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From the Courtroom to the Boardroom

(August 8, 2019 – William Bray)  My first job in law was as Assistant Solicitor for the 16th Judicial Circuit in South Carolina. For those unfamiliar with South Carolina legal jargon, I was a prosecutor. In many states a rookie district attorney would handle speeding tickets and guilty pleas for misdemeanor offenses. But not in York County. By the time I left for the boring world of insurance defense in 1996, I had been lead counsel in more than 40 felony-level jury trials. Seriously.

Many of those were in the world of drugs. Crack distribution, undercover informants, videotape stings. I was tagging along on midnight raids within six months. Those were pretty cool times for a 26 year-old lawyer, when most of my friends were drafting workers’ compensation clinchers at $90 per hour.

Financially, working for the state isn’t the best gig so I took a job in a mid-size insurance defense firm which promised me similar courtroom experience. I was a trial junky by this point and didn’t want to give it up. And they were true to their word, in my year there I was lead counsel in 10 jury trials. These weren’t major medical malpractice suits, don’t get me wrong. More like soft-tissue defense, plus one pretty interesting products liability case. But I was in front of real juries, arguing real motions and on my own, every step of the way.  Insurance defense was not my cup of tea, and soon thereafter I had hung a shingle with a buddy from the Solicitor’s Office and we were criminal defense attorneys – which was a tough adjustment. My first trial against my old office resulted in a client being sentenced to 45 years in prison (when I had negotiated a 10-year sentence that he refused). The buzz of trial work quickly began wearing off.

At the same time, and as a small-town (Rock Hill, SC) attorney, it was rare to turn down a paying client. One day, a sports marketing firm asked me to help draw up a contract. And the rest is history (just kidding, not really).  That phone call in 1999 led me down a path of more than ten years, during which my transactional practice slowly built up – and during which my litigation practice slowly became less of my daily life. Growing a firm and adding partners who could handle my litigation was a necessary component of evolving into a full-time transactional and corporate attorney. But more important to that process was my conscious decision to ultimately make it happen.

So nowadays I sit at my desk, on calls or in client meetings and discuss deals. Once discussed, I negotiate them and then write them up. Not quite the heady days of sketching out closing arguments and guzzling black coffee by the gallon while waiting on jury verdicts, but somehow more to my liking.

I’m now nearing my 26th anniversary as a lawyer, and those days in the courtroom have made me an infinitely better corporate attorney. I know from experience the cost of litigation, and I’m not just talking about money. I’m talking about emotional capital, opportunity costs and litigation fatigue. My clients hear from me a perspective they can’t often get from other transactional, corporate or business attorneys. I’ve been bloodied in courtroom battles and know whereof I speak.

Yes, there are times when I wonder where I might be now, had I chosen the transactional law path immediately upon graduating from law school in 1993. But that (almost) decade in front of juries is perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me – and my clients – as I sit here in 2019.