When I started practicing law in Charlotte in 1990, most of the cases I handled were litigated in the state and federal courts in Mecklenburg County. Most of the lawyers I litigated against were in Charlotte as well, often times in a building close to where I worked. The Mecklenburg County Bar had well less than half its current membership and the biggest firms had only about 50 lawyers.
I consider myself to have been spoiled in many ways learning to be a lawyer in that time and in this place. One of the ways I was spoiled, though, stands out to me. If opposing counsel told you something, you could take it to the bank. That was the example set by lawyers in my own firm and the lawyers I opposed on a daily basis. Most of that came from the good character of the individual lawyers and by whom and how they were trained. Some undoubtedly came from the reality that with a small bar what comes around, goes around. Playing fast and loose would likely come back to bite you later, if not with same lawyer in some future case then with another lawyer in that firm. It was exceedingly rare to come across lawyers who were not scrupulously true to their word and, as a result, everyone knew who they were.
I enjoyed the relationships I created with opposing counsel and some of those friendships have endured to this day. I was delighted to learn that Ward McKeithen was this year’s recipient of the Ayscue Professionalism Award. A worthy choice without a doubt. Ward is known for inviting opposing counsel to lunch at the outset of matters to get to know opposing counsel on a personal level and to set the groundwork for their interactions. Ward is a great example, living proof that a strong desire to win shouldn’t get in the way of displaying great character. For more on Ward’s accomplishments, see the Ayscue Professionalism Award article here.
The North Carolina Bar Association’s Professionalism Committee is promoting a video project to showcase stories of professionalism. Thomas J. White, a lawyer in Kinston, NC, is spearheading this effort. He relayed a story he witnessed many years ago that had a profound impact on him. A well-respected senior partner where he was working at the time was in a jury trial about an hour away from his office. Lawyers in his firm had noticed that he was having some short-term memory problems and becoming very tired in the afternoon. A few days into the trial, one of the partners in the firm received a call from opposing counsel at the trial:
“Y’all need to send someone up here right away. ____’s not doing well, is having trouble phrasing questions, not making good sense, seems to be coming apart. I asked the judge to recess so I could call you. Please send somebody up here to help him or take over the defense. I just don’t feel right going on with it . . .”
After driving up and assessing the situation, and without objection from opposing counsel, the court granted a motion for mistrial - a wonderful example of true professionalism.
If you have a brief story about exemplary professionalism that has had an impact on you, please let Tom know. His phone number is 252/560-6527 and his email address is email@example.com
. Spreading the word about what true professionalism looks like is a great idea and I hope you will participate in this important project.