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Enduring Legacy: Brooks Pierce celebrates 125th Anniversary 

Teri Saylor//August 1, 2022

Enduring Legacy: Brooks Pierce celebrates 125th Anniversary 

Teri Saylor//August 1, 2022

Brooks Pierce has a modern presence in the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Raleigh.

When someone recently asked Reid Phillips how law firms become centenarians, he found himself uniquely qualified to answer.  

He is managing partner at Brooks Pierce, which is celebrating its 125th Anniversary this year.  

In a recent Zoom interview, Phillips illustrated the firm’s longevity, painting a vivid portrait of a firm with humble beginnings in 19th Century Greensboro, colorful characters that defined the firm’s culture over the years, and service to the community and clients that remains its enduring legacy. 

“If you want a law firm that lasts for 125 years, you have to know your clients and stay ahead of their needs and you have to hire the best people with diverse talents,” he said.  A strong culture that attracts the best and the brightest also leads to longevity, he added.   

“Finally, you must know how to manage your business because bankrupt law firms don’t last very long,” he said. 

The name “Brooks” has been associated with the law firm since day one, when Aubrey Brooks teamed up with Col. James Boyd to launch Boyd and Brooks in 1897. 

Phillips recalls the two lawyers became acquainted when Brooks, an attorney in Roxboro, traveled to Greensboro for a court case and met Boyd. He noticed Greensboro’s thriving hub for transportation and manufacturing and realized the town was poised for growth. 

“Greensboro had six railroad tracks coming in from different directions, the Cone brothers had set up their cotton buying operation which eventually led to North Carolina’s textile industry, the town was a destination for tobacco processing, and the furniture industry was getting started,” Phillips said. “Mr. Brooks liked Mr. Boyd and they formed a partnership that was the start of our law firm.” 

Brooks Pierce joins a cohort of North Carolina law firms over 100 years old, Phillips said. Among them are Craige Jenkins Liipfert & Walker, 1831 in Salisbury; Womble Bond Dickenson,1876 in Winston-Salem; McGuire Wood & Bissette, 1894 in Asheville, Kilpatrick Townsend, 1919 in Winston-Salem, and Hartsell & Williams, 1896 in Cabarrus County. 

In 1974, the firm assumed the full name carries today – Brooks Pierce McLendon Humphrey & Leonard, which is shortened to Brooks Pierce for branding. Today, the Brooks name is associated with for Aubrey’s son, Thornton who Phillips describes as a tall, distinguished quiet man, famous for his thorough preparation when arguing cases before Fourth Circuit panels of judges.  

“Thornton Brooks was so well-prepared and effective, that the court changed a rule about announcing panel assignments,” Phillips said. “In the past, attorneys arguing before the court could learn the panel of judges several days ahead, but Mr. Brooks was so good at pitching his arguments before a particular judge and so famous with his research and preparation, the court changed the rule and even today the identity of the panel is not released until the morning of argument.” 

Phillips, who joined the firm in 1973, reflected back on changes he’s seen in the past 45 years. 

“There were 16 attorneys at the firm in those days, and each with a secretary, and that’s how the firm operated,” he said. “We had one bookkeeper, one receptionist, and there was a law library in the middle of the office where all the associates and partners would gather around big tables and work when they needed to get away from the telephone.” 

The modern Brooks Pierce occupies offices in Raleigh and Wilmington, in addition to its main office in Greensboro, and it has expanded into one of the state’s largest law firms, with ;107 attorneys.  

Phillips anticipates establishing a presence in Charlotte soon.  

“Back in the day, we would all collaborate on cases, and it was a fun way to work together, and we really got to know each other,” he said. “Today people tend to sit at their desks or work remotely, and we don’t collaborate as much.” 

Brooks Pierce offers a diverse range of practice areas and services for clients, but business law is still at its heart. Some practice areas have evolved over time, largely due to growth in technology and the internet.   

“When I was in law school learning about property, it was real property we were talking about,” he said. “Today, we refer to intellectual property, trademarks and copyright laws, particularly as it pertains to our broadcast and media clients.” 

The internet also brought about the demise of the stately law libraries as attorneys turn to digital resources. Brooks Pierce’s has reduced its Raleigh library to just couple of shelves. 

“When the day comes that we renovate our Greensboro office, or move to a new location, the same thing will happen there,” Phillips said. “I’m excited about the future, but I know when I see those books discarded, I’ll also be a little sad, because those books contain case law that made a difference for clients.” 

Over the years, Brooks Pierce has welcomed notable attorneys to its ranks, including Henry Frye, former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, and the state’s first Black justice.  

Currently the firm is home to Bill Ross, former secretary of the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources; Jennifer Van Zant, former chair of the North Carolina Business Court Rules Revision Committee, and Kearns Davis, past president of the North Carolina Bar Association. 

Last year, Tony Copeland, former Secretary of Commerce, joined Brooks Pierce as senior economic development and corporate strategist and launched the firm’s new economic development practice area. 

Brooks Pierce also embraces diversity and inclusion, and has created a Diversity and Inclusion Committee. which recently established the Justice Henry E. Frye Diversity Fellowship, which awards an annual $10,000 scholarship to a student of color enrolled in a full-time JD program at an ABA-accredited law school. 

The firm has a long history of community service and encourages attorneys and professional staff to embrace volunteerism by serving on board and committees, doing pro bono work and even serving locally on kids’ sports leagues. 

While Brooks Pierce has a long and distinguished history, Phillips looks forward to the decades ahead. 

 “I am excited about what our future holds and the impact current and upcoming generations of attorneys will have in shaping North Carolina and the practice of law,” he said. 

Teri Saylor is a writer in Raleigh, N.C. 

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