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Q&A Edward Winslow III: Legal system must evolve to keep up

Edward Winslow III knew early on that he wanted to stray from the family business. His father was in the horse-and-mule business and eventually became a farmer.

“What I learned about farming caused me to develop an interest in other ways of earning a living,” said Winslow, a native of Edgecombe County.

So after graduating from Davidson College and while serving a tour in as an Army officer in Vietnam, Winslow decided to pursue law. During a “gentleman’s card game,” he said, someone told him that anyone who signed up to take the law boards the next day would be released from duty and taken to either Long Binh or Saigon where the tests would be given.

“I signed up for a day off, and one thing led to another,” Winslow said.



More than 40 years later, Winslow, who recently stepped down as managing partner of Brooks Pierce after 15 years, seems to have made the right career choice. In that role, he focused on law practice management and strategic leadership for the firm.

Winslow is particularly interested in the evolution of the legal profession and is involved with national and international law firm networks, sharing best practices with some of the world’s top legal professionals.

Winslow will now be focusing his efforts on special projects such as business development, professional development and expansion, and “rebuilding” his litigation and financial services.

“Something will come up,” he said.

A history and hummus enthusiast, Winslow also seems to enjoy blogging about everything from the legal profession and food to business and technology.

Winslow and his wife, Sally, have been married since 1980 and have two grown children, Ted, 27, a languages and literature teacher in Spain, and 32-year-old Margaret, the director of strategic initiatives at Elon School of Law.

Winslow recently took time to field a few questions from Lawyers Weekly. The following is a transcript of that interview, edited lightly for length and clarity.

Tell me about your practice area and exactly what you do as an attorney.

I started in a very general business law practice, focused mainly on litigation. Then I followed opportunities that led to me becoming the general counsel of the North Carolina Savings and Loan League and later the North Carolina Bankers Association, and to representing financial services companies.


What problems exist today that did not exist when you began practicing law?

Since I began practicing law, American society and the world economy have grown and expanded and become exponentially more complex. At this moment, we are in a time of huge social and economic change. All that growth and complexity and change depend critically on the law and legal system evolving to match it. Needs for legal services have grown wildly.

Our system for delivery of legal services has not kept pace. North Carolina’s court system is underfunded. People with average to low wealth have limited access to legal services. And our traditional system of “full service” law firms in the partnership form responds very imperfectly to the needs before us.


What will it take to fix these problems?

We need to reinvent our system for delivering legal services, which we are well along the way to doing. We are behind the curve, but we are catching up. New institutions, alternative services providers and new practice settings are developing almost daily. And many organizations now have sophisticated legal departments that have evolved into really impressive contexts for professional practice. At the core of this, we need to rethink law firms in fundamental ways—both to ensure that firms respond better to clients’ needs, and also to be sure that law firms continue to be fun and fulfilling settings for practitioners. And some firms are going there. North Carolina probably needs to reinvent the courts system from top to bottom. Anyway, the courts need more resources. Low-wealth people must get better access to legal services. Our society is so complex. The most mundane aspects of life are bound by laws and rules. But as many as half our citizens can’t afford the expense of untangling legal snarls when they occur, or planning to avoid them. I think this is going to require radical new ways of delivering legal services. And, again, more money.

What is your biggest concern right now regarding the practice of law and what needs to be improved?

My biggest concern right now is the plight of new lawyers. So many new graduates don’t find jobs. Whether they get jobs or not, our traditional systems for bringing new lawyers into the practice and enculturating them into the community of lawyers aren’t working the way they used to. The profession is segmenting. Lawyers have less and less in common, and less basis for trusting each other. That is clogging the system, and it makes the practice of law less gratifying for lawyers.

Have you seen positive changes? If so, what are they?  

In your earlier questions, you asked me about problems so I gave you problems. But please understand: I believe that positive changes abound. Our law firm had a planning retreat last weekend; and our partner Jim Williams, who is far, far older than I am, said the same thing. He said, “Now is the best time there has ever been to practice law.” He is absolutely right.

Let me list some positive changes. There are so many:

1.     The bar is much more sophisticated than in the past, and, by and large, lawyers do a much better job for their clients.

2.     Access to the law and legal resources for lawyers has improved infinitely. Virtually all lawyers have access to virtually all the law virtually all the time, much of it at vastly reduced expense.

3.     Resources for continuing education and professional improvement have gone from essentially none—I remember the N.C. Bar Association’s first CLE courses—to constant and limitless. That has made a big difference in the quality of the law practice.

4.     All of the alternative dispute resolution processes—mediation, arbitration, etc.—have been great improvements over what we did before, settling on the courthouse steps, etc.

5.    Non-legal resources for lawyers have come into being. Lawyers may have been among the last groups in our society to access things like self-improvement and quality-of-life resources and training; psychological, wellness and substance abuse counselling and help; and life transition services.

6.     Word processing, scanning, emailing and cell phones. Once, there was carbon paper and whiteout. Once, law firms in New York would charter airplanes to deliver papers to us to get them filed on time.

7.     The world is more complex and more bound by rules and regulations than ever before. We are in a time of change and volatility and the world needs lawyers more than ever before. What we do matters.

8.     Millennials sound to me like they may have values and attributes that suit them better to be lawyers than any generation since the 19th century.

You said that North Carolina is one of the finest places in the world and needs well-educated lawyers to lead and make it the best. Tell me about that.

North Carolina has always been a tapestry of small towns with distinctive, vibrant and interesting local cultures. Local people lead and define their local communities. Lawyers are key contributors to the infrastructure of communities. They are well-educated, critical thinkers; their training is values-based; and they are uniquely able to articulate community mores. Of course, lawyers are critical to commerce and to the system of justice; and lawyers are connectors. The good ones are also peacemakers.

Where did the idea of doing a blog come from? Its subject matter is pretty eclectic. Do you just write whatever’s on your mind?

Before there were blogs, I wrote a regular series of posts for the North Carolina Bankers Association’s website; before that, I wrote legal memoranda which the S&L League published. I started doing “Midlaw and Divers Items” because I wanted to understand what blogs are and how they might be used by law firms. Something I published on the blog, about hummus, got written up in the Greensboro newspaper, and all of a sudden I was in the blog business.

The blog is focused on a few topics: 1) mid-size law firms and law practice management; 2) 19th century N.C. lawyers, mostly from Edgecombe and Guilford Counties; 3) expanding legal services delivery to low-wealth communities (I am on the IOLTA board); 4) the importance of liberal arts education; and 5) something we call the MidLaw Diet, which is about hummus mostly. I certainly do not write about whatever is on my mind. I might get sued.

What do you do when you manage to find some free time? Any hobbies besides blogging?

We have this great place in the woods in southwest Virginia where I go to engage in sedentary pursuits and limited physical activities, and I go there whenever I can. I am very involved as a trustee of a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania (Westtown School) and of Guilford College in Greensboro. Hobbies might include cooking (the hummus thing) and reading.

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