Interview with Lonnie Williams, June 4, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Interviewee: Williams, Lonnie Interviewer: Hayes, Sherman / Haas, Michael Date of Interview: 6/4/2002 Series: Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length
Hayes: Today we are interviewing Lonnie Williams, did I get that right? Great, thank you and I am Sherman Hayes, university librarian and Mike Haas, lawyer. I guess we didn't mention to you that Mike is, you might mention so he knows what your background is too.
Haas: I’m just a retired Army JAG. I originally went through law school at _________ in Pittsburgh, undergrad at Johns Hopkins and then as a Pennsylvania lawyer, spent my time in the military, but then also am a Virginia attorney as well, but not in North Carolina. I would have to go to law school for that because I can’t wade in here.
Williams: Because you didn't practice…
Haas: I did not practice for the last five years. I was working for a museum actually in teaching legal history. Did some great things, even lectured at Emanuel College, Cambridge University, but I wasn’t practicing law (laughter).
Hayes: So before we get to when you started to practice law itself and school, could you just give us a little background of where you grew up and your family and so forth to put a context of how you ended up here in Wilmington?
Williams: Well believe it or not, I’m one of those very few people who was a native Wilmingtonian. I was born in Wilmington at 604 South 16th Street, not at the hospital. The house is still there (laughter) and I was educated at what was then called Delgado School, later became Washington Catholic School and is now used as some sort of a halfway house. It’s on Caldwell Avenue, recently was renovated for some sort of a halfway house in connection with the Shepherd Ministries.
Then New Hanover High School, graduated from New Hanover High School in 1946. The veterans were all coming back at that time. The war had just ended and the veterans were coming out and were filling all the colleges and besides I was from a very poor family. I was the youngest of six boys and we were raised in a two bedroom, one bath house with no hot water and no central heat of course and no telephone. My mother would get up in the mornings and go in the kitchen and build a fire and you would grab your clothes and go running in the kitchen to dress by the heater in the mornings.
Then when you wanted to take a bath, you heated water on the oil stove in the kitchen and poured it in the bathtub.
Hayes: What did your father do?
Williams: My father worked for grocery stores primarily. One time he ran a little store of his own at 15th and Orange Street. That building is still there and if you looked at it, you would say there’s no way that building could have been a grocery store because it’s a little bit bigger than this room.
Hayes: (Laughter) Oh, is that right?
Williams: It was in the days of the little neighborhood grocery stores. We would have been classified as very, very poor, but at that time everybody in the neighborhood lived the same way we did and you had nobody in the media telling you that you were poor so you thought you were doing okay (laughter). You had enough to eat and you had a roof over your head and you had one good pair of clothes to wear to church on Sunday.
Hayes: And you’d just come through the war which must have been an everybody pull together time period, right?
Williams: It really was. It was the most patriotic time ever. Of course, one of my brothers had been killed in an automobile accident, but all four of my brothers were older and they all went into service. In fact, two of them were in service when the war started.
Hayes: Oh my goodness. Even before it started, they were in.
Williams: Yes, one had gone in to the Army in 1936.
Hayes: Wow, small army then.
Williams: And the other went in the Navy in 1940 and of course that was almost two years before the war started.
Hayes: Did they all come back hopefully?
Williams: They all got back, did not get injured in the physical sense. My brother in the Navy was in virtually, well he was in the Atlantic fighting submarines for the first couple of years and then was in the Pacific in virtually every battle in the Pacific and came back a total nervous wreck and never got over that, never was able really to deal with people. He worked as a security guard at the State Port for several years and died at 58.
Hayes: Wow, do you attribute that really to his experience then?
Williams: Well I do, he actually committed suicide. He just could not deal with people after that experience. The other brother that was in the Army from 1936 was in North Africa and Sicily campaigns and then came back and retired from the service. He worked as a aircraft mechanic up at Cherry Point Marine base for a number of years until he had a heart attack and died shortly before he was 65 years old.
Hayes: So you’re done with high school and what’s next?
Williams: Okay, I went in the Army. I could not get into college and didn't have any money anyway so I joined the Army and took my basic training at Fort Ringo Texas and then was shipped out to Camp Stoneman, California and from there to Korea. I spent a year in Korea between the two wars, World War II and the Korean War.
Hayes: So it hadn’t gotten hot yet?
Williams: It had not gotten hot in the sense in which you mean (laughter). But it was an interesting experience. Of course the Koreans had been captives of Japan for a number of years and it was an interesting learning experience. So I spent a year in Korea and came back and got out of service in January of ’48 and came back to Wilmington and started college at Wake Forest in September of 1948.
Hayes: At that time, I would take it Wake Forest now has a reputation of being so expensive, but we’ve talked to many people who went there. It wasn’t an onerous cost?
Williams: It was not. You know, it was not even located where it is now. It was located at Wake Forest, the little town of Wake Forest and got its name because it was in the forest of Wake County. There was nothing there when the college was established there in 1834. A lot of eastern North Carolinians went there during that time. It was Baptist, I was Baptist. My cousin, Dewey Hobbs, who is a retired Baptist minister, had gone there and played football there during the war. He was turned down for the service and so he went to Wake Forest on a football scholarship.
Hayes: (Laughter) That’s kind of interesting. Alright, there’s another story there somewhere.
Williams: And having lost a couple years there out of high school, I was anxious to try to through as quickly as I could and also I was on the GI Bill and that said, get as much of your education behind you as you can while that’s going on and so I took overloads and did my undergraduate work – at that time, it was a three year, you could take three years in undergraduate school. Then if your grades were good, you could go on to law school and got your B.S. with a major in law and then you took two additional years to get your law degree.
Hayes: So you had a five year total package or six?
Williams: Well it was actually six years, you went three years of undergraduate and then three of law school, but I did it in five years. I got my three years of pre-law in two years and two summers by taking overloads and then entered the law school in the third year.
Hayes: Now what motivated you toward the law? I mean I asked about your dad because for some of the people, their father was a judge or their father was in medicine and so, you know, the law was kind of a venue they were interested in, but I didn't see that in your background.
Williams: Wasn’t there and in fact, I have to confess to you that I had difficulty getting into law school cause I didn't even know a lawyer and you needed, at that time you needed to get some lawyer to write a letter saying that your character was good.
Hayes: (Laughter) Oh is that right, you had to have an endorsement.
Williams: So what I had to do was just go up to a lawyer and say, “Look, you know, check on my family. See if you can write me the necessary letter to get in” (laughter). Back then, lawyers were a kinder group than they are now. The reason I got interested in law really was things that have turned out totally different.
I was interested in politics as a kid growing up, sat by the radio and listened to the news and to President Roosevelt with my daddy. At that time, I have a different opinion now, but I thought Roosevelt was the greatest statesman in the world and I still think he was a great statesman, although I don’t agree with his liberal policies now, but he was a great statesman. I still believe in that and that’s what got me interested in the law.
I recall in the seventh grade at old Washington Catlett, Mr. C. G. Barry was the principal and also taught the seventh grade. He died a few years ago, but was active in the school system for years and years and years. He said that you need to draw a picture of the things that you’re going to need for what you want to do in life. That was the first time I’d given it any thought and I drew a bible and a law book and that had been my goal from that time on.
Williams: To go to law school and practice law.
Hayes: When you got to law school then, did you find a completely different class of people were your classmates or did it matter? I mean was Wake at that time a prestigious little rich kids school?
Williams: No, it was anything but that.
Hayes: Oh, okay, good.
Williams: It was anything but prestigious. Scholastically, it was a good school. It had dedicated teachers, but I went to Wake Forest, it had no larger student body than New Hanover High School had. New Hanover High School was a highly respected high school back at that time. If you graduated from New Hanover High School, you could get into virtually any college you wanted to attend. It was highly respected. Wake Forest was a very nice, small 2000 student school. Most of the people who went there were middle class. There were very few rich people that attended Wake Forest.
Hayes: I ask that only because for the listener who now knows Wake Forest which is a prestigious research institution and well-known and so forth, it was different school at that time.
Williams: It was, but as I said on one occasion, the soul hasn’t changed. I served 24 years on the Board of Trustees at Wake Forest and I’m now a life trustee at Wake Forest and the move was somewhat unique of course. I attended at the old campus and it moved about two years after I graduated from law school and made the move to Winston-Salem. A lot of the alumni never could get over that move. You know, they didn't feel the same loyalty that they had.
I was again reminded of Franklin Roosevelt who was speaking to the young Democrats. He said, in effect, that “If I were speaking to young Republicans, I would be telling them the same thing, that a country is composed of a body, a mind and a spirit just as a human body is. That as long as the body and mind are there, that’s fine, but if that spirit isn’t there, then that country is as dead as a person if he has no spirit, no soul.”
While Wake Forest had a new body, and even perhaps a new mind, it still had the same spirit as the old one. I really believe that. It has gone up in prestige and has gone up in cost, but even so, if you compare the cost at Wake Forest with other private universities, it comes out pretty well. Of course, it can’t compete with the state universities, but it compares well cost wise with the others. And of course, the Yankees flock to Wake Forest because it’s cheap compared to a lot of the northern schools.
Hayes: That’s right. Those New England schools are just really expensive. So you had some questions about law school, Mike.
Haas: Well I would first ask, even undergraduate wise, you certainly did very well and would you attribute this to anything except hard work as we would expect or did you go into college rather focused on what you wanted as you said?
Williams: Well I was focused on what I wanted to do, yes, but I certainly am not a brilliant student. I did very well, but I did it because I worked at it. It wasn’t something that simply came to me easily.
Haas: In law school, did they use the Socratic method at Wake Forest and what sort of courses did you take?
Williams: Well it was, of course, on the case book method. They had already adopted that prior to the time I got there and it was a small law school, of course. There were, I’m trying to remember now, there were probably 45-50 people per class. So your first year at that time was pretty well charted with required courses. Even your second year had a number of required courses. It was only during perhaps the last semester of the second year and your third year that you had much in the way of electives. It was the usual diet. You started off with legal bibliography and civil procedure and contracts and torts and real property and ethics and partnerships and corporations and taxation.
Hayes: And probably not much different than even today’s curriculum as far as the slice of the law would you say? If you had been on the board, you must have seen that change.
Williams: There’s more choice now than there was then because at that time they were putting out lawyers who were going to be for the most part engaged in the general practice. Today I suspect the majority of lawyers are coming out and going into some restricted area of the law. Not many of them open up their offices anymore for the general practice of law. The majority of them, certainly the smarter students are going with a law firm and they’re going to a place where they’re going to be in a narrow area of the law. They’re not going to be doing like I did for all these years, practicing in all areas of the law.
I try cases involving just about every area of the law except I never tried a jury case for murder. I tried one murder case, but it was on a plea to the court (laughter) and I haven’t tried but one domestic relations case ever. Other than that, I’ve tried about every kind of law suit you can try.
Hayes: Now when do you think that changed in the profession to become the dominant, the specialization? Was that a 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, when did you start to really notice that?
Williams: Well I think it has been a gradual process, maybe even starting as early as the 60’s, but it has become more so. We have seen in the last 20 years, we’ve seen more and more of the giant law firms with huge numbers. Wherever you’ve got a law firm with a lot of members, you can be sure that the members of that law firm are in small niches doing the same thing day after day. They’ve become factories like Henry Fords plants putting cars together.
Hayes: Almost like a franchise cause they have a branch office everywhere, right?
Williams: That’s exactly right. We have a gentleman here from is it Sanders and O’Connor, the big international law firm and he was talking about they have offices virtually all over the world even though some of them are not profitable. He mentioned their office in Japan isn’t profitable, but because they have clients, big clients in the U.S. who have business there, they have to operate an office there even though it’s not profitable to do so because they’ve got to be able to furnish that client what he wants.
Haas: During law school, did you have any summer jobs with other attorneys or any preceptorships or anything that got you into the law before you actually practiced on your own?
Williams: I did not, Mr. Haas, for a very simple reason. I needed to earn as much money as I could in the summer and in those days if you had worked with a lawyer in the summer, he would have expected to pay you nothing. It’s a different world out there now, but in those days, they would have expected to pay you nothing.
What I did was work at ABC stores because that was the place in Wilmington that would pay you the most money for working in the summer. I would go there and get a job and they would pay me the same thing that they were paying the guy that worked there on a regular basis.
Hayes: I just wanted to get this clear. They paid you a regular salary, not in materials from that store, right?
Williams: That’s right. In fact, I didn't drink anything back in those days and one of the guys who worked in the liquor store called me that damn prohibitionist (laughter). But what I did do in the summer was I met Alan Marshall who I was in law school and working in the summer. Mr. Marshall is the Marshall, Williams and Gore in this law firm. I later was a partner with him, but at that time I simply introduced myself and he gave me access to his office which was in the building that’s now the New Hanover county building at 4th and Chestnut.
He had offices there and he gave me permission to go in there at nights so I could go in and look up authorities that had been given us during the course of the year and keep my hand in during the summer. His brother was head of the ABC board and so I got hired by the ABC board and worked there in the summer.
Hayes: This kind of older lawyer helping a younger lawyer is a pattern that we’ve seen in many of the conversations. Does that still hold true today or do you as a firm, you know, look to help somebody coming out because it’s an interesting, positive kind of …
Williams: You still do to the extent that they ask you or approach you and they will do that. I’ve had a number of young lawyers who have come to me and they may have had an ethical issue arise or they may have a case that they’ve gotten and want to get some advice about it. I never turn down that sort of an inquiry, always glad to meet with them and talk to them, but I don’t know to what extent you find that universally. I think of men my age, the Lloyd Elkins and the Bob Caulders and John Burneys, you’ll find that. But if you drop down 15 years, I’m not sure to what extent you’ll find that.
Hayes: We’re seeing that same pattern. So you finished law school and you had to take that onerous test, right? Oh, excuse me, I shouldn't say onerous, that wonderful test, the bar exam.
Williams: Yes, I took the bar exam (laughter) and it was interesting how I had to find out whether or not I had passed it. I was sitting in the office of the Associate Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court who was next to the Chief Justice. He was the oldest associate justice, because I had been one of the people named to be interviewed as the first law clerk that North Carolina Supreme Court ever used and they had one from Carolina, one from Duke and one from Wake Forest.
I was selected and of course you had to pass the bar. Now they don’t care whether you passed the bar or not to be a law clerk. In fact, then that was an requirement. So I had to wait in Judge Barnhill’s office while he went downstairs to the office of the state bar and find out whether I passed or not (laughter).
Hayes: (Laughter) Well talk about pressure. How did you feel that Wake did as far as preparing? Did you have a special course on that?
Williams: They had a bar review course, but Wake Forest did a better job in those days than either of the other schools to prepare you for the bar anyway because they always stressed the North Carolina position on every issue that came up. Duke would never do that. They probably do today, but in those days, Duke absolutely would not teach you the North Carolina position.
Their view was we’re teaching the people to practice law everywhere and not just in North Carolina and we’re not going to make any point of North Carolina. I think that changed in later years because how many of your students, what percentage of them passed the bar became ______ and so they later changed it.
Hayes: Right, so the exam itself had a real bias toward North Carolina?
Williams: Oh absolutely, yes sir. Sure did. Wake Forest in those days always did real well, almost invariably had the largest percentage of students passing.
Haas: What was the exam like? Was it a couple of days worth of essays?
Williams: Yes and it wasn’t all essays, but a big part of it was and yes it took up a couple of days, maybe even three, I’m not sure.
Haas: Did you have any women in law school with you?
Williams: There was one woman in law school when I was there and she was in the class below me, the class behind me, and she was the wife of a North Carolina State University professor so she was an older woman and she had come over and was going through law school. Interesting person though and she was one of the boys (laughter) I’ll tell you.
Hayes: Now you had mentioned John Burney. Were there other Wilmingtonians in that time period that you can remember?
Williams: Well there were not any Wilmingtonians I don’t believe that I can think of at Wake Forest, well yes, in the class right behind me, O.K. Pridgen who still practices here. He was one year behind me.
Hayes: Who was the judge we just did? Wasn’t he Wake Forest?
Haas: Yes, Barefoot.
Hayes: Napoleon Barefoot.
Williams: He would have been several years behind me.
Hayes: Seems like there’s quite a few from this year that Wake Forest attracted.
Williams: And of course George Clark was in my class in high school and he graduated from UNC law school.
Hayes: So you’re done and you have this prestigious offer.
Williams: Like $300 a month!
Hayes: Did you take it? You took the offer?
Williams: Oh yes.
Hayes: So you were the very first…
Williams: The very first law clerk of the North Carolina Supreme Court employed.
Hayes: Well what did they do before that for help?
Williams: They did their own. They did their own research and they weren’t sure whether they would use the law clerks. As a matter of fact, to be perfectly honest with you, I had a second job. I was also the executive secretary of the Judicial Counsel in preparation of legislation. So I didn’t do any of the thought, but the Judicial Counsel would come up and propose legislation and I was just the secretary to try to put it together, get statutes the way that they wanted them drafted.
Hayes: And this is the counsel that supported legal issues?
Williams: Yes, it was involving legal matters. So you had to do that job as well as…
Hayes: You couldn't eat the prestige, was that … (laughter). And did you work for the whole court then?
Williams: For anyone that wanted you to work for them. Yes, Chief Justice was Devon at that time. During that year, he retired and Justice Barnhill became the Chief Justice during the year I was there.
Haas: So you were there for one year?
Williams: Yes. I could have stayed longer. Judge Barnhill remembered back in the days when the summer was lean time for lawyers and so he warned me, he said, “You know, you’re going out here the 1st of September. That’s not really a good time to be out trying to beat the bushes for law business”. But I told him that I thought I needed to get on with it so I did. I came back and opened up an office by myself. I didn't even seek out anybody to go with.
Hayes: A partner to go with.
Williams: I had made up my mind, I was coming back to Wilmington to practice law so I came back to Wilmington and rented an office in the Odd Fellows Building which is on the corner of Third and Princess where the Centura Bank Building is located now.
Hayes: Interesting, now what year was that then?
Williams: That was 1954 that I came back.
Hayes: ’54, and what was Wilmington? I mean what kind of town was it? This was just before the railroad got up and left, right?
Williams: That was just shortly before the railroad left. The mood in Wilmington, of course, was very gloomy because there were many people who believed when the Coastline left that Wilmington would just absolutely fall off the map. It couldn't possibly survive that Coastline. There were probably 30 lawyers in Wilmington.
Hayes: Oh, I wondered about that.
Williams: When I came back here to practice.
Hayes: The population was not particularly large? The big war boom had kind of passed by.
Williams: I would judge Wilmington probably had a population of about 40,000 at that time. I opened…I was not married and so at least at that time I was staying at home with my parents so it didn't take a lot to live on, you know. Shortly after I came here and opened up, Addison Hewlett, whose office was also on the first floor of the Odd Fellows Building, approached me and asked me if I would join him.
Hayes: Interesting. Was he the same generation as you were?
Williams: No sir, Addison was about 15 years older. He had been in the war. He’d been practicing here and was called in the service, had been in the war, had come back and was doing very well. He served, I’m not sure how many times, as the representative from New Hanover County legislature. While I was with him, he ran for and became Speaker of the House of Representatives. That was a good learning experience.
Addison was one of the finest people I ever knew. Most lawyers, Mr. Haas may have had a different experience than this, but most lawyers are inclined to make the people on the other side not like them (laughter). That seems to be an error with the practice of law. Addison wasn’t that way. You could try a law suit against him and he could be just as tough as he could be, but everybody liked Addison. You just couldn't help but like him. There’s a building at the college named for him.
Hayes: Right, in fact, his portrait hangs in the library, a very nice portrait of him.
Williams: He was a real help to that university from the day it started almost. Big help to the university. So I practiced with him doing everything because he … I went in with him on January 1, and like the first Monday of January, he was going back to the legislature and I was here, a green lawyer who had been practicing in Wilmington for four months and so I had to try to keep the fires burning, you know, do whatever needed to be done to keep his office running.
He’d be gone from Monday, he’d leave about midday Monday to go up and then he would get back about midday Friday and try to handle stuff on Friday afternoons and Monday mornings. One of the things that we had a lot going with was hurricane Hazel had visited us on October 15 of 1954 (laughter).
Hayes: (Laughter) Visited us, I like that. That’s one way to put it, right, visited?
Williams: And that was the first damaging hurricane we had had here in a number of years. Addison did plaintiffs’ work primarily. He got plaintiffs’ work.
Hayes: Tell us what that means.
Williams: It means he was handling cases for the plaintiff, the party who had a claim as opposed to the defendant.
Hayes: Probably against what? Insurance companies mainly.
Williams: That litigation was, yes. So he had a lot of business from Carolina Beach because he had been town attorney for Carolina Beach for a number of years so he knew a lot of people in Carolina Beach.
Hayes: Boy, and they got hit bad, didn't they?
Williams: They got hit badly and of course, if you looked at the strict wording of insurance policies, it would look like, it many instances it was questionable whether or not it was covered because it looked like an awful lot of water damage rather than wind damage when these buildings are floated off of their foundations and are over in the marsh (laughter). But we contended otherwise (laughter).
Hayes: It couldn't have moved without the wind.
Williams: That’s absolutely right. Most of those things blew over there before the water ever got to them (laughter). But he was very good at that and was able to ….
Hayes: Now was there an element of just helping people even with the crazy paperwork? I mean some of that was just complicated too. I mean not necessarily even suing, but helping people fill out all the forms. Of course, maybe it wasn’t as bad as now, but now I guess it’s just, with the Federal Government and everything, the forms are just…
Williams: It was a little bit easier back then and the insurance adjustors would often do most of that for you except when it came to the matter of filing the proof of loss form. There they would give you the form, but would not fill that out for you if they were not going to pay you or weren’t in agreement with you about the amount and that’s when they would come to see Mr. Hewlett and in some instances, you did bring a law suit and in other instances, you were able to sit down with the adjustors and negotiate it out.
The volume of paperwork was different. You didn't have a separate flood insurance policy and that sort of thing.
Haas: The federal government wasn’t as much involved, there was no FEMA back then.
Hayes: So you really got a baptism of fire and water so to speak.
Williams: Yeah, it was during that time that I had my murder case.
Hayes: Oh, is that right? Tell us about that if you can. I mean we don’t want any secrets or anything.
Williams: I think after all this time, it wouldn't be a secret, but I was representing a black man named Louish Wilson and Louish had been at another black house in a time frame that back then, they would simply be black houses where people would go in, they’d buy liquor and play cards and that sort of thing. You would ask Louish whose house was it, “I don’t know”, who else was there, “I have no idea who these people were”.
At any rate, another one of the folks in the house had called Louish a geetchee son of a bitch and Louish went to his house, got his gun and came back and tried to shoot the guy who had called him that and unfortunately the guy stepped behind another person and Louish killed an innocent bystander. Louish had great difficulty understanding why he was being prosecuted.
He said, “I had no intention of hurting that guy at all”, “Why are they trying me for this?”. I said, “Louish, why did you get so incensed that you were going to get your gun? Had you never been called a son of a bitch before?” He said, “That wasn’t what made me mad. He called me a geetchee”.
Hayes: I don’t even know what that is (laughter).
Williams: Geetchee is a term that’s used in South Carolina lowlands and it’s considered low class.
Hayes: That was enough.
Williams: And that was what made him mad and he went home and got his gun. So in those days, you would enter a no lo contender plea and the judge would hear the evidence and he would decide, you know. So he found him guilty of manslaughter, gave him five years in prison and that was my big murder case.
Hayes: Did the guy pay you?
Williams: Yes, yes, back in those days, you didn't pay a lot I don’t think. But back in those days, you didn't have much of these fees for appearing for the poor. There was very little of that. That’s a modern invention. They would usually have to pay you on a long time basis you know. They’d come in and you’d have to keep putting their case off and they’d bring you $25 and $25 and everything maybe you’d get $150.
Hayes: Well you opened an interesting question. You know this is Jim Crow period for the longest time here and yet you took anybody who walked in? I mean there wasn’t a color line as far as the law was concerned. A customer was a customer? And do you start to see even any black lawyers?
Williams: There was one black lawyer here when I came here, Robert Bond, was the only black lawyer here, but Robert’s been dead a number of years. His wife is probably still living here. She was a school teacher and Robert was an interesting character. Robert, you know, we would sit down with Robert at a table. You never thought there was anything about having Robert sitting at the table with you.
I remember one instance when the guys, some of the lawyers were talking about their wives working and whether or not they needed, had to work, you know. Does your wife have to work, you know, to support you. He said, “My wife doesn't have to work, but she has to work if I’m to live in a manner to which I’ve become accustomed.”
Hayes: (Laughter) An honest man.
Haas: What about the bar of that time? Was it collegial? Did you have meetings? Was there a way of educating yourselves amongst the bar members at all?
Williams: There was not any sort of meetings as far as educational, legal education was concerned. The Bar Association, we had a New Hanover County Bar Association which met on a quarterly basis, but it was strictly social, nothing, no real discussion of legal matters and there would always be one or two guys that would get drunk. David Sinclair, who was an alcoholic, he used to always get drunk and turn his chair over.
After I’d been here only a short while, David caught me over in court one day and he said, “Lonnie, I’d really like to just take you in with me, but you know, these people come in here and they’ve been charged with some crime and they want old David to defend them”. I told him, yeah, I understood that. Knew where he was coming from.
Haas: When did CLE begin here in North Carolina? Is it only a few years old or does it go back?
Williams: CLE, don’t hold me to this, Mr. Haas, but I would say it’s now probably close to 20 years.
Hayes: For our listeners, that’s the continuing education component that’s required and it’s serious hours now too I think.
Williams: It’s not much, it’s like 12 hours, something like that. To beat the minimum, it isn’t much. I mean I can go to one two-day seminar and get that, but it’s better than nothing.
Hayes: You pointed out that you were not coming from the elite of Wilmington. Did you find that once you were a lawyer, then that was the acceptance into the community or did it matter? You know, you have a long time firm here and so forth. Do you have a sense that Wilmington at that time was still about the old families and that kind of history.
Williams: I never felt that as far as the law practice was concerned. I never felt that there were any sort of strata among lawyers.
Hayes: Okay, good, good.
Williams: I felt pretty well accepted from the time I came back here and joined the Bar Association and felt that you were accepted as a person.
Haas: Any judges of that day stick in your mind as being characters we would want to hear about?
Williams: Well you probably already heard all the stories about John Burney’s father. He was the character.
Hayes: No, we haven’t. John told us a little bit, but not …
Williams: Judge Burney was something else. They told all kinds of stories about him. One about him picking up a guy going into court in another city some time ago and the guy said he was going in for jury duty, but he says, “I can come up with a good excuse to get out of jury duty” and Judge Burney is eating it all up and he just waits for that guy. “Isn’t there somebody that wants to give me an excuse like they’ve got farming to do”.
But my favorite story of Judge Burney is he was trying some little whiplash case that didn't amount to much and the evidence had been put in and Judge Burney called the lawyers, both lawyers back to in the back and said, “I’m surprised you guys are trying this law suit. It looks like it’s fairly clear. The evidence would indicate that the guy hasn’t got much injury.”
The lawyer said, “Judge, we’ve agreed on this, but the lawyers are not in disagreement, but the plaintiff won’t take what he’s been offered and so we’ve got to try”. The judge says, “He won’t take it”, they said no, and he said, “Well do you all mind if I talk to him”. They said no, that’s fine, we’d be glad for you to talk to him.
So they bring him back and Judge Burney says, “Now I understand that the lawyers agree on what this case is worth and that they have offered to pay that and that you’ve turned it down. Is that correct?” He said, “Yes sir, that’s right”. He said, “Well why have you turned it down?” He said, “Well I’ve talked to the Lord and the Lord told me that I was going to get more than that”. Judge Burney said, “Are you sure that was the Lord you were talking to?” He said, “Yes sir”.
He said, “Okay, I’ll tell you what I want you to do. You go back and talk to the Lord again and you tell him that if you don’t take this, I’m going to throw you out of court and then see what he says”. (Laughter). But there are a thousand stories about Judge Burney.
Hayes: You were talking about your practice then covers everything. What kinds of things over the years, I mean you don’t have to give me specific cases, but you know, what kinds of things come through a law office? I think people would be really interested.
Williams: Well, I didn't make this list up for you, but I had a little list of things because from time to time somebody will ask you to speak at a club or something so I just have a note down here. This isn’t really one of my cases, but it is an event that happened that I love to tell about. I hadn’t been practicing here but a very short while and I was over in the District, what was then a Recorder’s Court. It’s hard to explain to you what our Recorder’s Court used to be like. It’s the courtroom at the far end of the courthouse, at the front of the old courthouse building. You may have been up there, there’s a county assembly room now.
That used to be the Recorder’s Court and they had the judge’s bench was over on the south wall over toward the new building and that’s where the judge’s bench was. They had just one plain bench and I mean a bench, didn't have any back to it or anything and on that bench is where all the lawyers would come in and sit down while they were waiting for the cases, right in front of the judge’s bench.
So Judge Winfield Smith, who was a real character, somebody needs to try to put together some of the stories about Judge Winfield Smith because he was a real philosopher. He decided this guy, this was back in the days when you didn't appoint a lawyer for everybody, but he listened to some of this case and he decided this guy needed a lawyer. He said, “I think you need a lawyer. I’ll appoint any of these lawyers in here that you want to represent you” and he points down to us.
One of the lawyers that had been sitting there was Albert Brown and he had walked out in the hallway. We didn't have a room to meet with people so you just had this hallway outside the door and he said, “There’s one out in the hall”. So this guy looks down at us and says, “I believe I’ll take the one out in the hall”. (Laughter).
Hayes: You guys didn't look too good, huh? (laughter)
Williams: He really put us in our place. I tried one law suit along with Mr. Hewlett while I was with him. We were representing a lady as he used to put it “from down on the sound”. He was from Masonborough Sound and his family had been from Masonborough Sound from many years. So Ms. Johnson was from down on the sound. We were representing her and she had been involved in an accident when a car had backed out on Third Street.
Not a terribly bad lick, but she had a little back injury from it and so the case had been going on for some time and the azalea parade came along. Well Mr. Hewlett being in the legislature, he was seated on the honorary review stand over there and I was on the opposite side of the street in front of the Odd Fellows Building watching the parade. Along comes Ms. Johnson with a flag, she’s carrying a flag about the size of one of the gas world. If you’ve seen one, you know it’s just as big as all outdoors.
She’s charging down the street with some organization that she was a member of. When the parade was over, Mr. Hewlett came across the street and said, “Did you see Ms. Johnson”. He said, “There she was marching with that flag”. He said, “If I had a gun, I’d a shot her”. (Laughter)
Well we went on to court and Ms. Johnson claimed that she had only started in the parade just before she had come by the reviewing stand and then she had to quit soon as they passed. So we went on to court and Joshua James, who later was a Superior Court judge, was defending the law suit and he had a number of pictures of Ms. Johnson in the parade. Well back in those days, you didn't see all the exhibits before you went to court like you do now. It was drawing from the hip back then.
So he keeps showing these pictures of Ms. Johnson and some of them she recognizes, but others, she can’t tell whether that’s her or not. Finally Mr. Hewlett had had all he could stand. He jumped up and said, “Your Honor, I object”. (Laughter) He said, “He’s marched her through that parade three times”. (Laughter) So we settled that case kind of cheap (laughter).
I used to do a lot of defending automobile type cases and I was representing one where a lady had been hit in the intersection and the issue was whether or not she was crossing on a red light or a green light. There was also a question about how badly this woman was hurt because the driver said that the vehicle had hardly touched her if it touched her at all and she claimed she was quite badly injured.
I was taking her deposition over here in this very room and Jerry Spivey was with Mr. Hewlett at that time. I had gone with Alan Marshall back in 1957. I came with Marshall. Jerry Spivey was a young lawyer with Mr. Hewlett. This lady came over for me to take her deposition and when I started asking her how the accident happened, she took out a little book like a diary and started reading to me how the accident had happened.
So naturally when she did that, I said, “You were reading out of the book?”, “Yes,” “I’d like to see the book”, “Well no, you can’t see the book”. Jerry kept telling her that yes, she had to let me see the book. Well it almost came to the point where we both had to put our foot on her and take it out of her hand to finally get the diary out of her hand. I started reading it and it had the date that the accident had happened and in a matter of two days later, it’s got entries – visited with friends, had wonderful time and there would be a Spanish word “Dias” or “ocho” “Nueve”.
I started asking her, “What is this entry”. “Well, that’s none of your business”. “Well, I’m afraid it is, maam. What do these entries mean?” “Well it’s Spanish”. “Yes, I know that, I know what these numbers are too, I know it’s nine and ten and eight, Zapata in one instance is a pair of shoes”. It proves you never know what’s going to come in handy that you’ve taken in school, even a little Spanish (laughter).
So she would say one time, “You know what it is” and another time, she’d say, “No, it’s not what you think and I’m not going to tell you”. So I told Jerry that that diary would have to be in court when we tried the law suit. So we went onto trial and I got to the diary and started asking her questions and she kept beating around the bush until she finally said, “I am not a prostitute”. Come on down. She did not get anything. She obviously was not hurt too badly since she was visiting friends and having a wonderful time two days later.
But Mr. Hewlett, she was dressed in a purple toreador outfit with black boots that day and after the law suit, Mr. Hewlett told me he had told her to come dressed conservatively that day. (Laughter). So I don’t know how she would have been dressed if she hadn’t been told to dress conservatively.
Some of these you may not want to hear about. I used to do a fair amount of medical malpractice defense and by the way, we tried one two years ago and the Court of Appeals just affirmed that verdict today.
Hayes: But it took two years (laughter).
Williams: Yes, it took two years. We tried it in the latter part of April and the first of May two years ago. The Court of Appeals just affirmed it today, it took two years. I was trying one case representing an obstetrician gynecologist who had performed a partial hysterectomy on a lady and about two days after she got out of the hospital, she was in the emergency room with severe abdominal pain and it turned out she had had a torn vaginal cuff.
The doctor had been in and had taken care of her in the emergency room and had learned in the process that it was her anniversary, that they’d engaged in sexual relations with her husband on her anniversary which was only a couple of days after she had gotten out of the hospital and so the doctor was trying to tell me what to look for. He said, you know, this can happen if she had had a little wine and if her husband was being fairly excited and agitated and particularly if he was fairly well-endowed, this can easily happen.
So I was taking the lady’s deposition and her husband came with her to the deposition and the doctor was here with me as well and so I was asking her questions, “This was your anniversary”, “Yes, it was my anniversary”, “Had you all had some wine to drink that evening”, “Yes”, Were you engaging in sexual relations”, “Yes”, and I said, “Well how is your husband endowed” and she said, “He’s just average” and I paused there because I could tell that her husband did not care for that answer.
Pretty soon after that, I closed that deposition, didn't ask for anything further, but I went home and told my wife. I said I don’t know if he circumstances will ever arise, but if they should ever arise that you are asked to tell someone how I’m endowed, do not tell them I’m just average” (laughter). It was only a couple of weeks after that that they took a voluntary dismissal in that law suit and I am convinced that her husband went home and beat the hell out of her”.
Hayes: (Laughter) Oh God, (laughter). I just need to stop and change a tape here. (End of tape one).
We’re back with Lonnie Williams and he’s telling us some interesting cases that he’s participated in over the years, so please continue.
Williams: I’ll try to make some of these a little briefer for you.
Hayes: That’s fine.
Williams: I tried a case in Duplin County where I was representing a black man caveating the will of a white woman.
Hayes: Do you want to explain what that means?
Williams: That’s right, you don’t know these terms. A caveat is where one comes in and challenges whether the will is in fact the will of the person because of either undue influence, fraud, duress, whatever and of course to be entitled to caveat the will, you either must be the beneficiary under a prior will which would then become the will if this one is found not to be the will or you’re the heir at law who would take in the event the will is found not to be the will.
So its somewhat unique for a black man to be caveating the will of a white woman because certainly you would not think that the relationship would exist, but this was a peculiar situation in that the black man was the son of this lady’s husband. He was the son of a maid who worked in the family home and it wasn’t a secret, it was widely known in the area that he was the father of this black child.
So he and his wife had both made wills leaving some substantial assets to this black guy. He had taken care of them when they needed help, he was the one they would call on to fix anything that needed fixing, when they were ill, he was the one that took care of them. But then after he died, some of her kinfolks had gotten her to change her will and cut him out of it so that’s the reason I was representing…
Hayes: You were representing him.
Williams: We were saying this will is void because she lacked the mental capacity to execute this will either because she didn't have mental capacity or she was under duress of someone else and therefore an earlier will is the will that should be probated and under which she would take property.
Hayes: Did you win?
Williams: I’ll have to tell you a few more details about it. We were trying the law suit and we were in the second week of the trial and we had already put on our case, the caveator and the propounders, those are the people that are trying to support the will. We’re putting on their case and an aunt of one of the principal beneficiaries under the new will who was a niece of the lady, but it was an aunt of his, who was testifying, and she was a large woman. She must have weighed like 250 pounds. She virtually filled up the witness box in the courtroom.
When she got on the stand, she said that she had been ill, had been out of the hospital a couple of weeks, but she was okay and she was prepared to testify. After she had finished her direct testimony and I had started asking her questions on cross-examination, she first said she didn't feel well and wanted some water and I gave her a glass of water. I said, “Are you okay now, are you ready to proceed? Do you want a break?” She said, “No, I’m ready to go ahead”.
So I started asking her questions and she makes noises and slumps over in the jury box and blood begins to pour out of her nose and mouth.
Hayes: Oh my God.
Williams: She can’t fall down in the jury box. She’s too large to fall down in the jury box. The jury box is the width of this room from where the judge’s bar was in Duplin County and the witness stand and they stand up as a body and scream, every juror in there screams. The deputy sheriff is over there trying to get her out on the floor to lay her down and blood is continuing to run out of her mouth. I thought the lady was dead.
So they get her moved out. She didn't die. It turned out she was having some sort of a reaction to some disease she had, but she survived it. Never in my wildest dreams did I think she would. At any rate, after this happened, the judge said, “I don’t see how we can go on with this trial. I just don’t see how we can proceed. I don’t see how this is going to affect one side or the other. I don’t know which side it’s going to affect. I don’t know whether it’s going to be the propounder for putting her on the stand to begin with or the caveator because he was examining her at the time she had this spell”.
Both sides were saying, “Judge, please don’t mistrial this law suit. We’ve spent almost two weeks trying this law suit. We can’t go through all this again, the cost and the expense and the time”. Well he kept threatening he was going to do it so the result was that we agreed on a disposition of the case. Well North Carolina up until fairly recently had a very peculiar complicated law having to do with wills.
You could not take a voluntary dismissal in a will case and you cannot make a settlement in one without having the jury go ahead and pass on the issue of is it or is it not the will of the caveator –devastavit vel nom.
Hayes: So you couldn't cut a deal?
Williams: Well we cut a deal, but the deal depended on being able to get the jury to then pass on it and find it was a will so we had reached our agreement. The judge instructs the jury that if you believe all the evidence, then you will answer the issue that it is the will of the caveator, the will of the testator, excuse me.
The jury goes out, stays about an hour or so, comes back in and asks to be charged again. The judge gives them a charge again. They go back in, they come back out and they’ve answered the issue, no, it is not the will of the testatrix. So I would have won had I been able to try my law suit, but what he did then was declared a mistrial and then you go back with another jury and you don’t put on all of the evidence. You only put on the evidence of the will and let them go out and find….they’ve changed that law now. You don’t have to go through that.
When the jury came back with that “no, it isn’t the will”, the judge looked down at the other side and said, “Well it looks like the caveator had a better case than you thought he had (laughter).
I had a case one time in which I defended Piedmont Airlines and the forerunner of U.S. Air for damaging a yacht. One of their captains for Piedmont had gone out to the airport and had put his small yacht up on some oil drums out at the airport to work on it and Piedmont had taken a plane out to what they call the runup block where they could run the jet engines and they revved up the jet engines and it blew the plane off the oil drum and he sued Piedmont.
Hayes: (Laughter) And he flew for them
Williams: And he was a pilot for them. He was about to retire.
Hayes: (Laughter) I was going to say, sooner rather than later.
Williams: He didn't recover though. I represented the manufacturer of a heat exchanger one time in a law suit by a guy who was killed that worked at Hurkafina, what do they call that plant now?
Hayes: It has changed names several times, it’s a chemical plant, it was bulk chemicals.
Williams: They make DMT – dimethylteraphalate
Hayes: Which we know as polyurethane.
Williams: It’s the basis for nylon and also somehow is used in some sort of chicken feed product. But a heat exchanger blew up and they sued the heat exchanger manufacturer and it was an interesting law suit in that it finally turned out that the heat exchanger had been plugged up with materials when they put the heat on it. I was asking one of their people when I was deposing him, I said, “What happens if this thing is cooled off and it’s got material blocking both engines? You put this parasymine at 350 degrees to it, what happens?”
He said, “You’ve got a bomb”. “Thank you”. We ended up settling that law suit because Herkafina withdrew all of its claims for and damage to their plant if we would make a settlement with the estate of the guy who was killed and they did not claim any workers compensation benefits back so it was a large settlement. Then Herkafina hired me to represent them in a case where a pop-off valve failed to operate and they had damage to the plant.
I represented a guy named Frank Haynes who has some dolls, wedding dolls at the museum. Are you familiar with the Haynes wedding dolls?
Haas: I am, it’s a great collection. In fact, you really wonder what to do with them (laughter).
Williams: You don’t know what to do with them?
Haas: I think the rule when they came was if they are not on display, that they have to go back to the Haynes or whoever is left in the family and they’re not too sure….
Williams: They’re very few people left in the Haynes family. There’s virtually no family there.
Haas: That’s what we had heard.
Williams: But they were beautiful dolls. He would dress dolls that…he would get an order for a doll of a certain period or a certain nationality dressed as one would be at a wedding and when he moved here, he had signed a contract to purchase a house and it turned out that they had not told him the truth about the house and so he did not go through with it and I defended Frank in that law suit and defended on fraud and it was set aside. The contract was set aside.
In fact, we even got damages against them. The Supreme Court said at that time that you’ve got to show some aggravation. Fraud itself is not enough. They changed that law since then too. It would seem like a fraudulent act ought to be enough, wouldn't you think without showing aggravation.
Hayes: It’s aggravating just by definition.
Williams: You would think so. I have also done some work for plaintiffs. I represented a deceased driver of a vehicle in a no impact accident. By that I mean that the vehicle we were suing was a tractor trailer that it never struck the car as far as we could determine. The tractor trailer jackknifed, at least this is our theory, both the people in our car were dead. The tractor jackknifed when he came up behind another vehicle that was moving slowly in its lane.
Our vehicle swerved off the road, lost control, came back on the highway and was broadsided by a vehicle behind him. The guy and his wife were both killed and the child in the back seat was badly injured and survived. We were offered nothing for that case. The wife was, she was a passenger, but the driver was not offered anything. We won a verdict for 1.8 million dollars which doesn’t sound like much now, but at the time we won that verdict, it was a big verdict and fortunately one you could collect because it was against a trucking company.
Hayes: When you win those, it’s based on the facts so you must have had some witnesses or something because otherwise how can you tell?
Williams: Well we had several witnesses, but all of them are viewing the accident events from a different place and each of them sees only a piece of what takes place.
Hayes: It’s interesting. So one of the roles of the lawyer then is to construct that almost like a detective then.
Williams: You put it together and also we used an accident reconstruction expert. I tried one of the first malpractice cases that was ever tried in Wilmington in 1975. It was a highly, what is the right term, it involved a lot of emotion because the plaintiff was a young man who was the son of a doctor and the defendant was a doctor of course in a malpractice case. The boy when he was about 14 years old had been high jumping in the backyard, had fallen and broken, a compound fracture of both bones just above the wrists, had gone to the hospital.
The orthopedic treated him and put a cast on it and he subsequently developed a gas gangrene infection and had a just below the elbow amputation of his right arm. We started that trial on the 15th of December of 1975 and we tried it every day except Christmas Day and concluded it on the last day of the year. I mean Saturdays and Sundays we tried the law suit.
Hayes: Now you had mentioned though that that was one of the first malpractice…
Williams: It was one of the first ones tried out in New Hanover County in 1975.
Hayes: But today, it’s a daily event, right?
Hayes: It’s just become big business I guess.
Williams: It really has. It was happening I’m sure in northern states a lot earlier than it was here, but it has largely been a product certainly in this area, southeastern North Carolina, since ’75.
Hayes: And before that, it was just honoring doctors or did they have better lawyers.
Williams: No, no, I think it was that people didn't bring law suits against doctors in this area. I guess it was from a couple of things. I think it was more respect for doctors. You talk about respect for lawyers and I think there was more respect for doctors then. Secondly, you didn't have, like the media didn't used to tell me that we were real poor when I was growing up. Well we didn't have the media telling you then and advertisers telling you you know, if anything goes wrong, somebody is responsible for it and you ought to get paid.
You were asking me about my philosophy of the law and that I think is the overriding thing that I’ve seen happen in my years in the bar, that the public, such a large part of the public now thinks if anything happens, it isn’t my fault, there’s someone else who’s responsible for it and they owe me for it.
Hayes: On anything.
Williams: On everything.
Hayes: On everything (laughter).
Williams: I mean we actually in the malpractice case that I told you was just affirmed by the Court of Appeals today, I asked the jurors “Do you feel that if something untoward happens, do you have some feeling that someone else is responsible for it”. You’d be surprised that several people in the course of picking that jury said yes, they believe that. I mean I know a lot of people believe that that didn't tell me that, that they believed it, but several people said yes. They believe that if anything untoward happened that someone else was responsible for it.
Hayes: And hopefully somebody with deep pockets. Interesting. But then lawyers have lived off of that change in philosophy quite some time now.
Williams: Well some have. I wish I had it here, I have it at home, here was an issue of Forbe’s Magazine within the last couple of months about the tort mess, I believe that’s what is on the front of the Forbe’s Magazine and its an article everybody ought to read. I mean it talks about what the cost of tort litigation is to the country. Huge companies like Johns Manville and a number of others that have been simply run out of business by tort litigation. Of course the plaintiff’s bar has done well off of it. I can’t say that the public has benefited much from it.
Hayes: Has your firm participated in any class action suits? That seems to be the new trend.
Williams: We have not. I could have participated in the stucco litigation. I think I was the first lawyer called in this area about it, but we declined it. First of all, I wouldn't want to get involved in class action litigation. My view is that the lawyers are the only people that really benefit from it. The individuals get very little benefit out of it. Secondly I would have had a conflict then because we had contractors that we represented and architects that we represented that I would not be willing to be at odds with.
Hayes: Let’s go back to your career. You said you switched in ’57 or so after some exciting news…
Williams: I was with Mr. Hewlett. I joined him in January of ’55 and I was with him for two and a half years and so the middle of ’57, I told you wrong. In the middle of ’57 I went out with myself and I joined Marshall in ’60, 1960. It was the firm of Poisson, Marshall, Barnhill and Williams, and that was Mr. Louis Poisson that I mentioned to you earlier and Alan Marshall and Morris Barnhill who had been the general solicitor for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad and he did not want to move to Florida and so he stayed here and joined the firm.
Hayes: Well that’s interesting.
Williams: And myself, and I was quite a young man then.
Hayes: And you stayed in the firm, but the firm has changed.
Williams: The firm has changed.
Hayes: And explain to us how that kind of works. What that means is, it’s really just a partnership of individuals that want to stay together, right? Is that what a law firm is?
Williams: Law firms are a lot of different things. The term means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. We started that law firm in 1960. In 1963, Alan Marshall and I decided we wanted to move out of that building. It was called the Electric Building then, it was a CP&L building known as the Electric Building where the New Hanover County offices are now. We decided we wanted to move over here in this house.
Poisson Sr., of course, had died and Louis Poisson Jr. was in that firm and Morris Barnhill. They wanted to stay over there. So Allie and I came over here in 1963 and we’ve been in this building ever since 1963. There are all sorts of partnerships. Most legal partnerships are built on a tiered level where the guy at the top gets everything that he brings in or makes and he gets a piece of everything that comes under him and particularly anything that he’s brought in to the business. If he’s brought a client in and gives it to another lawyer, he gets a piece of that profit of that partner.
A lot of others are nothing more than office sharing arrangements where they divide the cost. Others are based on mostly what you kill, eating what you kill as its called, where most of your pay comes from what you bring in. Called eating what you kill (laughter).
Hayes: That’s a technical legal term, eating what you kill (laughter).
Williams: I don’t think it’s what you call a technical legal term (laughter). It’s not one of those $10 words.
Hayes: In other words, you only get paid for hours that you do the work generated, you bring in the business.
Williams: Whatever funds you actually bring in less your part of the expense. That’s a little bit different from office sharing because usually that’s based not just on, you know, I’m one of four lawyers and so I pay 25% of the overhead. It’s more of a matter that I bring in $100,000 and the office expense is $100,000 so I pay whatever my proportion of part of that is. Other firms may use the “eat what you kill” as a basis, but then there are other factors that come into it too like the fact if you bring in three times as much as another guy, you’re not going to pay three times as much overhead as he does because you’re probably not using up three times as much overhead as he does so you get a larger percentage of what you bring in if you brought in more money.
You never really know when you see partnership or an LLP on the name exactly how it operates, but the big law firms, most of them operate on this tier level where the guy at the top is going to get the biggest piece of the profit.
Haas: You might like to explain for those that watch this afterwards about the LLP and what that stands for.
Williams: Well for years they would not allow law practices to be incorporated in any fashion and the same thing was true for doctors for a long time and now you can be incorporated and most lawyers will go under a limited liability company. An LLC is what a normal non-professional corporation would be. With lawyers, it’s a limited liability partnership.
Hayes: And the goal there is to have some protection for the entity.
Williams: Well it’s protection for the individual members because in a partnership, you not only have the liability of the partnership assets, there’s the liability of every individual partner.
Hayes: So if one partner does something and they’re sued, you were trying to protect the other partners from having to …
Williams: For being personally liable. The assets of the partnership are exposed and the assets of that individual lawyer are exposed.
Hayes: But surely no lawyer would sue another lawyer, would they?
Williams: There are law firms who specialize in doing that.
Hayes: I was just kidding (laughter).
Williams: I know you were (laughter).
Hayes: Now you’ve been in this firm then for quite some long time.
Williams: From 1963.
Hayes: And so when somebody retires out, then you’re looking for new talent, is that how it changes the names over time? It’s just a different mix of people.
Williams: Well of course invariably there’s going to be occasionally somebody who’s going to leave who doesn’t retire. That’s happened very, very few times in this office. In all of those years, we’ve had associates who left, but I believe that there have only been two partners who left other than by death.
Hayes: Now you use the term associates, what…
Williams: An associate is someone who’s employed here and who’s on a salary other than being a partner.
Hayes: But that’s a lawyer? He or she is still a lawyer?
Williams: Yes, we only have one associate in the office right now. Everyone else in this office is a partner.
Hayes: So for many of these big firms, they could have hundreds of lawyers, but there would only be a few partners and many of them would be associates.
Williams: Yes, you would have a lot of associates. In the big firms, they like to have a lot of associates because generally they’re employed at a modest salary compared to what they’re charging for their time.
Hayes: That generates profit. Ask him about other activities, civic activities. He’s hinted at a few, but maybe we ought to …
Haas: I guess I could just ask if you’ve been involved (laughter).
Hayes: Well you’ve got some specific questions, is it the last page?
Haas: Well you have been an officer in various organizations. Are there any of them that you wish to tell us about? Have you been president of the local bar?
Williams: I was president of the New Hanover County Bar I think in ’69. I was president of the North Carolina Defense Lawyers Association. I’d have to look at my CV to tell you, ’82, ’83, something like that. I’ve already mentioned that my service on the Wake Forest board for 24 years.
Hayes: Was that the law school or the general university?
Williams: That’s the university.
Hayes: Oh that’s great. So you saw more than just the law change there.
Williams: Yes, I saw a lot of change because during that time is when the relationship with the Baptist Convention changed during the time I was on the board. At the time I was elected, the Wake Forest trustees made suggestions or nominations to the state convention, but you had to be, you had to actually be elected by the North Carolina Baptist Convention.
Hayes: Wow, now what about from the local community? Anybody who’s a lawyers, it seems, we know, you know, they have certain talents and skills. Have you had local organizations that you’ve participated in as well, not necessarily as a lawyer, but I mean charitable groups and so forth and so on?
Williams: Well, I’m a member of one of the directors of the Donald R. Watson Foundation at UNCW. Don Watson was a client of mine and I worked with him in drafting that foundation.
Hayes: That’s the Donald R. Watson School of Education, it’s named …
Williams: It’s named for him. That’s different, of course, from the foundation. The foundation gives money to he university every year, also gives some money to Duke University Medical Center, some to St. John’s Episcopal Church. The university gets the larger part of that fund every year.
Hayes: You mentioned an interest in politics and you associated yourself early on with a politician. Did you ever choose yourself to do that?
Williams: I always decided that politics was not for me (laughter). I told you I started in that direction, but it never worked out.
Hayes: Never went that way, that’s interesting.
Williams: The only other organization that I would think is worthy of mention, I’m a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. That does not mean anything to you and is easily confused with organizations like the American Academy of Trial Lawyers which is a totally different thing.
The American College of Trial Lawyers is elected by members of the college and only 1% of the lawyers in the country are members of the American College of Trial Lawyers. I was elected to membership when I was 48 years old and I do prize that and I have been selected for the Best Lawyers in America for I guess the last 10 years or so.
Hayes: You’re still an active, practicing lawyer?
Williams: Yes sir.
Hayes: And you assume that you will be forever?
Williams: I’m going to continue practicing until either my health fails or I decide that maybe my mind has failed to the point where I better get out. I always say that it’s not how good a lawyer you are, it’s how good people think you are that’s important. As long as people think you’re good, that’s the most important factor. Yeah, I’m going to be trying a case in July with one of my partners.
Haas: Do you have any children?
Williams: I have three children, one of them practices with me, Lonnie Jr. practices with me and has for 20 years.
Haas: Is he also a Wake Forest graduate?
Williams: He’s a Wake Forest graduate, undergraduate and law school and I have a daughter who’s a graduate of Wake Forest and did a Master’s there and then a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt and a one year internship at Brown and she is a tenured professor at Clemson University and is at present the Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the Business School.
Hayes: And what is her name?
Williams: Janice Williams, well she’s Murdock now. She’s a clinical psychologist.
Hayes: And then a third child?
Williams: The third one is a son who is a computer guy. He graduated from State and he works for Sass Security. He’s been with them for several years.
Hayes: And his name?
Hayes: Just for the record, I mean we’re not tracking them down or anything (laughter). And your wife’s name is?
Williams: Is Janice Gary.
Hayes: Well last question for you would be, I think we might guess what the answer would be, but we always ask if some young person came to you and said, “I’m interested in the law”, what encouragement or discouragement would you give them about this profession?
Williams: Well if they indicated they were interested in it, I would try to encourage them even though as is always the case I think, there have been so many radical changes in the practice of law that it’s difficult for me to view it objectively because I feel like if I were looking at the law practice today, that it’s not something I would want to do.
Hayes: Really? Why?
Williams: Because the critical thing to me is the lack of camaraderie and good faith that I had with lawyers back when I started and the lack of that now. It’s cutthroat. When I started practicing law, you never worried about getting anything in writing. I would see Mr. Haas on the street and I would say, “Hey, I’ve got that law suit that you filed. It’s come to me and I’ll get an answer in if it’s okay” and Haas would have said, “Sure, that’s okay”. If I hadn’t gotten in in 60 days from now, he would call me up and say, “Hey Lonnie, I need you to get that answer in. The client is complaining that I’m not doing something:” and I’d say, “Okay, sure, I’ll do that”.
Nowadays I’m reluctant to even take a lawyer’s writing that he will agree to extend the time. I’ve got to go to the courthouse and get a court order and be sure it’s extended because I would not trust a lot of them to not go take a default against me even if I had a letter from them saying they would give me time.
It’s not the same profession I entered. I’ve never gotten used to the advertising bit. I can’t bring myself to advertise. I’ve always said if I can’t make a living practicing law without running ads, then I’ll go down and see if I can go down and get a job at Tom McCann’s fitting shoes. I just don’t think that’s professional. I don’t think professions do that. It’s business when you do that. I didn't enter a business, I entered a profession.
Hayes: Is some of this a factor of size because there’s so many more lawyers today in Wilmington? I mean what is the bar like today? Do they meet, do they not meet?
Williams: The bar meets. It has quarterly meetings. I haven’t attended one in ages. They have nothing to offer me. The change came about principally when the Supreme Court of the United States in its infinite wisdom ruled that you could not have bar fee schedules, you could not have a set bar fee schedule and that lawyers could advertise. That was the beginning of the end for professionalism in the law practice.
Hayes: So you’re uncertain what you would say to the person today.
Williams: I would try to encourage him if that’s what he indicated he was interested in doing, I would do my best to encourage him. But if he simply said, “I’m trying to think of a career. I want to pick out a career. What do you think about law”. Then I would tell him some of the same things I’ve just told you.
Hayes: To open their eyes. As a profession, you must have a sense that this was about helping people. Are you proud of the people that you’ve helped. I mean you’ve told us both humorous and serious stories, but in each case to that person, they were the most important thing at the time in their life.
Williams: They were and I am very proud that I’ve helped a lot of people. I don’t put my name out as being open for charitable work because I select my charitable work when it comes in. I have helped a lot of widows. Frank Haynes, I got paid something, but I didn't get paid what the charges should have been for somebody like Frank Hayes, but that was a joy. He made me, you say you don’t know what to do with those dolls, you should give them to me.
He made me two dolls from, gosh, my memory is terrible, but there’s a famous cartoon, it’s two dead lawyers, the name escapes me. He made me one of those figures from one of those paintings. I’ll think of it.
Haas: Was it Domier?
Williams: That’s it.
Haas: Cause we have one given to me, but we were looking in Germany and we took it to have it framed and the framer said, “Where did you get that” because it’s signed. That’s what he said. We’ve never really had it looked at again. I thought just might be worth a lot of money (laughter).
Williams: I’ve got a book of Domier’s stuff and some other prints of Domier’s and he did these figures from one of those paintings which I treasure very much. Just worth a lot more than any fee I could have gotten.
Hayes: Well listen, we want to thank you very much. It’s been an excellent interview. Future generations are really going to appreciate hearing your wisdom.
Williams: I appreciate it very much.