Construction: John Shaw

By Irwin Speizer

As a young lawyer, John Shaw imagined himself a swashbuckling courtroom litigator handling high-profile criminal cases. The trouble was, he didn’t like his clients, and he didn’t like losing. He settled into a civil practice focusing on construction law, a specialty that keeps him so far out of the limelight that, unless you know the building industry, you might never hear about him. In fact, his goal now is to avoid the courtroom altogether.

He does it by dispassionately dissecting disputes and getting the opposing sides to settle. He now spends half of his time as a mediator. “Unlike personal-injury, where you have pain and suffering, in construction law you ought to be able to find out the scope of the problem and the amount of damages,” says Dan Bryson, a Raleigh construction lawyer. “He does a good job of pointing out the troublesome issues on both sides to help bring them together. People believe him.”

Last year, Bryson represented a half-dozen beachfront-condominium owners who were suing their builder over construction defects. The two sides called in Shaw. “No one wanted to step up to the plate and fix all the problems, and it appeared we would not be able to settle the case,” Bryson says. Shaw got the two sides talking. “The defendants and insurance carriers agreed to settle it in a way that was acceptable to all parties.” The secret, Shaw says, is to steer disputes away from smaller, contentious issues and focus on resolution. “The passage of time helps you understand the bigger issues.”

Born in Elkin, Shaw was the only child of parents who spent 35 years working in textile mills. The family also had a small tobacco farm, where he helped out from the age of 6, often running a horse-drawn sled that carried tobacco from the fields to the barn. Both parents encouraged him to aim higher.

A good student, he was encouraged by his teachers. His graduating class had 39 students. He was one of three to go to college, thanks in part to a full scholarship provided by a mill. Having never been in a class with more than 15 students, Shaw found himself in classes of 200 at UNC Chapel Hill. He also played catcher on the baseball team, which made it to the College World Series in 1966.

In law school, Shaw had extra motivation to succeed. “The Vietnam War had cranked up,” he says. “If you had two D’s, you flunked, and you were pounding Vietnam beaches six weeks later.” Nearly half his class flunked or dropped out, but Shaw made it to graduation. His first gig out of school was clerking for state Supreme Court Justice Carlisle Higgins, a job that helped him keep a draft deferment long enough for the war to wind down a bit.

In 1971, he landed with the Raleigh firm of Poyner, Geraghty, Hartsfield & Townsend, a forerunner to Poyner & Spruill. He set his sights on criminal-defense work and signed up for indigent cases. “You end up representing people with nicknames, transients. Most of the time you couldn’t put your client on the stand because he had a long record, and you couldn’t be sure they would tell the truth. I had a few victories but not many. I got tired of getting beat.” By 1976, he had switched his emphasis almost entirely to civil law. The firm already had a strong practice representing builders and contractors, and Shaw became an active part of it. After nearly three decades in the field, he’s recognized inside and outside the firm as an expert. “He can say, I’ve been practicing in this area for 30-some-odd years, and I can tell you the law will support X, and that this is something that you need to think about,” Bryson says.