Robert Harrington comes from a household headed by college-educated parents, so understanding the importance of a good education is essentially part of his DNA.
Up until his junior year at Duke University, where he majored in history and religion, the Florence, South Carolina native considered three educational paths for advanced degrees: Divinity school, history graduate school, and law school.
Ultimately, Harrington says, it was a combination of role models and interest in the legal field that led him to stay at Duke, where in 1987 he earned his law degree with high honors.
One of those role models was the father of a high school friend, one of just two African-American attorneys in Florence — a small, railroad town situated in the Palmetto State’s Pee Dee region — back then.
“Both of those lawyers were leaders in the community, involved in the NAACP and church stuff,” Harrington said. “In Florence and in South Carolina, folks who were able to have influence were … lawyers and doctors. And I knew I wasn’t going to be a doctor.”
Harrington, the youngest of four siblings, considers himself fortunate to have been able to witness a model for success. As a child of older parents — in their 40s when he was born — and grandparents who held college degrees, Harrington was exposed to an environment that he says created not only the expectation that he would do well in life, but that he would help others do well, too.
Sure enough, Harrington has enjoyed plenty of personal and professional successes over the years.
Harrington and his wife, Sharon — also a Duke Law grad — have been married for 28 years. Recently, the couple watched their only son, Jourdan, take his own vows.
He is a shareholder with Robinson Bradshaw and operates from the firm’s high rise in uptown Charlotte. He joined Robinson Bradshaw in 1999 after spending several years with a New Orleans firm, where he honed the business litigation skills that serve him so well today.
Harrington currently chairs a 44-member litigation department, where he leads strategic planning, coordinates and supports professional development, and oversees work allocation and staffing.
A glance at his bio reveals numerous awards and accolades aplenty.
But lawyers are commonly known not only for their billable hours and business development, but for their community service. They do pro bono work. They serve on nonprofit boards. And, if you name a worthy cause, there’s likely a lawyer or several among those who volunteer their time and money in furtherance of that cause.
Harrington, who has spent years building his community presence, is no exception. Education can lead to a better life, he was taught. And a better life, he was shown, triggers a duty to share blessings.
When listening to Harrington speak about his chosen profession, it doesn’t stretch the imagination to take as true what he says — that he practices law, in large part, so that he can help others, rather than helping others because he practices law.
Giving back is an obligation, he says, but one that he embraces.
“I enjoy being around people and having at least the opportunity to improve the community and the situation for people,” he said. “I always tell people that if I could go back to the first year of law school and fast forward to see what I’m doing today, I’d say, ‘That’s pretty good. I’ll take that.’”
Among other endeavors, Harrington serves as chair of the Arts & Science Council’s board of directors; vice chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library’s board of trustees; member of the Greater Charlotte Cultural Trust’s board of directors; and member of the board of governors of the North Carolina Bar Association.
Previously, he spent nine years as part of the Levine Museum of the New South’s board of directors, including a stint as chairperson; served as president of the Mecklenburg County Bar, where he co-founded its Diversion and Inclusion Committee; and served as co-chair of the board of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“I am driven to work as a lawyer and member of the community for fairness and equity and justice,” Harrington said. “To me, that’s what practicing law and being involved in your community is all about.”
Another cause near and dear to Harrington’s heart is mentoring young lawyers, especially young lawyers of color, whom he believes (and statistics corroborate) are underrepresented in the legal industry. He serves on Robinson Bradshaw’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, something that he said he can’t imagine not doing, and worked for many years to improve diversity as co-chair of the firm’s recruiting committee.
Harrington points to local legal legends — civil rights attorneys Julius Chambers and James Ferguson II — as just two examples who individuals who helped develop the infrastructure upon which he has built his brand.
In the 1960s, Chambers’ car and home were bombed. In 1971, the Charlotte law office he and Ferguson co-founded — North Carolina’s first integrated law office — was also firebombed, acts all presumably committed by those who didn’t share the duo’s ideas of inclusion and equality.
“You look at these giants who broke barriers and didn’t have to do it — devoted a bunch of time and took personal risk by doing it, and if you’re going along a way that they’ve paved, you have an obligation to try and pay it forward,” he said.
Harrington believes that strides have been made regarding minorities in the practice of law, but also that numbers remain poor, in Charlotte and overall. The answer, he believes, lies in increasing the pipeline beginning with early childhood education.
“We’ve got to be vigilant and persistent and creative in doing things to make sure that our doors are open and we’re finding lawyers of color to join our ranks,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do, given what we, as a nation, stand for. And we’ll be better lawyers if we’re more diverse.”
When asked what he does in his free time, after a hearty laugh suggesting that he knows nothing of such a luxury, Harrington said that he’s become a passionate member of his church, both for the church itself and the faith it provides, and referred to himself as a “news geek.”
“I read a lot of newspapers,” Harrington said, “and I enjoy walking, both for the exercise and to clear my head.”
Its origin is unclear to this writer, but there’s a saying that goes, “It doesn’t matter how bright the path is if your mind is always cloudy.”
If that’s true, then armed with a clear head and a calling, Harrington seems poised to help pave a bunch of bright paths.
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher