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2010 Legal Elite

“The law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship.“

That’s as true today as it was when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story said it in 1829. Imagine what some of the state’s top lawyers would do were they to stray from their profession.

Jealous? Yes. All-consuming? No. That’s what those receiving the most votes in this year’s Legal Elite balloting say. While acknowledging constant pressure to keep abreast of changes in statutes and precedents, they think it’s important to have outside interests. So this year, Business North Carolina asked what they would have done had they not chosen the law and how those second guesses might relate to success in their first choice of a career. John B. “Jack” Taylor would have been a high-school science or history teacher who coached football. “I get accused of teaching my clients, which I think is good for them and me,” says Taylor, tops in construction law, who practices in Charlotte with Nexsen Pruet LLC. “If they’re educated enough to recognize a problem, they’ll call me and work it out.” He has given dozens of construction-law seminars and published manuals on the topic.

Patrick Matus also favors teaching, but the Charlotte criminal-defense lawyer would combine it with being an outdoors guide. “What I really enjoy about practicing law is guiding people through the legal forest. Even on a traffic ticket, people are scared to death if they’ve never been to court before. I take a lot of time holding their hand and guiding them through the system.” Matus, who practices with Essex Richards PA, says outside interests help lawyers relate to jurors — not to mention stay relaxed. “You can let this profession consume you. You’re dealing with conflict all the time. It’s important to have outside interests for stress relief.”

Mark Davidson, a partner at Brooks, Pierce, McLendon & Leonard LLP in Greensboro, agrees that every lawyer needs a release. An avid motorcyclist in his free time, he might have been a Harley-Davidson dealer. “I spend a lot of time at my desk, staring at a computer or being on the phone, just being stationary,” says the recipient of the most votes in business law. “Having something that helps you take a break from being office-bound is real important. You come back rejuvenated.”

One of the strongest connections between possible career and actual one comes from Timothy G. Sellers of Sellers, Hinshaw, Ayers, Dortch & Lyons PA. The Charlotte real-estate lawyer would have been a contractor. “It’s how I’m wired generally — to put pieces together.” He installed drywall the summer after his first year of law school. “With drywall, the key is the framing behind it. You need precision to make sure the pieces fit, and there is low tolerance. That’s the same with my practice, where you juggle concepts, documents and processes.” Experience gives him perspective. “I’ve been involved in a lot of construction matters now. Having knowledge of how a product works is invaluable. The law is not an ivory-tower kind of thing. It’s more effective when it comes in contact with real-life experience.”

Even a would-be vet sees a connection to her practice in family law. “My own veterinarian is a first-class doctor, but he also has this wonderful bedside manner,” says Lana Warlick of Jacksonville. “I deal with people going through a difficult time in their lives. While I deal primarily with the legal issues, I also spend time helping them cope. Picking a lawyer is a lot like picking a doctor or veterinarian. You not only want someone who is good but also is caring.”

Taylor, Matus, Davidson, Sellers and Warlick are members of the ninth class of the Legal Elite. This year, for the first time, balloting was done electronically. The magazine mailed postcards last summer to each of the state’s 19,762 active lawyers directing them to the ballot on the magazine’s Web site, www.BusinessNC.com. What didn’t change was the question the ballot asked: Of the Tar Heel lawyers whose work you have observed, whom would you rate the best in their fields?

Voters couldn’t select themselves and could only pick members of their firms if they also chose people outside the firm in the same categories. Outside votes were given more weight. Lawyers who received the most make up the Legal Elite. This year, 603 were selected in 14 categories, slightly more than 3% of the state’s active lawyers. Greensboro-based Smith Moore Leatherwood LLP had the most on the list with 24. Second was Pittsburgh-based K&L Gates LLP with 20.

Contributing Photographer Steve Exum’s photos of the winners in their alternate career choice appear on the following links with the list of the Legal Elite winners in each category.

— Arthur O. Murray

Photography by Steve Exum