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Stella The Law Dog

The Real Bulldog at Smith, Higgins, & Lehberger, PLLC

By: Sally A. Goade, Judicial Law Clerk, Tennessee Court of AppealsStella picture 3
Originally Appeared in the August 2014 Issue of DICTA, a Publication of the Knoxville Bar Association

Sometimes domestic law clients are looking for a “bulldog” in the courtroom. At the offices of [Smith, Higgins, & Lehberger, PLLC], they are greeted instead by a real bulldog who helps to keep the attorneys, staff, and clients feeling “human.” Stella, a two-year-old white and tan charmer, is the official door greeter and people counter. She begins each work day by checking each office systematically to see who is in, and when main mom, attorney Donna Smith, begins packing up for the day, Stella again goes door to door for a pat and a farewell from every person still on the job.

The “Law Paws” column spotlights KBA members who have incorporated pets into their office routine, and we always wonder if we will interview someone who has experienced complaints. Instead, quite the opposite seems to hold true. “We’ve never had a negative response,” Donna told me, remembering a new client who said while leaving the office, “As soon as I saw you had a dog in your office, I knew I’d found the right lawyer.” The firm has represented a client or two with a genuine fear of dogs, and in those cases, Stella stays shut away in Office Manager Vickie Winstead’s office. Otherwise, Donna notes that representation in domestic cases can mean a long, bonded relationship between client and attorney, and a client who simply did not like dogs might well prove to be a problematic match.

I first met Stella when she was a puppy and I was in practice and on opposite sides of a post-divorce case with Donna. We came to an impasse at one point and realized our respective clients were hearing very different versions of their young teenager’s wishes in the child’s anxiety to please. With the parties’ permission, Donna and I interviewed the teenager to see if we could obtain a clearer reading from him. Of course, two attorneys asking questions in a conference room cannot help but be intimidating . . . and then in gamboled Stella. As the boy stroked the puppy’s head and back, he began to answer in whole sentences rather than hushed syllables.

Attorney Lucinda Albiston observes that “the dog really calms people down.” The attorneys depend on paralegal Amanda Waddell’s sensitivity and skill in calming clients in distress, and Amanda and Stella are a team. One day recently a client had received bad news and entered the office crying hysterically. It helped when Amanda sat with the client, but when Stella brought her lovable bulldog head to the client’s lap, petting soon replaced crying. Stella is known for purposefully visiting anyone, client or firm member, who is feeling sad, sick, or too engrossed in work to remember lunch. Thanks to Stella, all attorneys and staff who are in the office at lunchtime eat together in the conference room with Stella ensconced on her special chair. If someone is in the office and fails to break for lunch, Stella goes to that person’s door and demands to know why.

Stella picture 2Stella recently joined her co-workers in hosting a reception for the firm’s newest partner, attorney Jo Ann Lehberger. The invitation featured a photo of Stella, watching for guests expectantly with what I now know to be her Amanda-it’s-time-to-play-ball expression. True to form, Stella greeted every guest who entered at the door and enjoyed each one’s attention in turn. She never jumped up, though, or made a nuisance of herself with anyone’s food. When I was invited back for a lunchtime interview with Stella, it became clear immediately that although Stella goes home with Donna, everyone at Albiston, Smith, and Lehberger has raised her.

Stella joined the firm when she was only nine weeks old. Donna and her partner, Ruth Jamieson, recovering from the passing of their treasured old bulldog, Goldberg, located Stella in
Missouri and drove down to fetch her. Stella reported for work in Knoxville the next day. Lucinda remembers: “Stella sat on our laps until she just couldn’t anymore.”

When asked if they had advice for other KBA members who might be thinking of adding a dog to the office staff, firm members agreed on two points: (1) Everyone in the office has to be on board. Donna gathered all members of the firm before she purchased Stella and explained that she hoped to raise the pup in the office. The response was positive and enthusiastic; otherwise, the plan may not have been successful. (2) Everyone has to be on the same page with training. Stella’s good manners are due in part to her obedience education. When Stella was in Oak Ridge Kennel Club classes, Donna would photocopy the instructor’s written homework instructions each week and place them in everyone’s mailboxes. Firm members were then careful to use the same terms for commands and enforce consistent rules.

Perhaps as a result of being raised in the office, Stella clearly sees it as her second home, if not her first. Once in a while, Donna works from home, and Stella is not pleased. Amanda and Vickie say the office isn’t the same without Stella on those days, and she is missed by others as well. A neighboring business owner told me, “When I see Stella, it just brightens my day.” All of the neighbors keep “Stella cookies” handy, and she sometimes has surprise visitors. The office is located in an office park with its own backyard, complete with waterfall fountain. When Amanda needs a “mental health moment,” she and Stella play ball in the backyard, much to the apparent delight of dental patients in the neighboring office with a backyard view. Several have stopped by the law office to “pet the bulldog.” Stella doesn’t mind—after all, it’s her job.