A.T. Debnam: Agent for Change

A.T. Debnam
2024 Feature Nominations

“One of my clients told me I was an agent for change,” said family law attorney A.T. Debnam, who practices at Smith Debnam in Raleigh. “She said I changed her life and changed her child’s life. She came to me when she was still living with her husband, and they were going through this awful time. I just helped her essentially pick up the pieces of her life and move forward.”

Anne Thurston – “everyone has called me A.T. since high school” – is the daughter of Smith Debnam co-founding partner of Thurston Debnam. He discouraged her from going to law school twice, but ultimately, he was the reason she went to law school at age 30.

“He’s the smartest person I know,” Debnam said. “He’s very well respected in the legal community. When I was growing up, I admired him not just for his work as an attorney, but also because of his commitment to serving the community. I wanted to be like him.”

A member of the charter class at Elon University School of Law, Debnam had no interest in private practice and even less interest in family law. But after winning the award as the top family law student during her third year, the die was cast. “I got it. I understood it. I connected with it,” said Debnam.

“The polar star of family law and child custody is what’s in the best interest of the children. Often in divorce, when emotions are wrought, it’s easy for couples to lose sight of what is best for the child. It’s hard enough just being a kid these days. They don’t need the added burden of knowing their mom stepped out on their dad or vice versa.”

Debnam and her partner have a 4-year-old daughter who she says helps her relate to parents in child custody matters.


Debnam advises new clients to take an electronic timeout, by avoiding using social media to rant about their spouse and/or sending text messages/emails in anger, especially if they have children. “It just infuriates our judges,” she said. “You might be the better parent, but if you’re sending disparaging text messages or emails to your ex, or your social media posts reveal you involve the kids in disputes with your ex, you risk severely undermining your case in the judge’s eye.”

“When I start with a new client, I look at the big picture and where we want to get to,” she said. “Then I figure out a road map of how we’re going to get there. That means being able to see around corners. I lay out the options and let the clients choose the path they take,” Debnam said.

“My philosophy is to prepare your case as if you’re going to court for trial,” she continues. “I find only then will your case usually settle.”

Debnam is a big proponent of mediation. She is a certified family financial mediator. “My overall goal is to get people’s cases settled because it’s much better for them to have a hand in their destiny rather than leave all the decisions to a judge who doesn’t know them, their family or their history,” said Debnam.


“Divorce is hard for any number of reasons. First and foremost, change can be a scary place. There can be a lot of fear. By being both an attorney and counselor at law, I can help my client replace fear with courage,” said Debnam.

“I believe counseling clients through the divorce process requires not only listening to what your client is saying, but also understanding how they’re feeling. Only then can one provide the legal advice and practical guidance clients need to help them reach the finish line stronger than they were before. I encourage my clients to envision a life after divorce filled with new and exciting possibilities. I lead with compassion and care to fuel their drive forward. I really want to help them get to that finish line.”

Bob Friedman

Robert "Bob" Friedman is the publisher of Attorney at Law Magazine North Carolina Triangle. He contributes articles and interviews to each issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts