An encounter with retired attorney Russell Robinson II leaves a lasting impression. Those who know the famed Robinson Bradshaw law firm co-founder say his attention to detail wasn’t limited to briefs and motions. Partner Caroline Sink remembers early in her career when a woman in administration retired and Robinson made sure she received a mink coat for her years of service to the firm.
“I was really struck by his thoughtfulness about her and the arrangements for her retirement celebration,” Sink says. “When it mattered, and it wasn’t just cases or client matters or strategy for the Duke Endowment or the Morehead Foundation, it was people that were here in this firm. He was paying attention to what was important.”
Robinson, 90, and the late Robert Bradshaw, both Duke Law School graduates, established the Charlotte law firm in 1960 with J. Carlton Fleming, and later Robin Hinson. The firm has offices in Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Raleigh and Rock Hill, South Carolina with more than 160 attorneys.
From the start, Robinson Bradshaw’s approach to managing the practice was different than that of most peers. “Russell wanted a firm where everyone is heard and we share basically everything,” says Robert Harrington, a Robinson Bradshaw partner. “We don’t track billable hours for purposes of compensating ourselves or rating ourselves. The idea being, clearly coming from Russell, the client is always first, and at least incidentally, it’s a much more pleasant way to practice law without having pressures that can take away from the enjoyment of the practice.”
Robinson wrote “Robinson on North Carolina Corporation Law” almost 60 years ago and published six more editions, the latest in 2003. In the late 1990s when Allen Robertson was a new partner, he saw how Robinson worked from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. every evening to produce the next version of the book.
Robertson suggested the firm use the marketing slogan, “We wrote the book on corporate law,” in the company’s first advertising campaign. He proudly presented the idea to Robinson, who promptly killed it.
“To know someone or to work with someone and see how excellent, how hard-working they are, how great they are in every respect,” says Robertson, now the firm’s managing partner. “And yet, at the same time, to be so humble to say, even though he’s the one who spent five years of his life reading 800 or 900 North Carolina Supreme Court decisions on corporate law going back to the 1790s, ‘I couldn’t possibly take credit for that.’ Nobody else did that; he did that.”
Robinson sat on state committees that helped draft key corporation laws periodically over four decades, then served on the Commission for the Future of Justice and the Courts in North Carolina from 1994 to 1998. He was a board member for Duke’s law school, UNC Charlotte and Johnson C. Smith University, and a Duke Endowment trustee for more than 30 years.
Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot practiced with Robinson for more than 40 years until his partner’s retirement in 2013. Bob Bradshaw was known for his antics and one year, he anonymously sent Robinson an ugly clock wrapped in an ornate package and accompanied by a letter. The note made it clear Robinson had done exemplary work for the company and the clock should be hanging behind Robinson’s desk when the gift giver visited. It was signed with an indecipherable name.
Robinson worried for weeks if the clock came from Charlotte investor C.D. “Dick” Spangler or some other major client. He spent weeks trying to figure it out until Bradshaw finally told him the truth. “Bob Bradshaw was somebody who loved to pull tricks and tease,” Vinroot says. “He would do that with Russell; nobody else would dare do so. They were the dearest of friends and really fun to be around.”
Sally Dalton Robinson, Robinson’s wife, has been by his side since 1953. The couple played key roles at The Duke Endowment, Levine Museum of the New South, Robinson Center for Civic Leadership and Robinson Hall for the Performing Arts at UNC Charlotte. “I don’t think of Russ without thinking of Sally,” Vinroot says. “She has been the inspiration for so many things in our community for so long. That they met, fell in love and got married was a great thing for them but also for the city of Charlotte.”
Comments are edited for length and clarity.
The first edition of “Robinson on North Carolina Corporation Law” was published in 1964, and I undertook the project at the urging of (Elvin) Latty, then dean of the Duke Law School. The North Carolina Business Corporation Act had been passed in 1955 and took effect in 1957, the year after I graduated from Duke Law.
It was quickly apparent that the statute had several ambiguities and left some important questions unanswered. I started work on the book sometime in 1959. The book took five years to complete. Sally (Robinson) reminds me that every night after dinner, and every weekend, I would sit in the rocking chair in our bedroom and write, surrounded by boxes of filed index cards that detailed the current case and statutory law I was working with. I never could have finished that book without her support and understanding.
When we started the firm, our idea was to build a law firm that was committed to professionalism, excellence and teamwork. We wanted to attract lawyers who were committed to those same ideals. In the spirit of collegiality, mutual trust and respect, we decided against reporting to each other the billable hours recorded by any lawyer. Likewise, we decided against “origination credits,” removing any barrier to teamwork. From the outset, we mentored young lawyers in honing their legal skills so that they could assume increasing responsibility both for representing the firm’s clients and acquiring more clients for the firm.
There’s an art to practicing law that benefits both your client and the jurisprudence necessary for economic flourishing. It requires understanding not only your client’s needs and objectives, but also those of his or her adversary. Often, your client’s long-term interests are best served by allowing room for some satisfaction of the needs of the opponent. Striking the right balance on this requires discretion and skill. It’s been rewarding trying to get that balance right. A scorched-earth approach rarely serves the client or the common good in the long run.
Mr. Duke signed the indenture creating [The Duke Endowment] in the sunroom of his Charlotte home in 1924. I grew up on Edgehill Road, across the park from that home. Mr. Duke’s grand fountains had been turned off before my time, but my parents spoke of sitting on their front porch and feeling their spray. That house, and Mr. Duke’s benevolence, have been a force for good in my life and in the state I love.
Education, childcare, health care and the rural Methodist church — Mr. Duke identified these as the bedrock of hope for the future flourishing of the Carolinas. Almost 100 years later, we see the wisdom and prescience of the man. I know I cannot overstate the great joy and enrichment I’ve gained from my long association with the staff and trustees of the endowment. I’ve gained far more than I’ve given on that front. ■