Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 4, 2013

Michael Thomas carving own legacy in the law

Attorney Michael Thomas has a name that, in most circles, would be considered common. But in the legal profession in Hamilton County, it occasionally causes a double-take – as “attorney Michael Thomas” is the son of Judge W. Neil Thomas III, known for his honorable service in the local circuit court. But Thomas is not relying on his father’s name to open doors; rather, the young attorney is working hard to open his own gateways.

Initially, the law wasn’t on Thomas’s radar. Instead, he graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a business degree and tried his hand at being an entrepreneur. After dabbling in the restaurant business and launching a production company, he realized he was heading in the wrong direction.

“It was tough work, but it wasn’t fulfilling,” he says. “And the law kept calling.”

Thomas spoke with his family about him going to law school. After making sure his heart was in it, they gave him their support and encouragement.

Thomas graduated from the Cecil B. Humphreys School of Law, located in a renovated customs house in downtown Memphis. He remembers his time there with idyllic fondness. “I would have a hard time believing there’s a better facility in the country for a law school. It has smart classrooms, but also old marble fireplaces, and it’s right on the Mississippi River.”

Many of Thomas’s classmates surprised him during their first year of classes by declaring their intent to pursue a speciality within the law. Trial work appealed to him, but beyond that, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. During his second year, he felt a spark as he studied estate law. By his third year, he had developed a love for trusts and estates.

“Trusts and estates have been around forever, but under the Uniform Trust Code, there’s not a lot of guidance, so we’re establishing case law,” he says.

When Thomas returned to Chattanooga in 2010, he faced a tough market for working lawyers, let alone a freshly minted attorney. He thought his clerkships would give him a foot in a few doors, but he quickly learned that was not the case. “Being the terrible time it was, tons of lawyers were being laid off, and not many people were coming out of law school with a job,” Thomas says.

Eventually, Duncan, Hatcher, Hixson & Fleenor took Thomas on. When that relationship ended amicably in April of this year, Thomas kept his clients and continued working on his own.

“I’m happy with what I’ve been able to do for every one of my trust clients. I’ve been there through the frustrations, the joys, and the relief of beneficiaries feeling like they’re going to be treated equally, as their parents intended,” he says. “After holding their hands through the process, there’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing a smile cross their face and hearing them say it was worth it.”

Thomas has held the hands of trust clients in New York, California, and locally. While he’s been successful in this area of his practice, he’s not locked himself into one area of the law. In addition to estates and trusts, Thomas practices corporate law and criminal defense law.

Thomas’s love of corporate law stems partly from his desire to keep his practice fresh. “The exciting thing about corporate law is you never know what’s going to happen. I make sure the construction company I represent is run ethically and in accordance with Tennessee law, but from day to day, I never know what’s going to come up. I like not having to do the same thing over and over again,” he says.

Thomas does criminal defense work to keep his litigation skills honed. This past spring, his efforts during a murder trial resulted in a hung jury. “Trial work keeps me on my toes,” he says.

While Thomas’s law practice is diverse, a common thread runs through each area: his desire to take care of his clients. “I like being a trial lawyer, a counselor, and, when it’s needed, a friend,” he says.

Thomas also enjoys giving back. Although only three years into the practice of law, he’s already serving as president of the Young Lawyers Division of the Chattanooga Bar Association, an organization he believes can be an invaluable asset to young attorneys who don’t have the connections a large firm provides. “YLD provides a centralized place for introductions, great conversation, and even referrals,” he says.

Thomas is also a strong believer in the mentoring the YLD can offer. “Many young lawyers pass the bar and then walk into a law firm and realize they don’t know what they’re doing. Law school teaches you how to write a paper, not practice law. The YLD can reassure you and point you in the right direction.”

Thomas would be wise to ask a few friends for guidance of a different kind, as he’s getting married November 2. He and his fiancee, Amy Campbell, a nurse, will be enjoying a destination wedding in Charleston, S.C. Thomas is going to need more than advice on his role as husband, though – his bride-to-be comes with “three beautiful stepdaughters,” he says.

If Thomas ever needs to get away for a few days, he can always grab those same friends and go hunting. The quacking ducks on his cell phone betray his love of the sport. “Hunting is a passion. I really enjoy it,” he says.

Like his dad, Thomas is a tall drink of water, but as a young lawyer, he’s standing in the shadow of his father’s accomplishments. If anything, this motivates him to continue to carve his own niche in the law.

“Most people know me as Judge Thomas’s son, even though I don’t go around saying, ‘Hey, I’m Judge Thomas’s son.’ But a few months ago, people I practiced alongside several times a week pulled me aside and said, ‘We had no idea you were Judge Thomas’s son.’ I liked knowing they got to know me for me.”