Lessons on Leadership & Law with Chamber Board Chair Jim Haley

By Amanda Ellis & Jim Haley

Miller & Martin Attorney Jim Haley steps in July 1 as the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce 2021-22 Board Chair.

He brings decades of law experience to the role, along with passion for our community, where he has spent most of his life. Haley has spent his career making a difference at Miller & Martin, a 150-year-old firm he’s proud to have served. 

We sat down to chat about the Chamber’s year ahead, what it’s like to have a career in law and how pets make life better. 

Why are you excited to chair the Chamber’s board for 2021-22? 

First, the Chamber’s mission is to be at the heart of factors that drive the economic well-being of Chattanooga and to be the catalyst for sustainable business growth. A successful economy creates optimism among its participants and enables a community to envision possibilities currently beyond its reach and to strive for solutions that will enhance the lives of all of its members. 

Secondly, the Chamber is at an inflection point as it considers a new strategic plan that will ensure its continued relevance and contribution in a rapidly changing 21st century economy. The services and areas of focus for the Chamber must evolve just as our economy is evolving. As we recognize that a successful economy is an inclusive one that overcomes division and is designed to advance the interests of everyone, the Chamber always should be considering additional and alternative strategies and objectives. All of us inhabit essentially the same place, and we must find commonality in order to achieve success. 

Finally, the opportunity to be in Chamber leadership will enable me to work with many of Chattanooga’s leaders who have been successful within their own organizations and from whom I hopefully can learn and mirror their best practices. 

What do you think everyone should know about our Chattanooga Chamber? 

What everyone should know about the Chamber is that it is composed of really outstanding and dedicated professionals who not only have innate people skills, but also possess sound judgement which is based upon years of relevant experiences, and moreover, they have a sense of enthusiasm that, candidly, is contagious. Our Chamber professionals also are inquisitive by nature and want the Chamber to search continually for new solutions that advance the business lives of its members. Chattanooga is fortunate to have this talented group of individuals that continues to forge partnerships among the business, governmental and nonprofit communities. 

How long have you been based in Chattanooga? What do you love about living here? 

With the exception of college and law school, I have lived in Chattanooga since birth. Younger lawyers in my firm frequently are incredulous that I have always lived in the home in which I grew up, and that I have worked for the same firm for my entire professional career. Obviously, I have enjoyed my legal career, and feel that I have benefited from my life experience. What excites me now is that others are discovering what is almost second nature to me. Chattanooga is blessed by its spectacular natural assets, its rich history as the witness to many of the struggles and successes that have shaped our country, its geographic proximity to important population centers, and also by the vision of many of our predecessors who positioned us to succeed. 

In my mind, the challenges which we now face are twofold – first how to attract, train and retain the talent necessary to continue to take advantage of our assets, and secondly, how to manage the increasing demands on our resources while not compromising their use, thereby jeopardizing either the lifestyle that has contributed to the quality of life that is available here, or the aspirations which we have for all of our existing residents. 

What career achievement makes you most proud? 

The career achievement that I’m probably most proud of is my former leadership role with Miller & Martin. I’ve always felt fortunate to have been able to represent Miller & Martin, and to tell people that I’m a member of a firm which has celebrated its 150th anniversary, making it one of the oldest institutions in the South. The firm’s rich history is based upon the vision, selflessness and legal prowess of many wise and selfless individuals who preceded my generation. We have endured wars, a depression and numerous recessions, intense competition and now even a pandemic. Today, because of a firm-minded rather than an individualistic mindset, we are stronger than ever. 

You’ve been an attorney for a few decades – what has changed about your field in that time? 

You kindly said that I have practiced law for a few decades – actually now 47 years. The changes which we have seen are dramatic and accelerating. An ever-changing economy, competition and technology have led the way. When I began my career, clients and opposing counsel typically would mail letters to advance their objectives, and the pace of the practice reflected that cadence. Today, email, Zoom and other technologies have accelerated the demands on lawyers and the expectations of clients. Additionally, technology has changed the nature of client needs and the way in which we provide solutions. I believe we also are on the precipice of fundamental changes to the structure of law firms. Prior to the pandemic, there were a few virtual firms. Today, remote work is more mainstream. Lawyers and clients can be anywhere and still have an effective and efficient relationship. Remote work inevitably places new demands on the culture and risk management of an organization, and it’s too early to gauge the long-term effects on the fabric of organizations which are only in the early stages of this adaptation, and therefore still improvising. 

Certainly, the marketing of the practice of law also has changed over the last 20 years. However, I continue to believe that keeping the client focus as top priority, and maintaining the excellence of reputation and commitment to timely quality are the greatest contributors to sustainable success. 

What are the best and worst pieces of career advice you’ve received? 

With respect to advice, two of the most insightful pieces of advice that I have received are: ‘Don’t follow a bad decision with a stupid one.’ Everyone occasionally makes a poor decision and it can be tempting either to try to ignore or minimize it, or to make a reckless decision to quickly obviate the decision’s effect. 

Secondly, ‘If you don’t like change, you are really going to hate extinction.’ Change is only going to accelerate, and I believe it’s more prudent to embrace and try to manage it rather than be resistant or ignore it. That strategy never works for long, and in all likelihood, will marginalize an individual. 

At least for me, one piece of questionable advice that I received was that ‘things will just work out.’ I think we need to be intentional about our destiny and be alert to seizing opportunity and also to push back against what may seem like the inevitability of a poor outcome. You may not prevail, but there will be satisfaction in fighting the good fight. I particularly think about the importance of this mindset as I get older and am advised by my contemporaries about concessions that I inevitably must make with respect to the goals which I wish to accomplish. 

What would you tell someone considering law as a career? 

My advice to someone considering a career in law is to go into it with eyes open. Attorneys can make comfortable livings, and not only engage their minds, but also challenge their intellects every day. However, it is a time-intensive career, and also a profession undergoing significant change. Nevertheless, looking at the profession as a whole, I believe our legal system is the glue that holds together the framework of this country, and as importantly, the law is a profession that requires adherence to a code of conduct and ethics which I believe is important to the fabric of everyday life. Our legal framework has been tested mightily over the last several years, and we sorely need our young people to continue to advocate for it, and improve the system for the benefit of all, not just some, of our citizens, so that our legal system will continue to be a recognized as an aspirational benchmark for other nations. 

What do you like to do for fun? I saw a reference to your canine friends – tell us about them. 

You are correct. Animals are one of my passions, and over the years, my pets have provided me with great comfort, and are even therapeutic stress relievers. One of my favorite pastimes is walking or hiking with my dogs. They always have gently nudged me to get off the couch and enjoy both their companionship and the outstanding outdoor theater which surrounds all of us in Chattanooga. Another avocation is golf. It’s a sport that I have played since I was 11, and it has provided not only a great social outlet, but also a chance to enjoy friendly competition. While golf also is a stress reliever on one level, as I have gotten older, I confess that from time to time, it provides its own category of frustration.

During fall and winter, I enjoy watching North Carolina football and basketball as a way to stay connected with my alma mater and to recall four wonderful years of my life. It’s also where I met my wife, Margaret Anne, who I’m proud to say was a cheerleader and facilitated my attendance at UNC games. 

Finally, I enjoy being around my four adult children and three (with one due in July) grandchildren. In them, I suppose that I hope for the fulfillment of my unrealized dreams, and I also see the possibility that the current atmosphere of pervasive partisanship will dissipate over time through the efforts of our succeeding generations. 

What else would you like to add? 

My final thoughts are that while we have many challenges, we still live in an exciting and fortunate time. I hope that resistance to change and the occasional tendency to lay fault with those who don’t agree with you, will yield to the satisfaction of joining forces to make this community, the country and the world, a safer, more welcoming and more prosperous environment in which everyone is given the tools they need to succeed, and in which we feel called to assist those who have been unable to do so.