The Life Lessons of Howell Heflin
How a U.S. senator changed a life and made a lawyer
Published in 2021 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine on November 30, 2021
Derrick A. Mills has had his share of mentors: his mom, who worked three jobs to raise five kids by herself; federal Judge U.W. Clemon, for whom he clerked; and David Marsh, the founder of Marsh, Rickard & Bryan in Birmingham, where Mills practices. But one of the most influential has been Howell Heflin, the one-time chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and three-term U.S. senator.
“I don’t think I’d be a lawyer without him,” Mills says.
In the mid-’90s, as Heflin was retiring from the Senate, he started an annual scholarship at University of North Alabama for two students: one white and one Black. “It was based on having a high GPA and being a good community guy,” Mills remembers. “Being a standout in athletics but also a standout in the classroom. But the main criteria was first-generation college student. He wanted folks of little means to have access to education.”
Mills was a high school football star—running back and linebacker—in the small town of Fayette, and his principal, Radford Hester, encouraged him to apply. He got it. Which is when the life lessons began.
Once a month, Mills would visit Heflin in his law office in Tuscumbia and sit and talk. Just shooting the breeze, he remembers. Until one time Mills was five minutes late.
“Senator Heflin, he came and sat down and said, ‘Derrick, I want to tell you something,’” Mills remembers. “I knew I’d done something wrong. But I’m an 18-year-old kid. He said, ‘Derrick, when you’re late for an appointment, you’re telling the other person that their time does not matter. You are disrespecting them and basically saying you’re more important than that person.’ He said, ‘From here on out, you will never be late for anything else. I don’t care if you have a doctor appointment, I don’t care what it is, you will never be late to anything else because you are telling the other person that you are more important than they are.’
“And I’ve never been late for anything else.”
The life lessons continued—Mills remembers one on the best way to drink socially—and so did the scholarship. It was supposed to last one year but Heflin ultimately paid his entire way. Then they talked law school and settled on Heflin’s alma mater, the University of Alabama. One problem: Mills had a high GPA but low LSATs, and the dean of the law school himself phoned with the bad news—that despite his connections, his admission was denied. “You will not do well,” he remembers the dean saying. “I’m sorry, you just won’t.”
So Mills broke the bad news to Heflin. “And Senator Heflin says, ‘Well, let me call you back.’ Five minutes after he gets off of the phone with me, I get a call from the dean saying, ‘Congratulations, Derrick, you’ve been accepted to Alabama law school.’
“And to put a period on the end of that sentence: After first semester, I was number three in my law school class,” Mills says. “And Senator Heflin was so dang happy. He told me, ‘I want you to always tell people that these tests might measure how much knowledge you have, but they do not measure how hard you are willing to work. And from day one, when I first gave you that scholarship, I knew you would outwork anybody.’
The Life Lessons of Mom
“I used to help her after hours at a gas station where she was a clerk—one of her three jobs—and I’d have to stock the drinks. As a young kid, I just wanted to get it done, so I put all the hot drinks in the front. And she would get on me: ‘No, no, no, you got to rotate all those drinks and put the newer ones in the back.’ And I asked her: ‘Why do you care so much? You don’t own this store.’ And she used to say, ‘You know, Derrick, if you take pride in the little things, that shows me you’ll take pride in the big things.’ Every task that she has done in her life, she treats it like it’s the biggest task. Pride in your work I learned from her. Hard work I learned from her.” —Derrick A. Mills