Although University of Tennessee at Knoxville alum Derek Mullins says he bleeds orange, his upbringing was as blue as they come.
Hailing from Kingsport, Mullins, 33, grew up in a home in which both parents were electricians at Eastman Chemical Company.
“Everyone held their house together with duct tape except us. We held our house together with electrical tape,” Mullins jokes.
Mullins says he’s “very proud” of his blue-collar roots. But as he grew up, someone inspired him to pursue a different kind of career.
Attorneys familiar with the Tri-Cities criminal defense bar will likely know the name Rick Spivey, described by one grateful client in an online review as “the best lawyer in the state and maybe the country.”
Spivey had shared a room with Mullins’ uncle in college and was still a friend of the family.
“He was the go-to criminal defense attorney in my hometown,” Mullins explains. “I watched him defend murders on the evening news and was drawn to that kind of work. I wanted to be the guy who charged into court and defended my client’s rights.”
This passion burned within Mullins through his first year of law school. Then a brief internship at the Sullivan County district attorney’s office doused the flames.
“I had a chance to see the entire criminal history of particular defendants and realized I was on the path to becoming a part of what is for some folks a never-ending cycle,” he recalls. “And I knew the recidivism would discourage me if I was unable to help people break the cycle.”
By the end of his internship, Mullins wanted nothing to do with criminal law.
Fortunately, he says, a separate internship with a chancery court judge in Sullivan County the same summer sparked his interest in a different area of the law.
“I enjoyed hearing the business litigation cases,” Mullins remembers. “We heard several different kinds of disputes and I realized they were more my speed. I liked looking through the documents, figuring out where things broke down and reaching a resolution.”
Mullins’ first stop after graduating from law school in 2017 was the Nashville firm of Brewer, Krause, Brooks & Chastain, where he dipped his shiny new wingtips into insurance defense work.
“I was the guy who wrote the letter that read, ‘We’re sorry but you don’t have coverage for the calamitous event that occurred,’” he says.
Mullins also did a large amount of professional liability work at Brewer Krause. While he liked the work, something was missing.
“As an East Tennessee boy, not seeing mountains when I looked outside was discouraging,” he says.
Mullins knew there were tree-draped hills to the south from trips to Chattanooga to visit a friend from law school, Chancey Miller, who was working at the firm of Carr Allison.
While visiting the Scenic City, Mullins had ventured out to explore its trails and restaurants and basked in its mid-sized southern town vibe, which reminded him of home. So when Carr Allison reached out with an offer to join the firm, he happily accepted.
“I couldn’t pass up the chance to work two doors down from my best friend,” Mullins laughs.
Mullins followed more friends to Baker Donelson in March of this year, which he says has a collegial atmosphere that appeals to him. As an associate with the firm, he’s focusing his practice on business, insurance, labor and employment, product liability, professional liability and tax litigation.
With each matter Mullins handles, he endeavors to bring the mutually respectful tone he experiences at the office to the negotiating table and reach what he hopes is an amicable solution.
“Legal dramas lead you to believe this entire process is exceptionally adversarial and the two sides are always butting heads. But what I enjoy about the practice of law is to foster relationships with my colleagues,” he notes. “Being on good terms with everyone is the best way to get results for your clients because people are more apt to work toward a resolution that’s good for everyone involved.”
When that doesn’t happen, Mullins says, he’ll take the matter to court.
Like every attorney, Mullins aims for a victory when the gavel falls. But even those moments don’t eclipse what he says is his biggest win as an attorney.
“I love guiding small-business owners through the legal process and simplifying these broad concepts,” he says. “A lot of people are only exposed to the legal system when they get a speeding ticket or a divorce, so I like to make sure everyone understands what’s going on. I believe I do that well and I take pride in it.”
Mullins also continues to take pride in the Vols and take advantage of Chattanooga’s indoor and outdoor amenities. But his thoughts are never far from the practice of law.
“I’ve wanted to be a lawyer my entire life,” he says. “And now that I am, I love what I do.”