Attorney Janie Parks Varnell believes the schools she attended did a good job of teaching her how to practice law. But they didn’t tell her one of the most important things she needed to know on her first day in court.
At Girls Preparatory School (GPS), which she attended from seventh grade through high school, Varnell learned to form an opinion about a topic, and to present her thoughts in a well-written manner. This served her well when she moved on to college. The all-girls school also encouraged Varnell to have confidence in herself.
“I came out of the school believing I was talented and smart, and would be able to do many things,” she says. “I took that with me to college and law school.”
GPS did not, however, teach Varnell what she would need to know on her first day in court.
Neither did Auburn University, although Varnell did begin thinking about a career in criminal law while there. As the daughter of former Chattanooga Chief of Police Steve Parks, she’d grown up close to the world of criminal justice. But when she entered Auburn, she was set on becoming a pediatric nurse. An online class on American government planted and watered the first seeds of what would eventually grow into her profession.
“The class required me to read in-depth articles, and to form my own opinions about them and then argue my position,” she says. “I found I had a love for it, and I thought, ‘Why not be a lawyer so I can do this every day?’”
Varnell remembered how GPS prepared her for the next level of her education, and wanted to do the same at Auburn, so she changed her major to political science and took law classes taught by Dr. Clifton Perry, who taught strictly from case books. “I thought it would be beneficial to enter law school knowing how to read a case and brief it,” Varnell says.
Varnell also made the most of her time at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, where she says she didn’t just study the law, she also learned a lot about how to practice it. She took a trial advocacy course in which her family played the jurors, and she constantly plied her professors for knowledge and insight.
One particular professor, attorney B. Michael Mears, took Varnell under his wing, and spent a substantial amount of time explaining the ins and outs of practicing law to her. He also told her many of his “war stories,” which served to illustrate the tips and tricks he’d learned over the years. Varnell says she’ll always be indebted to him.
“Sometimes, learning isn’t about what you read in books but about what people show you,” she says. “He took the time to really explain how to be a lawyer.”
Prof. Mears left out one small detail, however, that would have helped Varnell’s first day in court go a little smoother.
While a law student, personal connections led to Varnell clerking for Davis & Hoss, a criminal defense law firm located in Chattanooga’s Fort Wood neighborhood. While Varnell knew she wanted to practice criminal law, the notion of being a defense attorney didn’t occur to her until she worked with Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss, two seasoned criminal defense attorneys. “If you had asked me if I was going to be a criminal defense attorney, I would have said no,” she says. “Growing up a cop’s daughter, I hadn’t thought about being anything but a prosecutor.”
Criminal defense law appealed to Varnell in a big way, though, partly because it engages both her intellectual and her creative sides. “I like looking at the facts and the law, and seeing if there’s an argument to be made that protects my client,” she says.
Following graduation in 2012, Varnell worked for a short time for Heinsman Law Group, where she got her feet wet helping with a large federal case. Davis then convinced her to set up her own practice within the walls of his firm, and he and Hoss funneled her their excess work. The firm hired Varnell in 2014, initially to assist with the 25-day trial of Barbara Lang (convicted in January of operating so-called pill mills in Chattanooga), and then simply to help her to continue to develop her career.
In addition to criminal law, Varnell practices family law and represents local police officers through their unions. In every case, her goal is to accomplish that which is in the best interest of her client. Since every client, and every case, is different, there’s no rubber stamp solution she can apply to every situation. Rather, she must get creative.
“A case is not always about a client’s guilt or innocence. Sometimes, it’s about getting the best possible deal, even if that means pleading to a lesser included, or maybe the DA is interested in a plea, even if that’s not what the charge is,” she says. “Other times, a client will need help, and instead of having a conviction on their record, we work out a deal with drug court or mental health court.”
Varnell calls the latter scenario “fun.”
“I like when I’m able to help a client through a hard time, and knowing that the State of Tennessee is getting someone the help they need,” she says.
Being the daughter of a police officer, Varnell fields a lot of questions about how she came to defend the accused. Her answer is simple, and makes constitutional, as well as common, sense. “Not only am I protecting the constitutional rights of my client, but the criminal justice system doesn’t work without all of its parts. One of those parts is a criminal defense attorney, and a good one at that,” she says. “If you have a murder case, and the defense is less than adequate, then there might be grounds for appeal. It’s in everyone’s interest to have a good prosecutor, a good judge, and a good defense attorney.”
Besides, Varnell’s dad is fine with what she does. “I tell him I represent a lot of police officers, and that evens things out for him,” she says, smiling through dark-rimmed spectacles that would look at home on the face of a librarian.
While the glasses serve a utilitarian purpose, they also emphasize Varnell’s intellectual nature. Perhaps that’s why she prefers to leave them on when in public. They are part of her persona, a subtle way of letting clients know not to take her lightly, despite her youth and diminutive stature.
“Sometimes, I have to convince a client that just because I’m four eleven doesn’t mean I can’t handle their case or be strong in court,” she says.
Varnell is every bit a Chattanooga native. In addition to being the daughter of a former police chief, her mother is Diane Parks, program director of Leadership Chattanooga and a “social butterfly,” she says. Varnell is married to her childhood friend, Adam, and lives in Hixson, Tenn., with her husband and their dog, Maggie.
Varnell takes after her mother in that she enjoys spending time with friends. She also sees a lot of her parents, with whom she remains close. In her spare time, Varnell enjoys crafting, watching Auburn football games (she’s a die hard fan), and catching episodes of “Law and Order SVU,” “The Good Wife,” and “Chicago P.D.”
The shows are a guilty pleasure for an attorney. But she can’t resist watching them, despite their unrealistic nature. “When I was in law school, I made a post on my Facebook page asking if watching ‘SVU’ counted as studying for criminal procedure,” she says, laughing. “My dad told me to turn it off and get back to work.”
As hard as Varnell studied, though, she never learned one of the most important things a lawyer needs to know until she was actually in court. When she walked into Judge Barry Steelman’s courtroom on her first day, she realized she didn’t know where to stand. “I had no clue. I didn’t know if I should be on the right or the left, and I knew the podium was there for reason,” she says, laughing again.
Varnell might have seemed uncertain about a small matter of procedure on her first day, but that’s natural, and it’s not who she is. In her home growing up and at school, she was taught to be self-assured, and today, she radiates confidence. It can be seen in her stride, heard in her voice, and simply felt in the air around her. But her faith in herself is not unfounded; it stems from her efforts as far back as undergraduate school to not just learn the law, but to also understand how to practice it. It is also a factor of people pouring confidence into her at a young age.
“Who I am as an attorney has a lot to do with what I learned at GPS,” she says. “If I didn’t have the confidence I had coming out of there, I don’t know if I would be as effective a lawyer as I could be.”