GULFPORT — It’s certain Joy Lambert Phillips will never forget 2005 for many reasons. Mainly because the Gulfport attorney served as president of the 7,900-member Mississippi Bar during the year of Hurricane Katrina. It was also the association’s 100th anniversary year and the first time a woman was president. She was also the 100th president and the first in-house counsel to serve as president. On a personal note, it was also the year she turned 50.
Phillips, a senior vice president at Hancock Bank, serves as Hancock’s general counsel and took the bar association office just six weeks before the killer storm roared ashore. “I was excited to be president, honored, nervous — all those emotions,” she said. “I thought I would remember the year 2005 for many other reasons but Katrina changed all that.”
As a woman, did she approach the presidency different from a man? “It’s hard to know because of Katrina,” she said. “Certainly, I think women bring a different perspective than men. I knew there would be some people who would look at that.”
Long before she took the helm of the bar, Phillips was active in the organization, chairing sections and committees and as editor of the Guide to Women’s Legal Rights in Mississippi. She also served as president of the Mississippi Women Lawyers Association that named her the Outstanding Woman Lawyer of the Year in 2004.
Shortly after Phillips was sworn in as president, Hancock Bank president and CEO George A. Schloegel expressed pride in her accomplishments and said, “We believe her experience and knowledge will help the Mississippi Bar perpetuate its long-standing commitment to excellence during this milestone year.”
He had no way of knowing what a milestone year 2005 would be. Phillips says as things turned out, it’s good she was from the Coast. “At first I didn’t know if it was good. Would it have made a difference? So many factors came into play,” she says. “I came to the conclusion it probably was good. I had a bird’s eye view. I could see what was going on and coordinate the assistance from the bar.”
Phillips finds it ironic that another Gulfport attorney, the late Boyce Holleman, was president of the bar when Hurricane Camille hit Mississippi in 1969.
“Some of my friends and fellow lawyers lost their homes. It was personal to me,” Phillips said. “I know these people. The bar faced challenges — not just me personally — and recovering from Katrina consumed a lot of my presidency. It was my responsibility to keep it in the forefront all over the country.”
She wanted to make sure people knew what was going on in Mississippi and that state residents were helping themselves. To that end, she addressed the American Bar Association’s Board of Governors and House of Delegates, meeting many people she would not have met otherwise.
Phillips says she’s one of the luckiest people around because she and her husband of 31 years, Frank Phillips, were able to stay in their home and only had minimal damage. Her office at the bank, however, was a different story and will not be ready to reoccupy until December. Moving boxes of everything that could be salvaged from the water-soaked offices, she has moved three times.
What was the biggest challenge of this eventful year? “I hate for everything to be about Katrina, but it is,” she said. “Initially locating attorneys and determining the needs and how to meet them was a big challenge.”
The Mississippi Bar set up a fund and provided business suits and books for attorneys along with holding seminars and providing counseling. Meeting the legal needs of communities where the courts were disrupted was also a challenge. Phillips credits Amanda Jones and the young lawyers division for providing more than 4,000 hours of free legal assistance to more than 6,600 Katrina affected citizens.
“These hours are those documented through the young lawyers division and don’t count the numerous hours contributed by individual attorneys on their own initiative and not reported to the bar,” Phillips said. “The bar faced challenges, not just me personally, and hurricane recovery consumed a lot of my presidency.”
Asked how she did it all, Phillips replied, “It was a tough balancing act. The bank was supportive and the other bank attorneys helped. I also have an understanding husband. Some of my friends call him ‘Saint Frank’.”
She says she’s not super organized but maintains what she refers to as “controlled chaos.” “I’m a paper person and generally know where everything is,” she said. “I was lucky that I didn’t lose everything in my office, but there were times I worked out of my car.”
Phillips isn’t exactly sure why she chose to become an attorney but admits to always being goal oriented. “There was never a doubt I would go to college. I was encouraged by my mother and at age 11 or 12. I had narrowed down my career choices to law, medicine, psychology or airline pilot,” she recalls. “My mother is definitely my hero and is my biggest cheerleader.”
Phillips spent her early years in Chicago where her mother, Mary Trivette, still lives. While in high school, Phillips moved to Booneville, with her father and stepmother and finished high school there. She received both bachelor’s and jurist doctorate degrees with honors from the University of Mississippi. While in law school, she served as research editor of the Law Journal, was a member of Phi Delta Phi legal fraternity and participated in the Federal Internship Program.
In addition to a year that was consumed with hurricane recovery, the Mississippi Bar had other accomplishments. Although Phillips won’t take credit for them, those include funding for access to justice for the poor, mandatory interest on lawyers’ trust accounts, a Supreme Court-appointed access to justice committee and some education measures. There were also activities to celebrate the bar’s 100th anniversary and a commemorative booklet.
“I would like to be remembered as a bar president who cared and left the bar and its lawyers in as good a shape or better as when I came in,” Phillips said. “I will probably be defined by Katrina because it was such a massive thing.”
Phillips hopes her work with the bar is never over and wouldn’t trade the opportunity to serve the group as president for anything. “I’m appreciative that the members gave me the opportunity to do it and I hope I served them well,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without my husband, friends, the bank and the bar.”
Additionally, she wants people to know that like most lawyers she is not just defined by her job. She’s involved with her family as a wife, aunt and daughter along with being involved in the community. She likes to spend quiet time at home and finds mowing grass and pulling weeds in the yard to be therapeutic.
She says people would be surprised to learn that she was a cheerleader in high school. “My friends tease me that I dress conservatively; very business like,” she said, “and they’d be surprised that I was ever a cheerleader. I told one of my nieces and she couldn’t believe it.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.