Private Practice, Public Service: A Modern Lawyer with the Heart of an Academic, Martin H. Brinkley ’92 Appointed Law School Dean

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This article originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2015 issue of Carolina Law.

Martin H. Brinkley ’92 planned to be a classical philologist, a scholar who studies the literature, history and culture of Ancient Greece and Rome. He excelled in Greek and Latin courses at Phillips Exeter Academy, graduated early from Harvard with a summa cum laude degree in classics, taught high school Latin and was headed to Oxford for graduate school. He spent time deciphering papyri, scraps of 2,000-year-old paper written in Greek dug out of the sands of Egypt.

Until one day, while on a fellowship in Cologne, Germany, as he speculated over missing words on a papyrus that could have been someone’s grocery list from the second century B.C.E., he asked himself: Is this enough?

Brinkley came from a family with deep North Carolina roots. His relatives served as county commissioners and on town councils, and ran church boards and PTAs. Growing up in a culture of community engagement had shaped him. As he scrutinized the papyrus, he considered his future. Would teaching and research, even in a scholarly field he loved deeply, sustain him over the long haul?

“I worried that at some point I might regret failing to engage with the world as it is now,” Brinkley says, looking back.

So Brinkley applied the focus of mind and fidelity to facts that have shaped his professional life. He knew that for much of Western history, training in classics was an accepted path to leadership. How could he use his universal education to be more engaged in the present world?

“I had no lawyers in my family. We were small business owners, teachers and tobacco farmers, mostly. The law seemed to offer a chance to blend my inclination towards an academic life with direct engagement in society,” he says. “I thought, ‘Let’s try this.’ I did it with no firm idea of where it would lead. I hoped it would put me on the path to public service, a place where I could be useful to people.”

That’s how the Raleigh native, who grew up in rural Wake County and traveled across oceans, eras and cultures, came to enroll at Carolina Law in 1989.

And when UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost James Dean chose Brinkley as the 14th dean of the law school this past summer, making headlines by appointing a practicing lawyer to the post for the first time since 1899, that’s how they knew they had found a leader with the heart of an academic.

“It was a bold and wonderful move,” says Elizabeth L. “Betty” Quick ’74, a partner at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP. She was president of the N.C. Bar Association the year Brinkley was named chair of the Young Lawyers Division. After hearing him speak, she correctly predicted that he would be bar association president someday.

Brinkley’s career post-law school has been in private practice, save for a year immediately after graduation when he clerked for Sam J. Ervin III, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit — a year Brinkley describes as the most formative of his professional career. He then signed on with Moore & Van Allen PLLC in Raleigh as an associate, making partner five years later. He focused his practice on corporate and commercial law.
He taught ethics at Carolina Law as an adjunct professor from 1996 to 2000.

In 2003, Brinkley joined Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan LLP, where he continued to practice corporate and mergers and acquisitions law. He became the firm’s lead antitrust lawyer and wound up working extensively in insurance, regulatory and administrative law, and public finance, and counseling dozens of charitable and nonprofit organizations.

For years, Brinkley has been named to nationally recognized lists of top lawyers, including Chambers USA, International Who’s Who of Business Lawyers, The Best Lawyers in America, North Carolina Super Lawyers and Business North Carolina’s “Legal Elite.”

He received the N.C. Bar Association’s Citizen Lawyer Award in 2008, as well as the Pro Bono Impact Award and the Impact Law Leader from Triangle Business Leader Media. Carolina Law recognized him with its Pro Bono Alumnus of the Year Award in 2012.

“As a brand-new lawyer, I made a deal with myself that I’d never turn down a person or community organization who asked for my help,” he says. “It took tremendous support from my wife and family. I handled landlord-tenant cases, public housing matters, nonprofit corporation formation, and criminal and guardian ad litem appeals. Much of whatever I was able to offer my corporate clients, I learned from the community work I did and pro bono cases I handled. They fed off of each other.”

Brinkley was elected to the American Law Institute in 2004 and has continued as a member. He served as president of the N.C. Bar Association from 2011 to 2012, in a three-year cycle of leadership. He has volunteered on committees and boards of the N.C. State Bar, the N.C. Board of Law Examiners, the American Bar Association and Legal Aid of North Carolina.

Brinkley plans to continue as of counsel at Smith Anderson, although he will practice on a greatly reduced basis. He believes the ongoing relationship with his firm signals to the community that the academy and the practicing bar are not separate spheres.

“At this time in the history of the legal profession, we need closer ties between practice and law schools,” Brinkley says. “They have been too separate, especially over the last two or three decades. I still love my law firm and my private practice colleagues.”

That fresh perspective and innovative thinking appealed to the search committee, who had more than 100 serious candidates to consider. Most came from academia, but committee members thought they owed it to the law school to interview some nontraditional candidates, says Michael R. “Mike” Smith ’78, dean of UNC’s School of Government, who chaired the committee both this year and nine years ago when John Charles “Jack” Boger ’74 was selected.

Smith called Brinkley to report that he had been nominated and to ask whether he would consider putting his name in, at the same time explaining that it was a long shot. “I didn’t want to mislead him,” Smith says. “Here’s an incredibly accomplished guy whom I told: ‘This isn’t likely to happen; you’ll put yourself out there where you would be told no very publicly. But you would be performing a service to the law school by giving us a chance to consider a nontraditional option.’

“It took courage on his part, along with a deep love for the law school.”

* * *

Photo by Steve Exum.

As N.C. Bar Association president, Brinkley, working with Carolina Law alumni Gray Styers ’89 and Debra L. Foster ’82, founded Lawyer on the Line, a program that now has about a thousand North Carolina lawyers donating time to do triage for Legal Aid organizations. The volunteers test cases to see whether they merit full representation by the nonprofit firms.

“My orientation toward public interest law comes from the perspective of a private practitioner who felt morally compelled to represent individuals and organizations who can’t afford a lawyer,” he says.

Yet Brinkley made his living working with corporate clients large and small, and that perspective will inform his leadership of Carolina Law as well.
“I want to be sure we’re giving full attention to the private sector — the part of the world where the majority of our graduates spend their professional lives,” he says. “People need to see Carolina Law as engaged with and attentive to the economy. That’s where the taxes that support our work come from.”

The legal field is undergoing massive change these days. People still need lawyers to help them navigate complex matters, but the middle class and modestly paid can’t afford the rates most lawyers charge. Brinkley considers the past few decades particularly aberrational in the financial rewards they have brought to the profession. Lawyers who had the blind luck to begin practicing in the mid-1980s, especially those in transactional practice, saw a great deal of prosperity. The recession has given the legal profession a chance to return to a world when most lawyers entered the profession for the sheer reward of helping people.

“Frankly, I think we’re all going to live better lives as a result,” he says. “Law was never supposed to be a path to wealth. It was meant to be a rich and rewarding life of contribution.”

Changes in the profession will drive careful looks at the size of the law school and its curriculum, some of which are underway already.

“We have to re-examine what we’re doing without losing faith that we’re doing much of it very well,” Brinkley says.

“Traditional law school courses still do an excellent job of teaching young lawyers how to think. There’s no substitute for that. But today the world wants more. It wants us to prepare our students for day one of practice better than ever.”

Brinkley hopes to lead the school in a conversation about whether it should provide legal training for people who need to know some law but will never take the bar exam. “We have to ask ourselves the question and do some rigorous analysis around it,” he says.

Law faculty might extend themselves into other areas of campus, perhaps offering more courses to undergraduates. Two law professors already teach an in-demand course at the medical school, an important connection given the size of the health care industry in the state. Conversations about an entrepreneurship project to benefit startup companies have begun with Kenan-Flagler Business School and N.C. State’s Poole College of Management.

“We don’t get to define the terms under which we practice this profession all by ourselves,” Brinkley says. “We are the beneficiaries of a very special monopoly, one that comes with heavy responsibilities. The world still needs the kind of wisdom and power of persuasion that lawyers bring. But it’s not clear whether we’ll deliver our services in the same forms as in the past.”

* * *

Serious strategic planning will begin next year.

The financial piece is underway already. The University began an 8-year-long capital campaign last year, and the law school has an ambitious $70 million goal, more than double the $32 million raised in the prior campaign. Brinkley is looking forward to going out and meeting alumni, and Wade Smith ’63, a partner at Tharrington Smith, believes alumni will enjoy meeting Brinkley.

“Martin is able to connect with people,” Smith says. “When you talk with him, you want to join up with him. You want to be with him because you have a feeling this guy is going to do great things, and you want to be a part of it.”

Brinkley’s combination of high intellect and low-key affability make him perfect for the deanship, Smith says. “He’s your next-door neighbor with an enormous brain.”

The majority of the money raised will benefit students and faculty. Several longtime faculty members are planning to retire in the next few years. The school wants to have the resources to hire and retain the best professors.

“I want us to be on fire intellectually and to be recognized nationally as a cauldron where great scholarship happens,” Brinkley says.

The school wants to boost its financial aid for students, too. Though Carolina Law has relatively low tuition compared with its peer schools, even the approximately $23,000 a year for in-state residents and about $39,000 for out-of-state students is too much for some of the top students Carolina Law would like to attract. Having more scholarship money available will help the school enroll the best students, regardless of their income level.

Kris Davidson, associate dean for advancement, served on the search committee that put forth Brinkley as a candidate. She noted that law school enrollments have trended down in recent years. With fewer students going to law school, “there’s more competition to attract the best students to our door,” she says.

Davidson respects Brinkley’s many and varied connections with people throughout the state, due to his being a longtime resident and practicing attorney in North Carolina. Philanthropy springs from the connection to a place people have in their hearts and minds. Brinkley wants to ignite the bond alumni feel with Carolina Law.

Because he worked with corporate clients, he understands the corporate world and can use those insights to strengthen corporate giving. He understands the income drivers of the state and the importance of making connections on and off campus with fields and industries that will need legal help to succeed.

“Martin has a vision of how law faculty expertise and research can aid economic development in the state and continue to provide guidance surrounding social justice issues,” she says.

State support for public education has declined in North Carolina in recent years. Yet the school needs resources to maintain its quality reputation. While president of the N.C. Bar Association, Brinkley frequently spoke with legislators about issues on which the bar association took a stand.
“He’s always able to speak respectfully, cogently and persuasively,” Quick says. “He wins people over.”

Mike Smith adds: “You can’t be as successful as he is without being practical.”

Dean Boger left the school operating in the black — a claim not all law schools can make. Brinkley takes seriously his role in the stewardship of taxpayers’ investment.

“This is an institution built by millions of taxpayers whose children will never enter its doors,” Brinkley says. “That imposes a very special kind of trust on those responsible for it. We have to look forward and may have to take some leaps of faith. It’s my job to make sure those leaps are as well-planned and well-informed as we can make them.”

* * *

At the beginning of the fall semester, Brinkley welcomed the 1Ls by handing out tool belts. He emphasized that the instruction they receive in thinking like lawyers and the opportunity they have to build relationships with established professors — only tenured and tenure-track faculty teach first-years at Carolina — will hold together all the lawyerly tools they gain for the rest of their careers.

And he delivered a powerful message: “Don’t let the challenges of law school affect your confidence in your own future.”

Many students get discouraged if they are not at the top of their class in a time when jobs are tight, he says. But over the years, he has seen many folks who were not standouts in law school grow into magnificent lawyers.

“What’s important is whether they acquire the right habits of mind, the ability to think around all sides of a problem and to avoid coming to a conclusion too quickly,” he says. “They need the ability to ask good questions and keep on asking them until they’ve seen the client’s case down to the bottom of the well. They need the ability to write clearly and persuasively.

“The truth is that if you don’t get the facts right, you’ll never get the law right. Many students have powers of wisdom, powers of emotional connection and understanding of the human heart, that law school doesn’t test particularly well, but that will put them in very good stead when they’re working with real people on real problems. Just because they might not have reproduced what they’ve learned effectively on a written exam doesn’t mean it won’t inform them wonderfully down the road. And their success may stem as much from relationships they form with each other and with faculty during law school, as from classroom learning.”

They might find themselves doing well — and doing good — in unexpected places, even when it seems a long shot.

-November 20, 2015

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