Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 24, 2015

Estate planner winning over clients at will

Lee Ann Adams is an estate planner with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott & Cannon. Her disarming personality and attention to detail make her a sizeable asset to the firm. - David Laprad

Sometimes, a strange sound can be heard coming from a conference room at Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott & Cannon. It’s not an unpleasant sound, but one that’s rare within the walls of a dignified law firm, where attorneys handle matters of great importance and, by their nature, considerable stress. It’s a sound that breaks the silence that pervades Gearhiser, but not the tranquility.

It’s the sound of Lee Ann Adams laughing.

An estate planner, Adams spends her days drafting wills and trusts and handling probate matters. Generally, when a client comes to her, the person is being proactive, rather than reactive. This tends to positively charge her meetings with them.

“This morning, I received a call from a gentleman who has a new child, and he wants to put his affairs in order,” she says, her voice soft but elevating. “He felt good about contacting me. This is going to be a positive experience, and when he walks away, he’s not only going to have a product, he’s going to have peace of mind.”

Adams is sitting upright at a table in a small conference room, her hands folded in front of her. She’s wearing an elegant grey suit, a brown-speckled white blouse with ruffles that spill across the lapel of her jacket, and a friendly, nearly unwavering smile. Her medium brown hair is cut short in the back but has grown longer in the front, and is brushed to the right in relaxed layers. While she’s small in stature, her presence is both unassuming and commanding.

Although expressions of Adams’ personality, her frequent laughter, refined appearance, and genial demeanor do more than make her immediately likeable; they set her clients at ease and encourage them to open up.

“It’s not always easy to get people to talk about their family situation, or what’s important to them, or their money,” Adams says. “The only thing that would make some of the conversations I have with clients more personal is if we added religion.”

Adams laughs at her own joke. The sound has the effect of a tinkling wind chime.

“My job is to build a rapport with my clients so they feel comfortable sharing these things with me, even as I respect their privacy,” she says. “There are things I don’t need to know, but I can’t draft an estate plan, or address problems I don’t know exist, if I don’t understand what your goals are.”

To establish a connection with a client, Adams casually chats with them about matters unrelated to the issues at hand, and then closely observes their response as they discuss particulars. “Sometimes, a client will say something, and I’ll know from his body language there’s more to the story,” she says. “So I’ll gently probe.”

While Adams’ welcoming tone is pleasing, one should not assume it’s rooted in weakness, or that Adams is easy prey when representing a client. Her mentor at Gearhiser, Wayne Peters, explains why.

“When the circumstances call for it, Lee Ann can be tough as nails,” Peters says. “She’s willing to do whatever is needed to get the job done, and in that regard, she sets a high bar for the rest of us.”

It’s 18 years since Peters, an accredited estate mediator, took Adams under his wings. But she remembers the details of her early days at the firm as though they were yesterday.

“Gearhiser hired another associate at the same time, and was giving us similar work. Sometimes, we’d get a business assignment, and sometimes, we’d get estate planning work,” she says. “I originally thought I’d be doing corporate work, as I took a heavy concentration of classes in that area in law school, but I soon learned I didn’t like it. Studying it was one thing; doing it was another.”

As luck would have it, the other associate didn’t care for estate work, so he and Adams would swap assignments – with the blessing of the firm. Her practice continued to evolve along those lines until she was handling wills, trusts, and probate matters exclusively.

Adams couldn’t be happier, not just with her work, but also with the firm. “I landed in a pot of jam,” she says. “Gearhiser is very family-friendly. There are attorneys here who have had opportunities to go elsewhere, but they stayed because of the importance the firm places on family, and because it’s extremely supportive of female attorneys. I was made a member while I was pregnant with my second son.”

Gearhiser, in turn, couldn’t be more pleased with Adams. “Lee Ann puts her all into her profession and serving her clients, and does so with great joy,” Peters says. “Her enthusiasm and spirit are a blessing to all of us.”

Adams carries the same enthusiasm and spirit into everything she does, including her time with her family, her civic activities, and her service to her church.

Adams is married to Tom, a teacher at The McCallie School. Together, they have two sons: Hunter, a rising ninth grader at McCallie, and James, a rising seventh grader at McCallie. Her husband coaches sixth grade football at the school, and her boys play a multitude of sports, which gives her an important role.

“I’m the cheerleader of Team Adams,” she says, smiling broadly. “When my boys are playing, I’m there cheering them on, and when they’re not playing and my husband has a game, I’m there cheering him on.”

Even the family’s vacations have a sports component. Each year, they select a Major League Baseball ballpark, and visit the city in which it’s located to take in a game and the local culture. “We’ve been to San Francisco, San Diego, and New York,” Adams says. “We saw Shea Stadium before it was torn down.”

To balance out the testosterone in her life, Adams changes gears when it comes to giving back to her community. “I live in a house of men,” she says, “so much of my civic work is woman-oriented.”

Adams is a board member at Girls Inc., where she serves as head of the governance committee. She’s also a member of the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute (CWLI), and has applied to become a member of the University of Tennessee Women’s Council, a statewide organization serving multiple UT campuses.

Through CWLI, she has taught an estate planning course during the organization’s Financial Empowerment series for the past three years, and has been asked to present again. She considers this to be a vital service to her community.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about estate planning out there. People hear the scare tactics, but they aren’t told what they really need to do,” she says. “Someone on the radio will say state taxes are going to bleed people dry, and then a client will ask me if it’s true. I’ll say, ‘Do you have an estate worth more than $5 million? No? Then you’re going to be okay! What you need to do is make sure you have power of attorney.’

“I’m not there shilling for business, but providing information so the women can begin planning.”

Somehow, Adams has enough time left in her schedule to serve on the Board of Trustees and sing in the choir at Signal Crest United Methodist Church. “I come from a musical family,” she says, without offering a sample.

By any measure. Adams is a proud addition to her profession. But there was a time when she would have chosen another path.

A Chattanooga native, Adams earned her law degree at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. As she approached graduation, she looked for work only in her hometown. “I didn’t interview in Nashville or Knoxville because I didn’t want to live or work in those cities,” she says. “This is my home. This is where my family is. I’m connected to this city.”

If Adams hadn’t found work as an attorney locally, she doesn’t know what she would have done professionally – but she would have done it in Chattanooga. “My commitment to my city was greater than my commitment to the law,” she says.

Adams did find a job – at Gearhiser. And today, it would be hard to imagine the firm without her. Her energy, warmth, and exceptional work would be missed – as would the strange sound that sometimes can be heard coming from one of the firm’s conference rooms. It breaks the silence that pervades Gearhiser, and it softens the hearts of those she serves.