For much of Melissa Kirby’s tenure as an attorney, the purpose she’s found in the practice of law has mitigated the burden of the same, she says.
Kirby, 47, is a freshly hired senior counsel at Husch Blackwell in Chattanooga, where’s she’s already handled an assortment of litigation involving trusts and estates, real estate matters and white-collar issues. Settling in at the firm and beginning the work of establishing herself has been exhilarating, she says.
The burden Kirby mentions stems from earlier in her career, after she graduated from Mercer University School of Law and became a prosecutor.
As Kirby tried cases, first on behalf of the state of South Carolina and then for the U.S. government, she often met with victims who were experiencing the dizzying waves of trauma that can follow in the wake of a violent crime. At times, her support was the only warmth a person felt in what can be a cold process.
“I didn’t necessarily want to be a litigator, or practice criminal law, but a sense of purpose kicked in,” Kirby recalls. “I felt like I was doing something many people wouldn’t do, or weren’t equipped to do.”
When Kirby became a solo practitioner in Catoosa County, Georgia, she switched sides and focused on individuals who were accused of committing a crime. Although her support took a different form, she was still standing beside people who were facing mountains.
Since darkness can cast a pall on those who are nearby, this became less easy over time, although Kirby says her sense of purpose bolstered her.
“When you meet people in criminal court, they’re usually experiencing some of the worst days of their lives. So, there were difficult cases, but there were also cases that kept the fire (in me) burning because I was able to help either a victim or a defendant get through a difficult situation. That comes with a burden that grows heavier over time, but my sense of purpose sustained me.”
This dynamic is changing as Kirby settles in at Husch Blackwell. Accustomed to shouldering the weight of a case alone – especially while in Catoosa – she says she now finds herself in an environment defined by teamwork, camaraderie and shared resources.
Kirby is referring to the few dozen attorneys at Husch Blackwell’s Chattanooga office, as well as the sprawling collective that includes lawyers in the firm’s 19 other offices across the U.S and its virtual office, The Link.
“It’s an interesting culture for a law firm. This is an inclusive group of very talented and collaborative people who work together seamlessly,” Kirby explains. “One of the first assignments I received was from a partner in Kansas City who was working with an associate in St. Louis and a senior council who’s with the virtual office.”
Since Kirby has moved from representing individuals accused of misdemeanors and felonies to working on behalf of clients who are involved in complex commercial litigation, the nature of the burden she bears has changed. It’s still there, but it reflects the new issues she tackles and their expanded scope. However, Kirby no longer has to carry the weight alone, she says, and she’s relishing each opportunity to work with others toward a shared purpose.
Kirby’s lighter load (figuratively, not literally, as Husch is keeping her busy) has helped to make shifting to a different kind of litigation an invigorating experience, she says. “The variety of casework is making me feel like a kid at Disneyland,” she laughs. “When you work for a practice this large, you can not only represent clients from anywhere but also expose yourself to many different areas of the law.”
Practicing even one kind of law was not on Kirby’s radar as she grew up in Chattanooga. In high school, she imagined becoming an artist; in college, politics captured her interest, mostly because she “liked to argue,” she smiles.
“There were a lot of debates in the political science classes,” Kirby adds, “and I enjoyed the philosophical discussions.”
Kirby also reveled in her social sphere, an academically centered group of friends who she says ultimately inspired her to attend law school. “A lot of people know what they want to be when they grow up, but that wasn’t me,” Kirby remembers. “I became a lawyer because I had the good fortune of running with a crowd that was motivated and ambitious, and they rubbed off on me.”
Out of the gate, Kirby worked as a prosecutor for the state of South Carolina. She’s careful to note that she was a solicitor, not a district attorney. “(The) South Carolina (judicial system) has a lot of fancy old words it likes to hang on to,” she says with a teasing eyeroll.
Although Kirby was unsure about becoming a prosecutor, her job grew on her as she gained courtroom experience. “Once I got in there and started winning trials, I began to see how those things play out in the world, and I started to feel like it mattered. The work became fulfilling.”
Five years later, Kirby moved to the Washington, D.C. area, intent on becoming a federal prosecutor. However, she first worked for the National District Attorney’s Association, a nonprofit that offers training, technical assistance and other services to prosecutors around the country.
“I thought if I was in D.C., I’d be a step closer to becoming a federal prosecutor, as that’s one of the best places to network if that’s what you want to do,” Kirby explains.
Her plan worked. The following year, U.S. Attorney Russ Dedrick welcomed her as a new member of his team in the Eastern District of Tennessee in Knoxville. (Kirby also worked with Dedrick’s successor, Bill Killian, during his stretch as U.S. Attorney.)
As a state prosecutor, Kirby was often handed a file and was then on her own, even if the folder lacked all the details she needed to effectively prosecute the case. Once Kirby became an AUSA, she was able to work with a variety of people and entities as a case moved through the system, although its outcome always rested on her.
“You’d be involved from the beginning of a case, but if you went to trial, or worked on a negotiated outcome, and it didn’t go well – or if you did something incorrectly – you had no one to blame but yourself.”
When Kirby would leave work at the end of both good and bad days, she’d return to a home she shared with her husband, Kwynn. The birth of their first child precipitated their return to Chattanooga, where Kirby says genealogical records suggest her family has lived since before the city was founded. She and her husband wanted to raise their children near family, and Kirby was eager to cut back on the number of hours she worked so she could devote that time to her newborn son.
A daughter followed as Kirby labored as a criminal defense attorney in Catoosa County. Once her and Kwynn’s children were in school, she decided to take the skills she’d acquired and apply them to a new kind of practice.
“And here I am,” she says.
Although Kirby is learning areas of the law that are new to her, she says she intends to use the skills she developed during the prior seasons of her career to help her deliver superior work. For example, criminal law taught her not only how to be thorough but also how to “grab a file and jump into a case without much prep time,” she says.
“I think of my early days of grabbing a file off the top of a stack for bench trials in magistrate court as a state prosecutor, or later in my career when a judge would appoint me to represent a defendant as we all were present in the courtroom.”
Also, Kirby says she’s adept at working calmly through tight deadlines, even in high stress circumstances, such as when federal agents and she would put together critical, time-sensitive warrant affidavits and orders.
Kirby admits the legal counselor in her likes to “do the talking,” but experience has taught her to listen to a client and to appreciate their perspective on a case, she notes. She also prefers being candid with clients to making to grand promises, and is a fan of direct communication with opposing counsel and bench trials, which she says can save time and resources for every party involved in a matter.
Finally, Kirby adds, after 20 years of practice, she’s learned to field whatever a case throws at her. “I’ve seen a lot of things, from people suffering with addiction and experiencing detox to larger-than-life characters,” she says. “Few things have the ability to surprise me.”
Although working as part of the collective at Husch Blackwell has helped to ease the burden Kirby once carried, she still believes her contributions matter. Her clients are still facing mountains when they come to her, and as she stands beside them, she still feels a sense of purpose, she says.
“When I first became a prosecutor in South Carolina, it was a default job. A lot of attorneys work in a local DA’s office after graduating from law school. But I soon felt like I was doing God’s work. I still feel that way today. What we do matters.”