Whenever a position opened up in the judiciary in Hamilton County, Audrey Headrick’s fellow attorneys would tell her she’d make a wonderful judge. To convince her, they’d cite her friendly personality and even-tempered disposition, in addition to her legal expertise, as being among the qualities that would serve others well. While these things are true, Headrick’s colleagues left out one important aspect of her character – one that sustained her through difficult times: her remarkable inner strength.
Headrick makes no mention of challenging circumstances growing up. Sitting in the courtroom at the Bureau of Workers Compensation in Chattanooga – a small space that looks more like a conference room than a place where judges weigh and execute the law – she moves quickly through her early years, saying she graduated from Soddy Daisy High School in 1988 and married her high school sweetheart, Mike Headrick, the following year.
“We’ve been married 26 years,” she says, her voice not quite low, and not quite soft, but almost.
Soon after tying the knot, Headrick earned an associate degree at Chattanooga State, where she studied to become a legal secretary. “We had to choose between studying to be a regular secretary, a medical secretary, or a legal secretary, and I was interested in the legal profession, so that’s what I chose,” she says.
Headrick secured employment at Stophel & Stophel (which later became Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel) and spent most of the next six years working for Jeffrey Hollingsworth (who later became Judge Jeffrey Hollingsworth) and Bill Dearing. She liked what the two men did, and decided to go to law school.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature (which she chose as her major because she believed it would sharpen her writing skills), Headrick moved to Memphis, where she attended the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. While the first two years were tough, as they are for any student, things got interesting during year three – when the Headricks had their first child, a boy they named Alex.
Headrick finished school without too much difficulty, thanks in no small part to her mother, who moved in and helped to take care of Alex. But as Headrick started to practice at a workers compensation firm in Jackson, Tenn., she found the demands placed on new associates to be excessive.
“My son was ten months old,” she says. “When you’re an associate, you’re expected to work, work, work. I easily spent 60 to 70 hours a week working to get in my billable hours.
“If I’d been single, with no husband or child, then I would have felt comfortable there, but striking a balance between working and being a good mother was difficult.”
Headrick and her husband decided to move to Knoxville, where they’d be closer to their families. The next firm that employed Headrick was a better fit for her, but only barely, as the expectation to deliver a lot of billable hours was still there. However, another hard right turn in life assured she wouldn’t have enough hours a week to devote to work: her husband, a member of the Army National Guard, was deployed to Iraq for 18 months.
“He wasn’t in the military when we married, but after 9/11, he wanted to join,” she says. “He came home from basic and specialized training in Feb. 2003, and within a month, we learned he was going to be deployed.”
Things in Iraq were volatile, and Headrick was seeing footage on television of cheering Iraquis dragging the charred and mutilated bodies of American soldiers through the streets. Headrick would normally have been able to handle the rigors of her new position, but the stress of her husband being in the midst of those cirumstances was overwhelming. “It made dealing with the work load that much more difficult,” she says.
Headrick wanted to continue to practice law, though, so she began looking for a different kind of position that wouldn’t involve working as a plaintiff or a defendant’s attorney. She’d handled workers compensation matters at her first two jobs, and had liked what she’d done, so she was pleased when she learned that changes to labor and employment law in 2004 had created new positions in the state. She applied to be a level IV workers compensation specialist, and was hired. Even better, she was assigned to work in Chattanooga.
Things continued to fall into place for Headrick. Her husband returned home safe and sound, her family was close at hand, and her job was less demanding than the others, She and her husband even weathered another, shorter deployment and the simultaneous birth of their second child, Emma, like old pros.
A decade later, more reforms in workers compensation law created judges positions, moving matters that had been done in Circuit and Chancery Courts in-house. The first eight judges were appointed in 2014. When Headrick learned that Abbie Hudgens, administrator, would be appointing more judges in 2015, she applied.
“When I was a workers compensation specialist, I got to know a few attorneys really well,” she says. “Whenever a judicial position would open up, they’d tell me I’d make a wonderful judge. That planted the seed, and the more experience I got, the more I thought it was something I could do.”
Headrick’s name was one of six submitted to Hudgens after an extensive interview process, and Headrick was one of four judges appointed. She was sworn in on May 7.
While Headrick hasn’t been on the proverbial bench long enough to have handled a case, she’s looking forward to when this happens later this month or next. “I’m excited about the work I’ll be doing,” she says. “There will be hearings for temporary disability or medical benefits, and then I’ll issue an order. When the benefits will be permanent, if the parties can’t reach an agreement, there will be a trial.”
In each case, Headrick intends to give the parties involved full access to justice, regardless of the amount of money in question. “One attorney told me I always treat the process and the participants in a minor settlement as though it were a $100,000 settlement, and that’s the way it should be,” she says.
If Headrick was tailor-made to do anything, it was to persevere through adversity. While her legal experience and expertise will be called upon as she weighs and executes the law, so will the inner strength that enabled her to not only endure difficult circumstances but emerge ready to face the next challenge. Given this innate quality, and her many other attributes, her attorney friends may be proven right in the years to come: She will make a wonderful judge.