[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he windows from the 17th floor of the Beck Building offer a fine view of downtown Shreveport and the surrounding area.
Prominent most days are the smokestacks of the Arsenal Hill and J. Lamar Stall power plants operated by AEP/Swepco. More dimly in the distance, but still looming large in view and in the history of Shreveport, are the workshops and yards of Kansas City Southern Railroads Deramus Yard.
The two corporations, whose products and services embrace the South, are anchor clients of the Shreveport law firm Wilkinson, Carmody & Gilliam, which fills most of Beck’s 17th floor, and which in its 123rd year holds sway as Shreveport’s oldest continually operating law firm.
AEP and its predecessor companies have been represented by the firm or its antecedents since 1898, and Kansas City Southern also has been a client well over a century.
“Southwestern Electric Power Company and Wilkinson, Carmody & Gilliam have worked together for more than 100 years,” said Venita McCellon-Allen, SWEPCO president and chief operating officer. “The original Southwestern Gas and Electric Company was formed in 1912 when a trio of brothers — Rufus, Henry and Charles Dawes — merged their three utilities. Early company records show the Dawes brothers had worked with the (Wilkinson) firm before they consolidated their holdings into one company.”
Wilkinson, Carmody and Gilliam traces its roots to 1895, when attorneys John D. Wilkinson and Taliaferro Alexander formed a partnership and set up shop in the offices of the old Wells Fargo Building, now long demolished, near the Shreveport riverfront.
“Wilkinson and Alexander moved from Coushatta to Shreveport thinking that business would be better in Shreveport over the years,” said firm managing partner Bobby S. Gilliam. “And they were right. After that, things developed.”
John Dallas Wilkinson was born in Coushatta, having come to Shreveport to be where the action was in the days following the Gilded Age.
Eulogized by the Shreveport Times upon his death in 1929 as “an outstanding member of the Shreveport and Louisiana bar” with a “reputation widespread throughout the South,” he was one of a small number of local attorneys that got into physical altercations with fellow Shreveport attorney Huey P. Long, who later would become governor and U.S. Senator from Louisiana.
In a 1933 article in the New Orleans Times Picayune that ridiculed Long after a fight in a New York bath club, it was reported that Wilkinson “gave Long a thrashing with a closed umbrella.” Long fled the encounter with Wilkinson, as he had the tangle at the bath house, “and another race was chalked up in his (Long’s) favor.”
The incident is included in a two-part history of the firm written several years ago for the Shreveport Bar Association’s member journal by firm partner Arthur R. “Art” Carmody, now retired and in Of Counsel status after more than 50 years as a firm attorney.
Carmody, with fellow nonagenarian Emeritus District Judge Gayle K. Hamilton one of the longest-tenured members of the Shreveport bar, still puts in at least a half-day of work several days a week, contributes a monthly history column to the local bar journal and remains active in legal and civic affairs.
“The firm has institutional memory and the ability for the attorneys to have very in-depth research capabilities,” said local historian and author Gary D. Joiner. “Art Carmody is probably even now the preeminent railroad attorney in the state. He gets it. He understands transportation law. They may not necessarily have the largest number of attorneys, but they have done so many cases and have such in-depth background, that they become an invaluable resource, not only to their clients but also to the courts.”
The presence of feisty, storied attorneys is a long tradition with the firm, beginning with its founders.
Aside from Wilkinson’s beat down of Long, there was Taliaferro Alexander, whose name was dropped from the firm when it moved to the United Mercantile Building in 1919.
Alexander, born in Catahoula Parish in 1846, served as a judge of the state Supreme Court from 1868 to 1876. A practicing attorney for more than 50 years, he also was associated with former Louisiana governor and Shreveport attorney Newton C. Blanchard and for many years was a member of the local bar examining board. Called “the veteran and dean of the legal profession in Shreveport” in at least one history of the profession in the state, he also served as a delegate to the Louisiana State Constitutional Convention of 1898. A fixture in the Shreveport law landscape since 1870, he died in 1924 after a career of more than 50 years.
When Wilkinson died in 1929, he was the senior member of the firm that after 1919 called itself Wilkinson, Lewis and Wilkinson. Other partners were his son W. Scott Wilkinson and C. Huffman Lewis.
“C. Huffman Lewis was known to be very proper and kind of authoritative,” Bobby Gilliam said. “He kind of reminds me of the gentleman in the story ‘The Paper Chase.’ Well, one day he needed a new car and so he called one of the dealerships here, one where he knew the manager. He went down but the manager wasn’t there, so he saw a salesman and bought a vehicle. He didn’t pay sticker price, but he just about did. The dealer found out about it later that afternoon, was embarrassed and so he called Huffman and said ‘Mr. Lewis, we appreciate your business, so come back down and we will make an adjustment.’ Huffman, as dignified as he was and having a lot of pride, responded ‘Gentlemen never haggle over price.’ He hung up the phone and never went back to get his adjustment.”
During his early years at the firm, Gilliam got a chance to hear stories from W. Scott Wilkinson, son of the firm’s founder.
“He was then in his 80s, but in his youth had been an LSU basketball player,” Gilliam recalls. “When he got to LSU he joined a fraternity and the initiation was to swim the Mississippi River. He actually swam from one side to the other. But he ended up many miles downstream, and they made him walk all the way back.”
One of his own war stories comes from the 1990s, when the late Henry Politz, a U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals judge and fellow Shreveporter, once heard an appeal Gilliam argued. Gilliam, who says, “Hank Politz always was a character and a jokester,” was in an elevator headed to court when who should enter, fully robed — none other than Judge Politz, who studiously ignored Gilliam during the ride up to the courtroom.
“As he left the elevator, without looking back at me, Judge Politz said ‘I’m hell on lawyers I know,’ and proceeded on to the courtroom,” Gilliam recalls.
Several times during Gilliam’s time before the three-judge panel, Politz would raise his finger as though he had a question, and Gilliam would pause only to have Politz say nothing and drop the finger.
“He did that three times, and then he just smiled,” Gilliam said. “He had quite a wit and humor, and he was a fine judge, too.”
The modern incarnation of the firm began in the mid-1950s, when it moved to “the world’s first colored-aluminum skyscraper” (in the words of Shreveport Magazine), the Henry C. Beck Building. Namesake Beck, a Dallas developer who was born in Shreveport, was responsible for the erection of the Slattery, Giddens-Lane, Johnson and Sklar buildings, among others, that once dominated the Shreveport skyline. The Beck Building’s opening in 1956 as the city’s tallest skyscraper was a sensation, earning headlines and a list of business clients clamoring for office space. The then-Wilkinson, Lewis, Wilkinson and Madison law firm was among the first there.
The firm’s offices in the Beck Building are filled not only with its six lawyers and a support staff of some two dozen paralegals and clerks, but also with hundreds of books filled with rulings and briefs, as well as photographs and memorabilia from clients, including scores of historic photographs and model trains reflecting its work for the railroads.
“We keep books everywhere,” Gilliam said, noting the firm has one of the oldest continuous law libraries.
“They go all the way back,” he said, carefully holding a volume with hand-written notations by some long-dead attorney or judge. “We’ve got some bound volumes of old briefs they wrote ‘back in the day.’ It’s really fun to read some of these, though some are very fragile.”
Throughout its existence, the firm has hosted Christmas parties with rooms filled with tables of delectables, ranging from the expected finger foods, cheese and fruits, to heaping bowls of iced shrimp, heavy hors d’oeuvres, desserts and entrees that have made invitations to the parties much-sought in the community — not that anyone ever is turned away.
“As long as I can remember we’ve always had a party, but it was not always on the scale it is now,” Carmody said. “At first, it used to be that we only had wine and cheese. It’s grown from there.”
“Our last Christmas party was the 122nd,” Gilliam said. “We’ve had pictures taken at past parties, so we put up little poster boards with photographs of the old Christmas parties and people like to look at them to see who they know or if they are in them. This year we had photos going back to the 1950s at least.”
Traditions such as that do much to establish a bond with the community, as does the presence of attorneys with as much as a half-century of experience.
The legacy of a century (and then some) of representation of clients with complicated legal needs has earned appreciation.
“Bobby Gilliam, managing partner at the firm, represents SWEPCO before the Louisiana Public Service Commission and courts on a range of matters,” said SWEPCO’s McCellon-Allen. These include “major purchases of clean, low-cost wind energy, the 2008 certification of the J. Lamar Stall Plant located in Shreveport; the 2010 acquisition if the Valley Electric Cooperative, and the certification of the state-of-the-art John W. Turk Plant, which is located in Arkansas and serves customers in three states, including Louisiana.”
“The firm remains very active in an energy, transportation, labor and employment, construction, corporate and litigation practice,” Gilliam said. “This includes representation of many industries and clients who have been founders of the community, including the Kansas City Southern Railway Company, with a major yard and mechanical facilities in Shreveport, and Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO), with its corporate headquarters in Shreveport. The firm also represents other transportation clients, construction and insurance companies, as well as individual clients.”
Over the years the firm has represented railroads ranging from Southern Pacific and St. Louis Southwestern to Union Pacific and Midsouth Railroad, but the line with the longest affiliation is KCS.
Kansas City Southern came to Shreveport around the same time the Wilkinson firm was founded “and legal work over the years has corresponded with the growth of the railroad throughout the state and region, with KCS having the most track miles of any railroad in the state,” Gilliam said. “This work has included expansion of the KCS yard near Cross Lake (formally the Deramus Yard), litigation in state and federal courts addressing all areas of railroad law including personal injury and crossing incidents, employment and labor law and environmental issues and with cases proceeding in the federal and district court.”
Of course, there are some colorful stories associated with working for the railroad.
“You may get a call at 2 o’clock in the morning and you show up where they need you,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam recalled a past firm attorney, Jim Butler, who took advantage of cards that allowed the lawyers representing the railroad to ride on trains for free and under any circumstances.
“As a young man, he was a single guy getting around pretty good, and once he had gone to Bossier with some other folks to have a few cocktails,” Gilliam said. “Well, he had one of those cards we carried saying we were the district attorneys for KCS. And after he left the drinking establishment, there was a locomotive stopped on the tracks nearby. He flagged the engineer, said ‘Take me to Shreveport, and have someone in dispatch call a car to pick me up.’ That was expensive!”
Work for SWEPCO has not only taken the Wilkinson firm into state and federal courts, but also before the Louisiana Public Service Commission, Gilliam said.
“The firm’s representation has included the acquisition of Bossier Rural Electric Cooperative in 1993, and with the growth of north Bossier following and with SWEPCO promoting economic growth and development. SWEPCO also acquired Valley Electric, near Natchitoches, such that it now serves all or parts of 11 parishes in Louisiana as well as East Texas and northern Arkansas. During the last 10 years, there has been litigation and regulatory proceedings leading to the construction of many power plants serving this region, including the J. Lamar Stall Power Plant in north Shreveport and the John W. Turk Power Plant in southwest Arkansas, a state-of-the-art clean coal plant.”
Founder Wilkinson was a member of the state legislature when he moved from Coushatta to Shreveport, and over the years many partners and member attorneys have served as elected officials.
“Two members, John D. Wilkinson and W. Scott Wilkinson, were elected to both the house and senate of the Louisiana Legislature,” Carmody wrote in his history of the firm. “One member, Pike Hall, was elected to both the Second Circuit Court of Appeal and the Louisiana Supreme Court; the late Charles Peatross was also elected to the Second Circuit; two members, John M. Madison and Sam Caverlee, were elected to the Caddo Parish School Board. One member, Jerry N. Jones, served as the city attorney for Mayor Hazel Beard, and another, Arthur R. Carmody, was chairman of the Metropolitan Shreveport Zoning Board of Appeals for 10 years, serving under three different mayors.”
After more than 12 decades, the firm values its maturity but also prides itself on keeping perspective.
“We have never tried to be big just for big’s sake,” Carmody says. “We’ve never tried to hire a house full of lawyers.”
But the stable of lawyers there now matches the experience of age with the vigor and freshness of youth.
“We’ve got a good sampling of different experiences and age groups in the firm,” Bobby Gilliam said. “We’ve covered the gamut.”
Wilkinson, Carmody and Gilliam
- Wells Fargo Building 1895-1919
- United Mercantile Bank Building 1919-1925
- Slattery Building 1925-1956
- Henry C. Beck Building 1956-present
Bobby S. Gilliam
- Managing partner
- Joined in 1979
- Listed in The Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers, as well as in Best Lawyers in America and Super Lawyers
- Former president and an officer in the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel, the largest organization of defense counsel in the state
- Guest lecturer at Tulane University Law School
- Practice focuses on the defense of corporate clients including railroad law and litigation, public utility and regulatory law, employment and labor law, insurance and corporate defense litigation.
Mark E. Gilliam
- Joined in 1985
- Partner as well as a Certified Public Accountant
- Member of the Shreveport, Louisiana State, and Federal Fifth Circuit Bar Associations, the Society of Louisiana CPAs, the American Institute of CPAs, the National Association of Railroad Trial Counsel and the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel.
- Master in the Harry V. Booth and Judge Henry A. Politz American Inn of Court
- Practice areas include business and commercial litigation, employment law, construction law, railroad defense, medical malpractice defense and insurance defense.
Jonathan P. McCartney
- Joined in 2008
- Practices in public utility and regulatory law, railroad defense litigation, employment law and insurance defense.
- Board member of the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel as well as the Public Utilities Section of the Louisiana State Bar Association
Thomas A. Pressly IV
- Joined in 2017
- Principle practice involves commercial, railroad, public utility and insurance defense litigation.
- Member of the Shreveport, Louisiana and Federal Bar Associations, as well as the National Association of Railroad Trial Counsel and the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel
- In 2013, he clerked for the Honorable Judge S. Maurice Hicks, Chief Judge of the Western District of Louisiana.
Patrick T. Wiggins
- Joined in 2016
- Practices in railroad defense litigation and Corporate Defense and Litigation.
- Member of the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel, Shreveport Bar Association and the National Association of Railroad Trial Counsel
Arthur R. Carmody Jr.
- Joined in 1953
- With more than 50 years in the field, he now is retired but continues to serve as Of Counsel.
- Perhaps the senior member of the local bar, he is a member of the Louisiana State and Federal Fifth Circuit Bar Associations.
- Former president of the Shreveport Bar Association, a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and a member of the National Association of Railroad Trial Counsel, the Louisiana State Law Institute and the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel.
- A Master in the Harry V. Booth and Judge Henry A. Politz American Inn of Court, he has served on the board of trustees for the Louisiana State University Law Center.