Up on the law: lawyers elected these practitioners as the top of their class in a dozen business-related fields.

Author:Davis, Lisa
Position:LEGAL ELITE - Cover Story
 
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Who are the best business lawyers in the state? That's what BUSINESS NORTH CAROLINA sets out to determine each year. And who better to tell us than Tar Heel lawyers themselves? The magazine mailed 16,866 ballots last spring--one to every lawyer licensed by the State Bar and living in North Carolina. They were asked a simple question: "Of the North Carolina lawyers whose work you have observed firsthand, whom would you rate among the current best?" Ballots included spaces for names in 12 fields closely related to business. The only prohibitions: Voters could not pick themselves and could only select members of their own firms if they also voted for out-of-firm lawyers in the same categories. Past winners, inducted into the Legal Elite Hall of Fame, are ineligible to repeat. Nearly 1,600 lawyers received votes, with 442 getting enough to be named to this year's Legal Elite. How elite is it? Only 2.6% of the state's lawyers made it. Winners, listed with the firms they were with when the ballots went out, are on the pages that follow, along with profiles of those getting the most votes in each field.

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ANTITRUST

In 1999, other tobacco companies sued New York-based Philip Morris USA for antitrust violations, claiming its cigarette marketing squelched competition. At stake were hundreds of millions of dollars--and the way tobacco companies do retail merchandising, according to Joe Murillo, Philip Morris' vice president and associate general counsel.

Philip Morris hired Larry Sitton, a partner at Smith Moore LLP in Greensboro. Working as co-counsel with antitrust lawyer David Boies, Sitton handled many of the hearings in federal court, deftly questioning witnesses. "He had such a great rapport with our business executives," Murillo says.

After three years of wrangling, the court granted Philip Morris' motion for summary judgment. The decision was upheld on appeal. It was a high-profile victory for the cigarette maker and for Sitton, but he couldn't help feeling a bit wistful. "That was good news for the client," he says, "but it would have been fun to try it."

After 37 years as a lawyer, Sitton still likes nothing better than being in a courtroom. "I don't think it's possible to make him look uncomfortable in a courtroom," partner Stephen Earp says, "and he speaks in a melodious voice. The result is, he is 100% trustworthy."

That credibility has cemented Sitton's status as a go-to guy for North Carolina companies in big lawsuits. His clients have included Greensboro-based insurer Jefferson-Pilot, which faced a proxy fight a decade ago, and Charlotte-based Bank of America. He's also one of the lawyers representing the Atlantic Coast Conference in its litigation with the Big East over the ACC's expansion. "I'm involved as a kind of senior litigator," Sitton says. "I'm simply there to do whatever it is you do when you get old and have gray hair and have experienced a lot of things."

One thing he does, he says, is pass on to younger colleagues the idea that you don't have to be "the meanest guy in town" to be effective. He proves it in his own work, says Greensboro lawyer Jim Williams, who has known Sitton since their days at Wake Forest University and has worked both with and against him. "The Larry you see in the courtroom is the Larry you see in meetings, the Larry you see over lunch."

Sitton didn't grow up wanting to be a lawyer. He worked in his father's butcher shop in Asheville, and though it had its perks--"I do know what a good steak looks like"--he aimed to do something else for a living. Money was tight after his father died in a car crash. But Sitton won a scholarship to Wake Forest and then to its law school.

After a two-year stint as a military-police officer in Germany, he returned to Winston-Salem to clerk for a U.S. District Court judge, then settled in at Smith Moore Smith Schell & Hunter, predecessor to his present firm. The firm put Sitton to work representing insurance companies, and he quickly honed his skills. "You would try cases over property damage, a fender bender. I got a lot of trial experience because back then, in the late '60s, everything was tried."

As president of the North Carolina Bar Association in 1998-99, Sitton had a hand in promoting the state's business court. He also led a bar association task force that surveyed North Carolina lawyers and found that 25% had symptoms of depression and 11% contemplated suicide once a month.

Sitton, who suffered his own bout with depression in 1980, recommended making free, confidential counseling available. "He helped the entire bar come to understand much better the stresses rampant in the profession and gave us tools to deal with it," Earp says. "That's made a huge impact on the bar and the state."

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LARRY B. SITTON

Smith Moore LLP, Greensboro

Born: Jan. 20, 1940

Education: bachelor's, 1961, law, 1964, Wake Forest University

Family: wife, Carroll; three children and four grandchildren

Roots: The Sitton family goes back 200 years in Henderson County, where it ran the forge that supplied iron to the makers of Gillespie rifles.

Recent books read: In Retrospect by Robert McNamara, and A Reporter's Life by Walter Cronkite

World travel: Heading to Kenya in June for a Christian men's retreat

--Lisa Davis

BANKRUPTCY

Occasionally someone will stop Dick Hutson on the street, grab his hand and shake it--and maybe get a little emotional. Going through bankruptcy will do that to you. "They'll say, 'I want to thank you for the Chapter 13 program. It saved my marriage or my job,' or 'It really helped me through a bad time.' To me, that's the most satisfying part."

Hutson is Chapter 13 trustee of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Durham and has supervised more than 100,000 personal-bankruptcy cases. He started the program in 1971, when lawyers tended to herd debtors into Chapter 7--liquidation of assets. Filing Chapter 13 allows them to consolidate debts and pay them off over three to five years. Hutson championed the option and brought it to Durham. These days, the Durham Chapter 13 program gets about 2,900 new cases a year. Disbursements to creditors in 2004 totaled $62 million.

In his private practice, he handles corporate bankruptcies. Clients have included apartment developers and owners of textile mills and high-tech companies. Hutson "can take a complex situation and solve the problem in the most efficient and economical way for the client," says Stephanie Powell, a partner at Hutson Hughes & Powell PA. "And he has the ability to bring people to the table."

He recently liquidated E-Z Serve, a Durham-based chain of 475 convenience stores. He also helped reorganize Chapel Hill-based Convenience USA, now called Exprezit, with about 170 stores across the Southeast. Out-of-court restructuring, in fact, is what Hutson enjoys most. "You work with the accountants, the business people, and you are able to revitalize the business without the expense and time of a bankruptcy filing."

Daniel Laycock is a principal in JEM Development, a Gastonia real-estate developer that hit a rough spot in the late '90s. "I remember Dick emphasizing that it is going to take time because negotiations like this go slowly. We set a time period--three years--and took each day one at a time." The company managed to avoid filing for bankruptcy and worked out of its financial hole. "We wouldn't be enjoying the success we have now if it hadn't been for Dick. There was little animosity involved with the creditors. He just did a great job."

Hutson was born and raised on Long Island, the son of a waiter and a homemaker. He never had been to the South when in 1957 he left to start college at Carolina. "I drove all night from New York and arrived in Chapel Hill in the morning. I got out and asked somebody where the University of North Carolina was. He said, 'Son, you are standing in it.'"

Four years later, Hutson had a degree in political science and history. Intending to join the FBI, he went to law school at Wake Forest University. But a year clerking for U.S. District Court Judge Edwin M. Stanley in Greensboro "changed my mind completely," he says. Moving to Durham in 1965, he joined a small practice. He soon left to join another that, through various mergers and splits, he remains with today. It has been Hutson Hughes & Powell since 1994.

He took his first personal-bankruptcy case his first year in practice and in 1969 was appointed trustee of the Durham Hilton, which he helped restructure. He began building a bankruptcy practice when few North Carolina lawyers were doing so. But his timing was good. The '70s brought a recession and revision of bankruptcy laws, which attracted more lawyers to the field. Hutson managed to stand out.

"He's what's called a lawyer's lawyer," Powell says. "He is a lawyer that other attorneys or other law firms call to represent them, and that is a very high compliment."

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RICHARD M. HUTSON II

Hutson Hughes & Powell PA, Durham

Born: June 19, 1940

Education: bachelor's, UNC Chapel Hill, 1961; law, Wake Forest University, 1964

Family: wife, Kay; two children and two grandchildren

Good works: chairman of LCI Inc., a Durham nonprofit that creates jobs for the blind

Favorite book: Heart of a Soldier: A Story of Love, Heroism and September 11 by James B. Stewart

--Lisa Davis

BUSINESS LAW

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 & Hick-man 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...

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