A Lawyer Who Sticks to His Ribs

Bill Needle likes the law. But he loves barbecue

Published in 2005 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2005

Sitting in Harold’s Barbecue, Bill Needle is in his element. Arrayed before him is that classic Southern lunch — chopped pork barbecue sandwich, coleslaw and sweet iced tea. Can life get any better than this? 
 
Well, some ribs maybe, but hey, it’s only lunch.
 
Needle is an intellectual property lawyer and the founder of Needle & Rosenberg, a law firm in Atlanta with 31 legal professionals. His hobby? Judging barbecue contests.
 
“Let me deconstruct this pork,” Needle says, lifting the bread. “I like chopped barbecue because there’s more surface area for the sauce.” He points to a tiny blackened fleck of barbecue. “The hard carcinogenic parts give it that crunchiness,” he laughs.
 
Crowded as usual this day, Harold’s is hallowed ground for barbecue in Atlanta. Opened in 1947, it’s a blue-collar joint in a frumpy southside neighborhood, with burglar bars on the windows, wood-paneled walls and red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. A sign by the cash register reads “Oh, Lord, let my words be gracious and tender today, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”
 
“Harold’s is high on my list of favorite places,” Needle says. A man given to wry observations, Needle points to the ceiling. “It took a long time to put all that grease up there.” A print on the wall of two pigs nuzzling snouts draws this comment: “That was the before picture.”
 
Tellingly, Harold’s is often part of the lawyer selection process at Needle & Rosenberg. It’s where partners take applicants to eat.
 
“Another law firm might go to The Ritz-Carlton,” says Needle, whose clients include the Cabbage Patch Kid doll company. “We’re less stuffy, so we go to Harold’s. If the prospect holds the silverware up to the light and wipes it with a napkin, we just shake our heads. We know that person isn’t for us.”
 
The 59-year-old Needle grew up around barbecue, the South Carolina version that features a mustard-based sauce, as opposed to North Carolina’s vinegary concoction or the ketchup-based Georgia version. His father ran the family clothing store in Charleston, and Needle can slip into a Low Country accent with nary a hitch in his conversational stride.
 
“The closer I get to Charleston, the thicker the accent becomes,” he says. Trips to Charleston invariably involve stopping at Maurice’s Piggie Park, a famed barbecue establishment off I-26 in Columbia.
 
Midwesterners barbecue beef — Kansas City is the acknowledged capital of that culinary territory. Southerners barbecue pork, and Memphis is their ground zero.
 
“Beef barbecue really isn’t barbecue,” says Needle. “Look, we don’t judge barbecued chicken either, and everybody barbecues chicken, including myself. I realize a large segment of the country believes beef barbecue is barbecue. I may want to run for president one day, so I won’t disparage those folks.”
 
A pause. “But they don’t know what real barbecue is,” he says.
 
Needle took up judging in 2002 when a fellow lawyer/barbecue fanatic urged him to get training/certification through an organization called Memphis in May, which sponsors barbecue contests throughout the South. He took a daylong training course, passed a test and became a judge.
 
“It was the only way people would ever call me judge,” says Needle.
 
Though relatively new to the barbecue bench, Needle can parse a pig with the best of them. Competitive barbecuers cook the meat overnight in often elaborate coal- or wood-fired rigs (gas is verboten) that can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. The judging process is intricate (categories include whole pig, ribs and shoulders), which suits this one-time Georgia Tech chemistry student just fine.
 
“You want the meat to easily peel from the bone,” says Needle. “If it falls off, it’s been cooked too long.”
 
Law firm partner Sumner Rosenberg says Needle has taken him “to almost every barbecue joint in the Southeast.” A native of St. Paul, Minn., Rosenberg is an admitted heretic south of the Mason-Dixon.
 
“Bill and I have our differences,” he says. “I’m still mainly a beef barbecue person. I’m also a ketchup man, while he likes the mustard-based sauce. Well, when you deal with dolls for a living, as he does, you have to have some odd view of life, in order to take things where they need to go.”
 
This day Needle is looking forward to the Big Pig Jig, a massive barbecue contest held each fall in Vienna, Ga. “I had some of the best ribs I’ve ever tasted at last year’s event, which was a blast,” says Needle, one of a host of judges for a crowded field of contestants.
 
“Besides the food, I love the people and the atmosphere of barbecue contests,” he says. “These folks travel around the country competing, and they’re really fun to be around. It’s a true subculture — like NASCAR fans or Harley-Davidson fanatics.”
 
Needle has passed his love of barbecue on to his family. He and wife Valerie have four daughters, ages 19 to 34. Daughter Jennifer once wrote a college paper on barbecue of the South.
 
Later, when she was pregnant with Needle’s first grandchild, she made a point of stopping at Piggie Park one day.
 
“She wanted my granddaughter to absorb barbecue in utero,” Needle says. Now 5 years old, Josie enjoys a bit of pig properly prepared.
 
“Things are coming right along,” Needle says.
 
There are many subtle tests in any marriage. Not long ago the Needles were driving back from Charleston. Nearing the Piggie Park exit, Needle made a point of not uttering a word, a painful tactic for any attorney.
 
Finally, Valerie said, “Aren’t we going to stop for barbecue?”
 
Replied Bill, “This is why I married you.”
 
Bill’s Can’t-Miss Barbecue & Southern Food Picks
1. Maurice’s Piggie Park — COLUMBIA, S.C.
2. Harold’s Barbecue—ATLANTA
3. Colonnade — ATLANTA
4. Silver Grill — ATLANTA
5. Silver Skillet — ATLANTA
6. Barbecue Kitchen — COLLEGE PARK, GA.
7. Carver’s Grocery — ATLANTA
8. PJ’s Full Moon Barbecue — BIRMINGHAM
9. Smokin’ Stokes — GREENVILLE, S.C.
10. Tops Barbecue — MEMPHIS

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