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'I Can Fix That'

It was a long path to the law for T. McCall Stern; she wouldn’t trade it for anything

Published in 2020 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine

T. McCall Stern grew up in Brandon, Miss., with the attitude that anything her three brothers could do, she could do, too. They certainly made her prove it. “I learned to swim,” she says, “because my older brother threw me in the pool and said, ‘There you go.’”

Then there’s the story of how she learned to drive a manual transmission. Buckle up. 

Her father ran an auto-body shop and gave her a vehicle when she was in high school. “He thought it would be funny to put me in a 1985 Sierra classic truck with straight pipes off the back you could hear two miles away,” she says. “And of course, I’m this teeny-tiny cheerleader. I didn’t complain. It was a free vehicle. Until I’m sitting at a red light and the dashboard began smoking.”

So she concocted a scheme to upgrade. That same day, two young guys started honking their horn at her in her truck, flirting and “being teenagers,” she says. She smiled, waved, said “follow me,” and led them to her father’s body shop, where they continued to hoot and holler, and where she looked at her dad, shrugged, and said, “Boys like a girl in a truck.”

“I’m not stupid,” her father responded. “I know what you’re doing.” But he still drove her to the dealership and said, “Take your pick.” 

Except she picked a stick-shift. Because anything her brothers could do, she could do. Now it was her father’s turn. “He took me out to a neighborhood, parked it on a hill with a lake behind it, pulled up the emergency brake, got out, and said, ‘All right, get in the driver’s seat.’ So I get into the driver’s seat. I wasn’t going to back down. And I said, ‘Aren’t you going to get in?’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t feel like swimming today, but good luck getting out of first.’”

She adds: “Burned out a few times but I got up that hill.”

Stern runs an estate planning and probate practice at an eponymous firm in Brandon, but it was a circuitous route to get there. For which she’s grateful. At 16, she thought about becoming a lawyer and enrolled in a 3+3 program. “So I would have been a lawyer at 22,” she says. “And I would have been the most inexperienced attorney ever.”

Instead, she became a lobbyist, a legislative tracker, a business developer. “The common thread,” she says, “was I would meet someone, we’d start talking, they’d tell me about a problem they had, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I can fix that.’ Half the time, I’d go into these industries with no prior experience, but would learn it and help them streamline things.”

One career led to the next. She helped a family friend open a golf cart shop, where a customer came in with a homemade buggy he wanted to sell on consignment. He was a lobbyist, they got to talking and before long she was lobbying for everything from the Mississippi Orchestra to press associations to health fairs. During a lull in that work, the law office next door asked if she could answer phones for a week while their office manager was out. No problem. Well, one problem. “I don’t do idle very well,” she says. “You got to give me something to do other than answering the phone. So the man that would end up being my employer for the next eight years hands me a Supreme Court brief that had been kicked back because of lack of brevity to see if I could edit this. I handed it back to him with more red ink than black. And he looked at me and said, ‘Do you want a job?’”

This led to paralegal work, which led back to the J.D. she had planned to get at 22. “I was in the hospital, had just had my second child, and another attorney in the firm brought me an LSAT study book,” she says. “They felt like that was my calling.”

The decision to hang a shingle came back to family. “My great-grandfather was my John Wayne and my best friend until he passed,” she says. “He’s actually the biggest reason why I went out on my own to practice law. When he was in his mid-90s he fell and hit his head. He was still living in Columbia, and I was working for a law office in Jackson, but I was going down every weekend. And then it was twice a week. Then I decided to move him home with me.”

When she left her previous firm, she says, is when she transitioned to the more collaborative approach. “I don’t do as much of the high-end [estate planning] anymore. I work a lot with other professionals—in home health, accounting, financial advising—to do a collaborative plan for everyday families. I kind of switched my focus.” She adds: “Going through having to be a caregiver, I kind of geared my practice toward assisting families in that transitional time.”

The challenges have continued this year with the COVID-19 pandemic. Stern is now leasing out her office space and working from home, where she lives with her husband and five children. “We have a small soccer team,” she says. “The first week of all this was like herding cats. We’ve gotten through that and have a sense of semi-normalcy. … It’s still murky waters, but we’re taking each day as it comes.”

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