Laurel — Ellis B. Cooper graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1908 and, in 1919, he and W.S. Welch formed a partnership in Laurel, which was a booming lumber town. A few years later, they began to represent the Masonite Corporation, then the largest industry in Mississippi.
Bill Mullins joined the firm — now Hortman Harlow Martindale, Bassi and Jones — in 1962, when he received his law degree from Ole Miss. Mullins became a partner in 1967, retired in 2002 and is now “of counsel.”
“Of counsel means different things in different firms,” Mullins said. “It actually means what the members define it as. I was bought out, no longer own any interest in Hortman Harlow. I’m semi-retired, have a senior status. But I still practice law within the framework of the firm.”
Hortman Harlow specializes in corporate defense.
Clients — in addition to Masonite — include Dixie Electric, Shell, Chevron, Texaco, BellSouth, Dunn Road Builders and a recent addition, Boots Smith Trucking. The firm also represents the State Tort Claims Board and defends the state, cities, counties and their employees.
Mullins indicated that his areas of specialization are wills, estate, estate planning, contracts and leases. He’s also the city attorney.
Expansion and name changes
While defending a man in court, Ellis B. Cooper, one of the founders, was mortally wounded by his client. In 1962, when Mullins joined the firm, it was known as Welch Gibbes & Graves, but David Welch, the son of the other founder, soon left.
In 1964, it became known as as Gibbes & Graves and, when Mullins became a partner in 1967, as Gibbes Graves & Mullins. After that, the firm began to expand and it has had several changes of name since then.
Denton Gibbes retired in 1990 and Ernest Graves in 1992.
Out of criminal law
In those days — the 1960s and through the middle 1970s — Mullins said, there was no public defender so, sometimes for indigent defendants and always for those charged with a capital crime, the judge would appoint an attorney and he would defend the accused, “for very little money.”
“Since this appointment system went out in the late 1970s and the public defender system was put in, Hortman Harlow hasn’t done any criminal law,” Mullins said.
In his more than four decades of practicing law, Mullins has seen a number of positive changes in the court system.
“It’s much more efficient now with the use of computers,”he said. “The federal courts are using an electronic filing system and the state is moving toward that on a county-by-county basis. And some counties are getting their land records on computer, though not in Jones County (where Laurel is located).”
Mullins indicated that in Jones County, Judge McKenzie of the chancery court is using more computers than the other judges.
“And Jones County is currently adapting a more effective way of handling cases. For example, Judge Billy Joe Landrum, the circuit judge…well, before a trial started, 80% to 90% of cases were being ‘settled on the courthouse steps’ and Judge Landrum was seeing that these cases were settled in that way, settled early. So now, before a trial in his court, cases go to mediation.”
Mullins said that this saves money for the court and for clients. He added that the federal court system is also using more mediation.
Another way that the court system has become more efficient is in the way that courts set cases for trial.
“When I first started practicing law in the early 1960s, each court would have docket calls, and you’d just sit there waiting, case by case, just sitting. Now, there’s a court administrator and he gets with lawyers and sets trial at the first open date. This is a real time-saver.”
Something that has changed the dynamics in local court systems over the years is that, in the past, every party, no matter how big or no matter where they came from, would hire a local attorney. But now, Mullins said, corporations have statewide coverage and they may or may not take on local counsel.”
“In the past, somebody in the county was always assured of getting a case. And back then, it probably made a difference that one of the attorneys was local. But now, it probably works both ways.”
A landmark downtown
Hortman Harlow occupies a landmark building that it bought in historic downtown Laurel in 1994. The building, built around 1920, was renovated to bring it up to code and to meet state standards so that it could continue to be designated a landmark.
Diane Owen was the designer and Gordon Myrick was the contractor for the building.
Being a limited liability corporation, Hortman Harlow has members, not partners. The firm is headed by a managing member, chosen by the other members. Bill Mullins was managing member for 15 years, followed by Gene Hortman. At present, Gene Harlow is managing member.
Bill Mullins was born in Greenwood, grew up in Noxubee County and graduated from Millsaps before receiving his law degree at Ole Miss. He has been a fellow (and president) of the Mississippi Law Foundation and a member (and president) of the Jones County Bar Association, American Bar Association, the Mississippi Bar, the Defense Research and Trial Lawyers Association and the Mississippi Defense Lawyers Association.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.