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MBJ PROFILE: Cheri Turnage Gatlin

It was a typical day in the life of Cheri Turnage Gatlin, the managing partner of the Jackson office of Burr & Forman, LLP. Her office phone rang almost incessantly, the price one pays for being known as a go-to person in the field of construction law.

An associate poked his head to ask a quick question, which led to more questions. As that conversation concluded, a representative of a large national corporation called to say he had arrived in Jackson and needed a ride into town.

Meanwhile, Gatlin’s cell phone was also chiming, many calls in reference to a “crisis” back at her house. It seems her children — she is the mother of four boys — had found an orphaned blue jay chick, and they had it in a cage on their back porch.

They needed advice. It seemed everyone needed a piece of Gatlin.

Seeking a pick-me-up. Gatlin paged her secretary and asked her for a cup of coffee after it was more than obvious she would not have time to pour her own.

“I never ask her to do that,” Gatlin said of asking for a cup of coffee. “I feel bad about it, too.”

That should not surprise. To Gatlin, humility is a key to practicing law. It was a philosophy instilled in her by her prior bosses at the former construction law firm Ott & Purdy, and she has forged a reputation and a noteworthy law career by being tough while showing compassion and empathy.

“They were very demanding,” Gatlin remembered of her time at Ott & Purdy, “but very fair. Luther Ott (now an Episcopal priest) used to ask me, ‘Have you helped anyone today?” That’s how I measure success.

“I also believe that makes for better law practice. Too many times, cases are lost by attorneys due to their arrogance. They miss something because they are convinced that they know everything about the law. If you can get other’s perspective, show a little humility, you’re going to be a better attorney.”

Perhaps humble, but Gatlin showed drive early on, boosted by her family growing up in New Hebron. Her father was a military pilot who retired a general, and he had high aspirations for his children. As example, he forbade Gatlin and her sister to learn how to type because he did not want them settling for a role in office support. He wanted them running the office.

It was almost preordained that Gatlin would pursue law as a career. Five relatives were attorneys, with an uncle playing a pivotal role in the establishment of the Mississippi College School of Law.

After high school, Gatlin earned her bachelor’s degree from MC before earning her J.D. (with special distinction) from the MC School of Law.

She was introduced to construction law when she came on board with Ott & Purdy. A boutique law firm specializing in construction, Gatlin honed her knowledge there, and also helped edit a book titled “Construction Law” that is still held as a must-have resource today.

After climbing the ladder at Ott & Purdy, Gatlin joined the Jackson office of Burr & Forman serving as head of the firm’s 25 attorneys in its Construction Division.

Recently, Gatlin was elevated from partner to managing partner of the Jackson office, freeing former managing partner Dorsey Carson Jr. to run for a seat in the Mississippi Legislature.

A member of the American Bar Association, the ABA’s Tort and Insurance Practice Section and the Forum in the Construction Industry as well as the Mississippi Bar Association, Gatlin is admitted to all Mississippi state and federal courts as well as the Fifth Circuit. She is also a former member of the Charles N. Clark Inn of Court.

All of her work has not gone unnoticed. In 2010, Chambers USA named Gatlin a “Leader in their Field.” And last year, Gatlin was also named to the inaugural class of “Leadership in Law” by the Mississippi Business Journal.

Gatlin admitted that with being named managing partner at Burr & Forman-Jackson, she has met all of her pre-career goals.

That is not to say she is satisfied. Gatlin counts her work over the last five years with the ThyssenKrupp plant in Calvert, Ala., as her most significant professional accomplishment. Including both steel and stainless entities, the ThyssenKrupp complex rang in at $6 billion, and at one point was the largest construction project underway in the world.

Gatlin said she aspires to land more clients such as ThyssenKrupp, but also on her to-do list is learning more about youth sports so as to be a better fan for her boys’ teams.

Checking her cell phone for the latest from home, Gatlin said, “It’s tough balancing career and family. Sometimes I feel like I’m being a great lawyer but a bad mother – sometimes a great mother but a bad lawyer. But I have a great support system, and I truly love the law.”

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