NCAJ Hero Profile: Dan Bryson
Dan Bryson was thriving as an insurance defense attorney, having been made partner after eight years at a respected Raleigh firm where he represented corporations like Ford Motor Co., CSX and AIG. Then came what he describes as his “Damascus Road conversion.”
“I had been persecuting everyone for a long time, and I realized my heart was really on the plaintiff’s side,” Bryson said. “That’s when I switched over.”
It happened like this: He and his client’s insurance adjuster were surveying the scene of a crash involving two young drivers, one of whom had died. The driver insured by his client was clearly negligent, he says.
“His bad driving — he was a young kid — it killed another kid, and so we went out to the accident scene, and it was just so sad,” Bryson recalled. “And I’ll never forget the insurance adjuster looked at me and said, ‘Well, yeah, I know we might have some liability here, but you need to really work hard to get us out of this as cheaply as possible.’”
Standing there, close to tears as he imagined the brutal end of a young life, Bryson felt disgusted.
The insurance adjustor continued.
“He said, ‘You need to keep your hours down. Give us a budget; you ought to be able to handle this pretty cheaply,’” Bryson recalled. “At that moment, I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
He left the firm and formed a plaintiffs’ firm with five other attorneys, taking with him valuable insights into the mindsets of insurance companies and corporations: “How do we get out of this as cheaply as possible?”
In the decades since, Bryson has thrived as a plaintiffs’ attorney, founding Whitfield Bryson & Mason, which focused on class actions and personal injury cases and secured more than $1 billion in settlements and jury awards for plaintiffs facing off against corporations. In the decades since, Bryson has thrived as a plaintiffs’ attorney, founding Whitfield Bryson & Mason, which focused on class actions and personal injury cases and secured more than $1 billion in settlements and jury awards for plaintiffs facing off against corporations. Among the most memorable cases was a class action suit involving Chinese drywall used in rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. The drywall emitted a sulfuric gas that caused corrosion. Bryson helped chair a steering committee for the plaintiffs’ group, which won a settlement valued at over $1 billion on behalf of thousands of people who were then able to get their homes remediated.
In January 2021, Whitfield Bryson LLP partnered with Milberg Phillips Grossman LLP, Sanders Phillips Grossman LLC and Greg Coleman Law PC to form Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman PLLC. The move created an 85-lawyer firm with expanded international and domestic reach and greater resources to go toe-to-toe with corporations.
“There’s so much injustice in the country and in the world, and there’s so little time to try to address it,” Bryson said. “A lot of people don’t appreciate the vast resources corporations have.”
In July of 2021, Bryson began his term as president of Public Justice, a national nonprofit that champions matters of social, economic and environmental injustice through the courts with a staff of heavy-hitting attorneys.
“All of these lawyers are just really super smart public interest lawyers, and they go out and tackle cases that are in the public interest, regardless of whether you can make money in it or not,” Bryson said. “When they see systemic injustice, they jump in.”
The organization’s causes include helping victims of Title IX abuses, school bullying and agribusiness, as well as fighting arbitration clauses, which Bryson described as “a kudzu in our system that deprives people of their right to be in court.”
He said the group’s mission inspired him, in part, because of its reach.
“It really resonated with me — being a North Carolina lawyer, doing my little thing in North Carolina — to be able to plug into something much bigger than me, that had a much bigger impact than what I could have in North Carolina,” he said.
Volunteering to help lead a group focused on fighting for progressive causes would have seemed anathema to Bryson’s younger self when he was a “big, flame-throwing Republican” as an undergraduate at UNC – Chapel Hill.
Bryson went to Chapel Hill intent on becoming a doctor, but a stint working in an emergency room cured him of that.
“I absolutely hated it,” he said.
Instead, he got involved in student government and found that he enjoyed the process and the debate. As a student government representative, Bryson focused on cutting funding and quashing frivolous spending. Among his targets one year was a student government-sponsored concert at Kenan Stadium that he figured would be a dud and money loser. He campaigned to get it canceled, coming just one vote shy of succeeding.
But the show went on, and he turned out on a rainy afternoon in 1983 to watch Bono climb the scaffolding at Kenan Stadium and belt out “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” to a soaking wet, wildly enthusiastic crowd. It kicked off the band’s 1983 tour.
After graduating from UNC, Bryson earned an MBA at UNC Greensboro and his law degree at Wake Forest University School of Law.
While he lost his conservative political bent over the years, Bryson retained a willingness to try new things and cultivate a culture of innovation.
In the mid-1990s, Bryson made national news when he put up a website as a portal for potential clients. He was representing property owners whose property had been damaged by EIFS, a widely used defective synthetic stucco. The site got thousands of hits, and the action ultimately resulted in a $150 million settlement on behalf of hundreds of homeowners throughout the Southeast.
Because lawyers putting up websites was rare at the time, a Wall Street Journal reporter included Bryson in a story spotlighting the ethical implications of lawyers marketing their services on the Internet.
“I wasn’t the guy who got the pen-and-ink drawing, but I was quoted pretty extensively throughout a Wall Street Journal article about putting up a freaking website,” Bryson said. “It’s amazing how the world’s changed since then.”
Bryson’s goals as president of Public Justice include vigorous support of the organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, where the group is hoping to lead by example.
Bryson said Public Justice has worked hard to recruit a very diverse board in a variety of respects. Those members draw from firms and agencies from across the country.
“We hope that the board members will see Public Justice doing DEI and will then take that back to their firms and make sure that they have good DEI policies within their firms as well,” Bryson said.
Public Justice is also in the midst of a strategic plan, which affords the leadership a chance to help set the group’s direction for years to com. Bryson’s involvement in Public Justice also gives him a chance to shine a light on the more progressive movements of his home state. No North Carolinian has helmed the group since 2009, when Mona Lisa Wallace, also an NCAJ member, served as president.
“I want to show them that ‘Hey, we’re actually a progressive place here,’” Bryson said. “We’ve got a Democratic governor, a Democratic AG who’s awesome, and it’s a great state, a beautiful state.”
When he’s not fighting for justice, Bryson likes to run, play golf and “play the guitar badly.” He and his wife Lynda are recently empty-nesters. Daughter Kimberlen began boarding school in New Hampshire this summer. Oldest son Hunter Bryson is a lawyer in his dad’s firm, and younger son Davis works for the legal software company Litify.
Bryson and fellow firm members have a tradition of running marathons together, so Bryson spent much of the fall training for the Marine Corps Marathon in October. He’s a big believer in team building at the firm.
“It’s good business, it’s good leadership and it’s just being a decent person,” Bryson said.
“That’s the culture we’re instilling with the new firm, with Milberg — a team approach. You do a better job on your cases and you make more money.”