A philosophy major at Emory University who originally was pre-med, Wade Hinton decided on studying the law.
Nearly two decades after finishing law school at the University of Memphis, Hinton has settled into the post as Chattanooga's city attorney — the first black person to hold the job in the Scenic City's history.
* Job: Chattanooga city attorney
* Hometown: Chattanooga
* Age: 43
* Education: University of Memphis law school; Emory University
* Work: Attorney for Volkswagen in Chattanooga; Miller & Martin; Snipes Roberson and Hinton; former Hamilton County Title 6 director; Shumacker & Thompson.
* Boards and organizations: Leadership Development Advisory Council; German Marshall Fund; Benwood Foundation board of trustees; The Company Lab board of directors
"It's not lost on me that I'm the first," says the 43-year-old lawyer.
Appointed by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke about four years ago, Hinton says the reality is that the legal profession does not reflect the demographics of the country nor Hamilton County.
"We're working to actively address that," he says, adding that he and others work with law firms and companies to talk about ethnic diversity.
Inside the city attorney's office, Hinton says it's looking at those issues as well. Some work has been outsourced to both minority- and to women-owned law firms, he says.
"I don't know of a time we've done that," says the city attorney. "We have an opportunity to really impact areas and I want to use every moment to try to do that."
He says the city has looked at its various boards, and it's trying to select members which reflect the city.
Berke says that Hinton was on his transition team when, about four years ago, the newly elected mayor was putting together his administrative leaders. Hinton was a co-chair with Travis McDonough, who later chosen to be a U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Tennessee.
"I've known Wade for a long time and had an incredible appreciation for the many skills he possesses," Berke says. "I wanted Wade to be involved in city government. He had a problems-solving mentality and a heart for the community."
The mayor says that Hinton brings a unique perspective to the job every day.
"He understands he's in a unique position to make sure we have a city that focuses on diversity and creating an inclusive community. I wish we had had the first black city attorney sooner. I can't think of anyone better to do it," Berke says.
Hinton grew up on the city's Westside neighborhood, where he says his single mother reared him and his two sisters. He attended Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and was part of its second graduating class.
His mother supported him in his educational pursuits "in every way," Hinton says.
"I knew college was something I wanted to do," he says. "I was the first person in my family to graduate college. She was proud, but I didn't think about it in those terms. My mom had that expectation. We knew it was going to happen. She celebrated the moment."
Hinton says he was "blessed" to have phenomemal teachers and a couple of mentors to help him, as well.
He attended Emory in Atlanta mostly because he didn't know anyone there and wanted to challenge himself, he says, and considered going into entertainment law.
While at Emory, he worked to bring musical acts to the campus, and he came to understand "what artists keep and what agents keep."
However, during his early years at law school, Harold Ford Jr. was making a run for Congress and the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign was underway, he says, and he saw people his age involved in politics and the community.
"I saw that happen in a real way — people of color in a real way," he says. "That got me to thinking this is something I need to be doing back home in Chattanooga. Once I saw that and was exposed to that, I was encouraged by friends to give home a try and that got me away from the entertainment approach."
Hinton came back to Chattanooga in 1999, working for a law firm doing mostly litigation work. He also was appointed by former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey as Title 6 director. Part of that role included encouraging minorities to do business with the county, he says.
Later, he started a law firm with a couple of friends, Snipes Roberson and Hinton,
"Initially I practiced 'keep the lights on law,'" he quips. "I had zero clients initially. I had to learn almost from scratch how to do everything — criminal, personal injury, even a divorce or two."
Still later, Hinton says he joined the law firm Miller & Martin in its corporate department.
In 2009, he left that firm to join Volkswagen, the German automaker that had announced it was putting an assembly plant in Chattanooga.
"The timing was good," Hinton recalls. "I knew it was important for the community. I thought I could add value."
He says the four years at VW was "an awesome experience. I learned a great deal. I had exposure to German culture and it didn't take long to adjust."
At the same time, Hinton says, his time at VW was high pressure as it was building a plant, putting in equipment, hiring a workforce, bringing in suppliers, working on partnerships such as with Erlanger and erecting the supplier park.
"It was a great experience," he says.
It was in 2013 that he became aware Berke was putting together his team for his first term as mayor.
"I thought I'd bring my skills that I learned in the private sector to the public sector, help create efficiencies," Hinton says.
While the city's legal work had been handled by outside counsel, Berke brought it in-house.
"In-house, you want to partner with your client," the city attorney says. "You anticipate client needs and it's not just reacting to issues. We want to try to think through how to anticipate these things, how we look at policies in other communities and around the world that would be helpful to citizens."
Berke says he was excited Hinton was interested in shifting to the public sector. Rather than ask what technical issues the city is facing, Hinton wants to know "how we can move our city forward," the mayor says.
For example, Berke says, there had been discussions about how to get people who've had legal problems in their pasts to return to work.
"He understood the implications of a criminal conviction on a background check," he says. Hinton partnered with others to create a website aimed at the problem, Berke says.
Hinton believes the city is headed in the right direction. It now has attorneys designated to departments, for example.
"Human resources has an attorney focused on their needs and issues," he said. "That creates some level of consistancy, predictability. It allows attorneys to get a deeper dive on these issues."
Also, the office has has modernized open records requests, he says.
"Change sometimes takes time," Hinton says.