Whether representing Fortune 500 companies or mentoring young lawyers, W. Ray Persons has the debonair, confident presence of a Nat King Cole
Published in 2007 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 16, 2007
Updated on August 20, 2015
The expansive view from W. Ray Persons’ 36th-floor corner office is not one he could have glimpsed growing up in a small town in the segregated South. The floor-to-ceiling windows allow Persons, a partner at King & Spalding, to look out on the adjacent skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta, the lush greenery of Piedmont Park, and, 20 miles to the east, the silhouette of Stone Mountain—the Georgia landmark where the Ku Klux Klan reorganized after the Civil War.
Persons, whose practice focuses on complex litigation, including class actions and mass torts, is a debonair, confident presence. A much sought-after defendant of big business—winning cases for the likes of tobacco conglomerates, utilities and other Fortune 500 companies—he has served as lead counsel in more than 50 jury trials and is a member of the International Society of Barristers, a law honor society limited to 600 trial lawyers and barristers.
Then there’s his pro bono work. He recently volunteered to represent a white Ku Klux Klan member in prison, who complained of being beaten up by African Americans. “He seemed a little surprised when he found out who would be representing him,” Persons says, smiling. “The guards turned their backs and let people pummel him within an inch of his life. It ought not to be happening in the prison.”
M. Gino Brogdon Sr., a partner in the Atlanta office of Alston & Bird, has lost to Persons in court. “He is a trial lawyer extraordinaire,” Brogdon says. “Ray is like 25-year-old liquor. You don’t know that it’s got you until about six drinks in, when you can’t get out of your seat. He’s that smooth.”
“Ray has the suavity of Nat King Cole, both in his appearance and mannerisms,” agrees C. Neal Pope, a friend and fellow lawyer in Columbus. “Not only is he the consummate lawyer, he’s just very comfortable in his own skin. When he rubs shoulders with the justices of the Supreme Court, he’s the one who puts them at ease.”
While Persons feels he was born to be a lawyer, he adds, “A lot of people assume I came into the world wearing a Brooks Brothers suit. They’re surprised when they hear otherwise.”
He was born in 1953 in Talbot County, an impoverished area of Georgia, on the border of Alabama, where his grandparents lived. “My grandfather was one of the few black men at the time who owned a farm. He was as poor as Job’s turkey, but proud. He instilled that pride in my mother, and she instilled it in us,” says Persons, referring to his three younger siblings.
Persons’ father, William, was serving in Korea when Persons was born, so his mother, Frances, lived with her parents. The family later joined his father when he was posted in Fort Hood, Texas. The kids would pile into the back of the two-door Ford for the drive across the Deep South, to visit relatives back in Georgia and Alabama. “My father would wear his sergeant’s uniform the whole way to distinguish himself, in the hopes we wouldn’t be harassed by the police or some other white guys,” Persons recalls. “We’d have to sleep in the car, because there were no hotels for colored people. My mother would not go to sleep, she was so afraid some marauders or Klansmen would come upon us. It was only much later that I understood how bad that all was.”
Persons was 8 when the Army transferred his father to Fort Stewart, and the family settled in nearby Hinesville, about 40 miles south of Savannah. His mother decided she wanted her children to have stability and a sense of place, and so the family remained behind when William served overseas.
Persons became the man of the house, helping his mother with his younger siblings, repairing leaky pipes and taking care of the yard. His mother believed in order, discipline and dressing well, qualities that Persons readily embraced. “I remember my first day of school, I wore a bow tie and a white shirt,” he recalls. “I managed to spill chocolate milk all over the damn thing.”
He wasn’t just a precocious dresser; he also had a flair for oratory. From the time he was in second grade, teachers and church leaders called on Persons to give speeches at assemblies, leading him to briefly consider becoming a preacher. “A black man in a role of authority, wearing fine clothes, administering to the flock and taking care of people. That appealed to me,” he says. “But I wasn’t particularly fond of going to church as a kid.”
Instead, he found his calling when he was in 10th grade and a young African-American lawyer and civil rights leader named Bobby Lee Hill spoke at his school. “He had just gotten elected to the state Legislature—the first black state legislator from Savannah since Reconstruction. He was so dynamic, articulate, facile. He blew me away!” Persons says. “He had worked for the NAACP. I thought, ‘There’s someone who looks like me who’s doing things. I want to be involved like that. That’s what I want to do.’”
He gives his mother credit for further fueling his ambition. “No one in our family had ever even gone to college, but my mother always said, ‘Whatever you aspire to, you can do.’ And I took that to heart,” he says.
After graduating from high school, Persons attended Ohio State University, where he boarded in a Jewish fraternity house. “There was a big anti-war movement going on at the time and ROTC and fraternities were really frowned upon, so they needed people,” Persons explains. “I’m very open and I liked all the guys in the fraternity. They studied a lot. They were cool.”
The cost of out-of-state tuition soon ate up Persons’ meager savings, so he returned to Georgia, where he enrolled in Armstrong State College in Savannah. He worked evenings and weekends at a local supermarket, and one summer he returned to Ohio, staying with a cousin in an inner-city housing project, learning about black urban life while selling encyclopedias door to door in the white suburbs of Cleveland.
“I sold a lot of books that summer,” he says. “I learned that I had to first sell myself when I entered a home, to people who were in many ways foreign to me. I liked the people so much in the Midwest. I remember these little old ladies would offer me some lemonade or a piece of pie. Even if they weren’t going to buy anything, they made me feel so welcome. They couldn’t have been more gracious.”
After getting his bachelor’s degree, Persons entered Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law, where he received a Cleveland Bar Association scholarship. While still a student, he met William Knepper, a leading Ohio litigator, who offered Persons a chance to gain experience in his firm. “William Knepper had more influence than any other lawyer over how my career turned out,” says Persons. “He could do it all. He was a stand-up trial lawyer, but he could also write legal textbooks and chair the United Way campaign. He was so multifaceted and involved with the community. He imbued me with a sense of mission, treating the law like a calling.”
Knepper, White, Arter & Hadden had never hired a minority, Persons says, adding that he didn’t feel like he was breaking the color barrier. “It was just, you’ve got talent and we’re putting you to work,” Persons says. “There was a swagger and an esprit de corps in that office because these were some of the best trial lawyers in town. Boy, could they try a case. That gave me my spark.”
The experience also transformed Persons’ attitudes about the social power structure. “Big business was the clientele of that firm, and I realized that it was not evil incarnate,” he says. “I did a lot of growing up and realized that you can still be a good person and represent big business. There are two sides to every story.”
After completing law school, Persons returned to Georgia with his new bride, Wendy, a native of Trinidad who grew up in Ohio. His first position with an Atlanta law firm was not in litigation, and Persons soon realized that he missed the courtroom and switched jobs.
“I like the adrenaline rush you get when you’re preparing to go to court,” he says. “It’s a lot like sports, it’s competitive, and there’s a lot of drama involved.”
Neal Pope met Persons in 1989 when Persons was head of litigation at Atlanta’s Arrington & Hollowell. Although Pope is 14 years older than Persons, he said he quickly learned to respect the younger man. “Ray is exceptionally knowledgeable in the law, and I don’t just mean in reading books. I’m talking about the complete art of representing a client. He’d be the first person I’d call if I needed someone to represent me for a legal problem,” Pope says.
Persons served as Gino Brogdon’s mentor when Brogdon joined Arrington & Hollowell around the same time. A few years later, after Brogdon had switched firms, he tried a case against Persons. “He beat the pants off me,” Brogdon says. “That’s probably a kind way of saying it. Ray beats people by his supreme knowledge of the facts of the case and he’s so sweet about eviscerating you. You sit there being autopsied and you feel good about it.”
In 1996, Brogdon was appointed a Superior Court judge for Fulton County; Persons appeared before him later that year as plaintiff’s counsel for the survivors of a family that died in the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Everglades. “Ray distills complex information for a judge in a way that few lawyers can do,” Brogdon says. “He’s also very efficient with time. He only says just what needs to be said, but he’s such a master of the language, when he talks it’s almost like there’s background music to it.”
Persons gives a more modest assessment of his courtroom talents. “Years ago I would have told you that my big weapon was my oratory skills,” he says. “[But] people don’t pay that much attention to narrative now. You’ve got to be creative and very good at communicating visually. With the help of consultants and younger lawyers, I think I’ve gotten good at visual presentation.”
Five years ago, Persons joined King & Spalding, which has a reputation for hiring top trial lawyers. Today, Persons is lead trial counsel for Union Carbide Corporation in cases alleging workplace exposure to vinyl chloride monomer, and he represents an international manufacturer in a suit brought by welders who claim toxic exposure to manganese released from welding rods.
Persons’ track record includes successfully representing a Fortune 500 company in more than a dozen catastrophic injury and wrongful-death cases, and winning a favorable settlement for the operator of the nation’s largest petroleum pipeline in a case brought by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I don’t see the contradiction,” Persons says, when asked how someone from his background could choose to become a champion of corporate interests. “I see the good that’s done by so many of these companies—their involvement in the community and how generous they are. They provide jobs, benefits, donations. There are places in Northern Ohio that would give anything to have the kind of thriving business environment we have here.”
The fees Persons earns from representing such clients also give him the power to make a difference, he adds. Persons and his wife have endowed a scholarship to Moritz College of Law, named in honor of their two adult children. The commencement speech Persons recently gave at Moritz was titled “The Sacred Calling,” referring to the responsibility lawyers have in society.
Persons practices what he preaches. He serves on the board of the Tommy Nobis Foundation, which provides job training for people with disabilities, and is involved with the Academy of Justice, a project aimed at teaching inner-city youth about the justice system. “It’s a holistic approach to get these kids interested in learning,” he says. “You have to volunteer to help mentor them, spend time with them after school, teach them social skills and get them involved.” He’s also president-elect of the Atlanta Bar Association and a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Teaching and presenting seminars make up another big investment of his time. Persons taught trial advocacy on Saturdays for 10 years at Georgia State University College of Law and since 1992 has been a master in the Lamar Inn of Court at Emory University Law School. He says he gets his greatest satisfaction from mentoring new lawyers, especially minorities.
“They call me up for advice and I do the best I can to give them the benefit of my experiences, things that have and haven’t worked for me,” Persons says. “It’s nice for them to have somebody to turn to whose path hasn’t been paid for.”