He's heard them all, and Ron Gibson '74 has determined he's fed up with lawyer jokes. He made that perfectly clear recently in his installation address as the newly elected president of the North Carolina Bar.
"We are engaged meaningfully in practically every aspect of our society – in business, in government, and in all facets of the administration of justice," he said. "Yet, we let our noble profession be denigrated by caricatures of ourselves as sharks, bulldogs and bears, and by often-repeated misquotes of Shakespeare. We should take pride in who we are and what we do."
During his year as president, Gibson will take that message to meetings of State Bar groups around the state. He will suggest that lawyers remind people that their role is critical to a just society. "We have always been at the forefront protecting our Constitutional rights – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, a free press, the right to bear arms, the right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to due process and against self-incrimination, the right to trial by jury and the right to counsel," he said.
The State Bar is charged by legislative statute to regulate the practice of law to protect the public interest. Its duties include licensing, investigating alleged breeches of ethics, administering discipline, and interpreting Rules of Professional Conduct. The organization serves the state's lawyers with a staff of 85 at its Raleigh office.
Gibson was elected as State Bar President on the basis of a successful career in a wide range of jobs in the profession, and extensive service over 15 years as a councilor on numerous State Bar committees – client assistance, grievance, administrative, program evaluation, authorized practice, executive, disciplinary advisory, appointments advisory, ethics, facilities, and issues.
Despite his impressive record of service to the profession, Gibson describes himself as "just a working stiff."
He gives Davidson some of the credit for his attitude. "Part of being a Davidson student and an alum is that you get involved with whatever you're doing," he said. "You contribute to trying to make it better. I haven't accomplished anything great. I've just had good opportunities, like attending Davidson, and tried to make the most of them."
Gibson was in the vanguard of African American students at Davidson, with just 11 others on campus.
He might well have ended up at Wake Forest. But, former Davidson President (then-student) Tom Ross '70 and several friends were concerned that the college's admission office wasn't working hard enough to recruit black students. So they launched an ad hoc effort to stage a recruitment weekend that not only brought Gibson to campus, but in the end more than doubled the number of black students in the class.
Ross and Gibson have maintained a friendship through the years. In fact, Ross introduced Gibson at his installation, calling him "the consummate professional." Ross said, "You have chosen a remarkable role model who will serve with distinction and dedication."
Gibson built an outstanding record at Davidson, but he never expected anything less from his hard work. He served as president of the Black Student Association, was selected as a North Carolina Fellow, and received the George Gladstone Award for academic performance and potential for leadership and service. He capped off his undergraduate career by winning a Watson Fellowship upon graduation to study "Capital Formation in Developing Economies" in Jamaica, Ghana and Europe.
With degrees from Davidson and UNC School of Law, he launched his career as clerk for Federal Judge James B. McMillan. He then joined the firm of Chambers, Stein, Ferguson & Becton for nearly five years, working on class-action discrimination suits against large employers. In one of his biggest cases, Cannon Mills agreed in 1982 to pay $1.6 million to about 3,700 African American employees to settle a suit.
Beginning in 1983, Gibson signed on to Duke Power for 15 years, where he worked on licensing a nuclear power plant, utility rate cases and lobbying. He eventually transferred to management and became an officer of the company.
Since 2011 he has been a partner with the Charlotte firm of Ruff, Bond, Cobb, Wade & Bethune, LLP., where his primary clients are Mecklenburg County and Livingstone College. Three of the four lawyers with whom he practices are also Davidson alumni – Marvin Bethune '70, Ham Wade '52 and J.D. DuPuy '96. He is also a board member of Lawyers Mutual, the largest provider of professional liability insurance for North Carolina lawyers.
Gibson has remained involved with his alma mater. He moderated an Alumni College session on capital punishment, serves on the Board of Visitors and has been a member of the Vann Center for Ethics advisory board since its founding. He served on the steering committee for the Davidson Black Alumni Network in 1998.
Now, as State Bar president, he has the opportunity to voice his pride in the profession to his 27,000 peers, and the public, statewide. In his talks he might just begin by offering a retort to one of the most well-known jabs at lawyers – a line from Shakespeare spoken by Dick the Butcher in the play "Henry VI," it reads, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers!"
Most interpret Butcher's quote as frustration with the complexity of law. But Gibson has his own interpretation. "It was intended to eliminate those who might stand in the way of a revolution, underscoring the important role that lawyers play in society," he concluded.
Well played, counselor!