Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 12, 2021

From CPA to attorney to coach

Combs’ journey leads to helping next generation

Tammy Combs is an assistant U.S. district attorney in Chattanooga. She switched from criminal to civil work so she could spend more time with her daughters and nieces as they were growing up. - Photograph provided

Assistant U.S. district attorney Tammy Combs is accustomed to change. In some respects, her life has consisted of a series of adjustments – some intentional, some not. But there’s a shift coming she says will be unlike anything she’s gone through.

The early changes in Combs’ life were the kind many people experience. After growing up in a Mississippi town so small mapmakers didn’t bother to include it in their drawings, she attended college, married and moved to the relatively sprawling metropolis of Chattanooga.

Once settled in, Combs launched a short-lived career as a certified public accountant at a private firm. This anecdote surprises people who are familiar only with her legal career, but makes sense when placed in the broader context of her life.

“I loved CPA work because it was like solving a puzzle,” she explains. “But I had a lot of energy and drive, and after a couple of years I started wondering, ‘What’s next?’”

Combs says she wanted to do work that served the public in some manner, as both sides of her family have a history of serving in the military, and their self-sacrifice made a formative impression on her.

So, as Combs contemplated her next big change, she was drawn to the law, which she reasoned would not only would allow her to give back to her community but also feed the part of her that liked to be challenged.

“Being in court and having to make decisions under extreme pressure appealed to me,” she says.

Combs earned her law degree at the University of Tennessee College of Law and developed a passion for criminal work during her internships, which included stints at the U.S. attorney’s offices in Knoxville and Chattanooga.

“That’s when I discovered what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “I loved the environment, the work, the sense of serving the public.”

After getting her feet wet at Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, Combs became “AUSA Combs” when she moved across town to the U.S. attorney’s office and joined the criminal division.

There, Combs did “drugs, guns and violent crimes.” Her voice seems to brighten as she mentions her early work as a prosecutor, although she declines to disclose the details of even a single case, citing the propriety of her office and profession.

“I loved criminal; it’s what I really wanted to do.”

There was something else Combs wanted to do, as well. Raised in the embrace of a closely knit family and inspired by grandparents who had taken a large and nurturing hand in her upbringing, she wanted to be a good parent.

So, when children entered the picture, Combs became a part-time AUSA.

“Attorneys work all the time; we never turn it off,” she notes. “That was hard in the beginning because I had to spend most of my time at the office, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that and be there for my children.

“I wanted to be hands-on with my kids. It was what we both needed.”

The switch to part-time work necessitated a series of transfers, first to the appellate division, which kept Combs in criminal work, and then to the civil division, which took Combs out of it.

There, Combs did “bankruptcies and Social Security” instead of “drugs, guns and violent crimes.” While this area of the law wasn’t her first choice, she was grateful for it because it was better suited to part-time work.

It also gave her the freedom to spend more time with her children.

The ability to balance her personal and professional responsibilities became even more critical in 2003, when Combs suffered an unexpected tragedy and was thrust into the most grueling change of circumstances she’d experienced.

When Combs was pregnant with her second child, her husband, Marty, died in a boating accident, leaving her on her own to raise their two daughters.

Two children turned to four when Combs began taking care of her twin nieces six years ago, which only further cemented her focus on family.

As a single mother, Combs wanted to do everything she could to guide her girls away from the grim paths she’d seen people in her hometown in Mississippi choose.

“Seeing people make bad choices and get off on the wrong foot was incredibly sad and disappointing,” she remembers. “They could have had a completely different life, but they chose addiction and crime.”

The DNA of Combs’ decisions regarding her children can also be seen in her volunteer work as a mock trial coach at Girls Preparatory School.

Combs and Judge Brian House founded the program in 2013 so their respective daughters could participate. They then continued to shepherd the school’s teams after their children graduated because of the difference it was making in the students.

“The most rewarding things about mock trial are the relationships you develop with the kids and seeing them develop over the years,” Combs says. “I love the moment when the light turns on in their eyes and they begin making progress by leaps and bounds.

“It involves untold hours of time and effort, but the payoff is amazing.”

Combs says mock trial is not about winning tournaments or introducing students to the legal profession, but about revealing the potential in a young person.

“We teach them to think on their feet and work through their problems and use their voice to speak clearly and confidently about their positions.”

As Combs circles back to her personal history, she knows it time to talk about something she’d rather not even contemplate: Her next big change.

With her oldest daughter having crossed the border between teenager and young adult and her younger daughter and nieces approaching the same threshold, Combs’ nest is gradually emptying.

This will not only give her more elbow room at home, but it will also open the door to her returning to full-time practice. She says both changes will be “huge.”

“I’m going to have to shift the energy and emotions I’ve been pouring into the kids into something else,” she says. “It will probably be work.”

Before that days arrives, Combs is taking advantage of every available moment with her girls. Whether she’s watching a movie, gardening or cooking, she’s doing it with them at her side.

But in the back of Combs’ mind, the question that prodded her as a young CPA is starting to stir again: “What’s next?”