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Front Page - Friday, July 5, 2019

Henry ready to tackle solo practice

13 years at Gearhiser Peters ready him for new direction

Like many of the attorneys who were seasoned under the late Charlie Gearhiser, Gary Henry has a few painful (read: painfully funny) stories to tell about his former mentor in the law.

One story in particular has stuck with Henry over the years because it taught him an important lesson.

He’s already smiling as he begins to relate the incident.

“I had been practicing for a year or two when I was assigned a bench trial in front of Chancellor [Howell N.] Peoples. It was perhaps my second or third trial,” Henry says.

“I was in my office loading the papers into one of those briefcases with a three-digit code when Charlie stepped in and asked me if that was the case I was taking to court. I said yes and then stepped out of my office to do something. When I returned, he was leaving.”

Gearhiser wished Henry luck and told him he’d stop by to watch him try the case – a property dispute. After a short walk across Georgia Avenue, Henry arrived at the courtroom 45 minutes early and sat down to prepare. There was just one problem: his briefcase wouldn’t open.

“I was already nervous, but that made me panic,” Henry recalls. “I keep fiddling with it and was starting to think I was going to have to pry it open with a screwdriver when Charlie arrived right on time for court and asked if I was having trouble.”

Gearhiser offered to look at the briefcase and then promptly opened it. Henry later learned that the elder attorney had changed the numbers on the briefcase while he was out of the office.

Although that sounds like the punchline, Henry says there’s more to the story.

“I’m trying the case, and Charlie is sitting next to me with a yellow legal pad. At the top of it, in big letters, he’s written, ‘Things Gary is doing wrong.’ And he starts writing.”

Henry says when he confronted Gearhiser about the entire affair after the hearing, the elder attorney had a big laugh. “Charlie was like that,” he says. “I later learned that he’d pulled the same stunt on Robin Miller.”

Miller, Hamilton County’s clerk and master, confirms Gearhiser treated her to the same initiation ritual.

While Gearhiser’s hijinks made Henry sweat, it taught him that it’s possible for lawyers to take themselves too seriously. “When you’re in the heat of battle and the client is invested in the outcome, you have to take what you’re doing seriously; you’re a professional,” he says. “But there’s room in the law for attorneys to enjoy what they’re doing.”

Henry, 38, has certainly enjoyed being an attorney for the past 13 years, all of which he spent at Gearhiser Peters. But recently, he felt compelled to leave the firm and strike out on his own.

He says there’s nothing scandalous or juicy led to his departure; it was simply the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

“I’ve always wanted to start my own firm,” he adds. “And Gearhiser was moving in a direction that was different from what I had been anticipating – not a bad direction, but different.”

Henry adds that his former colleagues at the firm were wholly supportive during the transition. “I’m continuing to work closely with a few attorneys there, so it’s been an amicable parting,” he says.

Speaking of work, Henry says he’d like to continue the practice he’s built. This includes the collections work he’s done for banks, including foreclosures, suing on loans that go into default and helping debtors work out loans with financial institutions.

Henry also wants to try cases. “In my heart of hearts, I’m a litigator,” he says. “I just don’t want to be pigeonholed into trying a particular kind of case.

“I’d like to be what in the old days you’d call a country lawyer –someone you could call if you needed something and he’d help you. If it was something he couldn’t do, he’d tell you he wasn’t sophisticated enough to do it.”

Unlike some attorneys, Henry didn’t choose the law after a careful analysis of his options. Rather, his father, Hamilton County Circuit Court clerk Larry Henry, asked him what he wanted to do, and it was the first thing that popped into his head.

Before entering politics, Henry’s father owned a service station in East Brainerd. Henry started working at the station when he was 12. Toward the end of the summer before Henry’s junior year, his father called him into his office and asked him if he wanted to take over the station when the time came.

“By the time I was 17, dad expected me to work a full day,” Henry remembers. “When he called me in there, it was a Friday and I was looking forward to the weekend. I had just washed the grease and oil off my hands to end the day.”

Henry told him no but and was then caught off guard by what his father asked him next.

“He said, ‘Then what do you want to do?’ The first thing that came to my mind was be a lawyer. So I said, ‘Dad, I’d like to be a lawyer.” And he said, ‘OK.’”

Henry’s father called his lawyer – Gearhiser – and told him his son wanted to be an attorney. Gearhiser hired Henry as a runner so he could see what a law office was like. So, technically, Henry can say he’s been with Gearhiser Peters in one capacity or another since 1997.

Henry enjoyed the environment and remembers being impressed with Gearhiser and the other partners, including Wayne Peters, Sam Elliott and Wade Cannon.

Henry’s resolve to become a lawyer was cemented when he learned about the Constitution in American history class the following school year. “The constitution intrigued me,” he recalls. “So, me becoming an attorney was a combination of me telling my dad I wanted to be one and then me being exposed to the law in high school.”

After earning an undergraduate degree at Sewanee: The University of the South and his law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law, Henry began practicing law at Gearhiser in 2006.

Thirteen years later, Henry is moving forward, ready to begin a new chapter in his career. He’s currently practicing out of his home, which puts him in close quarters with his four children and his wife of 16 years, Cassie Henry.

Although all the activity in the house can be distracting, Henry does intend to open an office, even though he’s still figuring out the timing and the location. In the meantime, he’ll continue to work at home, secure in the belief that no one there will play a joke on him that will prevent him from accessing his files.

Henry will also begin each day grateful he said “lawyer” on that ordinary but fateful Friday afternoon when he was 17.

“I don’t know if it was luck, providence or something else, but when I told my dad I wanted to be a lawyer, it was the right answer,” he says. “If he asked me the same question today, I’d give him the same answer.”