Like Father, Like Son
Odell Horton Jr. carries on the family legacy.
photograph by Brandon Dill
May 12, 1980, marks a historic day within the Volunteer State. On this day, President Jimmy Carter appointed Odell Horton Sr. to become Tennessee’s first black federal judge.
Prior to the unprecedented accomplishment, Horton Sr. served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. Other titles he previously held included director of the city’s Hospitals and Health Services division, judge for the Shelby County Criminal Court, and president of Lemoyne-Owen College, among others.
“My father was a workaholic,” says his son, Odell Horton Jr. “He was really good at what he did. He worked hard all his life.”
In 2006, the elder Horton passed away at the age of 77. Primarily known for his work within the legal field, in 2007, his name was added to the city’s federal building, which now reads “Clifford Davis-Odell Horton Federal Building.”
The hard work, dedication, and determination Horton Sr. exemplified throughout his career appear to be hereditary, because his son displays the same traits. Involved in the legal field for more than 20 years, the younger Horton is carrying the torch previously held by his father, but emphasizes that he was never pressured to pursue a career in law.
“It was never a push,” says Horton, who admits to initially having a desire to become a doctor. “I had been around lawyers [and] law enforcement and I kind of gradually gravitated that way. [My father] encouraged me.
Sometimes he chastised me, ‘You need to work a little harder’ at times, but it was never a sense that I had to meet some goal that he achieved.”
Horton currently holds a position with the respected law firm, Wyatt Tarrant & Combs LLP as a member of its Litigation & Dispute Resolution Service Team. Wyatt Tarrant & Combs has a near-ancient American pedigree, tracing back to 1812 and the law firm of William Christian Bullitt in Louisville.
Horton joined the establishment in 2007 after serving as general counsel at Memphis Light, Gas & Water.
He says his position at the firm provides him with the opportunity to work on a variety of complex and interesting matters. One of the many services he provides is representation and counsel to artists and management companies in the entertainment industry. He primarily does this through contract review.
“If you’re an upstart new artist, you have no leverage, because you have no track record,” Horton says. “You might can say, ‘We’ve been a house band’ or ‘I performed at a lot of different places,’ but you don’t have leverage against a record company. You want to make sure artists can get as much revenue as they can, whether it’s royalties, merchandising, or concerts.
“With the record companies, it’s different," Horton continues. “If you think about the record industry right now, it’s changing, with downloads and file sharing. There aren’t many more record stores. The new record store now is Best Buy, Walmart, and Target. From the record company standpoint, they’re trying to maximize their revenue also. They’re trying to get the best deal that they can. It’s a gamble for them, and they’re trying to gamble on the right artist.”
In addition to consulting clients within the entertainment industry, he also works within commercial litigation, governmental affairs, municipal law, labor union controversies and negotiations, healthcare investigations, and assisting businesses with navigating governmental and workforce issues.
“I’ve got a nice, varied practice,” Horton says. “I get to see a lot of different people. I handle various things, such as contract disputes for businesses, which is commercial litigation, and government relations. I help clients when they’re trying to maneuver through government, whether it’s [trying to obtain] a building permit or get an issue resolved. Sometimes it’s just a phone call: trying to figure out who is the right person for them to talk to.”
Just like his father, Horton is a graduate of the historically black institution, Morehouse College, and received his law degree from the University of Tennessee.
He began his professional career at the Tennessee Attorney General’s office in Nashville handling workers’ compensation disputes. Unlike his father, the obstacles he experienced while pursuing a career in law weren’t attributed to his race.
“When my father started practicing here in the ’50s, not that many black lawyers were here,” Horton says. “They faced a lot more hurdles than we did. When I came along, the legal field was changing. I think there are a lot of opportunities for black lawyers here in town, and I think clients want to see diverse lawyers on their matters.”
Aside from wearing many hats within the legal field, he’s also a husband, father of two sons, and a leader in the community. He’s currently the chairman for the Downtown Parking Authority as well as his firm’s Diversity Committee. He’s also a member of the New Memphis Institute board and the immediate past president of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.
Although his plate is full, he still seeks to grow more professionally as well as continue to build his reputation within the community. He gets the aforementioned desires from his father, whom he says taught him a lot, both professionally and personally.
“[With my father], it was all about honor — to ensure you had a good reputation,” Horton says. “When I first started practicing law, he told me, ‘You’re going to make some decisions that are going to hurt.’ I never quite understood what he meant at the time. But what he was talking about was, there’s going to be some decisions that you’re going to have to make that are not going to be popular, and you’re going to go against the grain. You have to make those decisions. Sometimes they hurt, sometimes they don’t, but you want to have a good reputation. So no matter who I’m dealing with, I’m going to make the right decision based on the facts of the law and the chips will fall where they may.”