Looking back on the Rose Law Firm’s beginnings

March 19-25, 2018

By Becca Bona


When Robert Crittenden and Chester Ashley agreed to go into partnership on November 1, 1820, they probably had no idea that their groundwork would lead to a present-day, nearly 200-year-old law firm.


And while the law back then differed greatly from the complexity and scope of the law today, the two paved the way for the Rose Law Firm to take hold. The oldest firm West of the Mississippi River, the organization racked up a number of greats in the early days – and continues this legacy today.


In the present day office located at the corner of Scott and 3rd in downtown Little Rock, there’s an actual copy of the signed agreement between Crittenden and Ashley.


Paul Parnell, a member of the firm with an affinity for history, enjoys collecting and sharing stories regarding its beginnings. He credits this interest to the firm’s late partner, J. Phillip Carroll, who used to share historical accounts in the summers.


“Mr. Carroll gave history of the firm talks to the associates,” Parnell remembered, “And you couldn’t help but be taken by him. […] I was just captivated. I like history anyway, just as a matter of general interest.”


Parnell can, starting with Crittenden and Ashley, detail the long list of founding fathers who left their mark on the firm and Arkansas law at large.


Take Crittenden, for instance. The man (for which Crittenden county was named), would become well-known as the first secretary of the Territory known as Arkansas. Ashley, on the other hand, was well-known for his dealings with disputes over landownership, in his own rite.


Back in those days, before Arkansas was even incorporated into the Union, disputes often took place in the form of duels. And political stances were enough to cause them, although it was Crittenden who found himself in one, rather than Ashley.


“Crittenden was a bit fiery,” said Parnell. “He participated in a duel, which he survived. As the story goes, the other participant didn’t really expect him to shoot or something like that, but Mr. Crittenden definitely shot.”


These days, of course, no dueling takes place at the firm, as it is now illegal and the days have long passed in which honor could be defended by a bullet.


Duels withstanding, the firm grew, and Ashley eventually entered partnership with George C. Watkins. They practiced together for a time, although Ashley’s election into the U.S. Senate in 1844 stalled their go. Watkins himself was a Chief Justice for the Arkansas Supreme Court, starting in 1852, however, after two years of service he was ready to practice law again.


That’s where the name Rose comes in, as Watkins partnered with a Kentucky-turned-Arkansas native named Uriah Milton Rose.


“Mr. Rose was one of those guys that was highly regarded,” said Parnell. “He was a founder of the American Bar Association of which he served as president at one point. […] He had a very active United States Supreme Court practice, as well.”


Rose would also rise to garner himself an invitation to the 2nd Annual Hague Peace Conference from none other than President Theodore Roosevelt himself.


“The story goes that Teddy Roosevelt was in town. He met Mr. Rose at a function at the Capital Hotel and was very impressed by him. Apparently, that’s how he worked his way onto the Hague Peace Convention,” Parnell explained.


However, Rose comes from humble beginnings. Born in 1834, he was only 14 when his mother passed, and his father, a physician, passed shortly after.


After their deaths, his family’s estate was sold, which was not nearly enough to patch up his father’s debts. Rose’s father struggled to maintain a deal with a glass manufacturing plant in Pittsburgh his entire life, and even death couldn’t blot it out.


Unfortunately for Rose, he and his siblings were thrown out. He proved then and time again that he was able to persevere, as he found work in a village store, and shortly thereafter was able to study and graduate from Transylvania University at Lexington.


While he continued his study in Kentucky, he met his future wife – Margaret T. Gibbs, and convinced her that they should move to Batesville, Ark. He read an article in the newspaper, and decided the farther south he was, the less he’d have to deal with the cold Kentucky winters.


He moved with his wife and brother-in-law, William T. Gibbs, and the two opened a practice in Batesville, where he lived from 1853 to 1862.


During the Civil War, Rose moved his family to Little Rock, and although he practically thought that a secession from the Union would result in a loss for the state – he agreed with his fellow Arkansans on the matter.


Among the other notable events to mark his life, shortly after moving to Little Rock, Rose opened up a firm with George C. Watkins – Watkins and Rose. This is the first instance of the name Rose appearing in the firm’s history. The pair practiced together until Watkins died, in 1872. Rose’s son, George B. Rose, joined the firm in 1882, along with many other notables. The name Rose, however, remained consistent.


“George B. Rose was incredibly sharp and really into Renaissance art,” said Parnell. “He actually wrote a book on it, and I think you can even find it on Amazon. He was a very noted and scholarly guy that was prominent at that time.”


George B. Rose practiced until his death in 1943 at the age of 82. In fact, most of the lawyers in the early days were staunchly tied to the firm, as Parnell said, “They spent their entire careers here, it was a little more normal to do so back then, but it’s why the “Rose” stuck as the namesake.”


Wilson E. Hemingway resigned as a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1893 to become a partner in the firm then called Rose, Hemingway and Rose. After that, a burst of names and energetic legal minds joined on, progressing the firm into the 20th Century.


Notably, Dedrick Cantrell  came on in 1905, as did J. Fairfax Loughborough. Archie F. House, followed suit in 1925, and is known for his work in helping draft a desegregation plan in 1957 regarding Central High School.


George Rose Smith, U. M. Roses’s grandson, joined in 1933, and as a state Supreme Court Justice, left his own landmark on the Arkansas legal landscape.


Looking at the long list of names, Parnell can see a pattern, one which he believes has a lot to do with the older era, itself.


“Back then, being a lawyer meant you were going to take a position on the Supreme Court or you were going to help the state on the Attorney General side. Of course, they didn’t have the breadth of administrative law we have now back then, but they were all around more civically involved.”


Even this account, detailed as it is, doesn’t entirely represent the expansive early history of the Rose Law Firm. Luckily, there’s still the future to consider.


“We’re turning 200 in a couple of years and we’re very excited about it,” said Parnell. “I think the thing we’re all most proud of is […]the quality of the people who have and are still coming through here.”


Sources: Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culture, Arkansas Heritage and www.roselawfirm.com  




Robert Crittenden and Chester Ashley opened a law firm in 1820, before Arkansas was incorporated into the Union. When Uriah M. Rose, pictured to the left, joined partnership with George B. Watkins a few decades later (who had replaced Crittenden and worked with Ashley), the groundwork was paved for Little Rock’s own Rose Law Firm. (Photo courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives)