Litigation: William K. Davis

By Irwin Speizer

Alleghany County cheered in 1993 when Sparta landed a Bristol Compressors plant and the jobs that came with it. The plant, which made air-conditioner compressors, opened two years later. But in 2002, battered by global competition, the Bristol, Va.-based company shuttered it.

Local officials demanded the company return $6.9 million in local incentives. When the company said it would refund just a fraction of the money, Alleghany County sued. By the time the case got to trial in 2004, local sentiment was heavily against Bristol. But the company had a secret weapon: William K. Davis.

A crack corporate litigator with the charm of a country lawyer, Davis got the trial moved to Wilkes County, where feelings were not quite so feverish. Then he kept jurors focused on the company’s contract with Alleghany County. Sure, Davis agreed, folks might like to see the company pay. But the contract said if the plant closed within its first 10 years, Bristol would prorate the rebate of incentives based on how long the plant operated.

The jury agreed. Alleghany County lost, and local officials were left grumbling about how to make future incentive contracts less vulnerable to a litigator like Davis. “He is able to simplify things in clear, understandable, logical fashion, so that at the end, you almost think, ‘How could anyone think anything else?’” says Alan Ruley, a partner in Davis’ firm who worked on the case. “When you have Bill with you, chances are the jury will be with you.”

Davis says there is no great mystery. “My courtroom style is pretty much like I am. My voice is kind of soft. I don’t shout. I’m candid. I find it helps to be polite and courteous to witnesses and parties.”

Born in Raleigh, Davis was the middle of three children. His father worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which moved him after four years to Pahokee, Fla., where Davis gained an egalitarian outlook on life that to this day helps him relate to jurors. The family lived on the edge of a migrant-labor camp, and many of his friends were the children of migrants. “I guess what I learned is, there is a lot of good in everybody.” The family moved to Surry County four years later, then in 1952 to Winston-Salem, where Davis’ father became a traveling fertilizer salesman. After high school, Davis got a bachelor’s in economics and history from Davidson, followed by an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill. After a three-year hitch in the Army, he went on to law school.

After graduation, he joined Deal Hutchins & Minor in Winston-Salem, where he gravitated to trial work. Two other lawyers in the firm were developing their own specialties. Frank Bell was doing business law; Fred Pitt was doing commercial transactions. They left in 1980 and formed their own firm.

They never met in court, but Davis and John Edwards, the former U.S. senator and vice-presidential candi-date, have been on opposite sides of cases that were settled. Among Davis’ biggest cases was the takeover battle for Wachovia between SunTrust Banks of Atlanta and what was then First Union of Charlotte. Davis represented Wachovia, which wanted to merge with First Union. SunTrust sued to block the merger but lost in N.C. Business Court in 2001.

Despite the high-dollar stakes, Davis maintains a low-key approach. And while the confrontational nature of trial law can darken some lawyers’ demeanors, it has hardly touched his sunny outlook. “People have always basically treated me well, and I hope that I treat them well, too.”