Attorney Isiah Robinson has what he calls a conundrum.
It’s not related to his practice. As an associate at Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, he enjoys the work he’s doing as part of the firm’s litigation section.
Robinson, 32, also handles the occasional estate matter, which he also likes, he says.
His dilemma cannot be found in his home, either. He and his wife, Ripal, recently purchased a house on Chattanooga’s Southside and are relishing the walkable lifestyle that part of town affords.
Rather, Robinson feels pulled in two directions when it comes to community service – a matter close to his heart.
“There’s a lot of need around us. You can see it. I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t recognize it,” he says.
Robinson saw need at the high school he attended in his hometown of South Pittsburg, where he estimates more than 60% of the students were eligible for a free lunch.
Moved to action, Robinson spent his summers helping a parishioner in the church his father pastored serve three meals a day to food insecure children.
“I grew up in the middle of that need,” he recalls. “I saw it.”
Robinson also sees need in Chattanooga – the place he now calls home. Once again moved to action, he helped to pack boxes at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank in December after Chambliss issued a call for volunteers.
“As I was putting food in all of those boxes, I saw how many people in our city need those resources,” Robinson says.
Unable to divide his time between South Pittsburg and Chattanooga, Robinson says he must choose between his hometown and his new town.
It won’t be easy, he says.
“I lived in South Pittsburg until I went to college,” he explains. “I coached an elementary school basketball team there before I attended law school and developed relationships with those kids. So, I want to have at least one foot in that city.
“But I also need to become involved in Chattanooga, where we live.”
Robinson is at least testing the local waters. He recently attended a breakfast at the local Urban League, where he learned how the organization is helping the underserved areas in Chattanooga. The event sparked his interest in possibly becoming involved.
But Robinson still has one foot in nearby Marion County, where South Pittsburg is located. For example, he recently shared what going to law school and working as an attorney is like with high school students during a career day.
“I told them what to expect and encouraged them,” he says.
Encouragement from others provided the nudge that sent Robinson on a long and indecisive journey to the law.
It began with his parents, working class people who have spent their lives in manufacturing. Robinson’s father, in particular, made sure he saw the toll the hours of grueling toil takes on a person.
“Dad would come home after working a 12-hour shift and say, ‘Son, I don’t want you to work in this environment. So earn good grades, go to college and open up the world.’ That sunk in.”
Robinson’s father helped to open a door to the law when he introduced his son to attorney Bill Killian. Although Killian would go on to become the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, at the time, he had a small practice in nearby Jasper, and he offered Robinson an internship.
Killian also provided advice and insight that guided Robinson as he took his first uncertain steps toward a career as a lawyer.
The first of these was attending Sewanee: The University of the South, where Robinson majored in political science. While there, he continued to nurture his interest in community service by coaching the basketball team at St. Andrew’s Elementary School and mentoring elementary school students.
Although attracted to the law, the job market was saturated with attorneys and firms were not hiring when Robinson graduated in 2011, so he was leery of investing time and money in law school.
Instead, Robinson secured an internship with Chambliss Bahner through his work study supervisor at Sewanee, Donna Pierce, a former attorney with the firm and a past president of the Chattanooga Bar Association.
“I hoped to become more confident about going to law school,” Robinson explains.
Robinson worked with the firm’s litigation section. Although it was a good experience, he says, it didn’t convince him to attend law school, so he secured a job with Scott DesJarlais, the U.S. representative for Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District.
That experience finally convinced Robinson to go to law school.
“I worked with people who had Social Security, disability and Medicare issues,” he says. “When they contacted the congressman’s office, they’d been passed on, or given the runaround or a mistake had been made, so we were picking up cases midstream.
“I enjoyed taking their cases to completion. But I found myself wanting to be involved with matters from the start. As an attorney, you help a client from the beginning to the end of their issue.”
When Robinson left DesJarlais’ office after five years, he landed at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville College of Law. While there, he once again interned with the litigation section at Chambliss Bahner. The firm then extended an offer to Robinson, which he accepted.
Fifteen months later, Robinson is enjoying the practice of law and pleased he took the leap.
“I like speaking with clients and then helping them,” he says. “When I was working for the congressman, I operated behind the scenes and he was the person in the spotlight. But here, I talk directly with the clients; they want answers from me.”
Robinson says he’s still getting comfortable with being the point man on matters and expresses gratitude for the mentorship he’s receiving at his firm.
“I don’t always have all of the answers while I’m speaking with a client. Luckily, I’m able to rely on more experienced attorneys when I have questions. That gives me confidence.
“As attorneys, we’re trained to figure out the issue and take care of it, not to lean on others. But I’m learning the practice of law can be collaborative.”
Even as Robinson moves forward with his practice and life in Chattanooga, he remains grounded in his roots in South Pittsburg. He not only makes frequent trips to the city to visit his parents, but he also still finds himself drawn to giving back to the community he says gave him everything.
“They made me who I am,” he says. “And I don’t want to forget where I came from.”