Miller & Martin, Chattanooga's biggest and oldest law firm, has represented many of the city's largest businesses through its 151-year history.
But for all its age and corporate experience, the firm is also actively working to aid small and startup businesses, especially in the backyard of its home office in Chattanooga's downtown innovation district.
"We've always been known as a corporate law firm and been blessed to be around since 1867, but our strategy is have all eyes forward as we see the evolving landscape of Chattanooga," Miller & Martin's Management Partner Jim Haley says. "So we decided to put a particular emphasis on emerging companies with a couple of our practice groups (emerging businesses and general counsel services groups) focused on that."
In 2017, Miller & Martin established a practice group focused on general counsel services to small and medium-sized businesses. The Chattanooga law firm, which helped do the legal work behind the idea of bottling the fountain drink Coca-Cola in 1899 and built the concept into a multi-billion-dollar empire, has long worked with startups.
And such work is not unique in Chattanooga where other law firms also are actively courting and specializing in serving entrepreneurs, including the Chambliss Group which created its startup group in 2011 within its legal practice.
But Haley said Miller & Martin is giving a sharper focus for its future on working with emerging companies "to enhance and formalize the existing offerings in the markets we serve."
To aid in the effort, the law firm recently recruited attorney Jeff Cunningham from the Seyfarth Shaw law firm in Atlanta to help work with entrepreneurs and startups in the Atlanta market. With 20 years of experience in representing entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes, Cunningham will also serve as a vice-chair of Miller & Martin's corporate department.
Cunningham has worked with startups for two decades. He was an attorney who helped former concert promoter Andy Levine create the Sixthman, which organizes concert cruises that allow music fans to get up close and personal with artists such as Kiss, 311, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Cunningham worked through the startup and ultimate sale of the business.
Cunningham said he decided to leave one of Atlanta's biggest law firms to join Miller & Martin because he liked their focus on entrepreneurs and startups, from its early days as counsel for the first Coca-Cola bottling companies to its recent representation of the Chattanooga restaurant app Quickcue which sold to Open Table for $11.5 million in 2013 and the ultimate sale of U.S. Floors to Shaw Industries in 2016.
"This is a firm that has a history and a current physical practice of dealing with new and startup companies and understanding their needs so culturally it was a great fit for me to join this firm," Cunningham said.
T.J. Gentle, an attorney elected as a member of Miller & Martin earlier this year, rejoined the law firm two years after spending a decade helping to build Smart Furniture as CEO. Since the time of his previous work at Miller & Martin from 2000 to 2005 until his return in 2016, Gentle said the startup scene in Chattanooga has dramatically changed with more opportunities and financing alternatives now available. But Gentle says picking the right terms and partners is key to success of any startup.
"Because of all of the experience we have here, we can help make sure that these startup companies are doing the right thing and planning for the future so that when the time comes (to sell, merge or some other exit) that is going to be a smooth process," Gentle says.
Matt Jannerbo, chair of Miller & Martin's corporate department and its emerging business group, has long focused on startup and emerging companies, venture capital and mergers and acquisitions and is a member of the board of The Company Lab and Causeway Inc. Jannerbo said lawyers from his group volunteer their legal services for CoLab's GigTank and other startup and accelerator programs to encourage more entrepreneurial success in Chattanooga.
"Our goal is to build a long-term relationship with a company and to be a part of their growth and hopefully end it with an exit where we are helping them to sell their company," Jannerbo says. "For these startup companies, we are trying to make sure that our services are affordable and help them to be smart about spending their money and building their business. But we've been around and we've seen it so we can help companies do the right things and avoid the wrong things so that when investors come, they are ready."