Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 31, 2017

King finds a different ‘tribe’

Winding path leads attorney to unique law practice

Growing up, friends and family members often told Katie King she’d make a good lawyer one day.

Outspoken and precocious, she performed in children’s theater and was constantly showing off. “The term people always used was ‘ham,’” she recalls. “I always wanted to be the center of attention.”

As a young teen, on Saturdays, she worked in her dad’s pool store, The Swim Center, helping customers and testing water samples for those who needed a do-it-yourself fix for algae or cloudiness. But neither law, nor working in the family business, appealed to King, who attended Vanderbilt University with the intention of earning an English degree. She quickly abandoned that goal when she started to doubt her ability to please her professors and earn stellar grades.

So, she changed to a philosophy major, “which for some bizarre reason,” she says, “at the time, to my 18-year-old brain, seemed easier. “

Years later, the switch would pay off.

“I remember my very first philosophy professor saying that a lot of people who choose this major end up going on to law school,” says King, 36, who opened her own practice, Katie King Law, last year. She is also an active member of Chattanooga’s Mayor’s Council for Women and an entrepreneur.

“I think being a good lawyer requires the ability to digest and synthesize a whole lot of information, and sometimes, distinct and abstract concepts. And that’s kind of what my philosophy is.

“You’re reading huge volumes of stuff that nobody understands and trying to make sense of it, doing a lot of arguing and a lot of writing. … It helps build that confidence level, especially when you’re faced with a really complex legal challenge or problem.”

Yearning to experience a different part of the country, King headed north to attend Suffolk University Law School in Boston. But she missed the lush green landscapes of her hometown, so just before earning her J.D. in 2005, she moved back to Chattanooga and “shamelessly” knocked on doors at just about every law firm in town.

No one, she points out, wanted to take a risk on hiring a recent graduate who was not yet licensed to practice.

Discouraged and needing a job, it wasn’t long before King, who’d considered practicing family law and had her sights set on a “bulletproof, big-money” job, landed a unique corporate position quite by accident.

Interviewing for a job as a temp worker, she explained that she was looking for something, anything, at a law firm where she could get her foot in the door.

But at her first weeklong gig, filling in for the vacationing secretary, the partners simply wanted someone to sit at the front desk. She wasn’t even allowed to use the computer.

Her second temp job was a bit more hands-on.

In the fall of 2005, King started a month-long assignment in the legal department at EPB Fiber Optics, making $10.50 an hour. She ended up staying for 10 years, replacing the utility’s corporate counsel when he left in 2009.

And then, she says, referring to the launch of EPB’s groundbreaking, high-speed cable and internet service, “I found myself in this place where I’m three years into my career, the only in-house lawyer at this company that was about to do something really, really big.”

King admits she was a “nightmare” manager to her staff members – all women established in their legal support professions and all older than her. “I had spent my entire life being a high achiever and an excellent performer, and I wanted more. But I had a lot to learn.

“Unfortunately, when you’re responsible for the lives and careers of other people, your mistakes are often really painful and have an impact beyond just you. And, sometimes it’s hard to bounce back from that. I think about that first effort at management, and it still sticks with me as one of my biggest first failures.”

What’s more, she adds, “I came into my law practice with an enormous chip on my shoulder, just feeling like I had something to prove to the world. I went to GPS (Girls Preparatory School), and I always felt like my family was not as well off as other families.

“I think Chattanooga is a different town today, but when I was growing up, I was very aware of class. I had a perception about my station on the social ladder and the class ladder, and I think I had a lot of insecurity that I wouldn’t be accepted, that I wasn’t good enough.”

Aware that she needed to improve her management style, she began studying and learning about true leadership, particularly from her new boss. She also taught herself how to navigate the legalities of a burgeoning technology company, an irony, she says, for someone who had deliberately distanced herself from math and science in high school because she thought the subjects were “nerdy and boring and un-cool.”

“I had to basically relearn physics,” she explains. “I had to learn enough about electric and communications networks to be able to understand what my clients were talking about.

“If they want to buy a piece of equipment or build a substation, I’ve got to know how to understand the big picture. Sometimes I’ve got to understand the inner workings.”

Once, when her third attempt to discuss a regulatory issue with a client was unsuccessful, she ordered a textbook from Amazon, read it cover to cover over the weekend, and discovered that it was actually the client who didn’t know what he was talking about.

“It was just teaching me that it doesn’t matter what I know or don’t know. I’m never in a one-down position to someone else, and I don’t need to allow myself to be intimidated. I can go out and get that knowledge.”

Shortly after she turned 30, King started itching to do something else, something more. At first, she dismissed her restlessness as a hunger to climb the ladder or land the next big promotion. But the promotion came and she still felt dissatisfied.

One day in 2014, as her newborn daughter Lola lay napping peacefully, King was struck by memories of her parents “having the sense that they were stuck, that they were doing jobs that they didn’t really want to do, and not being happy. And I remember just kind of staring there, watching my daughter sleep, and thinking, ‘What am I teaching her? Am I setting us up to repeat this same pattern?’”

King was conflicted ­– after all, she had a great job, making great money and was now senior counsel and privacy officer for EPB – so she went back to work after maternity leave.

Two years later, she felt a “switch flip” in her psyche, and within the week approached her boss with a wish to start her own company, and a proposal.

Would he let her work for EPB as a contract attorney rather than a fulltime employee? 

The pitch worked, and in May of 2016, she founded Katie King Law, a boutique firm that serves other telecommunications clients statewide, as well as entrepreneurs, artists and business innovators. Not surprisingly, her specialties include technology, contracts, regulatory and compliance issues, privacy, employment and local government law.

“My tribe is a whole network of creatives and artists. I tend to be drawn to creative people, people with an artistic sensibility, whether it’s music or painting or cooking. They just tend to be more interesting and fun,” she adds, remembering her theater days as a child and her work handling entertainment distribution deals for EPB.

“It’s a personal passion for me, and a lot of it really just has to do with nurturing and protecting that creative spirit.”

On the job, and in her community volunteer work, she serves on the Mayor’s Council for Women, the Advisory Committee for the YMCA’s Youth Leadership Chattanooga, and the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute’s Women Mentoring Women Committee.

King is spiritual, talkative and caring. Her motto is one of sincerity. “I’m the kind of lawyer who would rather just be honest and say ‘I don’t know’ than be found out, pretend I know something. My clients respond to that, I think. People usually, when they come to me, are in crisis.

“Not always, but often, something bad has happened in their lives and they need some help. I always try to be respectful of that vulnerability people bring with them when they come to see me.”

In addition to her own practice, King recently started a new company, The Women’s Law Collective, with three other female attorneys.

They will soon share space and resources in a building near Eastgate Town Centre, working in their separate practices but building a platform to provide training and other startup expertise to solo legal practitioners and women business owners.

King also plans to launch the non-profit By George Foundation in memory of her brother George, who committed suicide in 2004, at age 22.

The charitable organization will offer help to survivors, raise awareness about suicide prevention, and make other resources available.

An avid gardener, King recently launched Wild Woman Botanicals, a small-batch line of natural body care products that blossomed from last year’s surplus of flowers and herbs. She sells her handcrafted soaks, salves, scrubs and lip balms online.

As a lawyer, King is happier than she’s ever been.

“I did all of this executive coaching, trying to coach this itch out of me, which I later learned was the entrepreneurial spirit. It took me four years to figure out what it was, but now that I know, it makes perfect sense,” she says. “And now that I have made that transition, I’d never go back.”