Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 19, 2019

Fullerton selects right path – by a nose

Fullerton is an attorney with Miller & Martin in Chattanooga. She concentrates her practice on commercial litigation and white-collar criminal defense. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Some people never look back after deciding to become an attorney. But Jenna Fullerton kept her options open.

“I knew law school was a huge commitment, so I gave myself opportunities to decide against it,” she says.

Fullerton’s first attempt at changing course backfired. While an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, she majored in political science and philosophy.

“I didn’t realize I was priming myself for law school,” she says. “I don’t know what else I thought I was going to do with a philosophy degree.”

Regardless of its impractical nature, philosophy challenged Fullerton and exercised her mind in ways no other topic in school had.

“It was difficult for me, which is part of why I found it interesting,” she adds. “It involved less research and more thinking than political science. I would literally sit in a chair and think about my next paper.”

Fullerton did well in college and on the LSAT, but explored another avenue instead of going directly to law school, laboring as a part-time horse trainer and riding instructor while working as a paralegal in Austin.

Despite her passion for horses, Fullerton eventually realized training and riding were not her strongest talents. “I even bought a 4-year-old horse off the racetrack to try to train and resell. I had great ambitions for her but barely broke even,” she says.

Fullerton began applying to law schools in earnest, determined to attend a school with a great reputation.

“My family kept telling me how hard it was to get a job. This was 2013, just after the worst of the recession, but people were still spooked by everything that had happened,” she remembers. “But by that point, I was 100% sure I wanted to become an attorney, so it was just a matter of finding the right school.”

A substantial scholarship to Vanderbilt ended Fullerton’s search and took her away from Austin for the first time. But external entities were not done trying to put the fear of God in her.

Fullerton was already nervous about law school when she and her fellow students were shown a bell curve and told they were a long way from the top. “I don’t know if that was meant to scare us, but it scared me,” she says.

Fullerton’s fears were unfounded, as she did well in class. She also became managing editor of the Vanderbilt Law Review and eventually graduated as a member of the Order of Coif.

Fullerton excelled during her internship with a Chicago law firm the summer after her second year, too, which opened the door for her to work at the firm after graduation.

Fullerton wanted to serve as a law clerk first, so she arranged to defer her position for two years and started filling out applications.

When she learned Travis McDonough, another Vanderbilt University Law School alum, was becoming a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, she reached out to the clerkship coordinator at Vanderbilt, who placed her resume in McDonough’s hands.

Although Fullerton likely impressed Judge McDonough during her interview with him, she says the rapport she developed with his dog, Homer, sealed the deal. “We got along well,” she says of Homer, an Italian water dog. “Or, at least I wasn’t scared of him.”

McDonough had litigated a variety of civil and criminal matters in federal and state courts during his 16 years as an attorney with Miller & Martin in Chattanooga, but there were areas of the law with which he had little experience.

This made Fullerton’s time with McDonough interesting. As she worked on complex litigation, white-collar criminal matters and even a patent dispute, McDonough encouraged her to speak up and valued her input.

“Not many people listen to you when you’re straight out of law school,” she says. “But he has a lot of faith in his clerks because he hires good people.”

The two years Fullerton clerked for McDonough were an intellectually stimulating time, she says. She took part in debates about prosecutorial discretion and the imposition of mandatory minimums, and after a trial or hearing, participated in discussions with McDonough and her fellow clerks about what the attorneys did well and what they could have done better.

“I saw a lot of good lawyers in action and a lot of not-so-good lawyers in action,” she says.

As Fullerton was enjoying her up-close view of the gear work of the law, the number of “close calls” on cases surprised her. “I thought the answer would be clear every time because of the amount of settled law out there, but I struggled with a lot of decisions,” she says. “I’d walk into the judge’s chambers or one of the other clerk’s offices, lay out the facts and say, ‘This is where I’m leaning; what do you think?’”

Fullerton says she wouldn’t be where she is without McDonough. Although she’s speaking figuratively, the same is true literally, as McDonough introduced her to his former partners at Miller & Martin. She was hired last year after her clerkship ended.

Fullerton had intended to move to Chicago, but met her fiancé, Jeremy Cole, while in Chattanooga and decided to stay.

Since joining the firm in 2018, Fullerton has focused her practice on commercial litigation and white-collar criminal defense, although she’s been able to work on “a panoply of things.”

“While I was a clerk, I loved changing hats and dabbling in different areas,” she says. “I’d get bored if I did the same thing all day, every day.”

Fullerton first became interested in the law while attending a science-oriented magnet high school in Austin. Nothing captured her interest until she took a constitutional law class. “I loved it,” she says. “It was the first time I’d ever felt excited about a class.”

While a senior, Fullerton wanted to watch Chief Justice John Roberts be sworn in, but the ceremony was going to be held during school hours. When she asked for permission to be excused, one of the other students called her a law nerd.

“I’m sure they were trying to tease me, but I was secretly pleased with that,” she says.

Fullerton is hoping her colleagues at Miller & Martin see her the same way, as she’d like to stay with the firm and someday become a partner. For now, though, the 31-year-old attorney is focusing on “getting the lawyering down.”

During her days off, Fullerton enjoys horseback riding and attending concerts. Growing up in Austin exposed her to a great number of musicians, and she’s been pleased since moving to Chattanooga with the amount of live music in the city.

Fullerton has also become active with the Federal Bar Association. She’s currently the organization’s secretary and is serving as co-chair of the CLE committee.

Fullerton devotes the lion’s share of her off hours to Cole, whom she’s hyperbolically crowned “the most amazing person on the planet.”

“While I was working and taking the Tennessee bar exam at the same time, he cooked dinner, washed the dishes and even did my laundry,” she says.

There’s just one problem for Cole: His chivalry has opened him up to a lifetime of domestic servitude.

“I get to play that trump card for the rest of our lives,” Fullerton says with a smile. “I can say, ‘I took the bar for you, so it’s your turn to do the dishes.’”

It looks like Fullerton is well on her way to “getting the lawyering down.”