Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 22, 2016

Lawyer Leslie McWilliams excels at being happy

Leslie McWilliams is the founder of McWilliams & Gold, a family law firm located on South Germantown Road. She says she’s one of the happiest persons most people will meet. - (Photo by David Laprad)

Leslie McWilliams is smiling. Her expression is not the product of a transitory emotion; rather, it blossomed over decades, and was born of every tragedy and triumph she experienced. It’s no Mona Lisa, either, but is a joyous, full-faced manifestation of the happiness that has taken root within her.

Given what McWilliams has been through, she could have easily developed a dour-faced profile. Her mother took off when she was four, which put her father in charge of raising her and her sister. In her twenties, McWilliams set aside her pursuit of teaching to put her first husband through school. By way of thanks, he served her with divorce papers and fought her for custody of their 18-month old daughter. McWilliams is also a victim of domestic abuse – the kind that nearly made her a candidate for an ID Channel documentary. If anyone had a right to wallow in self-pity, it was she.

But no. McWilliams says her father was an inspiration, and made her and her sister believe anything was possible. Today, one of his girls is a lawyer and the other is a stockbroker. McWilliams is the lawyer. “My sister and I didn’t grow up knowing there was a difference between men and women,” she says, “so we acted accordingly.”

The law snuck up on McWilliams at Florida State University, where she wound up after a nomadic childhood. (Her dad worked in retail, and made several moves to take new jobs.) She studied criminology as an undergraduate in the hopes of becoming a federal criminal investigator, but when she realized the job wouldn’t allow her to be the kind of mother she wanted to be, she signed up for graduate school instead. Although McWilliams admits she was stalling for time, a single day in a single class aroused her interest in becoming an attorney.

“I had a great law school class one day,” she says, offering the short version of a long story. “When the man in my life asked me what I was going to do after we got married, I told him I might go to law school. He disappeared, which solidified my resolve. I wanted to show him what I could do.”

McWilliams gives other chapters in her six decades similar treatment to bring her biography up to the present. For starters, she won custody of her daughter. Raising a child while going to school wasn’t easy but McWilliams made it work – somehow. “It was tough. I never did a budget, which is good because if I had known I couldn’t afford to be in class, I would have dropped out,” she says.

After law school, McWilliams moved to Little Rock, Ark., where she had taken a job as a major felony prosecutor. Although she had wanted to become a trial lawyer, her job description clashed with her personal beliefs when she co-counseled her first death penalty case. The moral dilemma she experienced was a factor in her returning to Florida to regulate doctors.

Although McWilliams gives the story of her work in Florida the briefest treatment of all, this is when she met the man she would come to call “Mr. Wonderful.” Today, he is her husband of 29 years.

There are entire novels in the untold details of the short stories McWilliams tells.

While Mr. Wonderful played a role in putting the smile on McWilliams’ face, he did one thing she didn’t appreciate at the time – bring her kicking and screaming to Tennessee. Although initially anything but pleased to be here, the move did bring her to the place where she found what she says was her destiny as an attorney: family law.

“I ended up with some women who taught me a little about family law. When they left to do other things, I kept their business,” McWilliams says.

McWilliams started her own firm in 1990. In 1999, she purchased the house at 410 S. Germantown Road and converted it into a law firm. Her partner, Barry Gold, joined her in 2009, and is the only other attorney under her roof.

McWilliams & Gold is strictly a family law firm; adoptions, divorces, custody disputes, and child support are their bread and butter. But McWilliams does more than untangle knotty issues; she tries to steer her clients onto a better path. “Many of the women who come through here are displaced. They don’t know where their money is, and they don’t know how to create a budget or pay a bill,” she says. “Barry and I help people learn about their finances. We refer them to their credit reports and their Social Security statements, and help them create a budget. We want to empower them.”

McWilliams will go the extra mile to make things happen, too. She once waived her consultation fee for a client who signed up for a GED class, and when the woman graduated, McWilliams was there to cheer her on. Today, the client is a department manager at a major retailer.

McWilliams also helps men to become better fathers by teaching them to improve the quality of their relationships with their children. These efforts are fueled by desires that occupy a place in her that took shape during her turbulent younger years. “Family is one of the most important things in the world – it gives us our roots – but some people are too willing to let that connection go. Children need to grow up seeing that Thanksgiving looks one way and Easter looks another. They need traditions. I didn’t have those things growing up, so I long for them now. I struggle to make people understand how important they are, and I try my best to give those things to my children and grandchildren.”

With her fervent focus on family, it comes as no surprise that McWilliams loves doing adoptions. Some of her most treasured moments as an attorney are the adoptions she’s done for Legal Aid of East Tennessee, which honored her with the Bruce C. Bailey Volunteer Lawyer of the Year Award in 2007. McWilliams most recently helped an aunt and an uncle adopt four cousins.

She digs a photograph of the new family out of one of the piles that seem to grow out of every flat surface in her office. “These kids are precious,” she says. “Looking back, I was meant to do this.”

Although McWilliams is a family law attorney, her intimate understanding of the joys of adoption came through personal experience. She and her husband entered their marriage with one daughter each; they then spent years serving as foster parents. While they maintain contact with most of their foster kids to this day, one of them never left – Heather. “She had a lot of problems that stemmed from her life in the system. But the bond between us was strong,” McWilliams says. “When she was 24, she gave birth to what is now our fifth grandchild. When that happened, we decided to make us a legal family.”

Adult adoptions are not unheard of, but they are rare. The adoption of Heather, though, cuts to the heart of who McWilliams is. She doesn’t just want to make the world a better place; she wants to experience that world with the people whose lives are improved because their path crossed with hers.

Many of those people first encounter McWilliams after stepping into the small, nondescript house that serves as her base of operations. Fronted by a gravel parking lot and hidden from the traffic on the street by a massive oak tree, the firm is void of the tense vibe that could easily saturate a family law firm. When someone with the weight of the world on their shoulders does pass through the front door, McWilliams’ Chihuahua, Toby, will pop up from his resting place behind his owner’s desk and greet the guest. “He somehow senses how people are feeling,” McWilliams says.

As McWilliams sits down with her client in her conference room, a pair of knickknacks typically sweep away any residual despair. One is a decorative item consisting of the word “Believe.” If the client has any doubt about what is possible, they need only to look at McWilliams’ life. “I use my past to motivate people,” she says. “I tell them they, too, can get off their butt and do anything.”

If that doesn’t help, McWilliams directs their attention to a ceramic pig with wings that sits on her conference table. “How many times do people say something will happen when pigs fly? Well, the pig is flying. Let’s get this over with,” she says, laughing.

While McWilliams loves to lighten the mood in a room, she is serious about one thing: cutting back on her work. She says she loves her family too much to be absent as much as the practice of law generally requires, so she works four days a week, putting in about 35 hours during a Monday to Thursday stretch. “My work keeps me going, so it’s hard to give up,” she says. “But I can’t spend every waking moment here. My family is too important.”

McWilliams certainly has a life worth going home to. She, her husband, and Toby live on 92 acres of mountain forest in Sequatchie County, and spend their weekends in a small lake house in Smithville, Tenn. “It’s a wonderful life,” McWilliams says. “This is an important part of retirement. If you don’t separate yourself from your work, there won’t be a disconnect. Nobody in DeKalb County knows who I am.”

McWilliams sums up precisely who she is: someone who came from very little, who has more than she imagined she would, and who is content with her place in the world. “The words ‘lawyer’ and ‘happy’ are rarely found in the same sentence, but that’s what I am,” she says. “When I pass away, I want the people at my memorial service to tell my husband I was one of the happiest people they knew.”