Business Law: J. Norfleet Pruden III

By Laura Williams-Tracy

The first thing you notice is the name — J. Norfleet Pruden III. It evokes thoughts of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. And though Pruden moves among the most complicated nuances of business law instead of defending human rights, his peers say he manages it with Finch’s gentlemanly nature and knack for putting all sides at ease.

A partner in the Charlotte firm of Kennedy Covington Lobdell & Hickman LLP, Pruden is this year’s top business lawyer. But colleagues say the corporate boardroom isn’t the only place he’s comfortable. “I took him to the Center barbecue, and he fit right in,” says Hank Van Hoy, who before a golf outing took Pruden to a yearly fall event at Center Baptist Church in rural Davie County. “People probably thought he could put on bluejeans and haul hay. He is stunningly brilliant but as much among the common folk as anyone can be.”

Though the two don’t cross paths in their legal work — Van Hoy’s practice in Mocksville more closely resembles Finch’s, while Pruden works on the 47th floor of the second-tallest building in the state — they met when Van Hoy became president of the North Carolina Bar Association in 2001. Pruden was set to succeed him a year later.

The law and Southern charm run deep in the Pruden family. He grew up in Edenton, one of the oldest towns in the state. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were lawyers. The family’s law office was across the street from the courthouse, the oldest one still in use in North Carolina.

Pruden attended UNC Chapel Hill as a Morehead Scholar, majoring in history because he enjoyed research and writing. Those talents lent themselves to a career as a journalist, professor or lawyer. Pruden was drawn to the lawyer’s better salary. After graduating from law school, he took a job with Kennedy Covington in Charlotte. His salary the first year was $12,000.

In the years since, he has gained broad experience in business law. He now focuses on mergers and acquisitions, securities law, private equity and general corporate representation. “Even though something may be pretty cut-and-dried and numbers-oriented, it’s really about the people and learning what’s important to them.”

For Cary Findlay, what was important was remaining part of the deal. In 1986, Pruden helped him purchase the home-trimmings business of Fort Mill, S.C.-based Springs Industries. Over the next 14 years, Pruden helped structure deals as Findlay bought 14 other companies of various sizes to add to the conglomerate that became Union, S.C.-based Conso International. Pruden helped take the company public in 1993 and assisted Findlay when the company was sold to senior management and taken private in 2000. “A lot of lawyers have a tendency to take over a deal,” says Findlay, who now lives in Florida. “He realizes the business owner must make the final decisions.”

Business lawyers, Pruden says, should facilitate transactions, not make them harder. He puts a premium on making sure all sides get along. “We lawyers get a reputation for being disputatious. I tend to get along with my fellow lawyers.” Peter Buck, business lawyer with Charlotte-based Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, says he’s always happy to see Pruden on the opposite side of the conference table. “He tries as hard as anybody to understand both sides and has a civility that you don’t always see. If there is a deal to be done, Norfleet will move heaven and earth to get it done.”