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VOL. 45 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 22, 2021

No mystery to Miller’s career path

Mother’s love of reading paves the way for Miller

By Nancy Henderson

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The heat was so stifling in the Orleans Criminal District Court in August 2002 that the crew working on the movie adaptation of John Grisham’s Runaway Jury opted to film there in the middle of the night.

But budding attorneys like Stacie Miller, a third-year law clinic student at Loyola University School of Law, didn’t have that luxury. Inside the cramped attic-space-turned-courtroom with no air conditioning, she ardently defended a client arrested for possession of a crack pipe while ignoring the oppressive warmth and questioning the arresting officer in the first cross-examination of her career.

“Once I got up there,” says Miller, 49, of Arnett, Draper and Hagood in Knoxville, “I just kind of zoned in and did what I had to do.”

Afterward, the assistant district attorney, a former law clinic student himself, complimented her on her composure. “Man, my tongue stuck to my mouth my first time in court,” he told her. “I can’t believe it was your first time.”

“I didn’t even remember what I’d said,” Miller admits. “I just remember thinking, ‘I’m here now. I’m stuck. I’ve got to get through it.’”

Miller, who divides her time between four practice areas ­– family law, conservatorships, estate planning and mental health hearings – has continued to use the same nerves-busting techniques throughout her career. “Preparation is a key part of not just trials, but getting ready for depositions or just having a settlement discussion with an opposing attorney,” she says. “I can be confrontational when appropriate. But I try to make sure that I’m more the methodical type.”

A skilled listener, Miller often pauses to gather her words before speaking. But there is no hesitating when it comes to caring for clients, even those she no longer represents.

“She is dedicated to her clients and she will work all hours to meet their needs,” says Cindy Winters, firm administrator at Arnett, Draper and Hagood. “She has traveled up muddy, narrow driveways in the middle of nowhere just to accommodate a client who was unable to leave their home.”

A fearless, “rough and tumble” child, Miller grew up riding bikes, climbing trees and playing games outside with her sibling. “My poor mother ­– I feel sorry for what my brother and I put her through because we constantly got hurt, not because we were accident-prone or klutzes or anything like that, but because we were just constantly on the go.”

Miller’s dad, a blue-collar worker at an auto parts manufacturing facility, encouraged her to think independently and stand up for herself, both physically and verbally. Her mom, who later became the office manager at the first law firm Miller joined, taught her to read. In a keepsake box of school memorabilia is an old literacy campaign flier, published by the Knox County public library system, with a cover photo of her mom reading to 8-year-old Miller and her 3-year-old brother. Miller later became the first in her family to go to college.

Her interest in law was born in elementary school, during a conversation with her mother that centered on this question: What might fictional teen sleuth Nancy Drew have been when she grew up? The logical choice, the two agreed, was attorney.

Miller’s own legal journey was “roundabout,” she admits. After graduating with a degree in political science and sociology from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1994, she took a “catch-all” position at the family law firm of Lockridge, Becker and Valone and started earning her paralegal associate’s degree from Pellissippi State.

David Valone, who still practices family and personal injury law in Knoxville and sometimes consults with Miller on cases, and vice versa, remembers the young woman’s steady climb at his previous firm. “The fact that she went to bookkeeper would show you that she was well trusted and respected because she was in charge of all the money,” he says, chuckling.

“I personally never viewed Stacie as an employee but as a co-worker,” Valone adds. “Even when she was not a lawyer, when she gave insights, those were received very well.”

Miller never intended to study at Loyola. She’d never even visited New Orleans. But on her Law School Admission Test (LSAT), she casually checked the box giving law schools permission to contact her.

The invitation arrived before she’d even had a chance to apply to her picks. When she showed the letter to her boss John Lockridge, he simply said, “Well, it looks like you’re going to New Orleans.”

Due to her uncle’s terminal illness, it would be another year before she headed to Louisiana. Walking with crutches after foot surgery, she and her mom packed enough belongings to last a week, drove to the Crescent City, and signed a lease on an apartment.

Years of supporting other attorneys had readied her for what was to come. “I’ve always liked the intricacies of doing research and figuring out why things fit together,” Miller says. “My brother’s an engineer. He likes to work out physical problems and I like to work out the intellectual way things fit.”

Stacie Miller says 2020 saw a big uptick in divorce calls to Arnett, Draper and Hagood during the pandemic, though “people aren’t going through with it.”

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

Ironically, she says, “I went in with the attitude that I would never do family law again.” Instead, she wanted to practice criminal law, perhaps in a district attorney’s office.

After graduating in 2003, she worked at the NOLA firm Morris Bart, whose namesake owner, coincidentally, was from Knoxville. When Hurricane Katrina devasted the city, Miller returned to her hometown, where she first practiced on her own, then with attorney Linda Welch, before joining Arnett, Draper and Hagood in 2008, one of only two female attorneys at the time.

“I can remember, as late as 2005, walking into Knox County Circuit Court and looking around and being the only female attorney on a motion day out of 20 attorneys there,” she says. “But that’s changed dramatically since then.”

Miller was one of the first people Winters met upon joining Arnett, Draper and Hagood in 2011 and found her “one of the most welcoming.”

“She is the office individual who makes an effort to check in with others as she truly cares about others here at the office,” Winters says, recalling a day in 2014 when, while waiting in the recovery room after her husband’s cancer surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Miller showed up unexpectedly to sit with her. “She did not tell me she was coming to Nashville. She just did.”

Like most firms, Miller’s has been forced to adjust to COVID-19. But strict precautions, options like Zoom hearings, and the fact that she doesn’t live far away, have allowed her to keep practicing from the office. The courts, however, have intermittently closed for in-person proceedings and her usual visits to clients’ homes are on hold. She also declines to handle wills virtually. “I feel like there’s too much of a risk because I can’t see who’s in the room in all cases or who’s at the window looking in at Grandma signing the will,” she says.

Divorce inquiries have doubled since the virus outbreak but “people aren’t going through with it,” she says, noting that many balk at the filing and attorney fees, which can quickly rack up depending on whether the parties have children or one spouse contests the divorce. Often, the potential clients have lost their jobs because of COVID-19 and just don’t have the money.

So why the stark increase in calls? “I’ve heard all kinds of stories, from basically being in the same house together and the things that they realize the other spouse does that they don’t like and that they can’t tolerate things like the spouse is no longer in the house because they found somebody else,” Miller says. “It’s not a new story. It’s just that it’s all coming to a head because of the situation with quarantines or job loss or closer contact.”

The virus has also triggered a rise in her other practice areas. Some clients want to get their estate planning done, just in case, while others with mental illness are hit hard by the loss of their access to health care or medications. Miller has also continued to serve as an emergency, court-appointed guardian in cases in which a client is at risk of financial or physical harm.

Some callers want her to do the impossible, such as help them obtain a power of attorney or conservatorship over an older parent who refuses to social-distance or wear a mask. “I’ve had to explain to people that just because your dad is making decisions that you don’t agree with doesn’t mean he’s not competent,” Miller says.

A board member of the Autism Society of America’s East Tennessee chapter since 2016 ­– she got involved after arranging several conservatorships involving children on the spectrum – she currently serves as president of the organization. With all public fundraising events canceled and board meetings conducted by phone due to the coronavirus, this year has been challenging, Miller says.

“We’re still doing the best we can to support the community, but it is a struggle because a lot of our calls right now are from parents who are facing issues with virtual schooling and all kinds of issues that are created by COVID.”

The pandemic also has prompted Miller to forego her usual gym workouts and read more. Her husband Kenny is renovating a workspace for her at home. “And yes,” she says, “the Nancy Drew hardbacks are in the home office.”

Even without a pandemic, family law can be trying. But sometimes a case brings a pleasant surprise. A couple of years ago, Miller was on her way to the courthouse with an adoptive family when she observed that the two grandmothers were “thick as thieves talking about the celebration that they were going to have” and the grandfather was walking with the child while the ecstatic parents held hands. “It was like, ‘OK, every now and then I get to do something where everybody’s happy,’ whereas sometimes you walk away and you’re like, ‘Y’all won,’ but you’re not necessarily feeling good.”

Despite the complexity of her practice, she says, “I like the diversity. I like that I don’t come to work and concentrate on one thing. I do enjoy that sometimes I get presented with unusual situations, and sometimes it takes a little work to resolve situations. It takes some patience, and my mom always said that was my most lacking quality.”

Her mother’s assertion may have been wrong, given Miller’s other hobby: cross-stitching. A friend recently sent her a pattern that reads, “You should be worried. This pillow is proof that I had the patience to stab something 1,000 times.”

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