The Pros of Giving Back
Four North Carolina attorneys share their thoughts on the importance of pro bono work
Published in 2007 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
By Toni Klym McLellan on January 22, 2007
If given a poll on a what motivates a student to go into the legal profession, which choice would garner more responses: “Earn BMWs full of money” or “Contribute to your community”? Modern public perception of attorneys might prompt more votes for the former than the latter, especially for those of us who grew up watching legal dramas filled with glamorous television and movie stars. The public was exposed weekly to the likes of sexy Harry Hamlin jumping into a sleek black sports car in which a leggy blonde awaited.
Four North Carolina top attorneys dare to defy that image by quietly doing good work on behalf of others.
When not traveling to wild places like Glacier National Park to hike with his wife, Myrtie, William K. Davis, a partner at the Winston-Salem office of Bell, Davis & Pitt, spends as much time as possible with his three children and seven grandchildren, all of whom reside in North Carolina. The rest of his time goes toward running his busy law practice and serving his community. Davis says he’s simply following the example of attorneys he observed as a child, for whom giving back to the community was something everyone simply did without question or fanfare.
Davis works with The Enrichment Center, serving two years as chairman of the board. The Enrichment Center is a local organization that enriches the lives of adults who have physical and/or mental disabilities. “There are lots of resources to support this population when they’re children, but not as many once they reach adulthood,” says Davis. That’s where The Enrichment Center comes in. “It’s a place very much like a senior center, with music and art programs and computers,” he says. Davis also volunteers huge blocks of time in February and July to grade bar exams with North Carolina’s Board of Law Examiners. “What I do down there can have a big effect on someone’s future, and I’m very conscientious about it,” he says. When asked how volunteering has influenced his paid work, Davis responds without hesitation. “I don’t even think about it; I don’t see it as a sacrifice, because I’m doing what I want to do.”
Passing Along Opportunity
Loretta Biggs was similarly inspired at a young age to give to others. Raised by a divorced mother who supported four children, Biggs says her mother “always taught us that if we were given opportunities, we were also obligated to give others opportunities.”
Biggs took that advice to heart, using her professional opportunities to help others in need. A former North Carolina appellate court judge and current partner with Davis & Harwell in Winston-Salem, she also worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where she successfully coordinated crime prevention and reduction efforts in the middle district of North Carolina. While serving on the bench, Biggs focused on the juvenile arena, “because I felt we could impact lives and assist young people to have opportunities they might not otherwise have,” she says. That work led to numerous volunteer speaking engagements at local schools. “There is not a school in Forsyth County that has asked me to speak that I have turned down,” she says.
Biggs currently volunteers as an appointee on two commissions formed by the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court: the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism and the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission. “I do absolutely believe that our system of justice must be transparent, it must be open, and we must ensure that we all have the opportunity to obtain justice,” she says. Biggs is proud to see the cycle of giving her mother started come full circle: Both of her grown children are currently working toward careers that provide help to those in need.
Helping—One Person at a Time
Judy D. Thompson takes a face-to-face approach to giving back, through mentoring fellow professionals and working one-on-one with individuals. A partner with the Charlotte firm Poyner & Spruill, Thompson works from a nearby mountaintop home she designed herself, complete with home office, guest quarters and a pottery/art studio.
It’s there that neighbors and relatives know to find her. “One of my neighbors knows I’m a lawyer, and [she] knocked on the door asking for help with an elderly friend of hers,” she says. So Thompson, a bankruptcy and commercial litigation attorney, is now working to help this woman ensure the future of her adult daughter, who suffers from bipolar disorder. In another recent instance, her niece, who teaches at an alternative school for troubled youth, asked for legal help and support for a student facing some legal and financial problems. “I’ve participated in many formal pro bono programs,” says Thompson, “And while they serve a great purpose, there are so many people out there who don’t know how to connect to those programs. So, I have found lately that I do more good by working directly with individuals,” she says.
Thompson also spends considerable time mentoring young female professionals as chair of the International Women’s Insolvency and Restructuring Confederation (IWIRC) of the Carolinas. IWIRC is an organization for women working in the area of insolvency, including accountants, bankruptcy attorneys, appraisers and lenders. The mentoring groups discuss what Thompson calls “the inevitable conversation of life balance,” and “the dynamics of the adversarial process and how women maybe have special skills that they can take advantage of, as opposed to the traditional male approach.”
Attracting Special Crowds
“I always had the notion growing up that I would have a career that was public-service oriented,” says Leslie C. O’Toole, a partner with Raleigh firm Ellis & Winters. “I became a lawyer in a rather traditional private-practice setting, which still left me with the desire to give back to the community in some fashion, and working with the Special Olympics was a natural fit for me.”
Currently chair emeritus of Special Olympics North Carolina, O’Toole started out in 1999 by working with a committee charged with attracting the Special Olympics World Games to her home state. Her involvement blossomed from there—O’Toole asked her firm at the time to provide some necessary legal work pro bono, and it did. As a member of the organizing committee, O’Toole was invited to march in the opening ceremonies for the World Games, which are patterned after the original Olympic games. “Seeing how excited these athletes were as we entered this big football stadium filled to capacity, and everybody was there to see them and cheer on their events—it was thrilling,” she says.
“They always say in Special Olympics that once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life,” says O’Toole, who has proven that axiom true. “Basically, you always want to be involved in some way,” she says. “It’s not just a sports experience,” says the two-time marathon runner. “A lot of these athletes end up learning communication skills, friendship and social-relationship skills.”
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