Antitrust: Larry Sitton

By Lisa Davis

In 1999, other tobacco companies sued New York-based Philip Morris USA for antitrust violations, claiming its cigarette marketing squelched competition. At stake were hundreds of millions of dollars — and the way tobacco companies do retail merchandising, according to Joe Murillo, Philip Morris’ vice president and associate general counsel.

Philip Morris hired Larry Sitton, a partner at Smith Moore LLP in Greensboro. Working as co-counsel with antitrust lawyer David Boies, Sitton handled many of the hearings in federal court, deftly questioning witnesses. “He had such a great rapport with our business executives,” Murillo says.

After three years of wrangling, the court granted Philip Morris’ motion for summary judgment. The decision was upheld on appeal. It was a high-profile victory for the cigarette maker and for Sitton, but he couldn’t help feeling a bit wistful. “That was good news for the client,” he says, “but it would have been fun to try it.”

After 37 years as a lawyer, Sitton still likes nothing better than being in a courtroom. “I don’t think it’s possible to make him look uncomfortable in a courtroom,” partner Stephen Earp says, “and he speaks in a melodious voice. The result is, he is 100% trustworthy.”

That credibility has cemented Sitton’s status as a go-to guy for North Carolina companies in big lawsuits. His clients have included Greensboro-based insurer Jefferson-Pilot, which faced a proxy fight a decade ago, and Charlotte-based Bank of America. He’s also one of the lawyers representing the Atlantic Coast Conference in its litigation with the Big East over the ACC’s expansion. “I’m involved as a kind of senior litigator,” Sitton says. “I’m simply there to do whatever it is you do when you get old and have gray hair and have experienced a lot of things.”

One thing he does, he says, is pass on to younger colleagues the idea that you don’t have to be “the meanest guy in town” to be effective. He proves it in his own work, says Greensboro lawyer Jim Williams, who has known Sitton since their days at Wake Forest University and has worked both with and against him. “The Larry you see in the courtroom is the Larry you see in meetings, the Larry you see over lunch.”

Sitton didn’t grow up wanting to be a lawyer. He worked in his father’s butcher shop in Asheville, and though it had its perks — “I do know what a good steak looks like” — he aimed to do something else for a living. Money was tight after his father died in a car crash. But Sitton won a scholarship to Wake Forest and then to its law school.

After a two-year stint as a military-police officer in Germany, he returned to Winston-Salem to clerk for a U.S. District Court judge, then settled in at Smith Moore Smith Schell & Hunter, predecessor to his present firm. The firm put Sitton to work representing insurance companies, and he quickly honed his skills. “You would try cases over property damage, a fender bender. I got a lot of trial experience because back then, in the late ’60s, everything was tried.”

As president of the North Carolina Bar Association in 1998-99, Sitton had a hand in promoting the state’s business court. He also led a bar association task force that surveyed North Carolina lawyers and found that 25% had symptoms of depression and 11% contemplated suicide once a month.

Sitton, who suffered his own bout with depression in 1980, recommended making free, confidential counseling available. “He helped the entire bar come to understand much better the stresses rampant in the profession and gave us tools to deal with it,” Earp says. “That’s made a huge impact on the bar and the state.”