Published in The Mississippi Lawyer, Vol. XLIX, March – April – May 2003, No. 4
When I was asked to contribute to the “legendary lawyer” series, I polled a number of “gray-haired” lawyers to determine who might qualify as a living “legendary lawyer.” When I approached William P. Mitchell regarding his willingness to share some of his thoughts, Mr. Mitchell stated, “I’m not a legendary lawyer.” I replied, “That’s not what your colleagues think.”
Many people know William P. Mitchell as “Mr. Pete.” He was born in 1915 in Ratliff, Mississippi. He has served the legal profession in a number of capacities, including serving as District Attorney for Lee County, a JAG officer, and a private lawyer. His six decades of service and leadership to the business community in northeast Mississippi has helped this area of the State in many ways. Mr. Pete has also served his fellow citizens and The Mississippi Bar in a number of leadership capacities. As a combat officer in World War II, he was awarded The Bronze Star, The Purple Heart, and the Silver Star. Mr. Pete, now a widower, is the proud father of three daughters and has four grandchildren.
The following are excerpts from my interview of Mr. Pete on February 21, 2003 in his office at the Tupelo firm of Mitchell, Voge, Corban & Hendrix, L.L.P., which is the law firm he founded in 1963. He still comes to work every day.
Kantack: Why did you become a lawyer?
Mitchell: That’s a good question, Keith, and I really don’t know why. I certainly wasn’t one of these young fellows that was going over to Ole Miss to become a lawyer. I guess one of the things that pushed me in this direction is I had a brother who was three or four years older than I. He was studying law. So I guess some of that rubbed-off on me. I found out what he was doing and decided I was interested in being a lawyer too.
Kantack: In 1937 you graduated from Ole Miss with a law degree. Please tell me about your time in law school.
Mitchell: It was considerably different than what it is now. My freshman year at Ole Miss, as I recall, there was somewhere between 750 and 900 students in the entire student body. So, everybody knew everybody else. It was very informal and very pleasant. The law school was in Lamar Hall and it was not far away from the Student Union. The first floor was the post office, barber shop and a men’s store. In the basement was what we called The Greeks. Two Greek men had a café down there and at morning break everybody would head for The Greeks. These were pleasant times. On a whim I took the bar examination in the summer of 1936. It cost $5.00, and a friend and I wanted to test our knowledge. At that time, a graduate of the Ole Miss Law School was admitted to the Bar without taking the examination. We both passed the exam and my friend did not return to school. I was admitted to the bar in 1936, but did return for my third year and diploma.
Kantack: Your first position out of law school was as a Lee County Prosecutor and you later served as District Attorney for Lee County following World War II. What did you learn from your experience as a Lee County Prosecutor and District Attorney?
Mitchell: I guess to give you some idea; when I was County Attorney, the salary was $100 per month. When I was District Attorney it was $5,000 a year with no expense allowance, office allowance or secretarial allowance. So you didn’t do it for money. You did it for experience. I gained a lot of valuable experience and I loved the courtroom. I loved to try lawsuits. I guess it gave me what I would term a feel for the courtroom. So many people go into a courtroom and don’t feel that they are comfortable. I did enough of it that I got a good feel and paid little attention to who was there, and addressed myself to the judge and the jury. I learned to do that and to think on my feet. As I say, we had no help and my library was in my briefcase. Very few law books were available in the courthouses. It is different to what it is now considerably.
One of the other things I also learned is that it was dangerous. I had two experiences. One in 1939 when I was county attorney. Back at that time, liquor was illegal. Dope is the big thing now. Bootlegging was the big thing back then. One of the bootleggers had a little too much to drink and was angry at the way I was prosecuting folks and him in particular, so he shot me out east of Tupelo. As they say in the cowboy movies, he gut shot me. The bullet went all the way through my colon. Sulpha had come out as the new and latest treatment for infection. Except for that, I suspect I wouldn’t be here. When I was District Attorney I prosecuted another bootlegger and the jury convicted him. The judge told him to come back the next day for the sentence. I was over in the west door of the old courthouse going up the steps and he was standing up there and I spoke to him and he spoke to me. When I got up to the top of the step, he stepped forward and hit me just as hard as he could. It toppled me all the way down the steps. It was risky business.
Kantack: Please tell me about your service in World War II. Were you in combat and if so, what is combat like?
Mitchell: Who was it said war is hell? Was that Sherman? I’ll just give you a little background. In 1940 the draft had started. Everybody pretty well knew that just like we are now with Iraq, there was no question but that we were going to have a war. When the draft started, I was single and four or five other lawyers in this area were too. So, we all decided that rather than register for the draft we would volunteer for one year with the National Guard and then we were gonna come back home after we had discharged our duty. It was six years before I got back. And most of the rest of them were like that. At the end of approximately the first year we were doing maneuvers at Camp Livingston, Louisiana. Things were getting pretty serious. There wasn’t any question what was ahead of us. I was accepted to the artillery officer’s training school at Fort Sill. I eventually went on to Indiana and joined the 30th Infantry Division, which was just coming off of maneuvers. They had a bunch of desertion. Word got around that I was a lawyer and the way the courts were structured then, one member was what they called a law member and the others were just officers, but as a lawyer I was available to be assigned the defense of some of these cases. Most of them were kids that knew pretty sure that they were going overseas, so they just took off to go home a few days. They were not deserters but they overstayed their leave. They were AWOL.
I spent about six months in England. At the beginning of World War II, the services were segregated, at least to the extent that blacks were assigned to service units rather than combat units. The relationship between black and white soldiers was very much what it was at home in those days. Prior to the invasion, General Eisenhower issued a “no color line” order imposing severe penalties upon any member of the military who in any way discriminated against blacks. At this time, we were stationed in England awaiting the invasion. The first charge made under the “no color line” order was against a white draftee from Georgia, who was charged in a general court-martial. The charges grew out of a controversy between some black and white soldiers at a local pub. The soldier was given a choice of available attorneys to defend him and I was selected. General Hobbs was the commanding General of the 30th Infantry Division and a classmate of General Eisenhower. He appointed a court-martial composed of General Harrison, Assistant Division Commander, and the balance were full Colonels.
General Hobbs had me summoned to his office and proceeded to tell me that this was the first such violation to be prosecuted and he expected an example to be made out of this soldier and that he did not want any lawyer’s tricks. After all the proof was in, the court acquitted the white soldier. When the court recessed General Harrison came to me and told me that he was going back to camp and would give a report to General Hobbs of the trial and the result. He assured me that I need not fear any disciplinary action from the general and I never heard from him again about this.
I went in on Omaha Beach. We fought all the way through Normandy, the rest of France, Belgium, Holland and into Germany.
Kantack: Were you injured in World War II?
Mitchell: I lost my left leg near Aachen, Germany. I’m not sure whether it was an artillery shell explosion or what. Actually what we had done at that time, I had been promoted to a higher grade and had been given the assignment as intelligence officer to Division Artillery Headquarters. This particular afternoon we were not getting much information. I decided we would go up and see what was going on. My driver and I went up and stopped. We were getting pretty close (to the front line) up there. My driver said, “Let me go on up closer and see what’s happening.” While he was gone something happened and I woke up after two or three days in a Belgium hospital.
Kantack: Please describe your legal career following your service as Lee County District Attorney for eight years after World War II.
Mitchell: Well I suppose I had made some reputation as being a trial lawyer and a lawyer for people in need of a criminal lawyer. You must remember back at the time there was not much specialization. A lot of people would handle civil cases and do criminal work. I eventually got into plaintiff’s work and did a lot of personal injury. Then, eventually they started hiring for defense cases. I guess the insurance companies were getting tired of me being a plaintiff’s lawyer.
Kantack: What makes a good lawyer?
Mitchell: I am going to say number one, integrity. I remember a statement that Dean Kimbrough at the Ole Miss Law School made, “You have to be a student of the law.” The ability to research is also very important, and, of course, the ability to articulate your case orally and in writing is of the upmost importance. Being a good lawyer will pay-off because you will find yourself doing work for the younger generations of a family or business that you have previously represented.
Kantack: Should a lawyer be more than just a lawyer? Are you optimistic about the legal profession?
Mitchell: You should be a part of your community. It was Dean Kimbrough’s idea, and as I say a good bit of Dean Kimbrough rubbed-off on all of us. It wasn’t just what he taught to us, but just being in his presence and hearing him talk: it just kinda rubs off. We were taught that a lawyer was in the same category and not too far removed from a minister or doctor, and I have not gotten away from that. The thing that bothers me is you talk about the number of lawyers, I can accept that, but too many are, in my opinion, getting into the practice as a business or as a job. It’s neither a business nor a job. You have to make money to make a living and I have done very well on my part. I certainly have no complaint and have no desire to be rich, but I think that what’s happened is that we have let our reputation decline. Our appearance in the eyes of the public is no longer as people who serve the public. People say that’s just another one of those fellows wanting to sue somebody to make a little money. I am concerned about it. I don’t think that it is how we want to or should be perceived. I think we can repair our reputation if we address it and work at it. I’m optimistic and hopeful about the future of the legal profession.
Kantack: Please tell me about your family.
Mitchell: I am a widower. My wife passed away about six years ago. Her name was Mary Annis Clayton. Her brother was Claude F. Clayton, Sr., who was Circuit Judge and District Judge here, and was a member of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals when he died. Her father was Claude Clayton, without the F., who was a Circuit Judge here in this district. She grew up with lawyers. (chuckling) She never had a chance. She married a lawyer, and of course young Claude is here, and a Hugh Clayton over in New Albany was her cousin. She adapted to it very well. I have three daughters. The oldest, Mary, lives in Winter Park, Florida and is a journalist. Mary graduated from Ole Miss and Kansas University School of Journalism. My other two girls live in Jackson. Their names are Jane and Ann. Both graduated from Millsaps College. Jane is married to Steve Leech who is an attorney in Jackson. Ann is married to Bruce Bartling who is a purchasing agent for the University of Mississippi Medical Center. I have four grandchildren. Their names are Meg Leech, Clay Leech, Katie Leech and Lauren Bartling. I am very proud of my family. They are all a source of great inspiration to me.
Kantack: Who do you admire the most, and why?
Mitchell: I would say personally, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I say this for this reason. I was a teenager when the depression started. Roosevelt was elected President. We had people literally starving. I wasn’t, but he introduced a lot of new programs. A lot of it people said was socialism, and perhaps it was, but he put some of the people back to work and he put food on their tables, and after he did that he was President during World War II.
Kantack: My final question is having experienced such a long and diverse career, what advice can you give a lawyer so that he or she can come away from their professional life feeling fulfilled?
Mitchell: I think we have probably addressed some of that. I would say this. We are money driven too much. I guess some if it is that too many want to get rich. I was a young lawyer at one time, and deeds were $2.00 a piece and I used to do abstracts and got $25.00 for one. You can make a living and make a decent living and still not be money driven. If you conduct yourself with honor and integrity and are of service to your community and family, then you will come away from the legal profession with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
Kantack: Thank you for your time Mr. Pete.