The admirable roll call of graduates from Mercer University School of Law has included esteemed attorneys, judges, legislators, professors, political pundits and more. A significant number have made themselves invaluable as the full-time legal go-to person for a corporation’s wide-ranging needs. In the Fall 2013 Mercer Lawyer, we spoke to a handful of these in-house general counsels about their companies, their duties, and the ways their days at the Law School prepared them to wear the many hats such a job requires.
“I’m still not sure I want to be a lawyer when I grow up,” Jim Gilbert jokes.
Yet at age 70, he scoffs at the notion of stepping down from a long career. “I’ll work till I die. It’s really hard for lawyers to retire— I don’t know why.”
In his case, location might have something to do with it. He’s in-house counsel for exclusive, sun-kissed Sea Island, just a few beats of a pelican’s wings from its Golden Isle sister, St. Simons. The resort is home to five-star destinations including the Cloister and the Lodge at Sea Island. But for Gilbert, it’s not always a day at the beach.
He deals with employment issues for nearly 2,000 staffers, transportation logistics, and other pressing situations including real estate transactions, fair housing, personal injury and environmental strictures.
“One of the primary jobs I have is recognizing problems, then finding the right help to deal with them,” he says, comparing his work to that of a General Practitioner: “It’s like being someone’s family doctor.”
His grandfather, O.P. Gilbert, a longtime editor of the Christian Index, graduated from Mercer University, as did all six of O.P.’s sons, including Gilbert’s father, in whose honor Mercer’s James Gilbert Scholarship was created. Other Mercer grads: a great- and a great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side, and literally dozens of his cousins. Oddly enough, though, Jim Gilbert initially enrolled as an undergrad at Duke University and indeed it turned out to be an uncomfortable match.
“I was sort of drifting,” he says, “not attending classes.” He left after two years and took a factory job. That’s when Mercer’s then-president Dr. Rufus Harris and its admissions director John Mitchell reached out to him and suggested he return to his family’s academic fold. “The institution,” Gilbert says matter-of-factly, “saved my life.”
After passing the bar, he joined his father’s and uncle’s law firm, where he practiced until becoming general counsel for Sea Island in 2001.
Of his time at the Law School, Gilbert fondly remembers Professors James Rehberg and Leah Chanin, as well as the late Dan Bradley, a classmate who was “as good a friend as I ever had — just another one of the great people Mercer has produced.” (See the spring 2013 issue of Mercer Lawyer for Professor Joe Claxton’s article on Bradley.)
Gilbert’s elder son graduated from Mercer Medical School and is a pediatrician in Gainesville, Ga. His daughter is a realtor in Jacksonville, Fla. Both are in their 40s. And he has a young son, Benjamin, turning 16 this fall.
“All three of them have great moms,” Gilbert says. They came from two marriages; he’s currently unwed. He calls Benjamin his “Alaska buddy.” They travel twice a year to a “tiny place” he has in the 49th state. Ben is also a gifted guitarist and a concert companion. They’ve gone together to see Black Sabbath, Def Leppard, Weird Al Yankovich, Van Halen, Heart, Jeff Beck.
Family and spiritual life are most important to Gilbert — he’s a member of the St. Simons United Methodist Church — but Mercer isn’t far behind. “The Walter F. George School of Law is one of the things for which I’m most grateful in my life,” he says. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without Mercer.… I’d probably still be working in that factory.”
There’s a funny thing about Tractor Supply Company. “We have some passionate customers out there who love Tractor Supply,” says the company’s senior vice-president and general counsel, Ben Parrish. “Other people have never heard of us. They say, ‘What do you sell? Tractors?’ Ironically, we don’t.”
Tractor parts, yes. And agricultural tools, fencing, products for lawns and gardens and pets, outdoor clothing, and just about anything you need for a life off the concrete slab of urban existence. Headquartered in the Nashville area, the steadily expanding farm and ranch chain now has more than 1,200 locations in 47 states.
A Georgia native who grew up 40 miles outside Macon in Jackson, Parrish had Mercer roots from the start … by extension, anyway. Both his father and grandfather graduated from the Southern School of Pharmacy in Atlanta before it became part of Mercer University. “My father always received the Mercer alumni publications and considered himself a Mercer graduate,” Parrish says.
Pharmacy was not Ben Parrish’s calling. In high school, an African American teacher named Curtis Gaye “got me interested in politics, and planted the seed in my mind about law,” Parrish says. (Gaye later went to law school and became an attorney himself.) In the ’70s, Parrish was a reporter and photographer for the Jackson newspaper, earned a B.A. in political science at Mercer, then took a year off to campaign for Democratic state senator Peter Banks who was running for Congress. After that, he spent time on Capitol Hill working for Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia, taking government courses during the evening at Georgetown University before returning to Macon and the Law School in 1979.
“I had no lawyers in my family, so I didn’t have a real close-up view of what it was like to be a lawyer,” Parrish says. “But I sensed that law and politics were very much related. So it was really my love of politics that sent me in the direction of law school.”
His professional path followed a more corporate route. After being invited to be a summer associate with Atlanta’s King & Spalding, he joined the firm in 1982, working for nearly three years in the securities section of the corporate department.
Now, at Tractor Supply, he oversees a team that provides legal services to internal clients. This includes managing litigation and claims, negotiating, drafting and reviewing contracts and leases, handling the company’s trademarks and working to ensure the company’s compliance with federal, state and local laws: “everything from securities and environmental regulations to OSHA requirements and local business licenses.” In addition, Parrish leads the company’s environmental sustainability program and governmental affairs efforts and serves as corporate secretary.
Father of an 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son, Parrish has taken his kids to many of the national parks out west. He and his sons go rock climbing and canyoneering in the national parks in Utah at least a couple of times a year. “I love outdoor stuff,” he says.
When he remembers the Law School, he remembers professors— Jim Rehberg, Hal Lewis, Jack Sammons, John Cole. He also remembers a lot of camaraderie — and pranks. Like the time he and his classmates commemorated Professor Larry Ribstein’s 1L tort class on “the banana peel case” by littering the room with those slippery fruit rinds. Or the time his whole class showed up wearing paper bags on their heads in a nod to the then-popular Unknown Comic. Or the time someone managed to get a key to the official announcement board to post notice that Jim Marshall’s property class was canceled. “I’ll never forget Jim Marshall standing in front of the empty moot courtroom with a perplexed expression on his face, confronting us as we passed by in the hallway and saying, ‘Why aren’t you coming to my class?’”
Pranks aside, Parrish says, “Mercer Law School prepared me well for my career.” He remembers fondly “that personal connection with professors and with other students in an environment that was not overly competitive. We were rooting each other on, rather than looking over our shoulder to see who’s coming behind us in class rankings. It was a collaborative, supportive environment. It was wonderful.”
Some corporate executives receive silver bowls, medallions or framed certificates
to commemorate company milestones. Tom Bishop got a chunk of rebar. And he couldn’t be happier.
That odd memento celebrates the completion of a 41-hour continuous concrete pour for the foundation of one of two nuclear power facilities being built near Waynesboro by Georgia Power, where Bishop has been senior vice president, compliance officer and general counsel since 2008. He was promoted to that job from the parent corporation, Southern Company, which he joined in 1993.
“If you had asked me years ago what I thought I was going to do, I was sure I was headed for a black robe and a bench somewhere,” Bishop says. “When I went in-house [for Southern Company] in 1993, I thought I was going to get four, five years experience and move on. But I’ve had a really amazing practice opportunity here. Never a dull moment.”
A $14 billion project, the nuclear units will be a focus of his attention until their completion date in 2017. But his job entails all sorts of other demands: employment issues, for instance, and federal environmental regulations. “One of the great things about this culture is the commitment to compliance,” Bishop says. “I’ve never been in a serious business meeting here where the first question wasn’t, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’”
Often, the most immediate right thing for Georgia Power to do is to turn the juice back on. “When you ride with the crews and they’re turning the lights back on after a storm, you see how much electricity matters,” he says. “It drives technology, it drives health care, and it’s such a major impact on uplifting the economy of the state.”
One of the company’s slogans is Honor the Past, Build for the Future. Bishop takes that seriously in terms of his own job. “Georgia Power hired its first general counsel in 2004, so I’m only the second in its history,” he says. “You come into this job with a perspective that this company has been around for 120-plus years, so you’re building the foundation for your successor to come in and carry it forward for the next iteration of the 20-year plan.”
A Cartersville native who recently moved with his family to Acworth (cutting down on the commute time to his Atlanta office), Bishop and his wife have a daughter who’s a sophomore in high school, and a son, Tyler, who graduated this past spring from Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts. Bishop himself is a “Double Bear,” having earned not only a J.D. from Mercer but also a B.A. in political science. He currently serves on the University’s Board of Trustees.
“One of the things I always appreciated about the Law School experience was that we always had a good amount of interaction with the lawyers and judges in the local bar,” he says. “And because of the section size, you always got one-on-one time with your professors — whether you wanted it or not.”
“I’m constantly amazed,” he adds, “by how many Mercer alumni I run into around the state. They’re in office, they’re in judgeships, they’re in the legislature.” He often meets Mercer law students, and when he does, “I tell them all the time: ‘Look around. The relationships you build here are the foundations for the next 20 years. This is the beginning of your professional network.’”
In the testosterone –fueled world of NASCAR and the National Hot Rod Association it might seem surprising that the in-house attorney for Tennessee’s largest sporting complex is a woman. Or maybe not.
“Let me put it this way,” says Julie Bennett, general counsel for Bristol Motor Speedway. “If people were surprised, they were smart enough not to say anything to me.”
While practicing for 15 years at Hunter, Smith & Davis in her native Kingsport, Tenn., Bennett represented the Speedway in an employment discrimination case. “The way I represent a client, I get to know the company and get to understand their business,” she says.
It was her speediest case. A year later, in 2007, the Speedway — the fourth largest sports venue in the U.S. — approached her about being its first-ever in-house counsel. “Obviously,” she says with a laugh, “a successful verdict never hurts.”
Two years after coming aboard, Bennett was also named general manager of the Speedway’s sister venue, Bristol Dragway. Even though she grew up in the area and her ex-husband followed the sport, she was sort of a latecomer to the racing scene. “But,” she says, “coming into the business side of it is a very different animal than just turning on the TV on a Sunday afternoon and watching a race.”
As the Speedway’s general counsel and the entirety of its legal team (no secretary, no paralegal), she wears a lot of hats. “I do all of the contracts, trademark stuff and litigation — you name it,” she says.
Not to mention overseeing the human resources department and the logistics-driven events team (gates, parking, shuttles, ushers, etc.). When NASCAR comes calling, “at event time, my duties shift to a kind of hostess function for our VIP guests,” she says. “I serve in the owner’s suite and am there to greet and chat with our legislators and whoever else may be here for the race.”
There is no such thing as a “typical” day for Bennett. A lot of meetings — that’s the only constant. Bennett always makes time to attend her teenage children’s events. Her daughter is a competitive gymnast, and her son belongs to the marching band and plays tennis. “I am very blessed to have very smart, very perceptive, well-grounded children,” she says. “They both are very social and have lots of friends, so that keeps us busy.”
And when does she sleep? She laughs. “Oh, you know — when I can.”
While still an undergraduate at Auburn University, “I made up my mind what I thought wanted to do,” she says. That was to practice law in Atlanta. So, to pass the Georgia bar, it made sense to study in-state. Bennett applied to Mercer and to Emory. (“And I applied to UT, just to humor my mother.”) Mercer seemed like the right fit, and she still keeps in touch with Professor Tony Baldwin. After graduation, though, Tennessee called her home, and she appreciated not having to learn the ins and outs of a brand new city. (Her parents still live in Kingsport, where Bennett has served as president of the Chamber of Commerce.)
“I do have a pretty cool job and don’t think I take it for granted,” she says. “If you want to know whoI really am, you probably need to understand that I have a very deep and abiding faith, that I believe God’s path has taken me where I am, and I hope I can stay on it. I believe that the blessings come from Him and not from anything I’ve done.”