Handling the Curve Balls

Lori D. Thompson couldn’t get a job as a teacher, so now she’s saving jobs as a bankruptcy lawyer

Published in 2007 Virginia Rising Stars — January 2007

After Lori D. Thompson graduated from Radford University in 1992, she headed back home to Staunton, with the hope of landing a job as a high school history and government teacher. What she got were long-term substitute assignments and a position helping troubled kids earn their high school diplomas. Nothing permanent.
 
However, her work with at-risk students—many of whom already had run-ins with the law—got her thinking about the legal profession. So when her sister-in-law signed up for the LSAT, Thompson did too.
 
“I took the LSAT as a fluke, and then I did really well on it,” Thompson, 36, says with a laugh. “When I wanted to teach, it was roadblock after roadblock. But when I turned toward the legal profession, things just opened up.”
 
Thompson has since gained a reputation as one of the hardest-working lawyers around, as she strives to balance a burgeoning bankruptcy practice, her obligations as chair of the Young Lawyers Division of the Virginia Bar Association and the responsibilities of motherhood.
 
“She has the most energy of anyone I know,” says husband Mark Thompson.
 
“She has unlimited potential,” says Roanoke lawyer Howard Beck. “My only concern is she’ll burn out.”
 
It was Beck who brought Thompson into the bankruptcy fold. In 1997, after Thompson graduated from the University of Virginia Law School, where she was executive editor of the Virginia Tax Review, she joined Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore in Roanoke, just 90 miles southwest of where she grew up. She worked for a variety of partners, primarily in the area of commercial litigation. But she and Beck clicked and, since she had never taken a bankruptcy course, he taught her this highly specialized area from the ground up.
 
“If [Beck] had been a different personality, I never would have done it,” she says.
 
The variety bankruptcy law offers continues to intrigue her. Any bankruptcy case can encompass several areas of law, as the case of two Campbell County residents illustrates.
 
Claude and Virginia Royal were affected by contaminated water wells at their manufactured-home park, and leakage from an adjacent county-owned landfill turned out to be the culprit. Rather than clean up the contamination, though, as the Royals wanted, the county sought to take the land where the troubled wells were located through eminent domain and force park residents onto the more expensive public water system.
 
To avoid this, the Royals filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003, but the county argued it was exempt from the requirements of the bankruptcy code and could take the land without arguing in court.
 
While the U.S. District Court agreed with the county, Thompson helped the Royals win on appeal before the 4th Circuit. In a May 2005 decision, the court ruled that the county would indeed have to argue its case in a bankruptcy hearing.
 
“In this one case, you had eminent domain, environmental and bankruptcy law all rolled into one,” says Thompson. “I like learning new areas of law. I like that challenge.”
 
And there’s the satisfaction of helping small-business owners such as the Royals. When they couldn’t get the hearing date pushed back, Claude Royal remembers Thompson was willing to come back from maternity leave earlier than planned to argue before the 4th Circuit.
 
“She’s not just a lawyer, she’s a caring person,” says Royal, who is still represented by Thompson, as well as a Gentry Locke lawyer, in continued negotiations with the county. “I sincerely believe she believes in my case. That makes a difference to me.”
 
Sometimes, too, the normally sober area of bankruptcy law can provide a little amusement. Recently Thompson represented Curb Records in its battle against the Clark Family Experience, a country music group that had scored a hit with the single Meanwhile Back at the Ranch in 2001. The six young Clark brothers—Alan, Aaron, Ashley, Adam, Andrew and Austin—filed for bankruptcy the next year and sought to be released from their recording contract with Curb.
 
The Clarks and Curb Records eventually settled out of court, but not before a string of bankruptcy hearings. Thompson describes how the musicians—the eldest sons of traveling ministers Freddy and Sylvia Clark—greeted her each morning with a polite handshake and a “Hello, Ms. Thompson.” If the day’s rulings hadn’t gone their way, they’d send her off with a smile and a good-natured, “We’ll get you back tomorrow!”
 
“It was surreal,” she says with a laugh.
 
 
In 2005, restructuring at Gentry Locke led to the departure of several senior attorneys. Thompson, who had already made partner, could have benefited from the exodus. But she couldn’t stomach the way the older lawyers had been treated, so she left.
 
“The way she handled that whole mess tells you something about her sense of integrity,” says Beck, who also left shortly afterwards.
 
Instead Thompson took a job as counsel to the Office of the Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee while she set out to build her own practice. But it didn’t fulfill her desire to work on big, complex cases.
 
“I just wasn’t happy,” says Thompson. “You just can’t do the kind of sophisticated work I was used to on your own.”
 
So less than a year later she joined LeClair Ryan, with 10 offices and 150 attorneys across the state. Once again, she is representing Jefferson Mills, a century-old Virginia textile yarn-maker, which she represented in a 2002 bankruptcy case. Once again, the firm has filed for bankruptcy.
 
“I think what you’ve got at Jefferson Mills is a company with good management that has kept surviving and working hard to find a way through,” she says. “When it comes right down to it, bankruptcy law is often about saving jobs. There are 110 people at Jefferson Mills whose employment is hanging in the balance.”
 
While regularly exceeding her firm’s billable hours requirement by several hundred hours, Thompson has also maintained her devotion to the Virginia Bar Association, where she currently serves as chair of the Young Lawyers Division. Though it takes her away from home for eight weekends a year and consumes about an hour a day when she’s in Roanoke, she says it’s worth it.
 
“I just always thought that was part of what having a law degree was all about,” she says. “It means participating in the bar and trying to make the justice system better.” She points to the organization’s 40 service projects, which include everything from canned-food drives to helping victims of domestic violence get protective court orders.
 
Beck says he doesn’t see Thompson’s bar involvement stopping with the Young Lawyers Division. “I’m not the only one who thinks she has a shot one day at heading up the Virginia Bar Association or even the state bar,” he says. “I think she has that potential in front of her.”
 
For her part, Thompson’s plans for the future are modest. “I hope that in 20 years,” she says, “I’ll still be enjoying the challenge of practicing law as much as I do now.”
 
 
Thompson credits her supportive family for making her career possible. Her father passed away when she was 2 years old, and she grew up on a small farm with her mother, older sister and stepfather. She married high school sweetheart Mark Thompson, and they have two children—daughter Sidney, 6, and son Caleb, 2—along with an 8-year-old yellow Labrador. She counts herself lucky that her in-laws retired to Roanoke two years ago to care for their grandchildren while she and her husband are at work.
 
Flexibility is the key to making their family function, says Mark Thompson.
 
“We both have jobs that require a lot of attention,” says Thompson, an information technology manager for a life insurance company. “We have to be ready to adapt to whatever happens.”
 
Leisa Ciaffone, a Salem attorney and a working mother whom Thompson regards as a role model, says it’s the way Thompson handles inevitable curve balls with aplomb that allows her to achieve.
 
“She accepts her duties as a lawyer as not being in conflict with her duties as a mom, and she does it all with a very calm nature,” says Ciaffone. “If she has to put down her job so she can deal with a day care issue, she will. But it doesn’t throw her into a panic.”
 
The day starts early for the Thompson family “tag team,” as Lori Thompson calls it. The alarm goes off at 5:20 a.m., and on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she heads to the gym for an early-morning cycling class. (Her husband gets Tuesday, Thursday and a weekend morning for exercise.) Cycling, along with cleaning her own house, are her main forms of stress relief, she says. “Sometimes it’s the only time all day that I get to do something just for me,” she says of her early-morning exercise ritual.
 
She’s back home by 7 a.m., so she and her husband can take turns getting themselves and their kids ready for the day.
 
She typically comes home at 6 p.m. so she can pick up her children at their grandparents’, then make dinner and get them to bed around 8:30 p.m. Some nights there’s time for an episode of 24 or American Idol. But several evenings a week, she heads back to her downtown Roanoke office at 9 p.m., often staying until midnight and sometimes as late as 2 a.m.
 
“She can work late, get a few hours of sleep, then come back and pick right up where she left off without missing a beat,” says Mark Thompson. “She’s always been that way.”
 
That composure is tested in the courtroom, where Thompson enjoys the challenge of thinking on her feet. “It’s stressful,” she says, “but at the same time, it’s also a lot of fun to get your adrenaline going and to get a chance to make an impact with what you’re saying.” Then she adds, “It’s the same aspect of the job that drew me to teaching.”
 
The teaching profession doesn’t know what it’s missing.

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