CABA Members Are Candidates for Miss. Bar Leadership

Two of CABA’s most distinguished members, Pat Bennett and Rebecca Wiggs, will be candidates for President-Elect of the Mississippi Bar in 2017. The following profiles are the result of sit-down visits with each candidate to reflect on their careers in the law.

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Posted in 2016

Pat Bennett

Pat Bennett

Pat Bennett is a native of Forest, Miss­issippi. One of ten siblings in a family of educators, Bennett knew she wanted to be a lawyer from a young age. She “loved watching Perry Mason” and knew from then on that she “wanted to be in the courtroom” and practice criminal law. Even though “all of her family went to JSU,” Bennett chose Tougaloo because Constance Slaughter-Harvey — “the only African-American lawyer from Forest” at that time — went there. Bennett decided “that’s where I’m going,” she said.

After graduating from Tougaloo and then the Miss­issippi College School of Law, Bennett started her legal career at the Small Business Administration. It was 1979, the “year of the Easter Flood” in Jackson and the SBA was doing all it could to help close loans for people who had “lost everything.” In addition to assisting people who were “in desperate situations,” Bennett had “two great women lawyer mentors, Debbie Davis and Patricia Hancock” from the start.

After the SBA, Bennett went to the Miss­issippi Attorney General’s Office under Bill Allain, working on consumer issues and the implementation of a new law to integrate children with special needs into the public schools. Bennett traveled around the state, “working with schools, the Education Department and faculty” to determine what services were available to Miss­issippi children with special needs and address hardships families were then experiencing.

At the AG’s office, Bennett regularly appeared in the courtroom and felt like she was “making a difference.”  She was also known as one of the “team of three,” along with Robert Gibbs, also at the AG’s office, and Mike Espy at the Secretary of State’s office, so-called because they “went everywhere together.”

When she got a call from Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters, Bennett took the opportunity to fulfill her dream of practicing criminal law, “the reason she went to law school.” She was “in the courtroom all the time,” prosecuting “crimes against persons” felony cases, including crimes committed against children such as felony child abuse. She continued her work as a prosecutor as an assistant U.S. Attorney.

Bennett recalls wondering if some victims would ever recover from their trauma. She said one “way of knowing you’ve made an impact on individual lives” is when, “years later, someone walks up” and the person has “blossomed” since receiving “their day in court.” She said she “played a small part” in a team effort by the police, prosecutor, and judge. Bennett said one of her most rewarding moments occurred when a young defendant on trial for participating in gang violence told her that by convicting him “You probably saved my life.”

As an officer in the JAG corps and Miss­issippi Army National Guard, Bennett’s career took a turn in a different direction when she was asked to serve as an adjunct at the JAG school at the University of Virginia. Al Harvey, a general in the National Guard and dean at MC School of Law, asked her teach a trial practice class each semester. In 1989, she joined the faculty for good. She teaches courses in criminal law and procedure, pretrial and trial practice, evidence, experts, mediation and arbitration.

Bennett serves many roles at the law school. In addition to serving as Professor of Law, she is Director of MC’s Litigation and Dispute Resolution Center. When Dean Wendy Scott steps down on December 1, Bennett will begin serving as interim dean of the law school.

Bennett continues to be committed to community work and bar work, which includes currently serving as President of the Charles Clark Inn of Court. After the meetings, she goes bowling. “I’m a serious league bowler,” she said.

Bennett said that the growth of the Miss­issippi Bar is one of the biggest changes since she “first started practicing,” a time when she “knew all of the judges and lawyers.” She said that while “different things account for” the growth, it demonstrates that practicing law can be a rewarding and profitable career.

Rebecca Wiggs

Rebecca Wiggs

Rebecca Wiggs grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. In a city known for horse racing, she has a vivid memory of going with her dad and older brother to the track for the first time at age 11. She placed her $2 bet on “Mayday Basket.” Wiggs’ brother teased her about the name of the horse, but accorded her a little more respect when Mayday Basket won the race.

Wiggs attended public school; her mom was a public school teacher. She describes Louisville as a place where tolerance and respect predominated. She said her June 1969 high school graduating class of nearly 500 came from diverse backgrounds. “I’m a big believer in public schools because I’ve seen the difference it makes to the overall community,” she said. Her mother and brother are still in Louisville; her mother lives in the house Wiggs grew up in.

After graduating from Wake Forest with a degree in political science, Wiggs began a career in public relations and journalism, first as a press assistant for Congressman Ron Mazzoli. She was familiar with lawyers because her dad worked “in insurance claims,” but Mazzoli served as her first lawyer role model, planting the seeds for her future in law. She subsequently landed a job at the D.C. news bureau of TV Guide magazine, where she had press credentials for the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Capitol and reported on developments in the regulation of cable television. She found these work experiences invaluable and “to this day” continues to recommend getting “a couple of years of work experience” prior to law school.

An avid alumna of the University of Virginia School of Law (she describes herself as the “den mother of UVA lawyers in Miss­issippi”), Wiggs didn’t get in right away. When she learned that she would be “placed on the waitlist and considered in June for fall admission,” she decided to decline and reapply the next year so she wouldn’t have to leave D.C. on short notice. “I’m a planner,” she said. “I had roommates, a job — I couldn’t do that.” An assistant dean later told her that no student had ever declined to be waitlisted and that she had become quite “famous” among the law school administrators even prior to her arrival as a 1L.

Wiggs thrived at UVA, describing the “sense of community among faculty, staff, and students” as remarkable — a kind of respect “that encouraged collaboration.” “UVA puts together scaffolding to build something,” she said. Wiggs worked for the law school newspaper and quickly got to know people, including the other women who made up 38% of her class and her future husband, Mark Wiggs, a native Miss­issippian, who was a 2L. They married and Wiggs spent her 3L year in St. Petersburg, Florida where Mark was clerking for Judge Paul H. Roney on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. UVA “worked with her” so she could finish her J.D. from there. Wiggs also clerked for Judge Roney before the couple moved to Miss­issippi.

Wiggs is a general litigator who has specialized in different areas over the course of her career, including environmental law, appellate work, malpractice, product liability, banking litigation and insurance. She also serves as a mediator.

Wiggs said that the pressures “driven by technology” have been a “fundamental” change in law practice, not only affecting "the ability to be deliberative" at work, but often cutting into the time available for family, community involvement, bar work, and pro bono work. She attributes lawyers' decrease in satisfaction "largely to being constantly on the job," which can lead to "burn out" and substance abuse.

“It’s incumbent on us to make use of technology to stay in touch” and “look out for one another,” she said, so we lawyers can continue to be a resource to the community, fulfilling “our highest and best use.”