friends who enjoy each others company.”
As Parrish welcomed this year’s roster of summer associates – and possibly one or more future managing members – he smiled not just at the memory of how far he’s come since he was as green as they are but also their readiness to take an important step on their journey to become a lawyer.
“We have an excellent group of summer associates this year. They’re very bright and eager to work, and we hope we can attract as many of them as possible to the firm. We have a stable of great clients and excellent practitioners who are also good people, which I believe will go a long way toward selling them on us.”
Looking back, Parrish says he can’t imagine where he would have ended up or what kind of career he would have had if he hadn’t clerked for Miller & Martin. On that same note, he can’t picture becoming an attorney today without first being a summer associate.
“I’m not sure how you could get to know a firm without becoming acquainted with its people and learning about their practice. It might be only a glimpse, but it’s a very important glimpse.”