Mark Cunningham says he has a single, all-encompassing objective as the new managing shareholder and president of Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel: Don’t screw things up.
“To a certain extent, that’s my mission,” he claims with a laugh.
Cunningham, 48, was acutely aware of his primary objective as his predecessor, Mike St. Charles, began preparing him to assume the mantle of leadership in early 2019. It was also on his mind when his phone “blew up” at 4:30 a.m. during a work-related trip to Las Vegas in February.
“The firm announced the change in leadership at 7:30 a.m., and people were sending their congratulations,” Cunningham recalls with another laugh.
Cunningham’s top priority also weighed heavy on his mind as pundits began to speculate about the impact the coronavirus would have in the U.S., as he knew it would present challenges unlike any Chambliss Bahner had faced in its 134-year history.
As Cunningham joined the firm’s executive committee in responding to the pandemic, he realized one of his most difficult tasks as managing shareholder would be following in the footsteps of St. Charles, who he says was a great leader.
“I could sense the fear of the unknown and the stress that comes with it,” he says. “But Mike had put us in a very good position.”
Instead of looming like an impossible standard, the legacy of St. Charles’ leadership gave Cunningham a solid foundation on which to stand as he tackled his first decision as managing shareholder – balancing the firm’s desire to provide quality service while safeguarding everyone’s health. He says he and the executive committee struck the right balance.
“We didn’t send everyone home. Instead, we reduced the staffing in a way that allowed us to maintain a safe physical distance from each other but also perform at a high level,” he says.
Responding to the pandemic has tested Cunningham’s mettle as a leader and given him an opportunity to demonstrate the wisdom of the executive board’s decision to name him managing shareholder. While he says he would have preferred to wait until later in his tenure to make decisions of the current magnitude, the cohesive nature of the firm’s response and the support he’s received have encouraged him.
“Just like in America, and just like in Chattanooga, we’ve had differences of opinion on how to respond, but we’ve also had healthy discussions, and everyone has been on board with the decisions we’ve made,” he says.
Although Cunningham is new to the position of managing shareholder, he’s no stranger to leadership. In addition to serving as a longtime member of Chambliss Bahner’s executive committee, he chaired the firm’s health care section for nearly a decade.
While these roles prepared him to take on greater responsibilities, he says his long history with the firm will also help him lead effectively.
Cunningham joined Chambliss & Bahner around the time of its merger with Stophel & Stophel in 1997 and watched the combined firm gradually mature into what he says is a community-oriented entity driven by fierce loyalty to its clients.
“Behind the scenes, there’s also a bit of a blue-collar dynamic,” he adds. “While we’re able to work with some very good clients and provide a high level of work, a lot of the attorneys here are not second generation or third generation lawyers. My dad sold corrugated boxes in Chattanooga. I think that gives us a unique dynamic.”
Cunningham says his understanding of Chambliss Bahner’s identity will help him to ensure the firm emerges from the crisis with its character intact.
Cunningham also says his professional work has prepared him to help spearhead Chambliss Bahner. As a health care attorney, he serves clients in the revenue cycle management, physician services, and mergers and acquisitions markets, giving him more than 20 years of experiencing working with entities he says are analogous to law firms.
“None of this was out of the blue,” he says of every stone that formed the path that led to him becoming managing shareholder.
Cunningham can trace the development of his practice back to his days as a summer associate with Chambliss Bahner in 1996. During his time with the firm, he labored under health care law attorney Bill Aiken, who provided sage advice about which classes to take should he be interested in pursuing the same line of work.
Chambliss hired Cunningham and then placed him with both Aiken and another health care law attorney, Steve Jett, who had joined the firm during the merger with Stophel & Stophel. Cunningham says this gave him the luxury of training under two of the best health care attorneys in Chattanooga.
“The only problem was Steve got in incredibly early and Bill got in and left incredibly late. I never thought I could beat Steve in and I never thought I could stay later than Bill,” he remembers with a smile.
When Jett left Chambliss three years later to accept an in-house position, the firm placed Cunningham in a position far more prominent than many third-year associates experience. This presented him with unique challenges.
“I looked really young when I was that age. I can remember sitting in the waiting room at Memorial [Hospital] for about an hour waiting to meet with a client. I kept calling them and asking, ‘Where are you?’ And they would say, ‘We’ve been out there three times, and there’s no one there but a kid in a brown suit.’ I said, ‘That’s your lawyer.’”
Although that was a stressful time, Cunningham says the trust Chambliss Bahner placed in him at a young age gave him an opportunity to grow. “It accelerated my development as an attorney by about a decade,” he says.
The theme of trust continued as Cunningham developed into an attorney who was capable of bringing new business to the firm. He says he owes this branch of his development to an unexpected invitation.
“If I were to look back at my client tree, one client was incredibly important. And it all started when they invited me to attend a PGA event in Atlanta because they had an extra ticket,” he recalls. “I went and allowed those personal relationships to develop. What I learned was that knowing each other as people and trusting each other on that level changes the dynamic of the attorney-client relationship.”
When Cunningham accepted the job with Chambliss Bahner, he saw it as an opportunity to return home. A Chattanooga-area native, he grew up in Signal Mountain and graduated from McCallie School before stretching his wings to attend undergraduate school at the University of North Carolina.
While there, Cunningham contemplated two paths, a master’s in fine art and poetry, which appealed to his creative side, or going to law school, which was attractive to his intellectual half. A frank conversation with his poetry professor steered him toward the law.
“He said, ‘You realize I don’t make much money,’” Cunningham remembers. “I was about to get married and needed the honesty of that conversation.”
Cunningham attended Tulane Law School in New Orleans while his wife, Mandie, earned a master’s degree in speech pathology at LSU Health in the city. They then packed their belongings and moved to Chattanooga.
“She wouldn’t go to Atlanta. She’s from Asheville, and Chattanooga is big enough for her,” Cunningham says.
As Cunningham muses on the years that lie ahead of him, he says his goal as managing shareholder will eventually shift from dealing with the pandemic to developing the next generation of attorneys at Chambliss Bahner.
In this role, Cunningham sees himself and the executive committee creating an environment that provides the firm’s young associates with the same kinds of opportunities that helped him and the other lawyers his age to pursue their potential.
“How do we train the next generation? How do we transition business with shareholders who might have an offramp coming in the next five to 10 years? I look at that as one of the key issues for us because our younger shareholders and associates are unbelievably talented,” he says.
“Someone once told me the best thing you can do is hire someone who’s smarter than you, and in a lot of cases, I believe we’ve done that. So, my main goal is figuring out how to make sure that talent can bloom.”
As the proud parents of a 20-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, Cunningham and his wife are also making sure their own offspring are in a position to flourish. Cunningham says his daughter, Jillian, is a “pistol,” while he and his son, Kai, share an interest in bouldering and other outdoor activities endemic to Chattanooga.
“I just played sports growing up, so it’s funny that I’m doing those things now,” he says. “I didn’t go climbing or hiking or mountain biking when I was young. It wasn’t until my early 30s when I began mountain biking with another guy that I began to see Chattanooga in a different light. I recharge in that environment.”
Cunningham and his wife also renew themselves through community service. While he has contributed to different efforts locally and at his alma mater in North Carolina, they are currently working together through their church and a group called Street Grace to help end sexual trafficking of children.
“That’s close to our hearts, especially Mandie’s,” he says. “Mike was very community oriented, and I hope to have the opportunity to concentrate on those kinds of things, as well. It’s one of the reasons I took on this role.”
For now, however, Cunningham is focused on helping to usher Chambliss Bahner through the pandemic. But he can see the other side of the crisis, and he feels hopeful about not just where the firm will be, but also where his hometown and country will be.
“Hindsight is going to be easy. I hope we use it as a way of bonding with people and saying, ‘We were all making decisions in good faith,’” Cunningham says. “We’re all humans and we’re all dealing with the same fears.”