Life in a small Nebraska farming town tends to be a community effort.
In Leigh, Neb., the good German town where Jackson Walker attorney Stephanie Brauner Chandler grew up, there were only a few hundred residents, and in nearby Cedar Bluffs, where she went to high school, teens had to work in the fields to raise money if they wanted volleyball uniforms and basketball camp. They’d go out in groups of 30 or 40 and spend the day detasseling corn or pulling weeds in the bean fields.
In the fall, the Friday-night football games were the big social event. The year the girls’ volleyball team made it to the state tournament, the whole town turned up at the high school to see them off and then formed a caravan, following them down to the game. “You see the same people in church, at the grocery store, at the high school,” Chandler recalls. “You know their parents and their grandparents.”
It’s a world that some people find limiting. But for Chandler, it wasn’t just a way of life, it was a launching pad.
At Cedar Bluffs High School, Chandler was the valedictorian of her class. “Of course, there were only 14 of us in the class, so it’s not saying all that much,” she says. With such a small student body, participation in after-school activities was a given. “If there was an organization, you were usually involved,” she says.
Chandler joined the volleyball, basketball and track teams. She went to the state tournaments in speech and drama. She was a cheerleader. And she had a part-time job. “People sometimes ask me why I feel the need to balance so many things,” she says. “But I’ve never known any different.”
The summer after her sophomore year, the world suddenly exploded beyond Cedar Bluffs’ boundaries for Chandler. She was selected to represent her school at a state leadership conference. There, she was one of two delegates chosen to represent Nebraska at the international conference, held in St. Paul, Minn. It was the first time she’d been on a plane. On the campus of the University of St. Thomas, she met people from all over the globe. “They were all motivated, exciting people and independent thinkers,” she says. “It was the first time I realized how big the world was.”
By the time Chandler reached college, she had a strong interest in community development work — or, as she puts it, “I wanted to be able to help grow things.” Enrolled at the University of Nebraska, she studied architecture and finance but quickly discovered she liked business deals better than drafting. She joined a sorority, sat on the advisory board for the business college, volunteered for community service projects, was nominated to the homecoming court and spent six weeks in England as part of the Nebraska at Oxford economics program.
After graduation, she went straight to law school at the University of Virginia (U.Va.), attracted by its strong transactional law focus: “Most other law schools are focused on litigation and don’t prepare you for a corporate practice,” she says. Her curriculum included classes on mergers and acquisitions and other offerings from U.Va.’s graduate accounting program.
When Jackson Walker came calling, it seemed like a perfect fit. “Jackson Walker has an extremely strong tradition at U.Va.,” she says. “I wanted to go to a city with a vibrant business practice and, at the same time, I wanted a life within a community that wasn’t anonymous.” That ruled out New York or Los Angeles. Dallas, on the other hand, was just right. Chandler was also drawn to the firm’s dedication to community service, which mirrored her own. A regional powerhouse with more than 300 attorneys, Jackson Walker plays a key role in more than 500 local, regional and national civic, charitable and professional organizations.
Once she settled into her place at Jackson Walker, Chandler discovered the life of a lawyer is not an easy thing. Farmers may work long hours, she remembers thinking, but so do attorneys. “I don’t know if manual labor is harder or easier,” she says. She remembers watching her father plow the fields at 10 o’clock at night. “But practicing law at the tempo that we practice law is physically and mentally challenging,” she says.
Now a member of Jackson Walker’s San Antonio office, Chandler has found a kindred spirit in the entrepreneurs she represents. “Our clients are fascinating people,” she says, citing Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey as high-profile examples of the kind of people who work with her firm. “They’re doing things that are new and exciting and different and cutting-edge.”
As a member of the firm’s business transactions group, she helps her clients reach their business objectives, whether that involves strategic decisions, contract negotiation, raising capital or finding a good accountant. Many of her clients are small-business owners and most are looking for a long-term partnership. “You’re with people during some of the most emotional times in their life — when they’re acquiring a new business or launching one,” she says. “You know so much about them, about what makes their business work and not work. You’re very closely involved in the things that are important to them.”
But business transaction law would not easily translate well to the folks back in Leigh, Neb., where “lawyer” tends to be synonymous with “litigator.” “I think a lot of people back home don’t really understand how I can be a lawyer,” Chandler says, adding that she rarely sees the inside of a courtroom, which is fine with her. She prefers practicing law in a nonadversarial arena. “Having a collaborative practice is much more exciting than facing other lawyers as adversaries,” she says. “You get to know the people on the other side, you push things forward, you advocate for your client, and you get deals done and things accomplished.”
As Chandler sees it, her practice is an extension of the community development work she envisioned in college. “Back then, I was looking at community projects, like developing a new city center and putting together the investment with a design that works. That’s very similar to what I do in my legal practice today.”
But entrepreneurial law is just one form of the community-building that seems to be Chandler’s true life’s work. She chaired the Entrepreneurial Alliance Committee for the San Antonio Technology Accelerator Initiative (SATAI) and serves on SATAI’s board, sits on the board of directors for Young Execs and is involved in the National Association of Women Business Owners. She was nominated to Leadership San Antonio XXVIII, a yearlong program in which participants spend one day each month grappling with local issues like education, government, and health and human services. The following year, she served on the program’s steering committee.
Lately, she’s been devoting her time to the Family Services Association, the oldest nonprofit organization in San Antonio. The group has more than a dozen programs, including initiatives to teach parenting skills to teenage moms, tutor kids and reach out to families who are struggling. She and her husband, Chip, are also active in their church, and once a month they serve food at a local homeless shelter with two other couples.
In just a few years, Chandler has made quite an impression on San Antonio. Not long ago, she was selected by The San Antonio Business Journal as one of “40 Rising Stars Under 40.” The Scene in SA picked her as one of “13 under 30” to watch.
But for Chandler, the best part about life in San Antonio is that she’s been able to turn it into her own small town. She and her husband own a house in Boerne (“another good German town”), where they often see the same people at church, the grocery store and Friday-night football games at the local high school. Or, as Chandler puts it, “I live in a neighborhood that has 32 houses, and I’ve been in every single one of them.”