Have Barbecue, Will Travel

James Early and the universal bonding agent

Published in 2006 North Carolina Super Lawyers — February 2006

The brochure for the 2001 Kentucky Bar Association convention says it all. Two of the speakers’ photographs are corporate headshots of bland guys wearing gray suits, starched shirts and stiff smiles. Then there’s the picture of Jim Early, who was in Kentucky to speak about ethics. Grinning and wearing an aviator’s head-set in an army Black Hawk helicopter, Early is clearly not thinking about jurisprudence.
 
Early, 66, limits his legal practice to around 35 hours a week, 40 weeks a year on average. A sole practitioner in Winston-Salem, he specializes in medical and legal malpractice, personal injury and general corporate work, with a special niche representing doctors in “covenants not to compete.” His work on several noncompete cases set North Carolina precedent, such as the landmark case Iredell Digestive Disease Clinic v. Joseph A. Petrozza v. David G. Kogut. He is also one of the first certified mediators in North Carolina.
 
But Early would much rather talk about extracurricular activities. His passions include flying, fishing, horses, boats, painting, writing, cooking, speaking, English hunting dogs and travel. Early has also taught Sunday School for more than 17 years and has served his church in almost every capacity except minister. He spends 20 hours a week preparing presentations and speeches that he gives at regional, national and international seminars, like the one in Kentucky.
 
Then there’s the barbecue.
 
Born in Henderson, N.C., about 30 miles north of Raleigh, the young Early took a liking to one of the state’s treasures. While his father’s side of the family saw eating as simply fueling up for a day’s work, his mother’s side saw it as a celebration replete with storytelling. More often than not, the main dish was Eastern North Carolina pork barbecue — essentially a slow-cooked pig (eight to 12 hours), chopped up and basted with a vinegar-based sauce and served with such local delicacies as Brunswick Stew, cole slaw and corn bread.
 
To Early, barbecue is a lot more than chopped pork.
 
“Barbecue joints and places were, and are, gathering places,” says Early. “Barbecue is a universal bonding agent. It brings people of all socio-economic levels together.”
 
Such is Early’s passion that he has written an exhaustive guide: The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy. Early estimates he spent 3,000 hours researching and 25,000 miles driving before writing a word. He visited each of North Carolina’s 100 counties, inspected 228 candidates and selected just 140 as worthy of being in the book. To be a candidate, a place had to cook its own meat and make its own sauce. In the book, Early describes everything about a place from cooking methods to restaurant décor.
 
Now he’s spreading the word. In June 2003, Early and noted “pitmaster” Ed Mitchell from Wilson, N.C., carted 10 wholehog cookers up to New York City and cooked eight pigs every eight hours, eventually feeding 7,000 barbecue-deficient New Yorkers at a block party that closed 27th Street from Park Avenue to Lexington. He made a point to educate as many as possible about the intricacies of North Carolina barbecue. In response, many told him about an aunt or uncle they’d visit in the Tar Heel state and the mandatory trip to the local barbecue joint — which Early, of course, knew all about. It was the universal bonding agent at work.
 
North Carolina-based Branch Banking and Trust sponsored The Best Tar Heel Barbecue, and its purpose — besides the obvious — is to raise funds for Special Olympics in North Carolina, just one of the many nonprofits to which Early devotes time and energy. He’s also one of the founders and chairs of the North Carolina Bar Association Lawyers Effectiveness and Quality of Life Committee.
 
“I don’t talk about stress management because that implies there’s a limit, and any time you talk about limits to lawyers, they will push themselves to find them,” he says. “So I talk about balance and how to get to that good place where they can attain their professional goals and enjoy a full and happy life.”
 
Ideally, with some barbecue on the side.

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