Famed Charlotte lawyer Bill Diehl died Thursday at age 78 after complications from a stroke. Starting in 1969, he helped partners Henry James and Pender McElroy build a firm that now has more than 40 lawyers. Known for a brash, take-no-prisoners style and his unconventionally long hair, Diehl represented Charlotte business leaders Rick Hendrick, Bruton Smith, Felix Sabates and many others on a wide variety of matters until his retirement in 2016.
I have been a transactional business lawyer for about thirty years. At parties, I used to sometimes describe my law practice by saying, “You know what my law partner Bill Diehl does? OK, I don’t do any of that.” Nevertheless, I realize that I still learned nearly everything important about practicing law from Bill.
Bill passed away last night. For several years he had been in bad shape, barely able to move and barely able to talk. That had to be hell on earth for Bill. For all of the time I practiced with him, Bill moved surprisingly quickly and he talked dynamically. Moving and talking were like the visible manifestations of his superpower.
Bill was a trial lawyer. Although Bill was best known as a fearsome divorce lawyer, he was extraordinarily successful, and quite busy, as a business litigator. As a relatively young attorney, I was dragged into many of his cases. I observed first-hand that while people may have gotten the impression that Bill succeeded in court by being a confident bad-ass, he actually succeeded because he was really smart and then he outworked everybody involved.
He thoroughly knew the evidence of the case and the applicable law, and in court he could recall and use exactly whatever would be needed. The night before, he would have been in the library mentally digesting the reams of material. In the morning, he would use it like machine gun ammunition.
Perhaps more importantly, Bill taught. He taught young attorneys that the phrase “good enough” is a disgusting concept. He taught us that a lawyer is not hired to file a lawsuit or draft a contract; he or she is hired to protect a client or to solve a problem.
If the client was seeking to do something stupid, it was our job to tell them that. If a client was being bullied, it was our job to infuse them with strength. If the situation looked grim, it was not our job to get the best outcome for that situation, but rather we needed to figure out how to change the situation. Bill also taught that there are some lawyers whom you can trust; we needed to be one of those. To Bill, maintaining one’s integrity was perhaps the only thing more important than winning.
Bill may have been the bad-ass, larger-than-life, hedonistic alpha-dog character that many perceived. However, he was also perhaps the hardest-working, most dedicated and gifted trial lawyer Charlotte has known.