Long before Amanda Jelks knew she wanted to be an attorney, her mother thought she ought to be one.
"She often said that I could convince a 'stop' sign to say 'go' instead," says Jelks, who earned her law degree at the University of Memphis a decade ago.
A Chattanooga native, Jelks came home from Memphis to start her career. After five years at a large local law firm, she decided to hang out her own shingle. Since then, she's been managing attorney at Jelks Law PLLC, where her practice focuses in large measure on small business.
"I wanted to help people experience the same 'a-ha' moment I had starting my own business," she says. "I believe owning a small business is the key when it comes to having freedom and control in your life, and I enjoy helping people get there."
In recent months, that's meant helping her small-business clients cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"In the beginning, there was a lot of fear," she says. "It got better, and people are now trying to find their new normal. Some have completely changed their business models – going to online sales, for instance, and it's working so well for some that they might not go back.
"It affected my business, as well," she says. "This firm is only as strong as our team members, and I'm very fortunate to have an amazing team that transitioned very well to working at home."
Challenges are nothing new to Jelks, who traversed a steep path to education and business ownership.
"My childhood was not pleasant," she says. "I lived with lots of relatives and friends and attended lots of schools."
But by the time she graduated from what is now known as Collegiate High, she was class valedictorian. She'd also racked up enough credits to enter the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as a junior – and with a scholarship.
Part of her motivation was her son, Desmond, who was born when Jelks was 15 years old.
"I wanted to drastically change my life, and I wanted more for him than I ever had," she says. "For me, the answer was education."
Jelks credits Desmond's grandmothers for their help during her time at UTC. She earned a scholarship to law school, where she says her professors tended to point students toward jobs at larger firms. Jelks was newly married when she got one of those jobs to start her career. But after five years, she wanted to make a change.
"Because of school, and then work, I'd missed a lot of my son's life," Jelks says. "I wanted to be able to work decent hours and still go to soccer games.
"I knew I'd have to do something drastic to change my trajectory," she says. "It took me a while to realize that, for me, the key was business ownership."
Former Chattanooga City Attorney Wade Hinton, whom Jelks calls a mentor, notes that his fellow University of Memphis Law School grad possesses not only the skills necessary to excel in the law, but those required to run a successful business, as well.
"She's very detailed," says Hinton, now vice president for inclusion and diversity at Unum. "Her follow-through is impressive. And on the business side, there are things like marketing and everything else you have to do to make the trains run on time.
• Chattanooga native
• Earned her undergraduate degree from UTC in 2005
• Earned her law degree at University of Memphis in 2010
• Launched her law firm in 2015
• Board participation includes Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute and Tennessee Law Association for Women
• Recognition includes Urban League of Chattanooga Emerging Business of the Year (2018) and Super Lawyers Rising Star in Business Law (2016, 2017 and 2018)
"To be able to do both of those – and do those well – is rare," Hinton says. "She's just a great person, very authentic, and that speaks volumes in terms of her practice continues to grow."
Jelks says she learned quickly that the mere act of opening her own business would not immediately yield the reward she sought.
"Not necessarily getting paid [regularly] was terrifying," she says, "but I truly believe that terror and excitement are Siamese twins."
Jelks has negotiated that razor's edge well enough to have seen her firm expand to a point at which the "workload has far exceeded my expectations." In five years, she says, she'd like to own her own building and double the size of her current team, which includes two other attorneys, a paralegal and an administrative assistant.
At home, Jelks is making more of those soccer dates. She and her husband, DeAngelo, have an 8-year-old daughter, Victoria, and a 6-year-old son, Tyson. Desmond, now 19, is "in a discovery phase," his mother says, "a teenage boy all the way."
"My life mantra has always been that you never know what you can do until you have no choice but to do it," Jelks says. "You seek comfort in God and just get it done."