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Front Page - Friday, June 23, 2017

Sisterhood of the Ziebold Building

Attorneys ‘inspired’ by collaborative workspace

As word circulated in late 2015 that criminal defense attorney Meredith Ziebold was starting her own practice, most people expressed enthusiasm for the endeavor. Ziebold was known to be a smart, dedicated, effective advocate for her clients, and after more than a decade of working for other people felt it was time for her to spread her wings.

Others were less gracious. Although no one articulated doubt directly to her, there were whispers circulating within the Chattanooga legal community that she wouldn’t do well without a male partner. She had reached maturity as a criminal defense lawyer under the tutelage of attorney Johnny Houston, her employer for the preceding five years.

Mild as it was, the scuttlebutt was still a throwback to the not-so-good old days when women were not taken seriously as professionals. But Ziebold smiled, dug in her heels and gave Chattanooga a building full of self-employed female attorneys who are poised to prove they can be successful on their own.

“I was excited to prove that wrong,” Ziebold says.

This new force in the Chattanooga legal community is located on the second floor of the Ziebold Building on Market Street. The freshly refurbished structure houses four independent law firms, each of which has its own space and is staffed entirely by women (or, in two cases, a woman).

In addition to The Law Office of Meredith Ziebold, the building is home to Stern & Williams, a firm made up of retired Judge Rebecca Stern and Kristen Williams, a former prosecutor with the district attorney’s office in Hamilton County. Down the hall from Stern & Williams are Stevie Phillips Law and The Law Office of Tracy Cox.

Even a quick glance at these names would reveal the women have little, if anything, to prove. Each of them is already an accomplished legal professional with the experience needed to build a successful practice, Ziebold says.

Stern presided over Division II of Hamilton County Criminal Court for 18 years before retiring in 2015. Prior to ascending to the bench, she served as an assistant district attorney for close to eight years.

Williams was assigned to Stern’s courtroom, where she prosecuted cases for five years before luring the retired judge back to work.

Phillips learned the ropes at criminal defense firm Davis & Hoss, where she defended clients against charges ranging from DUI to murder. She earned a name for herself when she successfully argued a highly publicized jury trial involving pay disparities at the Chattanooga Police Department last year.

As the daughter of former District Attorney General Bill Cox, she is no stranger to the legal community in Hamilton County. But instead of lingering in her father’s shadow, she carved her own path from the public to the private sector, working first as a prosecutor in her father’s office, then with Legal Aid of East Tennessee and then the firm of Markel, von Kessler & Cox.

In addition to running her own firm, Cox is a municipal and sessions judge for Signal Mountain.

“Each woman is unique, smart and brings her own ‘it factor’ to the table,” Ziebold says. “When we share war stories and frustrations and seek one another’s advice, I’m often inspired by their successes and their wit.”

The gathering of these women was a deliberate act on Ziebold’s part. Launching her own firm was a declaration of independence after years of working for others, and she wanted to create an environment in which other women could also achieve autonomy and pursue their own success.

“Five years into learning criminal defense work, it was time for me to stand on my own two feet,” Ziebold says. “I not only wanted to not have a boss, I also wanted explore my potential, set my own goals and achieve greater success by owning a business. And I wanted to create an environment in which other women could do the same.”

Although Ziebold was eager to be on her own, she learned the value of collaboration while working with Houston and aspired to foster that dynamic in her new endeavor.

“When I worked for Johnny, he was always there to answer my questions,” Ziebold says. “One of the scary things about going out on my own was having no one to call when I was struggling with an issue.

“So, I wanted to share my space with lawyers who would complement my practice. My vision was that we would all be self-employed, ambitious attorneys who would work together and benefit from one another.”

With all four firms offering criminal defense, there are ample opportunities for the ladies to draw on each other’s expertise.

“I enjoy having attorneys here whose brains I respect. How much better can you do as you’re starting a criminal defense practice than to have a former judge and a former DA down the hall?” Ziebold asks.

Williams in turn appreciates the support she receives from Ziebold and the other women.

“One of the things I knew I would miss about the DA’s office is being with a group of people who share the same goal,” she says. “But we’ve recreated that here in a different way.”

Although the women have criminal defense work in common, each firm takes a unique path. For example, Cox’s practice is primarily domestic in nature; she focuses on divorce, custody, conservatorships and related matters and is only beginning to explore criminal defense work. Conversely, Stern & Williams concentrates on criminal defense and expanding into family law.

The collaborative nature of their relationship allows the women to support each other and refer cases to one another as they expand their practices to include new services.

They’ve been an excellent resource for me,” Cox says. “I’m excited about serving as a resource for them and including criminal work in my practice.”

This carefully nurtured collaborative atmosphere is a product of a unique dynamic that exists between female attorneys, Williams says.

While Williams does not believe male and female lawyers function differently, she does think a group of women working under one roof will develop a greater sense of teamwork than five men doing the same thing, partly due to the way women support and encourage each other.

“We have a collegial environment here,” Williams says. “It’s my impression that this is more common among women who work together.”

Contrary to what some observers might anticipate, working in close proximity to attorneys who have similar practices has not cultivated an atmosphere of competition among the women in the Ziebold Building. Rather, their association with each other has opened new doors, Phillips says.

“Historically, many female professionals have operated on a faulty presumption that there are a limited number of spots for women – that there can only be so many female judges, or so many female partners at a firm, or so many female associates.

“That has created an unhealthy atmosphere of competition among women – an unnecessary atmosphere of competition among women,” Phillips says.

“What I have learned is that when we support and encourage each other, there are no limits to the possibilities for all of us. There’s as much opportunity out there as we want there to be.”

Although Ziebold is hungrily seeking out those prospects alongside her colleagues, there was a time when she wasn’t even sure she’d picked the right career.

Ziebold’s efforts to launch her own practice and then house it within a space that was hers were more than an attempt to pave the road to success. As someone who had often been out of step with the people around her and their expectations, she was also attempting to create a place into which she neatly fit.

A Chattanooga native, Ziebold earned her undergraduate degree at Sewanee: The University of the South. Although her parents urged her to pursue science, engineering or medicine as a way of becoming self-sufficient, Ziebold was drawn to the liberal arts.

“I fell in love with literature, which is not a marketable skill,” Ziebold says. “What a wonderful world it would be if interpreting Shakespeare paid the bills.”

Beyond majoring in English and staying at the picturesque college for which her parents were paying, Ziebold had no plans. In time, she chose law school, but even then her eyesight was cloudy.

After graduating from the University of Tennessee College of Law, Ziebold returned to Chattanooga to begin a career for which she was feeling little enthusiasm. But as she tried to acclimate to working for a firm, she learned she didn’t click with the environment.

“When you’re working for a firm, your job is to fit the mold and make money. Civil firms weren’t the right fit for me because I needed to be different – to be myself – and you can’t do that when your client is a corporation and you’re working for a firm,” Ziebold says.

Plus, Ziebold didn’t like having a boss, much less multiple bosses.

Although Ziebold was regretting her decision to pursue the law, life started to look up when she met and married Louie, a mechanical engineer. In the back of her mind, the notion that he would take care of her, allowing her to leave the practice of law, started to germinate.

Louie nipped that in the bud. Ziebold had married the most driven man she’d met and now had a husband who was committed to success. But instead of encouraging her to leave the practice of law, he expected her to be as driven to succeed as he was.

“Instead of saying, ‘I’ll go work and you stay home, little lady,’ he insisted that I become the best attorney I could be,” Ziebold says.

Ziebold, in turn, was inspired to reach for greater heights in her profession. Unfortunately, she was still working for other people, and over the next few years her aimlessness continued as she pinballed from one firm to another as she tried to find something that felt right.

She never did. Eventually, Ziebold left that environment, swearing she’d never work for anyone else again.

Enter Houston.

Houston found Ziebold taking appointed cases in Hamilton County Criminal Court, where she was testing the waters of working for herself but was more or less still adrift. He saw a spark in Ziebold, hired her as a criminal defense attorney and took her under his wing.

Ziebold credits Houston with helping her to become the attorney she is today.

“I had spent several years hungering for mentorship that would lead me in the right direction but not finding it,” Ziebold says. “But Johnny was wonderful. It was the best experience I’d ever had working for someone.”

Ziebold was ready to leave the nest with a passion for the law had taken root and was spreading like wildflowers.

“I liked the human aspect of it. Clients are individuals; every person and every story is different. And these individuals are pitted against the State in an adversarial system. The State has enormous resources and power, and the challenge of defending someone against that and the reward of succeeding is great,” Ziebold says.

Ziebold says protecting the constitutional rights of those accused of wrongdoing is mentally and emotionally taxing, but she believes doing so is important in a free society.

“Since I work for myself, I’m the only one who can advocate for my clients, whether in negotiations with the DA or arguments to a jury,” Ziebold adds. “All I have are my words, and I work hard to make them effective.”

Feedback a former client submitted to an attorney review site suggests Ziebold’s work has been more than effective; at times, it’s been her client’s salvation.

The client had faced charges that would have taken him away from his family for a long time. But during his initial meeting with Ziebold, a few things became evident: his attorney was professional, down to earth and concerned about his family’s welfare.

Ziebold was also straightforward, and made sure he understood the gravity of his situation, how she planned to attack it and what his responsibilities were going to be throughout the process.

“Over the next six months, I witnessed a tenacious and diligent approach to my case and always felt in the loop and prepared for the next phase of our plan,” he wrote. “We could not have held on, or held together, without the vital role Meredith played in our lives and wellbeing.

“To say we are grateful and indebted to her ... (falls short of expressing) our deep appreciation for not only her patience and skills but also her concern for us throughout the whole process. Because of her, I can raise my newborn and be here for the rest of my family.”

This client is not alone in offering Ziebold a glowing assessment. As Ziebold considers her body of work, which has included many DUI cases but encompassed all areas of criminal defense, she says the payoff for her clients was worth her years in the trenches of the law.

“Helping individuals is fulfilling,” she says. “I enjoy leaving a mark.”

The Ziebold Building

Ziebold has not just left an ineffaceable mark on the lives of her clients; she’s also changed the face of Market Street – or at least her piece of it.

When Ziebold launched her own concern, she set up shop in a 9-by-12-foot office in a friend’s firm. Although space was a limited commodity, business was good enough for her to hire help.

For one year, Ziebold and Burgundee Young, a “personal assistant, legal assistant and paralegal all rolled into one witty 21-year-old soul,” ran a successful firm out of the cramped quarters.

While challenging to navigate, the tiny room wasn’t Ziebold’s biggest concern; bringing clients to a space that didn’t belong to her was.

“It was obvious I was leasing space from someone else. Their name was on the wall and it was designed to their liking,” she says.

But unlike her early days as an attorney, Ziebold had a clear vision of what she wanted: a building that was hers. “I wanted the space in which I was practicing and to which I was bringing clients to be mine,” she says.

Ziebold and her husband spent her first year of solo practice looking for a place that could provide what she wanted. When she found the building in which she now resides, the nearly century-year old structure was suffering from years of neglect.

“It was the old Hardie & Caudle Building. During the 1920s, they made and sold men’s suits,” Ziebold says. “Over the decades, as the building cycled through different owners, the first floor was converted into restaurant space and the second floor became storage and trash.”

But Ziebold could look past the debris, crumbling plaster and dropped ceiling to see what the space could become. Anxious for a little elbow room, Ziebold, along with her husband, purchased the building and then rolled up her sleeves and renovated her professional home.

What a home it is. After entering through a single glass door at street level, visitors climb a long flight of wooden stairs to a spacious, cheerfully lit lobby. Often, Duke, Ziebold’s 11-year-old chocolate lab, is waiting at the top to greet them.

From there, clients will find Ziebold to the right and back toward the front of the building, where she works in a tall, spacious office filled with natural light.

Ziebold and her husband replaced the large, milky antique windows that were in place when they purchased the building to give the room a brighter countenance.

Behind Ziebold, a wall of original red brick adds a touch of old Chattanooga to the otherwise modern surroundings.

The same brick can be found in the conference room near the top of the stairs and the three offices located off a hallway that stretches to the rear of the building.

The same elegance that characterizes the rest of the floor defines every room, giving each attorney an attractive, comfortable and private space in which to conduct business.

“I wanted the attorneys who rented an office from me to be proud of this space and feel like it was theirs, too,” Ziebold says. “Stern and Williams have put their names on the front door, and I hope the other ladies will do likewise.”

The final touch is the sign that spans the front of the edifice, which reads “The Ziebold Building.”

The letters cover the old Hardie & Caudle sign, which Ziebold didn’t know was there until she removed an old restaurant sign.

“To purchase this building and place my name on the front of it is a dream come true,” Ziebold says. “To share it with friends makes working here even sweeter.”

Although Ziebold has made her dream come true, she’s not resting on her laurels.

Instead, she remains motivated to flourish in her hard-fought roles as solo practitioner, businesswoman and landlord. After all, there is whispering to silence.

Men are from Mars...

In the end, the mutterings of a few attorneys whose thinking has not changed with the times amounted to a hill of beans. Ziebold and her friends have had no problems attracting clients or competing for business.

“The legal community is in some ways behind the times – we still send letters – so we do a hear a bit of, ‘Can a woman do it?’ But that just makes us want to prove them wrong,” says Ziebold.

That said, Ziebold is not blind to the fact being a female attorney who represents individuals comes with unique issues.

However, she says women already deal with these concerns as part of being different from men.

“There’s a tightrope of behavior with clients to walk because they want a sympathetic ear but they also want someone who’s aggressive in court,” she says.

“I’m comfortable giving my clients emotional support but I can also have the ability to take control of a case – to maintain boundaries and be assertive when it’s called for.”

Still, Ziebold knows people are concerned about whether she’s acting like a woman or a man.

The trick, she says, is striking a balance between expressing her femininity and being a good attorney.

“Clients want their lawyer to be aggressive when needed and stand up for what they need, but no one wants to see a woman be – pardon me – a bitch,” she says. “Some individuals are turned off by behavior in a woman that’s too aggressive.”

Therein lies the difference between male and female attorneys, Ziebold says: men typically don’t have to worry about whether they’re acting masculine enough.

“Most successful men have it figured out; they know what works for their clients and they go for it. They don’t worry about what their clothes, words or behavior signals,” she says.

“Successful women do have to be vigilant about those things – about what it means when they shake a client’s hand or pat him on the shoulder.”

Occasionally, a matter will arise that must be handled, such as a colleague that’s dismissive or acts sexist or a male client who pushes boundaries he wouldn’t push with a man, Ziebold says, but a good female attorney learns how to deal with these things.

“Johnny gave me the tools I needed to fight my own battles,” she says. “He taught me how to walk the line between making clients feel secure but also making them understand I know what I’m doing.”

Ultimately, being a woman is not an impediment but a strength for an attorney, Ziebold says.

“How we think, feel and sometimes take our cases and clients personally is an asset,” she says. “I can’t lift as much as a man – my barbells at the gym are smaller – but when it comes to non-physical labor, I’ve never thought I couldn’t accomplish as much as a man.”

Most male lawyers feel this way, too, Stern says. In general, they recognize that women bring a certain empathy or intuition to specific areas of the law and agree that male and female lawyers are very much alike.

“My male colleagues have always been great to me. But I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder; I didn’t expect to be treated differently or feel like I was at a disadvantage,” Stern says.

“I think your attitude makes the difference. I treated them like equal colleagues, they treated me like an equal colleague, and we never had any issues.”

No vacancy

Ziebold is happy to say her building is full. In a tantalizing twist, if an office ever becomes available, she would be open to leasing it to a male attorney – if he meets her standards.

“I was never opposed to a guy coming in, but no one approached me who fit what I was looking for,” she says. “I want this place to have lawyers who are going to leave their mark.”

Phillips says the women of the Ziebold Building would embrace a male colleague who supported them in the way they currently back each other.

She also jokes that he would learn a great from his fellow tenants. “He’d be a much better lawyer after six months of working with us,” she says, laughing.

Cox says she is excited about what Ziebold’s accomplishment will convey to other females, especially young women who are beginning to map out their place in the world.

“It’s an inspiration. My daughter, who’s interested in law school, can see an example of women running their own practices and enjoying their independence but also acknowledging the partnerships and relationships with men that have helped to shape them,” she says.

Ziebold is comfortable with being a role model to other women and is looking forward to seeing what the next generation of female attorneys accomplishes.

“I’m nearly 40, I own a successful business and I can support all my needs and a few of my wants,” she says. “When I was unhappy working in a big firm and doing things someone else’s way – even once answering to a supervising attorney about my poor hole-punching skills – I never dreamed I would someday be my own boss and have my own building.

“I hope I can inspire a young woman or two to pursue independence.”

Interestingly, Ziebold says she’s still not the attorney she wants to be. But this is not a source of discouragement. Like the time her husband lit a fire under her feet, this belief motivates her every day to reach for greater heights.

“I have a lot to learn as an attorney,” she says.

“Maybe in 10 years, I’ll feel like I’ve arrived, but for now I’m just a chick working every day to be good at what she does.”