Litigation: Gary S. Parsons

By Kathy Brown

Do not watch Law and Order with Gary Parsons. He will pick apart the hit show’s courtroom procedures, criticize the cross-examinations and point out things real lawyers would never get away with. “People think as a trial lawyer you walk into a courtroom with a thin briefcase, flip it up and talk off the top of your head. That is not the way it works.”

The reality, he says, is spending eight to 10 hours preparing outside the courtroom for each hour spent before a jury. “I’m never more comfortable than when I go to trial and find I’ve got cases to cite that the other side never looked for.”

His clients tend to be manufacturers defending liability claims involving, for example, pharmaceutical, automotive and asbestos products. He also represents businesses and insurers in commercial-insurance disputes and defends lawyers against malpractice claims. “If I were in trouble, he is the lawyer I would call for help,” says Gray Wilson, president of the North Carolina Bar Association and a partner with Wilson & Iseman in Winston-Salem. “He is the guy every other lawyer brings in after a disaster has occurred because he has the legal wherewithal to turn it around and put the derailed train back on the tracks.”

Parsons, president of the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys, laments the increasingly litigious nature of society. But even though he’s on the defense side in most litigation, he does not favor tort reform. “I don’t think monetary caps [on jury awards] are the answer, and I don’t think the system needs reforming. We should require people to prove they have a good, solid case and have judges weeding out questionable cases early and aggressively. We’ve got a good system, and it works when you let it.”

Parsons grew up on a farm in McGee’s Crossroads, a half-hour south of Raleigh. When he got his bachelor’s in economics from N.C. State University, he became the first member of his family to graduate from college. Appointed student-body attorney general his senior year, he became interested in law. After graduating from law school, he clerked a year for J. William Copeland, an associate justice on the state Supreme Court, then joined Bailey & Dixon LLP in Raleigh.

Parsons was hired to be a real-estate lawyer. “Three months after I started, President Carter raised the discount rate for money going to federally chartered financial institutions. The real-estate market dried up, and I became a trial lawyer.”

The first case he litigated was a civil-rights trial pending in federal court. The presiding judge was Franklin Dupree, a Nixon appointee who tried virtually all of the civil litigation in North Carolina’s Eastern District in the ’70s. “For a young lawyer, going in front of this judge was like going to the playoffs,” Parsons says.

He had been assigned to write a brief on a procedural point and spent days preparing. “When I finished my opening argument, Judge Dupree said, ‘Well, young man, you’ve lived up to your billing.’ You could have taken my clothes and sold them for whatever they were worth and shot me. It taught me that no matter how young a lawyer you are or how old, there is no substitute for preparation.”

If working hard is a trait that defines Parsons, so is his tendency to use graphic language outside the courtroom. “Everyone’s got their vices, and swearing is mine,” he says. His friend Richard Bennett of Winston-Salem law firm Bennett & Guthrie concurs: “Just like everything else, Gary is very good at swearing. He does it quite creatively.”