A history professor was the first to suggest that Jim Williams become a lawyer. Before that, he had never been in a law office or a courtroom. He had gone to Wake Forest on a football scholarship, hoping to turn pro as a tackle. But by the time he graduated in 1962, he knew he wasn't big enough or fast enough for the pros. So the professor, Forrest Clonts, "arranged for me to have an interview with the dean, and I ended up in law school - frightened to death."
The fear has never left him. Even now, with most of his career behind him and the acclaim of his peers as the state's best corporate trial lawyer, "I still get nervous before a trial. Once I open my mouth, I'm OK."
What comes out of it typically stems from many hours of reading, writing and talking. After he has a basic understanding of the facts, Williams writes a closing argument. That keeps him focused on his final objective and forces him to to keep believing the case will be tried. Like many lawyers, he spends a lot of time working with witnesses and immersing himself in the law. He makes extensive use of technology to analyze and arrange the documents generated by his business-law cases - some have more than a million pages.
And then he might just call an audible and skip an entire line of questioning. It happens in almost every case. In a memorable one, the state wanted to condemn a truck service center to clear the path for Greensboro's outer loop. It had offered about $2.3 million, but Williams' client wanted more. Williams needed to chip away at the testimony of the state's depreciation expert, who had formed his opinion about a building after spending half an hour in it. Williams asked the expert how long he'd been in the courtroom. All day, the man replied. Williams asked him how much the courtroom was depreciating. "He said, 'Well, I'd have to do some more study on that.' I said, 'Thank you,' and sat down." The state ended up paying more than $4.9 million.
He successfully defended Food Lion against shareholder claims that management should have told investors about unsanitary conditions described in an ABC broadcast. He helped Wachovia consummate it's $14.9 billion marriage to First Union.
But his most memorable case was successfully defending Deloitte & Touche, which had worked for televangelist Jim Baker's PTL ministry. He didn't see much of Jim or Tammy Faye, but emotions ran high, especially among jilted PTL investors. "Some woman sat behind the bar the entire case and prayed every morning that we would die and go to hell."
Many cases are settled before they go before a judge, jury or arbitrator. There, too, Williams excels, partly through his reputation for straight talk. And if the cases are not settled, opponents know they'll have to face him in court. "There are some lawyers that you know will try the case if you really push them, but you also know you might be able to settle the case better because they don't want to go to the courtroom," says Bob Wicker, past general counsel for Burlington Industries. "Jim has no problem going to the courtroom. In fact, he thrives on going to the courtroom."
Williams says he thinks more clearly in court than at other times - once his pre-trial jitters settle - but his personality doesn't change. "He's a fighter, but he's very civil in his demeanor," says Charlotte trial lawyer Bill Diehl. "He's tough, but he's courteous."
He avoids the kind of scathing cross-examinations popular on television. Too risky. they can seem bullying to a jury - especially coming from a 6-foot-5-inch former football player. "I had a client once who told me he didn't think I was mean enough. I told him he just needed to worry about whether I was good enough."
Williams won the case.