N.C. Bar Association's incoming president focuses on judges' pay

From an office 20 floors above Trade and Tryon streets, attorney John Wester, the incoming president of the N.C. Bar Association, reflected on some career highlights.

There was his trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, nine years after graduating from Duke Law School, to argue for Ford Motor Co. in a case that would establish how long damages run in employment discrimination cases.

Then there was the class-action suit filed on behalf of N.C. citizens whose disability benefits were denied or cut off by the Social Security Administration. It resulted in more than 150,000 N.C. residents becoming eligible for new disability claim hearings.

Wester, primarily a business litigator, has served on various committees of the N.C. Bar Association, a group that provides professional support, lobbying, continuing legal education and more for N.C. lawyers. He recently became the association's president-elect, with his term beginning officially next June.

He has been with Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson his entire career. The Charlotte firm has 130 attorneys and has avoided the growing trend of local firms merging with national powerhouses.

Wester, 61, spoke with the Observer about bucking the trend, the importance of the N.C. Business Court and his love of rock music. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What's one of your goals as president of the N.C. Bar Association?

Judicial compensation is a leading element of my interest. I look at improving that as an investment to ensure we secure and retain fine legal minds to resolve disputes and deal with crime. Very fine judges leave the bench because they can make so much more money practicing law. There are law firms who are paying more for brand-new law school graduates than we are paying for the chief justice. It is a signal that we are lagging well behind our efforts to be fair to the bench.

Q: What was your role in expanding the N.C. Business Court a few years ago?

I was on the bar association's chief justice's commission for the N.C. Business Court, and our idea was that North Carolina had landed on a superb idea of having a judge who would specialize in complex cases with a lot of discovery, data and technology.

The whole idea was to make North Carolina more attractive to businesses of all types. One big draw would be, you could be confident that your cases would go to a court where there is the expertise of someone who has been trained to hear them. Now, you can have a business court trial anywhere in the state, and there are three judges to cover it.

Q: Your law firm has avoided some of the changes other Charlotte firms are making. Why?

We have never felt the need to merge. It's not wise to say never, but we don't see it. I believe that what we really are seeing is different models. You have to ask firms who have gone with the megafirm model to tell you why they are doing that. We are a different model for practicing law, and each firm must decide for itself what's best for its lawyers and clients.

We perceive and are betting that our model is extremely well-suited for our clients, who are concentrated in the Carolinas, but many of whom have operations all over the world. We don't need to be in China or have an office there. This Earth we live on is flatter all the time. We believe that you can serve your clients anywhere on the planet and, certainly, compete successfully with law firms who are multiples of our size with multiple locations.

Q: Some law firms have laid off employees as a result of the economy. Do you worry about that?

We added 15 people in the last year, so that's how we feel about the times we're in. We're very bullish on the economy in North Carolina. We know we've hit a rough patch, but rough patches come along, and we're in a hiring state of mind here. We're going to go to 11 law schools this fall to interview, and we're the only firm in Charlotte who goes to Harvard.

Q: What do you do when you're not working?

I run four mornings a week and go to the gym at other times. I still play basketball every now and then. I've always loved sports. I'm a fan of Eric Clapton. I can't recite all the lyrics to all of his songs, but I can probably recite too many. I have a 13-year-old daughter – she's convinced that I cannot play the rock 'n' roll as loud as I want to in the car and house. She's maintaining that she should be the one who prefers the higher decibel.