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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, March 23, 2018

Lentz finds joy in what her father jokingly forbade




Katherine Lentz with her father, John Higgason, on Nashville the day Lentz was sworn in before the Supreme Court of Tennessee. Higgason introduced his daughter to the court. - Photograph provided

Katherine Lentz was in her teens when her father, the late Chattanooga attorney John Higgason, warned her that if she ever became a lawyer he’d shoot her.

He was kidding, of course. Lentz speculates that he’d just received a vexing call from a client after hours and wanted to spare her the same fate.

But Higgason’s caveat was unnecessary, as Lentz had no intention of becoming an attorney. She wasn’t averse to the law; she was simply interested in something else. So, Lentz assured her father that she’d never be an attorney.

“Famous last words,” she says, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.

Lentz is seated at a long table in a corner conference room at the law firm of Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison, located in the Republic Centre in downtown Chattanooga. The room stands in tidy contrast to her office down the hall, which is stacked with files and folders related to her general civil litigation practice.

Lentz might have eaten her words, but that’s OK because she enjoys her job – most of the time.

“I hate sitting at a desk. I like to be in court,” she says. “It’s fun, challenging and I have to think on my feet. I don’t want to make it sound like a rollercoaster ride but there is an element of adrenaline.”

Lentz adds that although preparing for a trial is stressful – and comes with a side dish of guilt since it takes her away from her family – once the proceedings have begun, she’s as happy as a clam. “I even like arguing motions,” she says.

Lentz primarily does battle in the domestic relations arena – more out of necessity than an affinity for that particular area of the law.

Her father represented clients in divorces and related matters over the years, and she remembers him taking phone calls in the evenings and seeing the disruption it had caused. Also, a female attorney Lentz respects purposefully avoids what she calls “the women’s practices.”

But as Lentz developed her practice at Grant Konvalinka, she found most of the cases going to trial in Hamilton County were related to domestic relations. If she wanted to be in court, she knew she’d need to be willing to handle divorces.

Although weathering the stormy nature of domestic relations cases can be hard for an attorney, Lentz has developed effective coping mechanisms. John Konvalinka, one of the named partners at her firm and the attorney with which Lentz works the closest, taught her what has become her most important lesson in the law: Don’t take things personally.

“He’d tell me to not let things bother me,” she recounts. “When he’d see that I was upset, he’d tell me to think about things rationally. I’m an attorney and I have a job to do.

“That was a hard lesson for me to learn because I care about my clients and I tend to be rigorous.”

“Rigorous” is just one of the words Lentz, who admits to having a strong personality, uses to describe her approach to representing clients. Other words include “zealous,” “aggressive” and “firm.” But these words are not synonymous with “rude,” “difficult” and “disrespectful,” she says.

“I try to remember that the attorney on the other side is trying to be a zealous advocate for his or her client, just like I’m trying to be for mine,” Lentz explains.

“I’m a big believer in civility. Being firm and prosecuting what’s in your client’s best interest, and in the best interest of their children, is not mutually exclusive from being respectful and kind. Our jobs are hard enough without someone being a jerk.”

This is especially true, Lentz adds, when children are involved. While she’s always been a staunch advocate for placing their interests first, since becoming a mother and developing empathy for children, they’re of paramount importance. Yet time and again, she sees divorcing parents begin work on their parenting plan at opposite ends of the spectrum – and things only get thornier from there.

Her solution: encourage the parties to begin negotiating closer to where they’ll likely end up. “Sometimes, someone who has hasn’t been the primary caregiver will insist on 50-50 custody, even though by virtue of their employment or lifestyle, they can’t do that,” she says. “That’s a waste of time, and it angers everyone. I’m a big believer in being reasonable.”

This tactic doesn’t always work. Once, Lentz was an attorney in a divorce so contentious the court ordered a special master to divide the gin, rum and vodka in the couple’s liquor cabinet. But it works in enough cases that it gives Lentz hope.

“You can become so entrenched in a fight, you end up arguing about everything,” she acknowledges. “But if you can step back, focus on the forest and ignore the trees, then moving forward will be easier.”

Lentz says many of her clients do respond to her pleas for reason. The terrain ahead is usually still difficult to navigate, but she’s enabled them to move past the conflict and toward a resolution. This gives Lentz’s work a sense of purpose and allows her to weather the storms.

“I feel like I’m helping people through an awful time in their life,” she says. “That gets me through the tough cases.”

Not all of Lentz’s cases are grueling tests of the human spirit. She describes a 2012 case in Marion County involving a real estate deal gone bad as a “slam dunk” and revels in the memory of her clients being awarded the largest jury verdict in the history of the county at the time.

Not only were her clients “lovely, wonderful people,” but the facts and the jury were on their side. Plus, Lentz was pregnant. “I’ve heard that you’ll always win a jury trial if you’re pregnant,” she says, smiling. “I don’t know if that’s true, but we had a strong case.”

Even better: Lentz, who likes to travel, spent the two-week span of the trial in Marion County, hanging out at her favorite place – the courthouse.

In the end, the judgment was only as good as the paper on which it was written, but the case remains a fond memory for Lentz.

Lentz wishes she could forget a case she appealed that involved what she believed was an unfair ruling on alimony. “The parties were relatively young and it had been a short-term marriage,” she points out. “But the judge awarded alimony in futuro. I took the case to the Court of Appeals, which confirmed the trial court.”

Lentz has since learned that the case is now reported, which gives it more precedential value than a non-reported case. She makes a “wah-wah” sound and shakes her head.

But Lentz says she’d do the same thing again if she felt it was necessary. “You have to be willing to follow your convictions and live with the results,” she adds. “You can’t become cautious.”

“Cautious” is not a word used to describe a woman who moved alone to New York City to follow her passion. Lentz loved literature, so after graduating from Wake Forest University with an English degree, she moved to New York, took classes in a book publishing program at NYU and then hit the town’s proverbial streets looking for work as a book editor.

The industry she loved valued her less than she valued it.

“I was thrilled by the prospect of being paid to read,” she says. “But editorial assistants were being paid next to nothing. The summer I was there, Random House dropped the pay to $30,000 a year.”

If Lentz didn’t already know that salary wouldn’t go far in the Big Apple, she figured it out when a friend who already had three roommates offered to let her live in one of her closets. “I loved the idea of living in New York City, but I didn’t want to make the necessary sacrifices.’’

Lentz moved back home and took a job in the admissions department at The Baylor School, which she’d attended as a youth. As she thought about what was next, she decided she’d “make a decent lawyer” and opted to go to law school.

Lentz knew she wanted to become a trial attorney, primarily because she likes to write. “My parents, sister and husband would say I wanted to be in court because I like to argue,” she says. “But actually, I like to write, and there’s a lot of writing involved with trial work.”

Plus, Lentz had a sneaking suspicion her family was right about her enjoying the drama of the courtroom. “I knew trial work was going to be a good fit for me,” she explains. “I wouldn’t have been suited for tax work or writing contracts.”

Lentz applied for an internship at Grant Konvalinka between her second and third years at the University of Tennessee College of Law. As she gazes out the windows that wrap around the ninth floor of the Republic Centre, she conjures her memory of sitting at that very table during the interview. “It was like a cocktail party without the cocktails,” she recalls, laughing.

Lentz received the internship and spent the summer elbow-deep in depositions, trials and hearings. When she returned to UT for her third year of law school, she already had a job offer from the firm. This required a dramatic shift in her thinking about where she was going to live.

“I had told everyone I wouldn’t be returning to Chattanooga because there was nothing here,” she says. “But while I was gone, the city changed. So, when this firm offered me a job, I knew I was going to eat those words.”

When Lentz started at Grant Konvalinka the following year, she had what Konvalinka called a door practice – taking whatever litigation opportunities walked through the door.

Since then, Lentz has taken many of her cues from Konvalinka, who she says taught her to be thorough, meticulous and aggressive. He also passed on to her his pragmatic approach to dealing with errors. “He never became upset with me when I made a mistake; he simply told me to fix it,” she says. “That was an eye-opener.”

Lentz is still learning to balance life and work. She’s married to Jason, owner of Homeworks Construction, and together, they have two daughters: Lorelei, six; and Cecelia, three.

Although Lentz says she does pretty well when she’s not preparing for a trial, she’s still subject to the daily time crunch all parents experience. “I get up at 4:30 and go to Orangetheory Fitness to exercise,” she adds. “When I started there, the instructors, who are all in their twenties, said that workout would be the hardest thing I’d do all day. They didn’t know I had two kids to get out the door.”

Lentz and her husband married in 2005 after meeting a few years earlier while working as counselors at a summer camp. Jason dated one of Lentz’s friends first, and when he broke up with her, Lentz told her friend, “He’s not good enough for you.”

She ate those words, too.

Lentz still loves literature and does as much reading as she can in her spare time. She’s not fussy about what she consumes, either. “I read everything from works with literary value to pure fluff,” she says. “I’m not a snob.”

Lentz is such a voracious reader, she’s often the only one in her book club to have actually read the entire book. “I have to read at night,” she explains. “It helps me decompress.” (So does the book club, which she says is really an excuse to get out of the house once a month and drink a glass of wine with other women.)

Although Lentz tends to focus on her family when she’s not working, she is active in her community. Since returning to Chattanooga, she’s served as a volunteer for the Humane Education Society and the Chattanooga Kidney Foundation. Currently, she’s a member of Normal Park Spark, a combination of that school’s Parent Teacher Association and a fundraising group.

“I never thought I’d be a PTA mom, but here I am,” she says.

Lentz is also a member of the Chattanooga Bar Association and the Brock-Cooper American Inn of Court.

As Lentz, who turns 40 in May, reflects on her life, she compares it to the movie “Groundhog Day.” Each day has the familiar ring of routine. But it’s a life she hopes her dad would be proud of.

She lost him in 2016 when he died at the age of 66 after a 35-year battle with kidney disease. (The CBA endows its John M. Higgason Courage Award in honor of him.) But instead of focusing on her loss, she remembers his support as she figured out what she wanted to be.

Not only did he not make good on his earlier promise when she became an attorney, he presented her to the Tennessee Supreme Court in Nashville. “It’s with the pride of a parent whose child has chosen his profession that I introduce my daughter,” he said.

Lentz’s eyes well-up with tears as she remembers that day. “My father had a huge impact on me,” she says. “He showed me how it’s possible to endure anything, and to do it with a positive attitude, all while caring about others. I’m proud to be his daughter.

“And I’m grateful to my colleagues, who have helped to keep him alive for me.”