VOL. 131 | NO. 30 | Thursday, February 11, 2016
McMullen Takes on Public Sector Challenges as City’s Legal Chief
By Don Wade
Part of a series of profiles on Mayor Jim Strickland’s newly installed C-suite leaders.
Bruce McMullen remembers his hometown of Sparta, Georgia, as small, about 3,000 people.
“Life was pretty simple,” he said. “A lot of family, a lot of friends.”
Decades later, Sparta is even smaller – literally so because the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows the town’s population to be around 1,500. But then there is the effect of growing up and moving on. Your old world seems ever smaller as you go farther into the larger world.
Your ideas of what might be possible tend to change with time. And so it was for McMullen, today chief legal officer in Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration, and also a shareholder at the Baker Donelson law firm.
Bruce McMullen is the city of Memphis’ new chief legal officer, one of a series of C-suite positions established by Mayor Jim Strickland. He brings private practice experience, and a small-town upbringing, to City Hall.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
While McMullen recalls family members essentially predicting he would be a lawyer because, well, he was a chatty and articulate child, he had a different dream for himself.
He loved basketball and played on his high school team. Watching the NBA on television, he most appreciated the talents of Julius Winfield Erving II, alias Dr. J. He seemed capable of anything, including flying, and possessed on-court powers the other men did not.
But then McMullen read an article that broke down the odds of making it to the NBA. There were all these mile markers, indicating what a young player should have accomplished by 8th grade, by 10th grade, and so on. Reality began to dawn.
After high school, McMullen studied economics at the University of Georgia and then earned his MBA at Georgia College & State University. He set off on a career in corporate America. But along the way, he noticed the same thing happening over and over again – all ideas and projects had to go through the legal department.
Like Dr. J. on his television, the legal department had powers all its own.
“We’re built on laws as a country,” said McMullen, 51, who in 1996 graduated the University of Tennessee College of Law.
It was there that he met his wife, Camille R. McMullen, who is now a Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals judge.
“I tell everybody I know I get most of what I know about criminal law from ‘Law & Order,’” he said.
In the private sector, McMullen’s civil career has been concentrated in the areas of health care litigation, municipal law, tort liability, commercial litigation and class-action defense.
He says when working in the private sector, it’s easy to sit back and criticize local government. He found the opportunity to come work for Strickland’s team, while still maintaining his ties to Baker Donelson, a great opportunity.
The McMullens have two children. And he’d like for Memphis to remain their home.
“Memphis-born and raised,” he said. “What about their future? You want to be part of building something they can come back to.”
Looking at the present legal environment as it pertains to cities, McMullen says there are two main areas that bear watching. First is all matters of privacy and security as connected to technology. Health care and identifiable information often intersect and that makes data breaches a concern. Employees have to be protected.
“It’s a potential (issue) for any municipality,” McMullen said.
The second area of concern also involves technology, specifically as it pertains to law enforcement and incidents, such as shootings, caught on body cams or other video.
“It cuts two ways,” he said. “It’s good in a sense that you’re able to see real-time video. It’s good for a set of visual facts. But what happened before the video started? What happened after it stopped?”
Yes, life is more complicated than it was growing up in Sparta. And working as an attorney for the city brings a different set of responsibilities than being in private practice.
“The fundamental difference is your duty to inform the public,” he said. “When you’re working for the government, you have an obligation to inform them as much as possible, give out accurate information, without giving your strategies to the other side.”