This is the first installment in a series of articles featuring families in which successive generations have practiced law. In this entry, Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel attorney Shelton Chambers sits down with her father and aunt to remember how the legal practice entered their lives and defined their destinies.
When someone chooses the same profession as their mother or father, people say they followed in their parent’s footsteps. A son becoming an entrepreneur, like his mother, or a daughter becoming a doctor, like her father, paints a picture of a young adult stepping in the very tracks their parent made as they walked along their life path.
The footprints into which attorney Shelton Chambers, 39, placed her feet were deeper than most, and the path was well worn, for she did not follow a single parent into the legal profession but two generations of family.
Chambers’ father was among those who preceded her in the practice of law. Hailing from Jasper, Howard Swafford, Jr., 71, spent his life solving the legal dilemmas of whoever walked through the door and could afford his fee.
“There was a time when I’d sue whatever moved,” Swafford declares. “My daughter was at GPS and my son was at McCallie, and that was expensive.”
During breaks from school, Chambers’ voice was often the first one callers heard after they dialed Swafford’s number. Chambers also helped her father with his correspondence. The work helped to shape her aspirations.
“A lot of me becoming an attorney was, ‘This is what the Swaffords do,’” she says.
Chambers is seated next to her father at Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, where she handles trusts and estates and has carved a niche for serving high-net-worth clients.
Joining them at the table is Claudia Swafford Halton, 67, a retired attorney and juvenile court magistrate. Halton is also Chambers’ aunt and Swafford’s sister.
Like Swafford, Halton helped to usher Chambers to the practice of law, although she says she had a lesser role in her niece becoming an attorney than her brother.
That said, Swafford can’t claim to have had the greatest measure of influence on his daughter’s choice of profession. That person was Chambers’ grandmother, who died in 2016 after being a licensed attorney for over 60 years.
But even in death, Claude Galbreath Swafford looms large in any room in which her name is mentioned.
“Our mother thought something was wrong with you if you didn’t go to law school,” Howard says. “She expected us to put an active license to practice law in her casket.”
Chambers remembers her grandmother bristling when she asked her why. “She said, ‘I became an attorney and I will die an attorney.’ It was very dramatic.”
Claude never gave up her role as family empress, either. When she learned Chambers was going to take two years off to become a certified public accountant, she summoned her granddaughter to Jasper for a sound verbal thrashing.
“She was furious,” Swafford laughs. “I assured her I would go to law school as soon as I passed the CPA exam.”
“Mother was not impressed with Shelton becoming a CPA,” adds Howard. “When our generation was coming up, those who were lawyers were very strident about their children going to law school. It was a big deal.”
The introduction of the practice of law to the Swaffords was indeed an event of great importance to the family. To Claude and her attorney husband, Howard Graham Swafford, the legal profession was more than a career, it was the rudder that steered their family toward a better fortune.
Halton says becoming an attorney was not easy for her mother. Not only were there very few female lawyers when she arrived at the University of Tennessee soon after the end of the Second World War, she also was the target of discrimination and family censure.
“The dean of the law school told her she was there to find a husband,” Halton remembers.
But Claude was made of steel that could not be bent. At the age of 19, she declared herself to be an employee of her father’s ice and coal business in Greenville when she learned his manager was stealing from him.
After running off the thief, she immersed herself in the male-dominated world of big trucks and heavy cargo as she earned her undergraduate degree at Tusculum University.
She then left home for law school against her mother’s objections. Had she stayed home, she would not have met Howard, Sr., who was there to lift himself and his siblings out of poverty.
“Our dad came from a poor family,” Halton explains. “When he was 16, he put everything he owned in a paper bag, hitchhiked to Knoxville and signed up for classes. He had $75 he’d earned doing yard work in his pocket.”
To place a roof over his head and a mattress under his impoverished frame, Howard, Sr., slept in the basement of a boarding house, where he stoked the furnace to keep the other tenants warm.
Lacking the money to pay for food, Howard, Sr., tried to convince Coach Robert Neyland to place him on the football team, but Neyland turned him down and sent him to the wrestling coach instead.
Howard, Sr., earned his three squares a day as a member of the squad and eventually became its captain.
After serving as a Navy pilot in the Pacific theater during World War II, Howard, Sr., attended law school on the GI Bill.
“Our lives changed because of the GI Bill,” Howard, Jr., says.
As Howard, Jr., and Halton came of age, they dutifully became attorneys. But as Halton thinks back on her mother, who’s remembered as a trailblazing lawyer and a powerful educator, she doesn’t see a demanding matriarch who insisted her children follow in her footsteps, she sees a woman who was proud to be a part of the American legal system.
“She believed the legal profession was the bedrock of our country and that having a rule of law that applied to everyone equally was important,” Halton says.
“My grandmother was an advocate for underdogs,” Chambers adds. “None of my clients are underdogs, but she would open doors for people.”
Claude’s passion for being an attorney has trickled down the Swafford bloodline to Chambers. Even while Chambers was still working in accounting, she’d tell people she was an attorney.
“I’m proud to be a lawyer,” she says. “If I hadn’t gone to law school, I would’ve been a happy accountant, but I like where my choices have brought me.”
Chambers’ father and aunt are proud of her as well, not just for becoming an attorney but for being a good attorney.
“Shelton has the best of all of us,” says her aunt. “She has her grandmother’s confidence and determination and more intelligence than her father or me.
“Shelton is the one we call for advice on anything complicated involving money. We’ll be thinking we have a good idea about what to do and then she’ll tell us exactly what we need to do.”
Chambers also excels at “smoothing out people’s emotions” when money is involved, Halton continues.
“She might be passing on bad news to a client, but she can help them find the good news, too, and that takes talent.”
“I called a client to tell him his tax liability was a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Chambers interjects. “And he said, ‘Shelton, my wife has always told me the only really bad news you get is from your doctor. You can deal with anything else.’”
While Claude’s staunch commitment to the legal profession impacted two generations of her family, there are indications that future Swaffords might go in a different direction.
Chambers’ brother, for example, declined to go to law school – and Howard, Jr., didn’t tell him something was wrong with him.
“He said, ‘Dad, I can’t stand school. I don’t want to be a lawyer.’ And I didn’t want to drag him through law school and then bring him back to Jasper and fight with him for the next 40 years, so I turned him loose.
“He sells malpractice insurance to attorneys and makes more money than any of us.”
Likewise, Halton says she would have been proud of Chambers regardless of the career she chose.
“I just want Shelton to be happy. If she hadn’t been a lawyer, she would’ve done something else, and that would’ve been fine, too. I’m not as obsessed as my mother was about being a lawyer.”
“Our generation is even less obsessed with it,” Chambers notes. “When grandma finished law school, you had to try really hard to not be successful. Nowadays, it a grind, day in and day out. So I do wonder if I want my kids to do this.
“I enjoy my practice. I spent all morning working on a special kind of trust – and I liked it. I’m passionate about dealing with family problems and sticky situations and helping people come together.
“But I might encourage my kids to do something else.”