Linda McGee: How the Academy and the Former Chief Judge Grew Up Together
Retired Judge Linda McGee will moderate a panel discussion, “Finding Your Seat at the Table,” at the upcoming Fourth Annual Women’s Caucus Retreat on Friday, March 11.
Before she spent 26 years as an N.C. Court of Appeals judge, setting a record for length of service on the court, and before her 17 years as a trial lawyer in Boone, Linda McGee was a 23-year-old University of North Carolina law grad who needed a job.
“I had just graduated from law school, and coming into Raleigh, you could probably count the number of women lawyers on both hands,” she said.
McGee had three interviews after graduation in 1973.
The first was with Deborah Greenblatt, a woman attorney who didn’t have an opening but just wanted to be sure McGee felt welcome to town.
“My second interview was with a gentleman who asked me how fast I typed,” McGee said. “Somehow, I figured that relationship wasn’t going to turn out too well. And then the third one was my interview with the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers.”
Three proved to be a charm as the encounter led NCAJ founders Charlie Blanchard and Jim Clontz to offer McGee a position as the first executive director of the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers.
It had been more than a decade since Blanchard, Clontz, Eugene Phillips, William Thorp and Allen Bailey had rallied fellow solo and small-firm lawyers from across the state to form the Academy in 1962. The founders shared a passion for representing individuals against corporate interests that led them to form the collegial society. As the group grew, enthusiastic volunteers supported the group’s mission to share information and support, provide practical legal education tailored to trial lawyers’ needs and advocate for clients’ rights — primarily at the legislature. Phillips had taken $200 in seed money from the National Association of Claimants and Compensation Attorneys (now the American Association of Justice) to start a group that would do the work “that no other bar group can and will effectively accomplish.”
That $200, coupled with the founders’ determination and relentless energy, gave rise to a thriving statewide organization. By 1973, the Academy counted about 500 members. It had grown large enough to need a full-time professional at the helm but, as McGee recalls, was still operating on a shoestring.
“They informed me right after I said yes that there was $5,000 in the treasury and that I was welcome to use all that I could to pay my salary, hire a part-time secretary, rent a place so we could have an office and buy some used furniture. So that’s what I started doing immediately.”
That’s a little more than $30,000 in today’s dollars. To the wealth of legal experience and practical knowledge the founders had amassed in their first decade, McGee added her ingenuity.
She grew up in a mill village in Marion, where her mother worked for the American Thread Co. and her father worked in textiles before becoming a builder. She attended UNC Law on a scholarship, having finished her undergraduate degree in Chapel Hill in three years beforehand.
During law school summers, she worked for small-town newspapers — the McDowell News in Marion and the Benson Review. In the summer of 1973, while the Watergate hearings blazed on TV, she and her husband shared the job of editor of the Clayton News, taking turns editing the weekly’s front page. She bought the books for bar exam prep but skipped the classes, opting to watch the Watergate hearings while she studied.
When the Academy gave her a chance to create her own position and help direct its future, McGee was ready.
“I felt like I was starting a new little business pretty much and I had to learn quickly,” she recalled.
She bought or borrowed enough desks and chairs to furnish two rented rooms in the old Wachovia Bank Building on Fayetteville Street Mall and went from there.
“I knew that if I wanted to get through the rest of the year and pay myself, we needed to put on a continuing legal education program pretty quickly,” she said.
Enlisting Academy leadership, McGee put together a full day of CLE just before Christmas, held in meeting rooms at downtown Raleigh’s iconic cylindrical Holiday Inn. That put enough in Academy coffers to tide them over until dues notices went out Jan. 1.
Opportunities for Change
Tides were changing in the United States in the early 1970s, and North Carolina was no exception.
In 1973, President Richard Nixon was sweating his way through the agonizing end of his administration. The last of U.S. troops returned from Vietnam, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state bans on abortion with a decision in Roe v. Wade. Billie Jean King delivered a win for feminism when she beat Bobby Riggs in an exhibition tennis match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.”
North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Susie Sharp stood poised to become the first woman in the United States to be elected chief justice of a state Supreme Court in 1974. Meanwhile, North Carolina had inaugurated 38-year-old UNC School of Law grad James Holshouser as its first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He and Lt. Gov. Jim Hunt sought unsuccessfully to have the General Assembly ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a move the Academy boldly endorsed.
Progressive legislation advocacy was in the Academy’s DNA and McGee readily plugged into the member network when issues of interest to the group arose at the General Assembly.
“Whenever anything would come up, I would notify people and we would pretty promptly be able to get speakers to go over for any committee hearings,” she said. “There was a working base.”
The relationships McGee forged with Academy members during her four years as executive director remained one of her most valuable resources in subsequent years as she built a law practice in Western North Carolina, gained appointment to the Court of Appeals and then won three statewide elections for her seat.
“When I was trying to get the appointment for the Court of Appeals years later, you better believe they were the first people I contacted — to send in their letters of recommendation to Gov. Hunt. And for years after that they supported me through three statewide races. You just can’t ask for a better start than that.”
In 1995 when Hunt appointed McGee to the Court of Appeals, she was following one of those Academy contacts, founder Gene Phillips, to the bench. Phillips served on the court from 1983 to 1990. He and McGee worked together when she first came to the Academy, as Phillips was completing his tenure as volunteer secretary and head administrator. Described by one member as “the mind of the Academy,” Phillips kept things going throughout the first decade. He served as president from 1972 to 1974.
McGee went to meet him in his offices on an upper floor of the Wachovia Bank Building in Winston-Salem, and it dawned on her that she may have been one of the first woman lawyers Phillips had ever met. That day, Phillips packed up 10 years’ worth of records for McGee to return to Raleigh with, a brief history of how the Academy functioned.
Allen Bailey also served as an invaluable resource on Academy history, and of course there was his wife, Ebbie.
“Ebbie just adopted all of us over time, and she was particularly supportive of me,” McGee said. “It was great to have people in a very short period of time, and all around the state, to call on if something was needed.”
Men dominated the organization as they did the legal profession at the time, but McGee was not always the only woman in the room. The Academy’s secretary, Mary Leonard, was an enthusiastic supporter of the mission.
“Mary bought into it all just like I did.” McGee said. “She really felt like we were doing something that made a difference.”
Leonard’s work with the Academy stoked the interest of her daughter, Debbie Leonard Parker, in pursuing a legal career. Parker became Wake Forest University School of Law’s first dean for students in 2000.
As McGee’s time at the Academy continued and the number of women attorneys grew, they turned to one another for inspiration.
“We started a bring your bag lunch, contacting the handful of other women lawyers that were in Raleigh,” she said. “We would try to get together once a month or so and just talk about how things could develop.”
Those bag lunches eventually led to the creation of the Wake Woman Attorneys, and in 1978, McGee was among the founding members of the North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys.
“We, like the Academy, knew that it was our time to get some things done,” she said. “Opportunities were occurring, and we needed to be ready to take advantage of them.”
Encouragement Begets Encouragement
McGee was with the Academy for about four years until her husband, whose career was in city/county management, took a job in Boone. It was in Watauga County where McGee built a practice as a trial lawyer with di Santi, Watson and McGee, now di Santi Capua & Garrett, PLLC. That courtroom experience stood her in good stead during her 26 years on the Court of Appeals bench.
In 2014, McGee was named chief judge of the Court of Appeals. In addition, she served on the State Judicial Council, and as vice chair of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, on the N.C. Board of Law Examiners, the Equal Access to Justice Commission, the IOLTA Board and in a host of volunteer leadership roles.
In 2019, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley presented her the Friend of the Court Award. And in October 2021, she received the N.C. State Bar’s highest honor, the John B. McMillan Distinguished Service Award. Her former law partners Tony di Santi and Andrea Capua nominated her.
Among the things she is proudest of is helping grow the number of women on the bench.
“In 1995, I was the only woman on the court, though there had been other women before,” she said. “It was a couple more years before we had another one. I know how delighted I was when about 12 years ago we had a majority of women on the court. … For me that was something that was important to see. It was great to serve on the first full woman panel of judges.”
In her retirement, McGee continues to lead the efforts of the North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys to encourage women to seek careers as judges.
McGee said she knows how lucky she has been, not only to have found the network that the Academy provided and the support of other fellow attorneys throughout her career but to have had her parents’ support as well. When other women her age were pursuing careers as nurses and teachers, they agreed that law school was the thing for her.
“I had two parents that basically told me I could do anything I wanted to do,” she said. “I never questioned that. I never had any doubt that they would support me in whatever it was I wanted to do.”