Carlee McCullough is undeniably a renaissance woman. The experienced lawyer and entrepreneur is also an adjunct college professor and co-owner of one of the city’s most notable hotspots, Mahogany Memphis, an upscale restaurant in the Chickasaw Oaks Village area of the city.
Although her interests are vast, Carlee is still in love with being an attorney. Initially, she began her career as a Certified Public Accountant; and though she credits the position for paving the way for her law career, she knew early on that the monotony of the job wasn’t ideal for her vibrant personality. So she leaned on the advice of her mom, an avid “Perry Mason” watcher, leading her to eventually shift professional gears and pursue a career in law. Since then, she hasn’t looked back, eventually making a name for herself as a sought-after attorney in the Bluff City.
Working for more than a decade as the Contract Compliance Officer for the City of Memphis, Carlee has also served as the legal advisor for the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission and the Memphis and Shelby County Film and Television Commission. She now serves as the general counsel of the law firm she founded, McCullough Law. If that’s not enough to keep her busy, she also holds the position of Chair of the Board of Commissioners for Memphis, Light, Gas and Water.
This multi-faceted Memphis native spoke with us about what she loves most about the city she calls home, her proudest accomplishment, and how the national climate is affecting her, both professionally and personally. Meet our newest FACE of Memphis!
You’ve been a practicing lawyer for a while. What do you love most about the profession?
I consider myself to be a problem solver. People come to me with issues. For me, it’s very rewarding to help people solve their problems, and I’m pretty good at it. So regardless of their issue, we are able to craft a solution to help them.
What’s been one of your most monumental experiences as an attorney?
One of my most enjoyable experiences has been when I was general counsel for a movie — Insecure. That was probably one of my most enjoyable in the sense that I always wanted to do entertainment law. I really enjoyed serving in that capacity — on the movie set from beginning to end, from the actual copywriting of the screenplay and all the way to distribution.
One of my most emotional cases has been a car accident that resulted in a young male becoming an amputee. He was a young fellow pushing his girlfriend’s car, resulting in him having to have a leg amputated. Those types of cases you never get over. A part of it kind of sticks with you, and it will have you looking at life from a different lens. You’ll be grateful for the blessings you do have.
And that’s the thing about law. It can go from a very happy experience — from when people are starting businesses and creating music and movies to the other end of the spectrum — the loss of a limb or the loss of life.
You ventured out in 2018 to open Mahogany Memphis, an upscale restaurant known for its Southern and Creole cuisine. What prompted you and your business partner to open the restaurant?
My co-owner and I like to eat. We’re foodies. We like great experiences. And Memphis is known for great food, but a large portion — as it relates to Black-owned [businesses] — has been traditionally pigeonholed into barbecue places.
We were scratching our heads, thinking where we would go if we wanted to support an upscale Black-owned business. At the time we opened, it didn’t exist. Now we have a few more that have come online, but when we opened two years ago, it didn’t exist. We wanted to create a restaurant where people could enjoy a date night, where they can put on nice clothes and dine with their friends or with their guy or girl.
Earlier this year, COVID-19 changed the lives of people around the world. And we’re still in it. How has the current health crisis affected your businesses?
We are kind of calling it the new norm at the law firm. I don’t know if things will ever go back to how they used to be. Now, we are practicing what I call “tele-law.” We’re still able to be effective and get the job done even in these current circumstances.
The restaurant has been different. We were shut down briefly because of COVID, but eventually, we were able to open back up and offer curbside and delivery. At that time, business was light, at best. Now we’ve opened back up for dine-in and we’re able to bring back all of our staff. So that was great, but we are adjusting and trying to get to a new norm and what that looks like for us. The restaurant business is already a hard business. You have to love it to do it.
You’re an attorney, restaurant co-owner, and serve as an adjunct law professor at LeMoyne-Owen College. How do you ensure you make time for self-care?
Pre-COVID, I was heavy into massage therapy and just overall self-care maintenance — mind, body, and spirit. So, when COVID hit, of course everything was shut down. We, as women who like to pamper ourselves, were not able to do many things we were used to doing — from our nails to our hair. I’ve had to learn to do the things I would pay someone else to do, but I make time for self-care.
As a native of Memphis who has lived in other places but chose to come back, what do you love most about the city?
Well, Memphis is home. Memphis is a hard town, but it’s also a loving town. People will go out of their way to share. And this could be people who don’t have a lot but will still go out of their way to help, whether that be information or material things. And it’s just a beautiful city that’s on the river. [There are] so many things that are beautiful about Memphis that sometimes I think Memphians may take it for granted. But I’ve had the opportunity to live in many places — Chicago, Washington, DC, Houston — and out of all those places, there is no place I’d rather be than Memphis.
Where are some of your favorite places to go in the city?
The river! It’s just a comforting place, and it’s so beautiful. I also go to Shelby Farms to walk around the water. We’ve got so many great museums in Memphis, like the National Civil Rights Museum. We have lots of entertainment and nice restaurants. So, when people say there’s nothing to do in Memphis, I say, bull crap! There are so many things to do. It’s just a great place to be overall.
You’ve accomplished a lot professionally, but what would you say is one of your biggest accomplishments?
I am most proud of my son. I am so pleased at the young man he is becoming. He is nice. He is kind, respectful and brilliant. Just an overall great guy. He is my biggest and best accomplishment. Being a mother to him — by far, hands down — that’s my biggest accomplishment.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Work hard, play hard, and pray hard.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things that you can’t live without?
Great food, great drinks, and great friends.
Thank you, Carlee! And thank you to Isaac Singleton for the fabulous photos.