Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 15, 2019

A queen’s kindness, a life altered

Attorney’s 2nd-grade encounter put her on path to pageant, career

When Chandler Lawson was in second grade, Miss Tennessee 1997, Lana Keck, visited her school and placed her crown on Lawson’s head. That simple act made her feel special, and the moment was sealed in her memory.

Fifteen years later, Lawson was the one wearing the Miss Tennessee crown when a girl about the same age she had been in 1997 approached her during a school assembly in Upper East Tennessee and handed her a necklace. “I don’t have much,” the little girl said, “but I want you to remember me.”

There are days when Lawson, now an attorney with Bennett & DeCamp in Chattanooga, does remember the little girl. She might see her face on a child embroiled in a custody battle or on a mother who needs an order of protection. Sometimes, the girl’s face will simply materialize in her mind’s eye as she’s working, reminding her that there are people who need to be seen and heard.

Lawson does more than simply acknowledge these people; she does everything in her power – or rather, within the power of the law – to help them, she says.

“I have a grandmother who’s petitioning to have legal custody of her grandchildren,” Lawson says. “It’s a difficult situation, but I like being in a position to possibly help.”

Lawson has been growing her family law practice since leaving Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan a year ago to join Scott Bennett and Mary DeCamp – also Leitner Williams alumni – at their new firm. While this involves dealing with many emotionally knotty matters, it gives her the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of her clients.

“Sometimes, the results you achieve as an attorney are abstract. But I like seeing the tangible difference the law can make,” Lawson says.

Lawson says this past year has brought many opportunities her way, including one that was anything but emotionally knotty. “I was able to do my first adoption, which was great,” she says with a smile. “When you do domestic work, most of the people who come to you aren’t having the best day.

“When someone is going through a difficult chapter in their life, it’s my job to guide them to a better one, but the adoption was wonderful and heartwarming. I loved being able to help bring people I felt confident would take care of each other together.”

Lawson grew up in a family of educators, so teaching was in her blood. Her mother has taught in classrooms for more than 40 years, and her father was superintendent of Tullahoma City Schools for more than 20 years. He’s now a professor at Lee University.

But the person Lawson wanted to be when she grew up changed daily. Some days she considered a career in education as a teacher or administrator. On other, Lawson thought her love of reading and writing, as well as her desire to make a positive impact on the lives of others, would make her a good lawyer. Other days offered different paths.

During this time, Lawson’s father faced a legal challenge through his work. Bennett, who primarily represents school systems and other governmental entities, appeared on the scene to help. Watching Bennett work with her father to defend public servants in the education system opened her eyes to the potential of the law to leave a positive mark on society.

“Those educators gave so much to their community, and really needed somebody to have their backs,” she remembers. “That was a big part of why I eventually chose to pursue the law.”

Lawson earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012 and then started law school in the fall of 2013 at UT Knoxville.

She reached out to Bennett, then with Leitner Williams, when it was time to complete an internship. He was able to connect her to the firm, and Lawson went on to complete two summer internships at Leitner Williams before receiving a job offer from the firm.

She eagerly stepped through the open door.

“I wanted to come back to Chattanooga,” she says. “I was excited by what was happening in the community and wanted to be a part of it.”

Working at Leitner Williams gave Lawson a solid introduction to the law. Although she did a fair amount of insurance defense work, she was able to supplement that work with exposure to education and family law.

Lawson credits attorney David Noblit with guiding her into family law, which now makes up the majority of her practice. “I was fortunate to have watched him mediate several cases and serve as his associate on several of his divorce files,” she says. “I was able to see how he treated not only his clients but also opposing counsel. I loved his collaborative approach and came to identify with how he practices.”

While Lawson was learning the ropes, Bennett and DeCamp left Leitner Williams to form a boutique firm that catered more specifically to education law clients. They offered employment to Lawson in February of last year.

“Chandler came from a background that valued education, so she has many values baked into her character that are important to us,” Bennett says. “She values public service, and she appreciates the people who work all day, every day to make our communities a good place.

“We also knew Chandler would take everything she does personally. Given what Mary and I do for school systems, police department and other governmental entities, we wanted someone who would be personally invested in our clients. Hiring her was a no-brainer.”

Lawson accepted the offer, eager to be exposed to as many different areas of the law as possible and wanting to learn about the business of running a firm.

One year later, she’s still in the honeymoon phase of her new arrangement.

“I feel lucky to have found Scott and Mary, as they have been a tremendous help in guiding me through not just education law but also the law in general,” she says. “They’ve been incredible mentors, very patient and incredibly empathetic as I’ve worked my way through the early years of my practice and learned what the heck I’m supposed to be doing.”

Bennett and DeCamp, the only other attorneys in the firm’s office in the Flatiron Building in downtown Chattanooga, also are serving as Lawson’s surrogate family. Living and working a little more than an hour from her hometown, with only two goldendoodles and several house plants to keep her company in her North Shore home, the 29-year-old single attorney values the relationships.

“I enjoy working with Scott and Mary. They feel like family. There are only three of us here, and we work in close proximity to each other every day, so we have to be comfortable with each other,” Lawson says. “We know what’s going on in each others lives, and our relationships are very personal. I believe both of them have my best interest at heart and care for me beyond work.”

Being Miss Tennessee

If there’s one experience that’s impacted Lawson as much as the law it’s her years competing in various pageants. She rolls her eyes a bit as she begins discussing this part of her story, not because she doesn’t appreciate what the experience means to her or is tired of being asked about it, but because there seems to be a side of her that’s shy about her celebrity.

But the photos of her draped in glittering dresses, awash in stage lights and smiling at the masses are as easy to access online as her firm photo. At the same time, it’s difficult to reconcile the woman in the photos with the girl Lawson says she was growing up.

“I was a bit of a tomboy,” she says with a laugh. “I was smushed between two brothers, and athletics were always important to my family, so I found myself chasing after my older brother more than ‘girly things.’”

But even as Lawson competed in basketball, volleyball, softball and tennis, she also enjoyed participating in show choir, community theater and other performance-oriented pursuits.

Lawson also grew up watching the Miss America pageant on television with her mother, who competed in the Miss Missouri pageant when she was younger. So each year, the two would watch the pageant together.

When Lawson began looking for scholarships to fund her college education, she decided to polish her singing and performing skills and tackle the pageants. With the guidance of Rodney Hullender and Bobbie Nation of Splash: The Salon, she purchased a dress on eBay, pulled a swimsuit out of mothballs and “went for it.”

In 2009, Lawson won Miss Scenic City and placed in the top 10 at Miss Tennessee. She was the runner-up in 2011 and, in 2012, won the competition.

Miss Tennessee is a full-time job, Lawson says, so she deferred her acceptance to law school for one year and spent that time serving as Gov. Bill Haslam’s character education representative.

“I traveled 70,000 miles by car alone and spoke to over 50,000 students across the state about the character trait of caring and different ways we can show each other we care,” she says.

Lawson says the experience was both emotionally rewarding and difficult. “It was hard to see the students who were dealing with a bully, or didn’t have a great home life,” she recalls. “Being able to listen to them and give them a hug made that job special.”

Winning Miss Tennessee in 2012 earned Lawson a spot in the 2013 edition of the pageant she grew up watching with her mom. Although she speaks only briefly about Miss America, which took place at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, she said it was stressful but mostly fun.

Lawson placed in the top 10 and used her winnings to help pay for law school.

Now that Lawson is a few years past the far side of law school, she’s become a busy professional with an active civic and social life. As a member of the Young Lawyers Division of the Chattanooga Bar Association, Lawson has served on the YLD board, and assisted with mock trial, expungement clinics and the annual Wills for Heroes event.

At the state level, Lawson is a member of the Tennessee Bar Association YLD. Her service for that organization includes serving on the CLE committee.

Beyond the legal profession, Lawson is a board member of Tennessee’s Distinguished Young Women program.

The rest of Lawson’s life is much like that of other young professionals in Chattanooga. She has a network of friends she enjoys, and she takes advantage of all the amenities Chattanooga offers, whether it’s eating out, listening to live music, or hiking the trials with her dogs. “I feel lucky,” she says. “I’m happy to be here.”

As for the future, Lawson says that depends on the day you ask. She’ll continue to grow her practice, of course, but she’s also considering teaching at the college level as an adjunct professor.

“I taught one of my dad’s classes in education law, and I liked talking with his students about what to expect if they’re taken to court and the measures they can take as educators and administrators to make sure they don’t find themselves up a creek without a paddle,” she says.

Education is Lawson’s blood, so there’s a strong possibility she’ll someday follow her mother and father into the classroom.

Even there, the face of the young girl Lawson met when she was Miss Tennessee will be with her. After the girl gave her necklace to Lawson, she looked up at the sparkling but momentary presence in her life, and asked her if she would take her with her.

Although Lawson couldn’t take her physically, she continues to carry the memory of that child with her everywhere she goes. Her lost and pleading face reminds her that there are people who need someone to make a difference in their lives, and that she is in a position to be that person.

This truth is, and will likely remain, the driving force in her life, no matter what she’s doing.