When someone asked Kathy Rowell if she'd ever considered going to law school, she wasn't warm to the idea. "There's a reason there are a lot of jokes about lawyers," she says, "Attorneys have a bad reputation, and I didn't want to be involved in a profession in which I would encounter a lot of negativity."
The notion of becoming a lawyer stuck with her, though, and her perception eventually flipped. "I realized there are many good things you can do with a law degree," she says. "I wanted to help people that were underrepresented and effect change."
Rowell also knew what she didn't want to do: become a business attorney working at a law firm. That wouldn't have suited her well, she says, partly because she has issues working under people in authority, but also because she's not the law firm type. "I didn't want to work 80 hours a week and not necessarily be in court. I wanted more experience than that," she says.
Rowell got her wish, but not before working for a string of "people in authority."
After graduating from Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, Rowell moved to Miami to be close to her father and took a job with the Florida Department of Children and Families. She spent the next eight years working in child welfare and slowly making her way to Palm Beach. Rowell also met and married her husband, Matt. When she decided she no longer wanted to live in South Florida, they chose Chattanooga so she could be near her grandmothers.
Rowell continued to focus on child welfare, working for the Tennessee Department of Children Services in Hamilton, Bradley, and Polk Counties. She labored there for seven years – the longest she's ever been at one job. Although she gives her boss at the department high marks, the heavy case load and the frustration that come with working within what she terms a restrictive bureaucracy eventually wore her down, and she knew the time for change had come.
"I was helping people, but I felt I could help more people on my own," she says.
Three years after launching a solo practice, Rowell says she's realized her desire to help more people more effectively. She's frequently appointed as a guardian ad litem in Chancery and Circuit Courts, and handles a lot of private cases, many of which involve getting children into safer homes.
While Rowell's case load is more manageable than it was while she was working for the state, she's still dealing with the stress inherent in her field of law.
"I don't know that it's possible to be an attorney who spends a lot of time in court and not experience some pressure," she says. "But more than that, the area of the law I practice is one of the most stressful there is because you're dealing with emotionally charged conflict day in and day out."
To stay in shape mentally and physically, Rowell exercises, does yoga, and meditates. She also travels as often as she can. A recent week off in Ireland was just what she needed. "I left messages saying I was gone, and when I got back, things weren't too bad," she says, smiling.
Rowell also manages stress by doing volunteer work that makes a difference in her community and profession. She has sat in on meetings regarding the Family Connections Visitation Center at Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, and has been on the board of SETLAW (Southeast Tennessee Lawyers Association for Women) since it relaunched a few years ago. Next year, she'll be serving as president.
"We're building a community of female attorneys that can support and educate each other," she says. "It's exciting."
Rowell also does her best to leave work at the office. "I try to not take work home," she says. "While working for the state, I learned there needs to be some separation between work and the rest of your life."
There is one more thing the slightly diminutive Rowell used to do to let off steam – but it's been a while since she's indulged in the activity: play bass guitar. "I've neglected it as I've built this practice," she says, looking not at all like someone who would wield a heavy bass guitar and lay the foundation for a jam session. "But I need to get back into it. I love music."
Rowell has traveled an interesting path from her childhood home in Birmingham, Ala., to her office in a repurposed house on Houston Street in downtown Chattanooga. She had no master plan as she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history at the University of Alabama. And although Rowell approached law school with an idealistic mindset, she spent 15 years laboring in stressful, restrictive work environments. But she found her way to the end of those days, and used the experience she'd acquired to start her own practice. As a result, Rowell is finally doing what she originally set out to do: effect change in the lives of the underrepresented.
She might even be responsible for people telling fewer jokes about lawyers. And that would be no small accomplishment.