Local defense attorney Stuart Brown had a secret life before landing in the halls of Hamilton County’s criminal courts.
At one time, Mr. Brown was an investment banker on Wall Street. He used to be a senior attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. Some years after that he owned 12 nursing homes in Florida. And then there was the time somewhere in between when he was the CEO of an oil and gas company.
Few can claim to have followed a more unconventional route to Chattanooga’s criminal defense world. But Mr. Brown, who got into the profession only in retirement, said the move has been rewarding, despite having long ago earned his reputation as businessman and corporate lawyer.
“This is my favorite job so far,” Mr. Brown recently said of his gig defending people charged with everything from DUI to robbery. “Most of the positions I had before this involved so much paper. This one involves people. And I like people better than I like paper.”
At 66, Mr. Brown walks with a determined gait, has an ample smile, and tends to start conversations in his native-Louisiana accent by declaring a person’s first name. The glass should never be half empty or half full, he says — it should just be bigger.
What Mr. Brown has done is unusual, said veteran Chattanooga defense lawyer Mike Caputo, who noted how challenging it can be to attract clients in the criminal defense world.
“Most of the people at the (criminal) courthouse started in private practice or in the district attorney’s office. They’ve grown up (in this environment),” Mr. Caputo said. “Stuart is definitely interesting. He brings something different to the table.”
The least of it may be his undergraduate degree from Tulane University, his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley and a “master’s in taxation” from Georgetown University. Not one to go in unprepared, Mr. Brown took courses in trial preparation at Mercer University before beginning his practice here in 2000.
“He’s got more degrees than Carter’s got liver pills,” joked his high school friend and Chattanooga resident Earl Hereford. “It was evident early on that he had a lot of drive and determination.”
Mr. Brown said he didn’t know what to do after Berkeley, even though he already had a law degree. On advice from a mentor, he moved to New York to work on Wall Street on the bet that honing his business skills would make him an asset in the legal world.
“You can’t be a lawyer without having some common sense, some ability to negotiate a deal,” Mr. Brown said. “They don’t teach you that in law school.”
He soon would land at the Securities and Exchange Commission in the 1970s as a senior attorney, evaluating companies that wanted to go public.
As the CEO in the early ’80s of the small oil and gas company Clements Energy Inc., in Oklahoma, he decided to sell it off for $25 million “right before the bottom fell out of the oil industry.”
“People thought I was smart. I wasn’t smart. I was just lucky,” Mr. Brown said.
The move did, however, prove he could make good business decisions, which Mr. Brown said was instrumental in landing him another job in the early ’90s as vice president of the nursing home company Life Care Centers of America. When 12 nursing homes came up for sale in Florida that did not fit the company’s business model, he and a partner decided to go solo and buy them for $39 million, he said.
That was a risk, Mr. Brown said, because he already knew the nursing home business to be “high-volume nickel and dime.” He sold the nursing homes four years later for $42 million.
As a veteran investor in the current shaky financial crisis — and over the course of his hodge-podge career when he has, on occasion, hedged his bets and lost — Mr. Brown said the key to almost anything in life is being able to “recognize the down side” and “follow your gut.”
“When you go into an investment and think you’re going to make a lot of money, I hope you do,” he said with his trademark optimism. “You can also lose a lot.”