Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 16, 2022

Sawhill finds old friends, obstacle in return to law

April Sawhill joined Grant Konvalinka as a general civil and commercial litigator and a Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 general civil mediator in July. - Photograph provided

Attorney April Sawhill was no legal tenderfoot when she and her family moved from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Signal Mountain in 2020.

She’d represented clients in commercial litigation and insurance coverage matters for several years in Grand Rapids after graduating from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 2004 – and even become a partner at the firm where she was practicing.

She’d also earned a Master of Laws in dispute resolution and externed with the International Council for Online Dispute Resolution while living in South Korea.

And she’d served as the lead artificial intelligence researcher for the Center for Legal & Court Technology at William & Mary Law School after returning to the United States.

But rules are rules, so when Sawhill, 44, decided to practice law again, the Board of Law Examiners for the State of Tennessee required her to do something attorneys with her background rarely have to do: study for and take the bar exam.

“I left active practice in 2013 to do the expat thing with my husband,” she says. “And I couldn’t get reciprocity in Tennessee because I hadn’t been practicing for the last five years.”

Sawhill sums up the experience with a single word: brutal.

“I was working full time for William & Mary during the day and spending every evening and weekend studying. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my husband and the patience of my kids.”

The payoff was worth the effort, Sawhill says, because it allowed her to join the law firm of Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison in July, where she’s working as a general civil and commercial litigator and a Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 general civil mediator.

Although Sawhill had never practiced in Tennessee, her arrival at Grant Konvalinka was a homecoming of sorts, as it reunited her with a handful of UT classmates.

A chance encounter with attorney Thomas Gautreaux at a high school track meet opened a door at the firm for Sawhill. She and Gautreaux had shared a row in a lecture hall at UT during their first year of law school and were surprised to meet again.

Katherine Lentz, who also practices at Grant Konvalinka, was present at the same lectures.

And Sawhill had served on the moot court board at UT with Jillyn O’Shaughnessy, another Grant Konvalinka practitioner.

While the familiar faces were a welcome sight as Sawhill settled in, the deluge of new faces at the docket call on her first Monday in court amazed her.

“Michigan does not have anything like that,” she recalls with a laugh. “I’d never seen so many attorneys packed into one room.”

Sawhill likens the local docket call to a social gathering where attorneys catch up with one another and work out deals on cases.

“It encourages and facilitates dialogue and it’s very congenial,” she says. “The friendliness of the local bar surprised me.”

In another deviation from Sawhill’s previous experience, she says Tennessee handles personal injury and insurance coverage cases differently than Michigan, which was using a pure no-fault system when she practiced there. So, she’s uncertain how much work she’ll be doing in that area of the law.

However, Sawhill would possibly like to draw from her artificial intelligence research at William & Mary and develop what she calls a “cyber practice” in the Chattanooga legal market.

She says AI represents a fascinating new frontier the law is just beginning to explore.

“There’s a joke that attorneys aren’t computer scientists,” she submits. “When I started law school, we were some of the first students to bring our laptops to class to take notes. Now we’re seeing the creation of virtual courts.”

Sawhill’s work with the students at William & Mary explored the integration of AI, cybersecurity and data privacy with the legal system. Through her role, she guided the team as it tackled questions for which there were no easy answers and delved into the ethical concerns AI presents.

“Can an AI create something that can be patented? What are the ethical implications of an AI assisting a criminal court judge with recidivism rates? Did the programmers unintentionally code bias into the system? AI affects us in many ways every day.”

Although Sawhill didn’t grow up in Chattanooga, she was born locally. Her family left just after she’d learned to walk and eventually landed in Clinton, Tennessee, where she graduated from high school.

A slew of John Grisham novels and mock trial sparked Sawhill’s interest in the law. Her ability to analyze a problem objectively and from different angles, as well as her passionate arguments for the side she was representing, suggested she had the mind of an attorney to boot.

After earning her undergraduate degree at Georgetown University and graduating from UT, she moved to Michigan, the home state of her husband, Andrew. They were residing in South Korea, where he was working for Amway, when COVID-19 emerged.

Like many families, Sawhill and her husband and two children reassessed their lives during the lockdown that followed. While visiting family in the Chattanooga area, they discovered Signal Mountain is home to a public school with an International Baccalaureate program and decided to move to there.

Now that Chattanooga has mostly reopened, Sawhill and her family are venturing into the city and exploring what it offers. She’s looking forward to visiting Hunter Museum and other art galleries and shops and is being a dutiful sports mom as her children participate in various athletic endeavors at Signal Mountain Middle High School.

Sawhill is also volunteering at the school, where she manages the SpiritShop for the sports boosters.

“If you come to the trailer on a Friday night, you’ll find me there selling t-shirts, bumper stickers and hats,” she laughs.

Although business is brisk, the line outside the trailer never rivals the crowd at docket call on Monday mornings, she says, and volunteering at the trailer during a home game beats being at home studying for the bar exam.

“We love being here,” she says. “It’s a comfortable place to live and work.”