50 Years of Practicing Law: An Interview with Bill Davis

William K Davis

This year Bill Davis reached the impressive milestone of practicing law for 50 years. Below Mr. Davis discusses how the field has changed in the last five decades, how Bell, Davis & Pitt has evolved since he co-founded the firm 36 years ago and his advice for new attorneys. 

What inspired you to become a lawyer?

When I was in college, I never considered being a lawyer. I earned an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, thinking that I would go into business. I then served in the Army for two years. While in the Army, I had some friends in law school who encouraged me to go to law school. They thought that practicing law was something I would enjoy and be successful doing. While I was in my high school, I had a few friends whose fathers were lawyers. I greatly respected them and what I saw them doing in the community.

Where did you start practicing law?

I started practicing law in Winston-Salem at the law firm of Deal Hutchins & Minor. Frank Bell joined at about the same time, and Wrennie Pitt joined a few years later.

In 1980, Frank, Wrennie and I established Bell, Davis & Pitt. We were all good friends and we recognized how the practice of law was starting to really change. Automation was coming. Law firms were getting bigger. In 1966, the biggest firm in the state was Womble Carlyle with about 15 attorneys. By 1980, firms were growing rapidly and becoming more specialized. Technology was taking off. More women were joining the profession as attorneys. The use of paralegals was a developing trend.

We were seeing a lot of changes in the way that legal services were being delivered. We wanted to be at the front edge of that. We had ideas on how to be successful in that environment.

What changes in the world have had the biggest impact on the field of law since you started your career?

Technology and communications are clearly the things that have changed the most. When I started, you’d get the mail in the morning and maybe take a few phone calls in your office. Now, you get a hundred emails daily, and people want quick responses by email.

Then came automated typewriters that could easily produce multiple documents, telephone answering machines to receive and record messages, faxes, FedEx and emails. Advances in communications are good things, but it does change things. People began to expect instantaneous responses.

What I view as a big personal challenge for new attorneys is the problem of huge debt. Debt is so easy to acquire, but it’s got to be paid back. The debt I owed when I got out of law school was $300. Now debt for new law graduates can be $100,000 - $200,000.

Debt limits the choices that people can make and narrows the ability to choose a practice and career and location and lifestyle.

How has the firm changed over the past 36 years?  

We started with four attorneys and four staff members, and now we have 37 attorneys and about an equal number of staff.  We now have offices in Charlotte as well as Winston-Salem.  

When we started the firm, we started in three practice areas – litigation, corporate/real estate and commercial/banking. Our firm still follows that basic division. Each of those areas has expanded in number and complexity. The three segments are still intact.

William Davis as a young professional

We’ve always been located in downtown Winston-Salem. Our first office was in the Nation’s Bank building at Liberty and Third Streets.  Our office units weren’t connected, so we had two attorneys at one end of a hall, and another two at the other end. After that, in 1982, we moved to a building on Fourth Street across from current Foothills and gradually took over the entire building. We outgrew that and moved to our current space in 2000.

What has kept you in this career for 50 years? And, how long do you plan to continue practicing law?

I simply love practicing law. I really enjoy going to work and the people with whom I work.  I currently spend about half of my time at Wake Forest campus as outside counsel. It’s interesting work with the variety of cases and matters, and interesting and good people.

I plan to keep on practicing as long as I can. I have no plans at all to retire.

What experience or experiences stand out that taught you an important lesson in your work?

There’s not a single experience, but really a series of things.

Early on, I had a mentor, John Minor, the best lawyer and one of the best people I had ever known, a veteran of World War II, and a member of the Greatest Generation. He was a wonderful citizen and was really dedicated to his clients, demanding that their work be done right and charged fairly.

From serving on the N.C. State Bar Council, I had the opportunity to meet attorneys from big firms and small firms, from big cities and small towns, who were all dedicated to serving the public of North Carolina. Associating with people like Mr. Minor, a lot of lawyers in Winston-Salem and other people I’ve had the pleasure to work with, I have met a lot of wonderful people trying to do the best they can for their clients. Lawyers by and large are in it to represent clients who happen to have differences, and to represent them fairly, honorably and with integrity.

The key is to treat people fairly. If you do that, you’ll be successful in the practice of law and have a rewarding career.

Looking back on the last 50 years, what advice do you have for attorneys just starting their career?

Before starting, avoid debt to the extent you can. Minimize debt so that you have choices. Sit back and decide what it is that would make you have a happy and fulfilled life. Decide what would make you say —50 years from now—“Hey, this has been good.”  Then go for it. All the while, do it honestly.

And try not to have your decisions in life dictated or overly influenced by money.

Tell us about your life outside of work.

I have a wonderful wife, three children and nine grandchildren (there are eight grandchildren between the ages of 9 to 15, and then a 4-year-old boy who everyone dotes on). My life outside of work is primarily what they’re up to.

My wife and I spend time at our cottage on the Pamlico River in Bath, N.C., and a cabin in Surry County. For big weekends, the whole family will come down to the river. I enjoy being outside, and I’d choose doing yard work instead of playing golf. My four-year-old grandson is a “worker man,” and we spend time together on yard work and picking up sticks. And I like to read. Nothing exotic.

Other than that, I enjoy going to events here and at Davidson College and Wake Forest, and I remain involved in my church.