Thursday, April 18, 2024

Up front: Shadow influence

This month, Business North Carolina celebrates some of the state’s best lawyers as selected by their peers. Some lawyers denigrate such popularity contests, until one of their colleagues wins. Suddenly, the award gains credibility.

Fact is, lawyers run the world; the rest of us just coexist. The sooner one learns that, the quicker we can move on to other matters. That’s probably not such a bad thing, compared with many alternatives.

Like most, I’ve had a long like-dislike relationship with lawyers. Two of my early mentors were lawyers. Neighbor Sidney Gislason was an argumentative litigator who built a big law firm in a small town. Dick Rodenberg, my best friend’s dad, was a lovable fellow who could charm any jury.

The dislike reflects a selfish motive: For years, I’ve seen lawyers shut down news sources. Reporting gets much more difficult when a lawyer tells his client to clam up, even when greater transparency would serve the public interest.

The savviest lawyers tend to specialize in understated influence. (There are obvious exceptions — see Bill Diehl of Charlotte.) In many cities and businesses, they operate in the shadows, pulling strings with little notice.

The Belk family got the notoriety, but their chief inside lawyer, the late Leroy Robinson, helped propel the retailer’s success during his 45-year career. At Family Dollar, George Mahoney played a pivotal, 30-year role at the Levine family empire.

At NCNB, Paul Polking and Frank Blanchfield structured the “deal of the century” that enabled entry into Texas, paving the way for what is now Bank of America. Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice lawyers in Winston-Salem extended R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s influence for many years.

Lawyers have long dominated politics, though it’s a mixed picture in our state. Raleigh’s dominant leaders — Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger — are lawyers. Gov. Pat McCrory doesn’t have a J.D., but a year after he lost his first gubernatorial campaign, he went to work for a big law firm.

Yet only two of 15 congressional representatives have law degrees: U.S. Reps. G.K. Butterfield and George Holding. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr had business careers before entering politics. Their predecessors, John Edwards and Kay Hagan, were lawyers, just as real-estate developer Donald Trump is succeeding a Harvard Law School grad, Barack Obama, as president.

While politicians come and go, lawyers exert influence in business and civic ventures for decades. A few examples I’ve encountered over the years include Chip Hagan and Charles Melvin in Greensboro; Jim Morgan in High Point; Mark Bernstein, Ernie Reigel, Russell Robinson in Charlotte; David Ward Jr. of New Bern; Gary Joyner, John Jernigan and Larry Robbins in Raleigh. (Bernstein and Joyner died in the last two years.)

Each of those cited is a white male, and our Hall of Fame (page 87), made up of those receiving the most votes, includes relatively few women. So it’s encouraging to see that half of this year’s Legal Elite winners are women, a record showing.

For all of their solemnity, most lawyers can turn on the charm. We are excited that this year’s winners posed for some unusually creative photos, giving a human face to an oft-criticized profession. Special thanks to my colleagues Kathryn Galloway and Cathy Martin for spearheading the section.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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