Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 18, 2023

Cleary learns to embrace the family business

Now with firm his forebearers helped create

Jonathan Cleary is a civil litigation and probate attorney with Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams, the firm a member of his family co-founded. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Jonathan Cleary has placed a photograph of his great-grandfather on the window sill in this third-floor office at Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams. The picture resides behind Cleary, whose desk faces inward, making it appear as though his forebearer is watching over him with a close eye.

The man in the photograph is Silas Williams, a member of a firm involved in a merger that resulted in Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams. His son, also named Silas Williams, is considered a founding member of the firm.

This brings up a question: If Cleary’s great-grandfather is Silas Williams, and if his grandfather shared the same name, then his mother must be–

“Yes, Judge Marie Williams is my mom,” Cleary says, raising his palms. “Very few people make that connection because of my last name – and I don’t bring it up. The anonymity is nice.”

Not that Cleary is embarrassed of his mother, who practiced at Spears Moore for 18 years before ascending to the Hamilton County Circuit Court in 1995, courtesy of a Gov. Don Sundquist appointment.

Quite the contrary. Cleary visits her office whenever he’s at the courthouse, and says he’s going to “miss the heck out of her” when she retires in January.

“Seeing someone else in that office is going to be weird because she took the bench when I was this tall,” Cleary says, holding his right hand a few feet above the floor. He was 8 at the time.

Cleary’s father, Jeffrey Cleary, also was an attorney. He’s now retired and spending his days in his woodworking shop.

Despite the draping presence of the law in his family, Cleary did not grow up eager to become an attorney, or even resigned to such a fate. Rather, he pursued his interest in technology and became a consultant.

Cleary focused his skills on a number of endeavors that ranged from managing databases for voter campaigns to contributring to the development of a media search engine to consulting on technology investments.

Although Cleary says he was good at identifying winning and losing technology ideas, the work was ultimately unfulfilling. So, as he approached the age of 30, he turned to the profession that had always been there, waiting for him.

“The law was always No. 2 for me,” Cleary admits. “But I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep taking coffee meetings all over town. I liked the stability of the legal profession, so I decided to see what it would be like.”

Once Cleary started down the path to becoming an attorney, he never looked back. An undergraduate alumnus of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and a graduate of the University of Arizona, he moved to Memphis to attend the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

Cleary had the support of his parents as he left.

“Mom and dad have been encouraging my entire life. They’d let me know if I was about to make a mistake and then let me do it. That was their approach to parenting. Sometimes, you have to touch the stove to learn that it’s hot.”

Although Cleary is barred from appearing in his mother’s courtroom as an attorney, he was able to serve as her clerk when he was a 1L. He says this was one of the best experiences of his life.

“I’m glad I was able to do that before she retired. I’m obviously biased, but I think mom is the best judge that has ever been. I think everyone is going to miss her being there. You don’t have to be her son to know she’s done an incredible job.”

After Cleary graduated in 2021, Spears Moore – and the photograph of his great-grandfather – welcomed him to the firm.

Like his mother, he’s handling civil litigation matters; unlike her, he’s also been taking probate work. He says he enjoys both endeavors.

“I’ve latched on to the work and like it. I believe Spears Moore is going to be a good fit for a new generation of my family.”

Cleary has certainly made himself at home in his office, which is a testament to his ongoing interest in technology. In fact, his work space might be the closest thing Chattanooga has to a mission control outside of the Real-Time Intelligence Center at the Chattanooga Police Department.

A 43-inch television is resting vertically on a floor mount near his door. He says, alarmingly, that he needs all 43 of those inches for his to-do list.

“I’m a visual guy. I have to keep things in front of me.”

Cleary’s thin modern desk supports two large monitors, one vertically and the other horizontally. Attached to the side of the desk is a large iPad, which he can pair with a wireless keyboard when needed.

The iPad accompanies Cleary to court, where it capably turns his quick scribbles into text.

“If there’s a way to do something with an obnoxious gadget, then I’m going to use an obnoxious gadget to do that thing,” he laughs.

All of these windows into his work are turned off to safeguard confidential information, but there’s no hiding the hints of Cleary’s other major personal interest: his love for the Tennessee Vols.

An orange coffee mug gives it away, while a single orange key on his computer’s keyboard hints at his passion.

“The key is happenstance,” he claims. “But I do drive an orange and white MINI Cooper. If my girlfriend, who’s a therapist, could peer inside my head, she’d see ‘Rocky Top’ on repeat.”

Cleary could blame his family (which includes three older sisters) for what he admits is his insufferable fandom. However, he’s grateful for everything his parents have given him, including his interest in the law.

This brings Judge Williams to Cleary’s thoughts again, and he smiles as he shares another story.

“I remember meeting (the late Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice) Mickey Barker for the first time when mom took her oath. He reached out to shake my hand and I gave him a huge high-five instead.”

Judge Williams scolded Cleary as Barker laughed, Cleary recalls. He then chuckles as he connects this memory to his time in court as an attorney.

“Maybe not being able to argue a case in mom’s court was a good thing.”