Larry Dagenhart joined Helms Mulliss in the fall of 1958, when Charlotte's biggest law firms had 10 lawyers.
He chose the South over Wall Street, partly because a New York banker friend told him, “New York isn't quite as wonderful, and the South is rising” – and he stayed.
Dagenhart, 76, has been at the firm 50 years, through changes in the legal profession and a recent merger with national law firm McGuireWoods that grew the firm to 900 lawyers in almost 20 offices worldwide.
The median job tenure for American workers, by comparison, is about five years, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
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Dagenhart was born in Taylorsville, grew up in Wilmington and attended Davidson College and New York University Law School. He served two years in the Army and returned to North Carolina with his wife, Sarah, for his first law job.
Among other honors, Dagenhart is recognized in The Best Lawyers in America and as an N.C. Super Lawyer. He is a civic leader, American Bar Foundation fellow and past president of the Mecklenburg County Bar.
Dagenhart spoke to the Observer recently about what's changed – and what's remained the same – in 50 years. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What was Charlotte like in 1958?
There were movies and restaurants and retail stores downtown, and we had 275 lawyers in the bar. We have over 4,000 now. All the lawyers were in a multistory building down by the courthouse. A couple of firms had moved uptown, one of them being Helms Mulliss, so I came just as the bar began to uncouple and become more of an uptown establishment.
Q: How have things changed?
During those early days, the soda shop in the law building was where it was at, and you would always go drink a Coke and listen to the old lawyers talk. The big difference is the way we practice. It was a great deal of personal contact.
All the litigators knew each other well, and most of them were good friends. One of the great plaintiffs' lawyers, Guy Carswell, and Fred Helms, the premier defense lawyer, they would just fight like cats and dogs in the courthouse. But lots of Saturdays, I would go with them down to the City Club, where they would have a club sandwich and a Heineken beer and just chew the fat.
The lawyers still, for the most part, know and respect each other. But today, our young lawyers do their transactions by e-mail and telephone. They don't have the opportunity to get together.
Q: Firms across the country – including yours – have been consolidating. What do you think of the trend?
In 2006 and 2007, with 120 to 150 lawyers, whatever it was, it wasn't enough. Several of our departments were beginning to outrun their headlights. We were providing good service, but we needed more expertise, we needed more people. So we started looking around, and fortunately found McGuireWoods.
Q: The economy has hit local firms, with several laying off lawyers recently. What do you see for the future?
I have a standard response when people ask me what's going to happen to the legal profession: There may be too many lawyers, but there are never enough good lawyers. You might make more money or less money, but you'll always make a good living, and you can have a good life if you concentrate on being of service to the client.
Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer?
I used to make talks to the young lawyers, and I would say, you go to law school and you're studying the law, and you decide the law is God. And then you get out of law school and you think, ‘I'm a big fancy lawyer,' and you think the lawyer is God. Then you run into dealing with clients, and you realize they are very important, and maybe the client fits in there somewhere, so at that point, you're Trinitarian.
You haven't really become a true lawyer until you become Unitarian and realize that is really what counts, and if you focus on that, everything else takes care of itself.
Q: Do you plan to retire anytime soon?
I'm going to stay as long as I feel I'm being useful. The firm has a policy of giving you an office and secretarial assistance for life, and I will probably take advantage of that for a long time.