Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 10, 2023

Trailblazing Southerland builds career on defying norms

Southerland says retirement is on the horizon, but not before the the end of 2025. - Photograph provided

During a domestic relations class at the University of Tennessee College of Law in the early 1970s, Mary Neill Southerland found herself on the receiving end of a discriminatory remark related to her gender.

“The course was a little bit on the bawdy side,” says Southerland, assistant attorney for Hamilton County. “[The instructor] referred to part of the female anatomy as something that I’d never heard before, and it just rolled off my back. I didn’t know what he was saying.”

Turning to Southerland, who admits her Catholic upbringing had left her pretty naive, the teacher quipped, “Well, we’ve got to make sure she understands.”

“I took it as a form of harassment,” she says. “But it also toughened me up.”

After practicing law for what was then Legal Aid Society of Chattanooga and at two private firms, Southerland, 75, now primarily does research for the county, along with occasional litigation. Incidentally, most people refer to her simply as “Neill,” a name she inherited from her great-great-aunt Mary Neill.

A “nerdy” kid raised in Knoxville and, later, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she never tired of reading. (Her current book pick chronicles King Philip’s War, an armed conflict between the New England colonies and the Indigenous people living there.) The fascination with history came from her father – “a lawyer and an engineer, a deadly combination if there ever was one” – and a grandmother with a knack for making the past come to life through her storytelling.

“Her father died right after the Civil War, so it made it a lot more current to her,” Southerland points out. “And she passed on that immediacy.”

Family discussions often turned to the origins of historical events, including evolving laws. That, and her desire to represent indigent clients through the pro bono Legal Aid, steered her toward UT law school.

One of only three women in her property law class, Southerland recalls the trio being called on to answer tough legal theory questions, but only on Ladies’ Day. The next time the class met, it was the men’s turn. “They were questions that are very hard for a first-year law student to answer,” she says. “It kept you on your toes. It was a form of harassment to get rid of us, if you want to know the truth.”

It didn’t work.

Using her voice

One of the first things she did after joining Legal Aid in 1975 was tour the old Hamilton County jail, where a parking garage now stands. “I got to see the cell where Jimmy Hoffa stayed and see where they had the gallows for the executions.”

In her first court case, she represented a wife in what appeared to be a straightforward divorce. “It was supposed to be uncontested, but the gentleman who she was divorcing showed up, and they were arguing over a lawn chair, a [water] hose that leaked and a grill that had one leg missing,” she says. “That was all they had. It was really a lesson telling you how thankful you should be for what you have.”

It also served as a crash course in how to get along in a male-dominated profession. The judge in the case told her, then and at other times, that she spoke too softly.

“So I learned how to raise my voice,” Southerland recalls. “You go with the flow and you take your stance when you have to, and most of the time just let it roll off of you. That’s been my survival skill, anyway.”

The divorce case ended equitably, with the wife keeping the chair and the husband winning the grill and the hose, which he ended up leaving behind because there was no room at the relative’s house where he moved. Says Southerland, “They found a place for the grill.”

In law school, professors discouraged her from practicing in Chattanooga because, they said, the bar was “too political.” That has never been a problem, she asserts.

“I was raised Republican and I became a Democrat in Chattanooga. And the way things have changed, here in the courthouse nobody really cares that much about what your politics are as long as you’re doing a good job. And I like that.”

Ready to diversify, she left Legal Aid in 1978 to work for collection attorney Jim Banks, who represented Chattanooga Gas. Also in the office was Will Allen Wilkerson, a sharp-as-a-tack lawyer in his 90s who, Southerland notes, “was famous for having written a brief to the Supreme Court on a postcard” and was instrumental in growing the Scenic City.

Southerland had just been appointed several cases when, on St. Patrick’s Day 1980, she suddenly fell ill with Guillain-Barre´ syndrome. Within 24 hours, she says, “I went from walking around and talking to being paralyzed from the neck down.”

After a lengthy stay at Erlanger Medical Center, a struggle to learn to walk again and rehabilitation in Birmingham, she ran into attorney (and future City Court judge) Russell Bean, who was looking for a good legal researcher. After also serving as special counsel to the Hamilton County attorney’s office from 1985 to 1989, Southerland left the firm and became a fulltime assistant attorney. At first, she handled staff meetings and worked as a liaison between the different departments, making sure resolutions were presented correctly. Gradually, she took on more litigation, from contracts to personal injury cases.

Southerland still tries a case now and then, but spends much of her time compiling all 700 Hamilton County Private Acts (state laws approved by local government) into an online resource that, for some, might shed light on lesser-known pieces of the area’s history. In the 1880s, for example, the county boasted one of only three health departments in the state – Nashville didn’t have one till the 1890s, she says – on the heels of two devastating yellow fever epidemics.

In 1995, Southerland became one of 24 founding members of the Sexual Assault & Crisis Resource Center (now the Partnership’s Rape Crisis Center), which supports victims of sexual violence. The issue is close to her heart, she admits. “When I was in law school I had a classmate who roomed with a girl [named Cathy] and [my friend Ruth] came in in the aftermath of a rape, and it was rough. I always remember Cathy when anybody talks about rape. She eventually dropped out of graduate school. She was going to be a planner and she never finished.”

Check back in a couple of years

Southerland might retire at the end of 2025, she says, but not a minute before. She still loves her job.

“It’s something different every day. When you’re in private practice, even with legal services, sometimes your clients don’t tell you the truth. I’ve always been relieved that, for the most part, I get the straight poop from somebody. If we messed up a contract, we messed up a contract and they’ll tell me that. … I can try to solve it for the county itself while protecting the taxpayers.”

What’s more, she doesn’t have to worry about certain worrisome details as a Hamilton County attorney. “In private practice, a lot of times you’re haranguing clients for money for depositions, for an outside expert, etc. We’ve been given the ability to go out and get enough tools to be able to adequately defend someone. And that’s very good.”

Recently, she decided to start taking some of her bucket-list trips – like a recent trek with her nephew to Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

In Ireland, Southerland says, everyone seemed to be up to date on American politics, including a hitchhiker she picked up, a “nice little woman who stopped my car by standing in front of it.”

On the way to the next town, the woman commented on her Southern accent and her presumed political leanings. “I found that very interesting, how aware they were of what was going on in our country, much more so than we are about anything that happens over there,” Southerland says. “Travel, to me, is so educational, seeing how alike we are and at the same time how different.”