Legal Elite – Corporate counsel

 In 2004-01

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Corporate Counsel: David L. Ward Jr. Ward and Smith PA, New Bern

By Irwin Speizer

From his homespun phrasings, you might not guess that David L. Ward Jr. advises executives about mergers, antitrust issues, bank regulations and corporate structure. To hear him tell it, he was surprised by his rise through the ranks of corporate counsel in his hometown of New Bern, where he returned after law school to join his father’s firm.

True, his father was a local icon, a lawyer and politician who served in the state House and Senate. But the young-er Ward was just another kid who stumbled through after-school jobs before going to college. “Everybody saw me as that little fat kid who used to deliver newspapers or groceries.”

These days, Ward is a specialist in corporate law. The three-lawyer firm he took over from his father in 1971 now has 65 lawyers and nearly 200 support personnel, with offices in New Bern, Greenville, Wilmington and Raleigh.

Troy Smith, his partner and associate for more than 30 years, says Ward is a workaholic who has two sides: the affable Eastern North Carolinian and the overprepared attorney who can be fierce in a contract dispute. “He always has his guns fully loaded before he goes into a conference. That’s the scariest kind of lawyer to deal with.”

Ward picked up at least some of his legal style and work ethic from his father, a disciplinarian who preached hard work and responsibility. Breaking rules around the Ward house in New Bern brought swift punishment — from supper in the kitchen, instead of at the dinner table, to a whipping. Ward had part-time jobs, including one as a baggage handler at the bus depot, often tossing the duffel bags of Marines stationed at nearby military bases.

His mother wanted him to attend exclusive Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, but Ward, a lineman on the New Bern High School football team, resisted. As his senior year neared, she made her last bid. He waited until August, when he thought it was too late to enroll, to tell his mother he would go. She pulled strings and had him admitted.

He earned a bachelor’s in accounting from UNC Chapel Hill and went to law school at Duke. His professors encouraged him to join a big firm in Atlanta upon graduation, but he wanted none of the big city. “I liked the living style in New Bern. I also had some fairly strong feelings that I needed to give back to the community where I had grown up.”

He joined his father’s firm. Many of Ward’s clients were too strapped to pay, so he sometimes accepted shrimp or corn. Smith joined the firm in 1967, but after Ward’s father died in 1971 and the other partner retired the same year, the firm had just two lawyers — Ward and Smith.

His father’s death forced him to scramble to retain one of the firm‘s biggest clients, First Citizens BancShares of Raleigh. First Citizens was trying to open an Albemarle branch, and two bank companies objected, saying a third bank would make it hard for all three to survive.

The battle went to the state Banking Commission. Ward argued that Albemarle was underserved by the two existing banks. First Citizens got its Albemarle charter, and Ward went on to serve as corporate counsel to the bank — a position he still holds.

Ward branched into community-college legal work, mergers and acquisitions, and other aspects of corporate law. What he provides clients today is the same measured and studied counsel that has kept him locked into First Citizens. “He is a very careful man,” says Lewis R. Holding, First Citizens BancShares chairman and CEO. “You can have absolute confidence in what he says.”

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