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Front Page - Friday, March 1, 2019

Rogers finds home in law, Scenic City

Road to Chattanooga goes via Okinawa, Germany, Boston

If a person is the sum of their experiences, 35-year-old attorney Stephanie Rogers should already be an old soul. But her passionate advocacy for her clients, her enthusiasm for community involvement and the childlike zeal with which she still absorbs the world evoke a youthful idealism that’s rare for someone her age.

Many people are born, grow up in the same soil in which they were planted and make a few stops before settling down. But not Rogers. Her early years as the child of a father who served in the military, followed by years spent living in foreign countries with her mother, grew a nomad’s heart within her.

From her birth in Fort Hood, Texas, to her parents’ divorce when she was 10, Rogers made many stops. Then, when she was a rising sophomore in high school, her mother, Maria Flores, whisked her and her younger brother from a small town in Kansas to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, a small tropical island that’s part of Japan.

Flores had secured a job teaching the children of military personnel on the base. Rogers remembers being able to “see, smell and hear” the ocean wherever she was.

As Rogers met Americans, Japanese, Filipinos, Australians and more, she says, she developed the ability to connect with anyone, including individuals whose background and circumstances differed greatly from hers.

Rogers says her capacity to relate to others has been vital to her work as a family law and criminal defense attorney.

“Connecting with my clients is an important part of my job,” she says. “We’re strangers, and I’m telling them to trust me with a life-changing issue. I learned that skill by being thrown into new situations.”

The common thread Rogers found between her and a client in a recent child custody case was motherhood. “Being able to identify what she was nervous about and finding a point of connection with her helped her to understand I was there to help,” Rogers says.

When the specter of college appeared, Rogers chose a more traditional route than her experiences might have suggested. Both of her parents had attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, so that’s where she went, too.

Although Rogers initially wanted to study engineering, she majored in psychology after deciding she’d rather work with people. A few years later, she returned to her mother in a new home, Germany, where her mother was now living and working.

“We lived in a pastoral area where it was just fields, villages and old European architecture,” Rogers says.

Rogers was unable to gain her footing in Germany. Armed with a degree in psychology, she attempted to land a job at a hospital with a psychiatric ward for soldiers mentally affected by the war in Iraq, but she was unsuccessful, despite knocking on many doors.

Then, while working as a waitress in an officers’ club, Rogers’ life took a hard-right turn when she became pregnant with her daughter, Evie.

Despite all her experiences adapting to new situations, Rogers wanted to be somewhere familiar as she adjusted to the role of mother, so she returned to Knoxville in 2008 and took a job as a case manager for a homeless shelter.

In conversations with her mom, Rogers said she was frustrated with being locked into procedures that kept her from helping people in a deeper, more meaningful way. Flores saw this as an opportunity to suggest a different path: law school.

Rogers initially balked at the notion. “I had my daughter, my job and I was looking into earning a Master of Social Work degree,” she says. “Law school was not on my radar.”

Flores persisted. When Rogers said she wasn’t attorney material, Flores insisted she was. “You’re smart, and you argue well,” she would tell her daughter. “You’d be a great lawyer.”

Flores would even lament her unfulfilled ambition to become an attorney. Her tactics worked, and by 2010 Rogers had changed her mind.

Instead of staying in Knoxville for law school, an already-antsy Rogers followed her nomad’s heart to Boston, where she settled in and began taking classes at New England Law.

It was an idyllic if busy life. Evie was 18 months old when Rogers moved to Boston, and the two spent every spare moment exploring the city together and experiencing everything it had to offer. Flores, who had been fighting cancer for several years, retired from teaching and moved to Boston to join them.

Then heartbreak found Rogers on the cusp of her fourth semester. Although her mother had been receiving treatment at the revered Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the disease had continued to spread, unknown to Rogers.

“I thought we had years left together. She didn’t tell me it was spreading,” she says. “She died right after her 60th birthday.”

Rogers, who rarely discusses her mother’s death, experiences a swell of emotions as she talks, and tears fall from eyes as she explains how she was able to move forward from that painful moment.

“I could have fallen to pieces, but I stayed in school,” she says. “The only reason I’m a lawyer today is because she wouldn’t have wanted her death to stop my career. I’m here is because of her – because she was the one person who believed in me.”

After her mother’s death, Rogers pressed forward. She latched on to consumer protection as a potential area of practice, earned good grades and completed two different internships. In her mind, she was doing everything right and would have no trouble finding work.

But it was 2013, which means landing a job as a lawyer was anything but easy. Plus, Rogers made a tactical error. Intent on staying in Boston, she not only limited herself to a narrow portion of the law, she looked for work everywhere but the local firms. In retrospect, she says should have cast a wider net and been open to practicing in other areas of the law.

Boston was expensive for employed attorneys, more so for lawyers who couldn’t find work. So, Rogers needed to move. Fortunately, she had a destination in mind.

“My grandparents had lived in Chattanooga for several decades, so regardless of where we were, we always came here to see them,” she says. “So, we moved here.”

The law dropped off Rogers’ radar as she took a job in leave management at Unum. She later left her position at the insurance provider and started her own practice.

Needing work, Rogers found herself jumping feet first into an area of the law she’d never considered: criminal defense.

“The most direct way to get paid is take appointed cases,” she says. “I took a half-day off from Unum, and a very kind and generous lawyer who had been doing that work for about a year took me around and introduced me to everyone.”

Unexpectedly, Rogers wound up loving the work.

“It’s exhilarating,” she says, almost breathlessly. “When I believe my client is being railroaded or mishandled, I love being able to say, ‘There’s an injustice happening here, and here’s the evidence, your honor.’

“I like standing up for people who are not being treated fairly. They need a voice.”

The road has not always been smooth. Like many new criminal defense attorneys, Rogers had to swallow a few bitter pills and overcome paralyzing doubt as she learned how to be an effective advocate.

“Once, I was as prepared as I could be for a hearing. I had looked up the law, I knew the facts of the case and I had pages and pages of notes,” she remembers. “I was on fire and ready to take the other side down.”

Then the other side brought in new evidence, and Rogers “crashed and burned.”

“All I wanted to do was get through the case and leave the courtroom. I was shaken. I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I should quit. I’m risking people’s lives,’” Rogers recalls. “Then I took a deep breath, my friends took me out for drinks, and I walked myself through what happened and why, and how could I prevent it from happening again.”

Eventually, Rogers began tallying impressive wins in criminal cases and family law. One case in particular comes to mind as she contemplates her successes.

“Once, I was as prepared as I could be for a family law case – and everything went as expected,” she says with a laugh.

“My client had been left destitute by her ex-husband, who had left her for another family. The woman he was with loved Facebook, and posted photos of their trips to Disney World, their expensive dinners out and the gifts he gave her.

“But he wasn’t paying his child support. I went through an entire year of Facebook posts and pointed out what a bad situation my client and her child were in. It felt good to help that woman.”

Rogers says her victories in court-appointed and family law cases are more than checkmarks in her win column; they are memorials to her mother. “My practice is about serving people because that’s what her life was about,” she says.

Flores did more than teach Rogers to help others; she also instilled in her daughter a need to perform community service.

Rogers has been a hardworking volunteer since high school, when she easily exceeded her school’s community service requirements. At New England Law, Rogers received the service award for running various student organizations. And in January, the Young Lawyers Division of the Chattanooga Bar Association presented Rogers with its Volunteer of the Year Award for her help last year running various legal clinics in the city.

Since Rogers is serving as the YLD president this year, she’ll be the one to present the award to the next attorney to earn it. She encourages every young lawyer to find an avenue for giving back.

“As attorneys, we have a lot to do, but we also have knowledge and experience that’s valuable to other people,” she says. “That’s why we’re paid as much as we are. That gives us an opportunity to give back to the community.”

The ways in which Flores lives on in her daughter can be seen in more than Rogers’ zeal for helping others. Like her mother, Rogers shuns negativity, finds joy in every circumstance and believes in being silly.

“After my mom lost her hair during chemo, she started putting confetti in her wig. Everybody would ask her, ‘Why is there confetti in your wig?’ She’d say, ‘Because life is a party,’” Flores says with a laugh.

Rogers says she’s a stricter parent than her mother, but lets her hair down when she and her daughter are alone. “We kid around, tell stupid jokes and sing stupid songs,” Rogers says, a smile stretching across her face. “No one but Evie sees this side of me – not even my friends.”

Rogers and Evie seem to be different sides of the same coin, with Rogers being more reserved socially and Evie being more outgoing. “I like to sit alone and read or play video games. Sometimes, people think I’m not interested in talking with them because I’m feeling introverted, but my daughter is the exact opposite.

“I don’t know the checkout people at the grocery store, but my mom always did, and so does Evie. She wants to know everybody, everybody wants to know her. She’s already cooler than I’ve ever been.”

Like her mother, Rogers is on her own as a parent. But she does not consider her load to be heavier than that of any other mother or father. “Parenting is hard even where there are two people doing it,” she says.

Instead, Rogers is taking another cue from her mother and immersing Evie in as much of life as possible. “When I lived in Kansas, my mom introduced my brother and me to art, culture, movies and music,” she says. “These are things you don’t learn about in school, especially in Kansas.”

Now Rogers is doing the same things with her daughter. “There are always cool things going on at the aquarium or children’s museum, and we love seeing movies and eating out,” she says. “Our favorite restaurant is Taconooga. I’m sorry, Taco Mamacita, but Taconooga has the best tacos in town.”

Since Rogers moved to Chattanooga, her nomad tendencies have been silenced. She’s lived in many places and experienced many different types of people, but she’s fallen in love with her new home and can no longer hear the relentless pull to cross an ocean for something new.

Rogers even has a favorite spot – the Chattanooga Water Steps outside the aquarium. “I love to sit by the flowing water,” she says. “It’s peaceful.”

In those moments of relative quiet, the loss of her mother comes back to Rogers. She still misses her, and wishes she were here, but at the same time, she’s grateful for the things her mother gave her, including her undying faith in her.

“My mom was the one person, my whole life, who was my cheerleader, no questions asked,” she says. “Thankfully, I was able to hold on to how much she believed in me.”

If Flores were here today, she might tell her daughter she’s proud of what she’s accomplished and encourage her to scale even greater heights in the future.

Then she would tell her to remember to be silly because life is a party.