Q&A with Charles Becton

Published in 2009 North Carolina Super Lawyers — February 2009

Charles Becton takes nothing for granted. Consider his first words as he reached the podium to accept the presidency of the North Carolina Bar Association last summer: "Thirty-two steps! I counted them, and I wish everybody could have walked those 32 steps in my shoes. It is both the most glorious and most humbling of experiences to be escorted to this room, to this stage." Here, the Becton Slifkin & Bell personal injury attorney discusses coming of age during the civil rights movement, finding his way through law school and reaching the capstone of his career.

 

What drew you to law?

I decided as a 10-year-old kid that I wanted to be a politician, and the best way to do that was to be a lawyer. I knew that I needed to go to college and professional school to get out of rural eastern North Carolina, where many of my friends had grown up and had not gotten much past high school.

 

Did you have a role model growing up?

There were no lawyer role models. There were no black lawyers I knew of at all. The professional blacks in the '50s were either public school teachers or ministers. I understood that scattered around the state were black lawyers, and I knew a black doctor and dentist worked in a town about 10 miles from mine, but I did not know any lawyers.

 

What do you know today about the practice of law that you didn't coming out of law school?

I went through college and law school never having witnessed a trial or court proceedings. I had many classmates whose fathers and grandfathers were lawyers and who talked law around the breakfast table. I spent half my first semester in Black's Law Dictionary trying to figure out legal terms that my classmates were very conversant with. They may have watched their parents or relatives practice, but I did not have that. ... So I came out of law school having never really been in a courtroom and having no real appreciation for the advocacy skills that I needed.

 

What are your goals as president of the North Carolina Bar Association?

My initiative this year is to do things that will enhance the image of the profession. I think the best way to do that is through education, service and professionalism—I call it ESPN (Education Service Professionalism Now). I've asked every member to identify and denounce a particularly egregious injustice, and then come up with a response to that injustice. ... Edmond Cahn said in his 1949 book The Sense of Injustice that "Justice can't be defined. People always argue about its meaning. Justice merely causes contemplation." Injustice, he said, is different. It causes offense; it stirs people to action. It makes us want to right a wrong. So, part of my effort is to change the bar association's focus from seeking justice to stamping out injustice.

 

Do you feel that you've faced discrimination in your career?

None to my face ... but I've seen racism in cases I've tried. I tried a very high-profile case [in 1973] in which the first black police officer in a very small, rural town, in his first week on the job, ended up shooting and killing a prominent white businessperson in town, who was reputed to be the head of the Klan there. We tried a wonderful case and it was pretty clear to the judge that we had a shot at a not-guilty verdict, which we got. I was told the judge was getting phone calls saying, "If that n— gets off, nobody is going to leave town alive." So the judge had 13 highway patrolmen line the courtroom when the verdict was announced. We [the defense lawyers] and the defendant were given a highway patrol escort, not just out of town, but out of that county and through the next county.

 

How do you unwind after work?

There was a time when listening to music was all I needed—you couldn't come in my house any time of day or night when there wasn't music playing. Now cooking and watching college basketball are the things I enjoy most.

 

Are you looking forward to retirement?

I've said for the last five years that I only have five years left, and even now I'm saying I've got five years left. I hope to retire before then, but the problem is I'd be bored stiff unless I did something. I'm certain I will always teach trial advocacy skills. But I do need to slow down and unwind.

 

How would you like to be remembered?

As someone who did what he could to help his fellow man and tried to leave this place better than how I found it.

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