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Front Page - Friday, August 24, 2018

Exactly where she wants to be

Holland has foresight to hold out for the right city, right specialty

April Holland has done what many attorneys have tried to do but could not: secure, within the labyrinth that is the legal profession, a place that suits her as perfectly as a tailored glove fits the hand of its owner.

Many lawyers have entered the myriad passages of the law with a destination in mind but wound up diverted elsewhere. As they took their first steps toward their future, they were swept away by a current that carried them in a different direction – and then they settled in, never to find the way to where they intended to go.

But not Holland, a 34-year-old corporate law attorney with Miller & Martin. When the same waters tried to wash her south, she stood her ground and insisted on traveling north – literally.

“We were in the thick of the financial crisis, and the other students in my class were having a hard time finding a job. It was a scary time,” Holland recalls. “Miller & Martin offered me a job in Atlanta, but I wanted to be in Chattanooga, so I politely declined and said, ‘Let’s stay in touch.’”

Three years later, Holland received the offer she wanted, and because of her bravery in a time of crisis for many law students, she now spends her days doing work she not only loves but that is her ideal match.

Some lawyers feel no attraction to the realm of mergers and acquisitions, business portfolios and securities law. But where they see transactional drudgery, Holland sees a vast, captivating landscape humming with energy, creativity and opportunity.

A voracious reader since she was young, Holland has a thirst for knowledge and loves exposing herself to new things. As luck would have it, being part of the corporate practice at Miller & Martin places her in the vortex of work that serves a variety of industries.

“Learning about what makes each business tick is fascinating,” she points out. “I love DIY projects; learning about plumbing and HVAC is fun. So, my practice is working out well.”

Whether Holland is learning to patent source code for a tech start-up or looking for consumer brands that are ripe for acquisition, the transactional work she does for her firm’s clients is not just interesting to her, it falls neatly in line with her temperament.

“Litigation would not be a good fit for me. I’m more of a collaborative person,” Holland explains. “Negotiating a deal can still be an adversarial process, but you’re working toward the same goal. That appeals to me.”

Holland also prefers the meticulous, deliberate qualities of transactional work to the tremulous nature of arguing a case in court. “I will not step foot in a courtroom. The thought petrifies me,” she laughs. “I don’t know how litigation lawyers do it. I like to be prepared – to thoroughly vet each issue and think through my arguments ahead of time.

“Litigators do that as well, but then they have to think on their feet when a judge puts them on the spot.”

While Holland’s practice is focused on general corporate work, with the bulk of her time spent on private mergers and acquisitions, working in a market the size of Chattanooga requires her to be willing to work on other kinds of things as well. So, she does a lot of one-off jobs like writing a distribution agreement or handling a corporate reorganization.

Normally, this involves a lot of drafting. “I could spend all day in my office, not speaking to anyone, and crank out 10 billable hours,” she says.

Holland likes these diversions, though, because she’s able to learn about areas of the law she might not otherwise encounter.

Holland’s appetite for exploring new horizons was stirred at a young age as she devoured books that were written for readers much older than she.

When Holland was in fourth grade (which means she was either 9 or 10), she read John Grisham’s “The Pelican Brief,” and her course in life was set.

“There was something about the writing and the excitement of the trial that sparked my fascination with becoming a lawyer,” Holland recalls. “It was far removed from anything my parents had exposed me to.”

Holland’s parents adopted her in South Korea when she was seven months old. They also adopted a boy from Hong Kong and raised him and Holland together in Fincastle, Virginia, a town of less than 400 residents nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

As products of the “hippie generation,” Holland’s parents wanted only two things for their children: for them to be happy and do whatever they wanted in life – as long as they weren’t lawyers.

Instead of diverting Holland from her chosen path, they kept their thoughts to themselves and allowed their daughter to make her own decisions. With the reins in her hands, Holland galloped forward, and at 15, landed a job as a file clerk at a bankruptcy firm.

Like the books she’d read in fourth grade, the job was beyond her years, so Holland made sure the topic of age never came up.

“When I was old enough to work, I opened the paper and started looking for office jobs at law firms,” Holland says. “I knew it would be a tough sell since I didn’t have any familial connections to the law, so I wrote a purposefully vague cover letter so they would think I was in college.”

Two weeks after Holland took the job, the partners at the firm realized their new file clerk was actually a high school student. When they told Holland they didn’t realize she wasn’t in college, she replied, “You never asked.”

By that time, Holland already had the file room in ship shape, so the partners allowed her to stay. As she watched them work during her summer breaks from high school and then college, the reality of the legal profession slowly replaced the vision of intrigue Grisham’s novels had planted in her mind, and she was drawn to transactional work.

After earning a degree in cultural anthropology at the University of Virginia, Holland veered off course momentarily when she took a job selling online ads with a company in New York City.

Holland wanted to take a break from school, and the work sounded glamourous, but she quickly learned the Big Apple and digital advertising did not offer her the lifestyle she wanted. “It’s a harder life than I want to live,” she explains. “That industry was fatiguing, and I like being able to breathe clean air and smell the mountains.”

Moreover, Holland couldn’t ignore the pull to pursue work that stimulated her intellect, so after one year, she packed her bags and moved to Washington and Lee University, where she entered law school with renewed purpose.

When Miller & Martin descended on the school to recruit promising future attorneys, Holland was there, ready to embrace the opportunity. She clerked at the firm after each of her first two years of law school, and during that time, fell in love with Chattanooga.

After earning her law degree, Holland wanted to move to the Scenic City to work, but Miller & Martin didn’t offer her a position there. So, she accompanied her husband, James Holland, to Belgium, where she added a Master of Laws degree in European economic and financial law to her credentials.

Holland’s stories from their time in Belgium mostly center on how much it rained, although she does say the food, beer and chocolate were excellent.

While there, Holland maintained her ties with Miller & Martin, gauging the temperature of their interest in her and letting them know she wanted to be in Chattanooga.

Her persistence paid off; when she and her husband returned to the U.S. in 2013, Miller & Martin offered her a position as a corporate attorney in the Scenic City. “It sounded perfect,” she says.

It was – and still is. So is living in Chattanooga, she says.

While explaining what she likes about her new hometown, Holland gives lip service to the things nearly every resident mentions, including the mountains, the Riverwalk and the hiking. But her enjoyment of the outdoors takes a back seat to the people who live here and their progressive thinking.

“Chattanooga is an easy, livable city with a great energy,” she says. “It’s seen many seasons of life, with some being more challenging than others, but to be the first American city to offer gigabit internet speed to every household – that’s forward thinking.

“To have people thinking like that in the city you call home is inspiring.”

Once inspired, Holland found ways to make a mark of her own. In 2016, she completed Leadership Chattanooga, a program which prepares promising local professionals for prominent business, cultural and political roles.

She has since joined the board of Northside Neighborhood house, which promotes the independence of residents north of the river by providing a hand up (not a hand out, she says) through education and assistance.

Holland is also serving on the board of Causeway, a nonprofit that helps people develop and test their ideas for other nonprofits.

She adds Chattanooga is just the right size for people who want to have a visible impact on their community.

“If you live in New York City, you might be able to make a small difference, but here, you can get involved in the community and have a big impact,” she says. “There will be people around you, and if you have a good idea, you’ll be able to build momentum together and the city will benefit from it.”

Although April stays busy in and out of the office, she’s deliberate about spending time with her family, which includes not just Jason but also their son, Brewster, and two dogs.

Until recently, Holland and her husband owned a townhouse on the Southside – and relished living in the center of that hive of activity. Then, last year, she says they reached a sad moment in their lives when they realized the tiny space they had purchased when they moved to Chattanooga wouldn’t be able to accommodate their growing family, so they purchased a home on Lookout Mountain.

Living in the relatively low-key community will allow their son, Brewster, 2, and his sister, who’s scheduled to arrive Nov. 6 (Holland just entered her third trimester), to someday walk the short distance to school. Plus, they now have a yard, which everyone appreciates.

As Holland settles into another new chapter in her life, she’s already thinking about the unturned pages that lie beyond the immediate future. Although older and wiser than when she was 15, she still has a firm grip on the reins and the confidence to determine her future.

To this end, Holland hopes to continue building her practice at Miller & Martin and someday become a member of the firm. With this in mind, she must find the words of Jim Haley, chairman of Miller & Martin in Chattanooga, encouraging.

“April is an important member of our emerging markets team and our overall mergers and acquisition practice group,” Haley says. “Our clients have come to rely on her analytical skills and practical advice.”

Even better than those effusive words is the about-face Holland’s parents have done since she became a lawyer. “They realize there are good attorneys out there,” she says. “They also believe I can make the profession better.”

She waves off the suggestion that she can impact her profession on a large scale. Of course, that remains to be seen, as the reins of her future are in her hands.

But her parents are right about one thing: there are good attorneys out there, and if Haley is correct in his assessment of Holland’s value, they need to look no farther than their daughter to see one.