The first time Chris Collins stood before judge and jury, he wielded a defense few, if any, lawyers would ever touch.
The charge levied against his two clients was murder, and the evidence pointed in their direction with an unwavering finger of accusation.
After reviewing these same facts, Collins and his co-counsel had fashioned the only defense that offered their clients their only hope of clemency: temporary insanity caused by an overwhelming sense of patriotism.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Collins and his partner successfully secured an acquittal for the accused – Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar.
Even though Collins was a high school sophomore at the time, he still remembers how it felt to win the mock trial, which was based on William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” and staged in his advanced placement English class.
“The feeling was similar to stopping a penalty shot in ice hockey,” Collins says. “Your team jumps off the bench and the crowd goes wild. There’s nothing like it.”
Nearly 20 years later, Collins feels the same intoxicating rush of victory every time he wins. “The euphoria that comes from prevailing for a client in a trial is crazy,” the 34-year-old litigator says. “You want to celebrate. Then, an hour later, you just want a bed.”
As a member of Husch Blackwell’s Real Estate, Development and Construction team in Chattanooga, Collins has helped to secure courtroom victories for clients who, unlike the characters in Shakespeare’s historical play, were alive and well and embroiled in commercial disputes with substantial stakes.
In one case, Collins secured a multimillion-dollar verdict for a local company in claims against a former supplier and two former employees alleging misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of contract and unfair competition.
In another case, Collins obtained a full defense verdict on behalf of a real estate developer in claims alleging breach of contract, fraud and violations of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act.
Collins also successfully defended a pharmaceutical manufacturer in a bench trial against claims brought by a clinical research company for breach of contract and unjust enrichment.
Through his work on these and other cases, Collins has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to think on his feet and orally argue even the most challenging issues, notes Michael Alston, managing partner at Husch Blackwell’s Chattanooga office.
“I recall allowing him to handle the hearing on a very challenging discovery motion in a high-stakes class action matter pending in Las Vegas federal court,” Alston says. “Our co-defendants were represented by some of the most notable national firms, so a significant spotlight was on this matter. Chris rolled up his sleeves and was as prepared as I’ve ever seen anyone before a hearing, and he knocked it out of the park.”
The favorable ruling on this critical motion helped to highlight the deficiencies in the other side’s case and laid the groundwork for the client’s ultimate dismissal from the case. “Needless to say, the client was pleased by our efforts in defending their interests,” Alston adds.
Collins says the zealous advocacy he provides is fueled in part by his desire to win. “I’m incredibly competitive, which is a must for a litigator, especially during a trial.’’
Collins adds that his passion for winning is in his blood. “At one point, my dad was the most competitive human I’d ever known. My mom played sports, too; she was an incredible athlete. And in the South, sports are paramount. My parents went to the University of Alabama, and it was an event to watch an Alabama football game.”
That said, Collins is never itching for a fight. Instead, he’s partial to steering his clients clear of court. “Nobody wants to be in litigation. It’s expensive, and there’s always animosity,” he acknowledges. “I’ll do everything I can to help my clients avoid it.”
This preference for resolving matters outside of court is plainly evident in Collins’ track record as an attorney. For every trial win, he’s successfully settled countless other cases prior to trial.
In one matter, Collins represented a local residential contractor against claims of public and private nuisance; in another, he represented the owner of a large retail shopping mall against claims of breach of contract, misrepresentation and professional negligence.
Collins helped to resolve these and many other claims prior to trial.
As fervent as Collins is during a trial and while advocating for his clients outside of court, he says he’s at his most passionate when he’s simply serving as a trusted advisor. “My favorite part of what I do is advising clients,” he explains. “Period; end of sentence.”
Like most attorneys, Collins developed his advocacy skills over time. One of the most difficult lessons he learned along the way was how to detach himself from conflict and focus on representing his client.
“During my first couple years of practice, there was some kind of dispute every day; whether it was a discovery dispute or something else, there was some kind of daily fight to be had,” Collins recalls. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this for the rest of my life.’”
The constant state of conflict initially broke Collins, who temporarily left Husch Blackwell and moved to another firm to practice corporate law.
“It felt like litigation was nothing but crisis control, whereas in transactional work, you get to advise clients and be a part of their growth,” he says. “So, I gave corporate law a try, and I soon found out I have the mind and personality of a litigator.”
Collins credits his early mentor at Husch Blackwell, attorney Ryan Mitchem, for nurturing the right mindset in him.
“For some attorneys, litigation is a personal battle. But you have to detach yourself from the case and remember that you’re serving your client,” he says. “You need to understand that whether you win or lose, you didn’t lose to the other attorney; your facts lost to his facts, and your law lost to his law.”
Despite his competitive nature, Collins isn’t driven by ego. Instead, he sees any trial win as a team win.
“Once it’s clear you’re going to trial, the level of preparation is greater than any one person could ever handle, so you’re reliant on your team members performing their individual tasks correctly,” he adds. “That keeps you grounded.”
Collins spent most of his childhood in Chattanooga, where his dad worked for IBM. Although Collins wore many hats growing up – including son, older brother, and student – he was most commonly seen wearing the headgear of whichever sport he was playing.
An avid athlete from a young age, the list of the sports in which he competed is longer than the list of those he never played.
“I played everything,” Collins recounts. “I wanted to wrestle, but my parents never let me. I think they misunderstood the physicality of the sport, which in hindsight is funny because they let me play football, lacrosse and ice hockey.”
When Collins wasn’t on the rink, field, court or other playing surface, he was watching “Matlock” with his mother, whose love for law shows matched his passion for sports.
These shows, along with the movie “A Few Good Men” and his experience defending Brutus and Cassius in a mock trial, had a formative impact on Collins. By the time he moved to Knoxville to begin his undergraduate studies at the University of Tennessee, he was eyeing a career in the law.
Collins earned a bachelor’s degree as well as his Juris Doctor at UT. After his first and second years as a law student, he completed 12-week internships with Husch Blackwell in Chattanooga.
During these summer stints, Collins not only developed a fondness for the office and its people, he also perceived what the benefits of working in a small office while working for a large AM Law 100 firm would be. “The infrastructure and support we receive is unbelievable, yet we have a 25-person firm,” he says.
As Collins enters his ninth year of practice, Husch Blackwell is rewarding his success by making him a partner at the firm. Although this promotion won’t be official until Jan. 1, he says he’s ready.
Alston agrees. “Chris has worked very hard to develop the skills needed to be a partner at Husch and has earned the respect of his colleagues in the firm and in the Chattanooga legal community,” he explains.
“At a relatively early stage of his career, Chris has had remarkable success in handling hearings and trials when the circumstances were not always in our client’s favor. If he continues to hone these practice skills – and I know he will – Chris has the opportunity to become one of the most accomplished oral advocates in our bar by the time he completes his professional journey.”
These words from Alston contain both high praise and a daunting challenge. While Collins is prepared for the added responsibility that becoming a partner at his firm will bring, he says his continued success hinges not just on his work as an attorney but also his activities outside the office that promote good health and provide balance in his life.
Among these activities are his service to both his profession and his community.
As an attorney, Collins is currently serving as a member of the executive committee of the Brock-Cooper Inn of Court. He’s also delivered a number of CLEs to his peers, including a lesson on deposition techniques to the Young Lawyers Division of the Chattanooga Bar Association and a session on social media through Husch Blackwell.
In the broader community, Collins focuses mainly on mentoring and developing meaningful relationships with youth. For example, through his participation as a board member of the youth organization On Point, Collins has a hand in helping at-risk youth make healthy choices and avoid the kinds of decisions that can lead to poverty.
“I believe wholeheartedly in what they’re doing and how they’re doing it,” he says. “They’re doing it through relationships; they don’t just pop in and out of someone’s life.”
Collins is also part of a ministry at Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church that mentors young males. Called D-Group, the program allows him to invest his time and life experience in middle and high school students.
“One of the most difficult things to do right now is be a young man growing up in the world,” he continues. “There are a lot influences out there, as well as a very distorted view of masculinity. We shouldn’t be telling young men that you can’t be emotional, have a weak moment, or confide in someone.”
Collins says his focus on guiding youth through positive interaction is a product of the many relationships he developed with his coaches as a young athlete.
“I played sports every second of my life growing up, and some of my coaches had a profound impact on me because they went beyond coaching the sport and taught mental toughness, dealing with adversity, sportsmanship, reacting to disappointment and reacting to success,” he says.
“Every one of these coaches was tough as nails, but when their players gave everything they had, and it wasn’t good enough, they showed empathy, understanding and even appreciation. They demonstrated strength under control.”
Collins continues to play sports, although the list of activities in which he competes is much shorter than it once was. At the top of that list are his Saturday morning golf outings at Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club, which involve a number of attorneys and other local men.
Golf is where Collins’ competitive nature is most evident to those who don’t see him in court. To his colleagues in the bar, however, it’s just another manifestation of his core self.
This aspect of Collins’ personality doesn’t express itself in a brash, loutish manner, but in a friendly way that demonstrates his passion for winning. “He is very competitive,” says Husch Blackwell attorney Alan Cates, who participates in the Saturday morning golf sessions. “Not irritatingly so, but competitive in a healthy sense, as one who doesn’t like to lose but is gracious when someone else has a better day and prevails.
“That competiveness transfers well to his work as a litigation attorney. He knows he’s competing on behalf of his client, and he takes that very seriously.”
Second on Collins’ current list of sports activities is Brazilian jui jitsu, which gives Collins a chance to scratch the wrestling itch he was never allowed to reach growing up. Collins likes the physicality of jui jitsu, but also the mental work out it provides.
“There are new techniques coming out every day,” he explains. “There are counters to counters, which keeps your mind sharp. There’s nothing more competitive than jui jitsu; it’s just you and another human.”
Golf and jui jitsu also give Collins the chance to compete as an individual rather than a member of a team – just like when he protected the net against penalty shots while playing youth hockey.
“Trials are about the team,” he says. “But golf and jui jitsu allow me to be individually competitive.”
Of paramount importance to Collins is his immediate family, which consists of his wife, Elizabeth, and their three young children. He says “Liz,” as people who meet his wife through him know her, “makes things easy” for him.
“She’s an incredible mother, which frees me up to do what I need to do,” he adds. “When I’m done, my devotion goes right back to my family.”
At 34, Collins is already graying around the temples, which makes him look older than he is. He attributes this to the practice of law and says it works to his advantage in court. “I don’t look like a young attorney in front of a jury; I look like someone who’s seen things,” he laughs.
But the gray is an anomaly – a glitch that wrongfully suggests there’s more stress than balance in Collins’ life. While his career places heavy demands on him, Collins says he’s never better as a husband, father, or attorney than when he’s doing things outside the office that’s keeping everything else healthy.
“This job involves a lot of desk time, and the last thing I want to do is allow my health to deteriorate,” he says. “My biggest concern is watching my kids grow up and being a husband to my wife, and I don’t want that to end because I was always focused on work and didn’t have a release valve for stress or gained weight I couldn’t lose.”
If Collins is able to maintain this balance as he tackles the challenges that lie ahead of him as a partner at Husch Blackwell, then perhaps he will become, as Alston suggests, “one of the most accomplished oral advocates” in the local bar.
If anyone has an issue with this, Collins is more than ready to take it to the mat.