Attorney Jennifer Kent Exum is standing at the base of a 20-foot-tall vertical boring mill at American Mechanized Technology in Chattanooga. The mechanism, which is just one of the giant industrial tools the company uses to produce machine parts for various industries, towers over her and is even broader.
The vast space around the boring mill makes the machine look small in comparison. Exum estimates the massive structure, which is located just off Riverside Drive, could contain at least a couple football fields.
A trusts and estates lawyer with Baker Donelson, Exum and her navy-blue business attire stand in stark contrast to the brawny industrial surroundings. And yet she’s within her element.
Since becoming a trusts and estates lawyer in 2006, Exum has auctioned off tractor trailers, closed car lots and liquidated jewelry stores. So, selling a vertical boring mill that could swallow her and the nearby laborers whole if it were to come to life is just another day on the job.
This particular job stems not from Exum’s clientele at Baker Donelson, but her side gig as a court-appointed receiver. In the new role, she helps Hamilton County’s Chancery Court manage the businesses of decedents, as well as insolvent or complex estate administrations.
The receiver role is the brainchild of Chancellor Jeff Atherton, who devised the position as a way of curtailing the problems that could result from a business going adrift following the owner’s death.
“In 2021, the chancellor called and said, ‘I have a problem.’ He’d seen families in his court lose their largest asset in the estate because the person who ran the business had died. And before the family could figure out which end was up, the business was failing and there was nothing he could do.
“The chancellor was tired of seeing this happen, so he came up with the idea of using a receiver as support for the representative of an estate.”
Through her trusts and estates practice, Exum had become experienced in shuttering business. She’d also seen firsthand the problems that could bubble up when a business lost its proprietor to death. So, when Atherton asked Exum if she’d serve as his court’s first receiver, she said yes.
“When the chancellor calls and says, ‘I have a problem and I want you to help me fix it,’ you don’t say no,” Exum laughs.
After the passage of a state law that gives chancellors the authority to appoint a receiver, Atherton sent Exum to a nightclub that was mired in problems following the death of its owner.
“The operating account had been frozen, the employees – some of whom had worked there for 30 years – had gone several weeks without pay, no one had paid the food and liquor vendors, the insurance was expiring and the state licenses needed to be fixed,” Exum recalls.
Exum’s work demonstrated that the receiver role could work as Atherton intended.
“Within a day, I was able to access the funds and catch everyone up. We rebounded that business from its decline over COVID and passed it off to the next owner and a great management team.”
Exum had never managed a nightclub, but she had ushered beleaguered businesses through difficult transitions. She says this gave her the know-how to step into a foreign environment and help to salvage its operations.
“It’s not that I had to know everything about the business going in but I had to be able to figure it out. You get into whatever the deceased was involved in and you have to learn about their life and how they did things.”
Exum was pleased that she was able to have a positive impact on the nightclub through her work as receiver, especially because people tend to become leery when they learn an attorney is becoming involved in their affairs.
“When people see me coming through the door, I might not be the person they want to see,” she says. “They’re nervous at first because they don’t know what I’m going to do. Paying them helps, but they still might think I’m there to close things down and make things difficult for them. So, I strive to earn their trust and make sure they know I’m there to work alongside them.”
The tool that activates Exum is a box on the paperwork an executor completes when opening an estate that asks if the decedent was the owner of a business. When the executor checks this box, the clerk and master appoints Exum as a temporary limited receiver charged with doing an initial investigation to determine if the business needs assistance.
“I tell the executor’s attorney, ‘If you don’t need me, I’ll get out of your way as quickly as possible.’ If I’m appointed as a permanent receiver, then I step in and run the show.”
To date, Exum has received about three dozen appointments. She currently has nine in addition to her workload at Baker Donelson, which involves the full breadth of trusts and estate work. Fortunately, Exum says, she learned how to keep a lot of plates spinning soon after she became an attorney.
“Estate administration was my first love,” she explains. “I’d seen how estate planning had solved significant problems when a key family member died. And I’d seen the chaos and the drama that can result from a lack of planning. Seeing both of those instances made me think estate planning and administration was where I could be of the greatest service to people.”
A University of Tennessee College of Law-educated attorney, Exum says she decided to approach her practice from every angle – from planning, to the administration of wills, to advising and defending clients when litigation is necessary.
Within a couple of weeks of starting her practice in 2006, Exum met the late Michael Luhowiak, Hamilton County’s public administrator, who she credits as her mentor. It was a fortuitous encounter, as Luhowiak tossed Exum into the deep end of the pool.
“He said, ‘I don’t do a lot of estate administration work, but I understand that’s why you went to law school. Am I right?’ When I said yes, he said, ‘Then come see me.’ When I left his office, I had 81 open estates.”
Exum says her ability to keep dozens of estates at various stages of completion moving forward has been useful as she’s taken on the receivership work. It also helps that the work has been a fun and rewarding addition to her practice, she adds.
“It’s put me in the thick of people and industries I never would have encountered as an estate attorney,” Exum says as she strolls through a cavernous space at American Mechanized Technology, her heels clicking on the rough cement surface. “I never would have needed to know what a vertical boring mill is for or how it works. And that’s been fascinating.”