Attorney Philip Byrum has done something no other human being has: defeat City of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke in an election.
The year was 1996, and in the words of Byrum, the election was “very important.” Unlike the other votes in which Mayor Berke has competed, a seat in the state senate or the mayor’s office wasn’t at stake. Rather, a date with a young woman was on the line.
Byrum explains: “The election was for Chattanooga’s most eligible bachelor. There was one girl and three guys. The guys had to answer questions about what we liked in a woman and what we would do on a first date. I gave smart aleck answers. I’m not someone who can answer those questions seriously.
“She must have liked what I said, though, because I won the call-in vote. We went to 212 Market and sat there as a photographer took pictures of us. It was awkward.”
Byrum is wearing a wedding ring, but that’s another story. The young woman who chose him as her date did not wind up his bride. “We had just the one date,” he says, laughing. “At least it was paid for.”
While the date didn’t change the course of Byrum’s life, another unplanned deviation did: his job as a runner at the law firm of Miller Martin in Chattanooga.
Byrum’s first choice of career wasn’t the law, it was medicine. But after working hard as an undergraduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, doing well on the MCAT, and touring a few medical schools, he reached the difficult conclusion that he didn’t want to become a doctor. “That was a tough decision because I’d put a lot of time into taking all of the prerequisites,” he says, “but I’m glad I didn’t go down that route.”
Byrum was able to quickly change course. The summer before his senior year at Emory, he joined a friend of his in working at Miller Martin as a runner. He liked the atmosphere at the law firm, the congeniality of the attorneys, and the way they worked together to solve legal issues. After getting to know a few of the lawyers in the Labor & Employment (L&E) department, he decided to go to law school. His institution of choice: the University of Georgia, he says, slightly apologetically.
“I grew up in Tennessee, so Saturdays in the fall, I’m all orange,” he says. “But Athens is a great town, and my three years in law school were great years.”
After law school, Byrum took a job as an associate working in the L&E department at Miller Martin. With the firm handling all of the L&E work for Coca-Cola Enterprises, it was an exciting time for the young attorney. “I would try a case in California, and then I would go up against the teamsters in New York,” he says. “It was great work, but I did it to the detriment of other things.”
Byrum eventually left Miller Martin to work for Husch Blackwell. But the change wasn’t permanent. He’d been there only a short while when he experienced another unplanned deviation.
It started with a call from attorney Maury Nicely, who was working at Volkswagen but wanted to return to private practice. A few days later, without any knowledge of Nicely’s call, John Harrison, who was working at Baker Donelson, called Byrum and said he wanted to do something smaller. The coincidence was uncanny.
“They called me out of the blue within a couple of days of each other,” Bryum says. “We wound up together with Mark Hackett and David Evans, two more Husch Blackwell ex-pats.”
The resulting firm was Evans Harrison Hackett, a small firm housed in the wedge-shaped One Central Plaza on Georgia Avenue. From the office on the eighth floor, Byrum has one of the best views of downtown Chattanooga; it’s not street level so the city looms over the firm, and it’s not so high everything looks small. It’s the perfect bird’s eye view. And for Byrum, it’s the perfect place to ply his craft.
“I enjoy practicing law here,” he says. “I like sitting down at a conference table with a colleague and fleshing out a case.”
Byrum also likes working with his clients. “Most of my clients own small to mid-sized businesses. A lot of them are my age, and if they’re not just starting out, then they haven’t been at it too long,” he says. “I get to get into the thick of things with them and watch their company grow. I feel invested in them; I feel like I’m a part of them.”
While Byrum continues to focus heavily on L&E work, practicing at Evans Harrison Hackett has allowed him to branch into other areas of the law. One he especially enjoys is working with restaurants. Among his clients in this growing area of his practice is the Monen Family Resturant Group, owners of five downtown-area restaurants, including Taco Mamacita, Urban Stack, Community Pie, Clyde’s on Main, and Milk and Honey.
“Of course, it’s my duty to support my clients in every possible way,” he says, grinning. “And as you can see, I like going to restaurants.”
Byrum also likes the social atmosphere at Evans Harrison Hackett. “We’re a very congenial firm. We like each other,” he says. “We have a rule. It’s a no ‘something’ rule. The word begins with an ‘a.’” He’s still grinning as he says this.
Byrum, was born in Athens, Tenn., grew up in East Brainerd after his family moved when he was still young, and attended The Bright School and Baylor School. He met the woman who did become his bride, Katie, during his third year in law school. They have two children: a daughter, May, 9; and a son, Charlie, 7. The Byrums barely pause to take a breath, as both kids compete in at least one sport per season, and dad frequently coaching their teams.
Byrum tells one of this favorite sports stories about his son: “Our kids are tough and independent. They don’t let on that they care about mom and dad being at their games,” he says. “But I had to miss one of my son’s first baseball games this year, and he told my wife he was worried about playing without me being there.”
Byrum smiles. He values the time he has with his wife and kids. He also appreciates the opportunity to make a difference in his community, which he does through coaching youth sports and participating on the alumni board at Baylor.
Down time is rare, but when he has some, he enjoys listening to music and watching movies. Get him talking about the latter, and he’ll reveal himself to be something of a cinephile.
“Maury and I once started a film festival at Hunter Museum. When we showed a film, we tried to bring in people associated with it in some way,” he says. “One of the last films we showed was ‘Deliverance.’ We brought in (author) James Dickey’s son, who had written a book about the making of the movie, someone who had written about the river on which the film was made, and the stand-in for Bruce Reynolds. The actors claimed they did their own stunts, but he actually did some of them.”
Byrum speaks passionately about movies for several minutes, coming dangerously close to revealing an inner nerd. He seems to enjoy talking about something other than the law for a few moments.
Not that he doesn’t like his work. He does. But it doesn’t define who he is. If his friend at Miller Martin hadn’t take a job as a runner at the firm, he believes he would have found his way to a similar work environment.
“I’m a creature of habit. I like to have a schedule. I want to know where I’m going to be and what I’m going to be doing,” he says. “Basically, I’m risk adverse. If I hadn’t done this, would I have struck out on my own and launched a company? Probably not. I like to know where my paycheck is coming from.”
Byrum says he prefers a slow and steady pace to participating in the rat race. But as the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. It’s an appropriate metaphor for an attorney who likes rolling up his sleeves, getting in the trenches with his clients, and doing the kind of work that supports their growth.
It’s work Byrum is looking forward to doing for many years to come. He doubts he’ll ever step outside his comfort zone and take a risk, but if he does, he might want to consider running for political office. After all, he already has one victory against Mayor Berke under his belt.