Tested by COVID: Positive Life Lessons in a Pandemic

“Life is a cruel teacher. She loves to give you the test first and the lesson later.”    Daymond John

Although my husband, Joey, and I were nearly the same age when we met and married, I was just two years into my career as a lawyer, while he had been a professional chef for over a decade.  It thus came as no surprise when, a year or so later, he got serious about opening his own restaurant as the next step in his career.  Because he knew he needed help on the business side of things, shortly after becoming partners in life, we became partners in business as well.

Just getting the doors open took us nearly three years and the combined efforts of innumerable friends and family who supported our dream financially, emotionally and with their talents – from an old colleague handmaking ceramic plates to my mom making the curtains to my dad’s basement office becoming “world headquarters!” When the restaurant, Southern Belle, finally opened in November 2019, it seemed like Joey’s career was secure and progressing, and I was looking forward being able to return my full-time focus to my own career now that my work drafting our operating agreement, commercial lease, vendor contracts and employee workflows was complete.

Then COVID happened.

We had been operating for only five months when the shutdown was ordered in March 2020.  I remember watching Joey break down in the middle of the restaurant when my dad and I told him we had no choice but to temporarily close.  He was devastated over what this would mean for his dream, his career, and how being without a job would affect the amazing team of employees who had helped him achieve one of the most talked-about restaurant openings in Atlanta.

In the days and weeks that followed, there were a lot of tears, frustration and hours spent learning how to file for unemployment for our employees as I turned my attention back to the restaurant. Like so many others, I was incredibly scared during this time because courts were closing and government investigations were put on pause – meaning my white collar practice was essentially stalled.  With Joey despondent at home collecting unemployment and my workload incredibly light, I did not know if my job was secure enough to get us through the first COVID wave, so I legitimately started researching bankruptcy procedures as it seemed like a very real possibility.

But before I knew it, spring warmed into summer, and a glimmer of hope for both my legal practice and the restaurant began to take hold.  While my colleagues at SGR brought me in on shareholder and lease disputes, background investigations for a software company purchase, and even a few land-use projects, we reopened the restaurant as a takeout-only restaurant, a patio-only restaurant, and then a hybrid of the two. The only constants during this time were change, adaptation and the need for effective communication, but somehow, that was enough to get us through.

As I reflect today on all that has occurred over the past 18 months, I have to believe that what we’ve been through during this time has made me a more effective lawyer, patient partner to Joey, and hopefully, a better person.  Although it’s not the typical practice in the legal field, I freely communicated with my colleagues and practice leaders when I was having a hard time professionally or personally.  Rather than step away or label me as someone “not committed” to my job, they found ways to support me and our restaurant through the dark days we faced.  Today, I feel more valued, more skilled and more plugged into the firm than I likely would have if COVID hadn’t happened – a truly surprising result considering the bleak outlook of last year.  Joey and I tried to mirror that empathy and understanding with our own employees as they stood beside us while we reopened, reconfigured and constantly revamped our restaurant to meet the ever-changing health needs of our community.  We’ve also tried to be more honest and open with each other as personal challenges have piled on top of the professional ones.   

While the past 18 months have been unqualifiedly horrible and full of all manner of tragedies, they have also helped me develop the resilience to “get through” whatever life throws at me and the confidence to communicate with my law colleagues, my husband and my friends about the good and bad that is going on.  Whether I’m making calls on the fly during a trial or figuring out the next version of the restaurant we need to be in order to adapt to our next challenge, the COVID experience has changed me for the better.

As our society continues adapting to this evolving pandemic, my hope for us all is that we take the lessons of patience, empathy, communication and flexibility with us when life returns to “normal.” Until that “normal” arrives, I’ll continue finding the time to enjoy the little pleasures of life like working with my dogs at my feet and sharing a great meal or glass of wine with a friend – at whatever version of Southern Belle is currently operating.

Emily is a member of SGR’s White Collar Practice and the co-owner of Southern Belle and Georgia Boy, located at 1043 Ponce De Leon Avenue NE, Atlanta, Georgia  30306.

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