published Sunday, September 4th, 2011

After 125 years, law firm keeps growing

When Justin Furrow finished his first internship at a Chattanooga law office, he could tell the firm was where he wanted to spend his work life.

The partners at local law firm Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel didn't push their work on the new guy, but helped develop him into a lawyer who could one day become a partner, he said.

"I remember telling my parents, 'If this place will make me an offer, I can see myself spending my career here,'" he said.

That work environment has helped the firm, which represents the Chattanooga Times Free Press, through 125 years in the Scenic City. Through the years, its attorneys have taken on important national cases, combating federal government regulations that could have killed Coca-Cola and helping a client negotiate the purchase of The New York Times newspaper.

Max Bahner, a senior member of the firm and former president of the Tennessee Bar Association, attributed that success to one thing.

"From the beginning to the end, it's the people you practice law with," he said.

Bahner said the camaraderie between the firm's attorneys and their relationships with clients helped Chambliss stay together through the years as other firms split. He cited those same qualities as the reasons why he won the American Bar Association's annual Pickering award that recognizes legal ability and service to the profession.

In addition to his nearly 17 years as the Tennessee Bar Association president, Bahner's three years of service on the board of governors of the American Bar Association and seven years on the Tennessee Supreme Court's rules of civil procedure advisory commission helped earn him the honor.

"It's an amazing reflection of his talents," said Mark Cunningham, chairman of the firm's health care group. "Max is setting some pretty high bars for us."

Bahner said he'd be surprised if his fellow attorneys don't reach those bars.

The firm has been expanding for some time and is now up to 75 attorneys, compared to five when Bahner joined nearly half a century ago.

As it grows, the firm is rebranding itself, shifting the logo from highlighting all three partners' names to just that of the founding member, Alexander Chambliss.

A majority of Chambliss' clients are in Chattanooga, but the firm handles cases from all over the country. The second-largest firm in Chattanooga and one of the 10 oldest in the state, Chambliss is also a member of Meritas Law Firms Worldwide, a group of midsized practices helping one another across the globe.

Chambliss plans to continue to grow. By January 2013, the firm expects to move from its two floors in the Tallan Building to a brand- new, modern law office in the top four floors of Chestnut Street's Liberty Tower.

"Any stereotype of what you think a law office should look like, we're trying to get away from that," said Dana Perry, president of the firm.

Perry said the new office will focus on team-oriented spaces, shirking huge corner offices for tech-savvy meeting rooms.

She hopes those spaces will help them better serve their customers as they look to expand into growing areas such as the automotive, consumer finance and health care industries.

"In some ways, we're a reflection of Chattanooga, especially within the last 15 years," Cunningham said. "What you see with the firm is reflective of the growth in the city."

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