Ten years ago, attorney Kevin Wilson took a breath, and his life changed.
A full-time lawyer in Chattanooga and a part-time judge in Collegedale, he’d traveled to California to visit his sister. One night not long after he’d returned home, he started to feel sick. He couldn’t shake it off, so he went to a doctor, who said he had pneumonia and gave him antibiotics.
Wilson’s condition worsened until he felt compelled to go to the emergency room. The staff there said, yes, he had pneumonia, and bombarded him with more antibiotics. When that didn’t help, he admitted himself to the hospital. Clearly, it wasn’t pneumonia, but that’s all they could tell him.
Then a hospitalist asked Wilson if he’d recently been out west. He then suggested Wilson had contracted Valley Fever, a fungal infection. Wilson doesn’t know when, but at some point during his visit to California, he’d inhaled an organism that took up residence in his lungs and propagated. This devastated his health.
“I had to step down as judge for a year. My wife, who’s also an attorney, ran my office. And I lived with my parents in Florida for several months,” he says.
Even with a proper diagnosis, it took Wilson a year and a half to recover. And then he suffered a couple of relapses. But he’s clawed his way back, and today, he says he’s in ship shape.
He certainly appears to be. At 59, he looks closer to 49, despite a full head of gray hair and a goatee that’s more silver than dark, and his face has the ruddy glow of good health. The latter matches the light pink shirt that loosely fits his tall, slender frame.
He smiles, something his face seems tailor made to do, and explains his attire.
“I’m going to take part in the Real Men Wear Pink campaign in October,” he says, referring to the American Cancer Society’s annual fundraiser, held to raise money for fighting breast cancer. “So I’m warming up.”
Wilson says he prefers to work behind the scenes, but his wife, Scarlett, talked him into taking a visible part in the campaign, which will see him wear pink for a 31-day stretch. To prepare her husband, Scarlett has been expanding his wardrobe accordingly. “She’s been buying me pink socks, pink ties, pink everything,” he says. “She says the color looks good on me, so I might continue to wear it after the fundraiser is over.”
Although Wilson laughs, he could continue to wear pink if he wanted to. As a solo practitioner with a general practice, he can do whatever he wishes.
Wilson built his law practice on debt collection, a field he says is no bed of roses. “The climate has changed since we started doing this in the eighties. It’s challenging to stay in compliance with the laws, and it’s become a very litigious market,” he says. “Some attorneys make their money suing debt collectors. While there are bad debt collectors, much of the litigation is frivolous.”
Wilson goes the extra mile to make sure he’s one of the good guys. His firm is a member of the Better Business Bureau, and currently boasts an A+ rating with the agency. Moreover, his practice has a spotless record with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). And Wilson participates in the Member Attorney Program of the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals International. The program enables attorneys who practice in the credit and collection arena to better represent their clients.
While important, none of these memberships means as much to Wilson as the way he and his staff treat debtors. “I instill in my employees the importance of treating people with respect,” he says. “And in response, I get letters from debtors telling me how kind my collectors were.”
Wilson isn’t asking his staff to do anything he doesn’t do. He says he often takes calls from debtors who ask for him by name, and his first question to them is, “How can I help you?”
“If someone has a bad debt, I ask them how can I help them take care of that problem,” Wilson says.
As a lawyer with a general practice, Wilson also handles other matters for clients. While he tends to stick to the civil side of the law, he does some criminal work. He likes the variety, he says, and he enjoys owning a small firm. “I don’t have to worry about getting along with my partners, or if we’re sharing the money fairly, or if I’m doing my share of the work,” he says.
As the only named partner in a one-man firm, Wilson does his share of the work and then some. But it’s a job he likes, he says.
“Some people don’t enjoy practicing law. It’s a living, and they can’t wait to retire,” he says. “Then there are people who love what they do; it fits their personality and their abilities. I’m not saying there weren’t times when I didn’t enjoy myself, but overall, I like practicing law.”
That said, if there’s one thing Wilson enjoys more than being a lawyer, it’s being a judge. He became one in 1990 when a spot in Collegedale opened up, someone encouraged him to run, and he emerged victorious. He won his third reelection campaign in 2014.
Wilson holds court every Wednesday at 3 p.m., so the job doesn’t get in the way of his full-time practice. In fact, he believes working both sides of the bench helps him perform each role better. “Staying in touch with what it’s like to be a lawyer helps me as a judge,” he says, “and being a judge is beneficial to me as a lawyer. It helps me to understand the things lawyers do that annoy judges.”
Still, Wilson seems to harbor hopes of someday becoming a full-time judge. “I would enjoy the pace of being a full-time judge, and not having to worry about making personnel decisions, or being sued, or about something happening, and there’s no one to fall back on but me. If an opening for General Sessions Court comes up, I would consider running for it,” he says.
Being a judge wouldn’t be an escape from the rigors of a busy law practice; rather, it would put Wilson where he’s happiest: in a court building. “I love going to court. Not being in court and litigating, but being involved in the system and interacting with those in the legal process,” he says. “I like talking with the judges, the lawyers, the DAs, the courtroom officers, and the clerks.”
Wilson was born in Madison, Tenn., but grew up in Chicago, where he lived until 1976. He had started college up north, but when his parents moved to Tennessee, he decided to follow them. An uncle who was a CPA gave him a bookkeeping job, and he studied business and history at Southern Adventist University. He wasn’t sure what to do next, though, until a college counselor suggested law school.
“That didn’t sound too bad. I enjoy reading and writing, and I’m somewhat talkative, so it seemed like a good fit,” Wilson says.
Wilson earned his Juris Doctor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UT). After he graduated in 1981, he worked in Knoxville for a year, then his uncle lured him to Chattanooga with the promise of office space and clients. One of those clients was North American Credit Services (NACS), which was using Wilson’s uncle as a CPA. The company began referring debt collection cases to him, and the rest is history. As they grew, Wilson’s practice grew, and when they built a new facility on Walker Road in 1996, they built a space for Wilson, too. He’s still there today, collecting the medical accounts NACS refers to him.
Wilson’s law practice and his duties as a judge keep him busy, but not so busy there isn’t an end to each day. When that time comes, Wilson goes home and invites his cat to join him on the couch. It’s his therapy, he says, as is cooking. On a hutch to the right of his desk, a short replica of Lady Liberty is holding up not two scales, but one scale and a blue ribbon, which Wilson won in a cooking contest for his Key lime pie. A medal for his turkey chili hangs around her neck. “If I weren’t a lawyer, I’d be a cook,” he says.
Wilson also unwinds by spending time with family. When he and Scarlett, a native Tennessean, met in law school, Wilson knew he’d never return north. “My fate was sealed,” the former Yankee says. “I was going to be a Southerner.”
Wilson and his wife have two children: Katie, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia; and Seth, a third-year law student at UT. The former recently finished earning a master’s degree in chemistry, while Wilson hopes the latter will someday take over his firm. “I’m proud of my kids,” he says. “They have different abilities but wound up in fields I believe they’ll love and do well in.”
As Wilson takes stock of his life, he talks about the impact his extended illness had on him. That time was difficult financially and emotionally, but after it was over, he found himself more at peace, and happier than he was. “I feel like I have a better approach to life than before,” he says. “I enjoy myself more, and I don’t sweat the small things. I’m in a good place.”