Former Chairman Bob Patterson Dies

July 12, 2012

Bob Patterson rose from humble roots to the pinnacle of Virginia’s legal and business establishment. He grew up in blue-collar Church Hill, the son of a railroad engineer and a nurse. He attended public school in Richmond, where his natural leadership became evident at an early age. In high school he rose to the position of First Captain of the Corps of Cadets. That led to a scholarship at Virginia Military Institute, beginning a love affair with VMI that lasted until his final breath. His VMI career was interrupted several times – twice when he was expelled for breaking the rules (and reinstated) and then by the start of World War II. He joined the Navy as an ordinary seaman. In typical fashion his leadership abilities soon rose to the surface and he was offered an appointment to Annapolis. The war ended however and he chose instead to go back to the place he loved, graduating from VMI with honors as the president of the class.

Bob had decided that he wanted to go to law school after college, even though he had no idea what he would be getting into. “I didn’t know any lawyers, never met a lawyer,” he would say, “but for some damn reason I thought I’d like to try it.” He needed a scholarship, though, and things were not promising until his mother ran into his kindergarten teacher, Miss Hattie Bell Gresham. “I hadn’t seen Miss Hattie Bell since kindergarten but she remembered me and asked how I was getting along,” Bob recalled. “Mother told her that I had graduated from VMI and wanted to go to law school but needed a scholarship.” A week or so after that chance encounter, Bob received a letter from Colgate Darden, the former Virginia governor who was then president of the University of Virginia, notifying him that he had been awarded a full scholarship to the law school. It wasn’t until much later that Bob found out that Miss Hattie Bell had sent a note to her first cousin, Constance duPont Darden, insisting that her husband give Miss Hattie Bell’s former pupil whatever aid he needed.

Bob made the Law Review and was elected class president, but as he neared graduation he did not have a single prospect for employment. Without the family ties and social contacts that smoothed the way into the firms that serviced Richmond’s business establishment, Ninth and Main Streets – the intersection of commerce, finance and law in Richmond – might have been on another planet. Young Bobby Patterson had only his natural abilities – and Miss Hattie Bell. “After I found out what had happened about the scholarship, I went to see her and thanked her, and we kept in touch. One day she asked me what I was going to do when I finished and I told her I didn’t know,” he recalled. “She picked up the phone and called her lawyer, Tommy Gordon, and practically browbeat him into giving me an interview.” Characteristically, Bob made the most of the interview and he was offered a job for the summer after his second year – “for free, they didn’t even give me bus fare” – at Gordon’s firm, McGuire, Eggleston, Bocock & Woods, one of the Commonwealth’s most prestigious – in Bob’s words “the legal giants of Virginia.” It was the beginning of a love affair with the law, and the practice of law, that rivaled his deep and abiding affection for his alma mater.

He did well enough that summer to be asked back (although he always characterized his hiring as “a fluke, because they were so desperate for someone to do the work”) and on July 1, 1952, Bob Patterson became the ninth lawyer, and third associate, at McGuire, Eggleston, Bocock & Woods – at $225 a month, no office, just a desk in the library.

“In those days we did everything,” he would tell young lawyers, “searching titles, going to traffic court, handling divorces, creating corporations, lobbying, whatever came down the pike. It was the greatest training you could have.” The older lawyers introduced their young associate to the bankers and corporate executives the firm represented and before long Virginia’s business establishment began to place Bob in the top echelon of attorneys.

Bob never formally specialized in any one particular area of the law. In many ways Bob would have described his practice the same way throughout his career – he did “whatever came down the pike.” He was an all-around lawyer, unusual in the increasingly specialized legal environment of the latter half on the 20th century but one that fit him to a “T.” Bob didn’t just dabble in different areas of the law, he became an expert in whatever discipline was at hand. Longtime court observers called him the greatest trial lawyer they had ever seen, although Bob himself reserved that accolade for his longtime friend and partner Dick Williams. Titans of industry and finance said he was the finest corporate strategist of his time at the bar. Opposing lawyers frequently left the negotiating table declaring that Bob Patterson was the toughest adversary they had ever faced.

Bob never viewed a legal issue in the abstract. Indeed, he disdained lawyers who “went off in a corner and meditated” about a thorny point of law. To Bob Patterson, the law was a “highly human business.” Legal issues were personal matters, problems that some individual was facing, issues that affected them and their lives. To him the essence of being a lawyer was taking on the client’s problem and making it your own. “Never forget,” he would tell young lawyers, “that every client is a human being just like you, and he’s paying you to take on his problem. He wants you to stay awake at night worrying about his problem just like you would your own.” Needless to say, there were many sleepless nights at Bob Patterson’s house over his long career at the bar.

In the mid-1960s Bob’s firm was beset by the departure of several senior lawyers. First one and then another left to be general counsel at one of the firm’s growing corporate clients. Tommy Gordon, who had submitted to Miss Hattie Bell’s pressure and brought Bob into the firm, was appointed to the Supreme Court of Virginia. Bob grew concerned about the lack of depth at the firm. “Other firms were picking off our clients like flies,” he recalled, “and I decided that we had to merge.” Bob sounded out law school friend and hunting and fishing buddy Richard L. Williams, who had developed a thriving litigation practice at Battle, Neal, Harris, Minor & Williams. Bob was impressed with the legal talent at Battle, Neal, especially the younger lawyers, and over drinks, on fishing trips and in duck blinds, he and Williams hammered out a merger.

The announcement on July 1, 1966, of the establishment of McGuire, Woods & Battle shook Virginia’s legal world. At that time law firm mergers were as rare as they are commonplace today. Having nothing to guide them, the partners at the new firm struggled with the integration of the practices, clients and lawyers. Battle, Neal had offices in two cities, Richmond and Charlottesville, extremely unusual for its time. And then there was the issue of culture, as Battle, Neal was as hard-charging and aggressive as McGuire, Woods, King, Davis & Patterson was staid and formal.

As the youngest of the nine senior partners at the new firm Bob was not included in the leadership at first. It was not until Williams made a veiled threat to pull out unless Bob was given a bigger role that he became a member of the executive committee. Bob’s election to the executive committee in the fall of 1967 marked a turning point in the development of the firm. While he did not formally take on the title of Chairman until 1979, from the moment he joined the executive committee Bob Patterson influenced every stage of the firm’s evolution.

Bob’s philosophy was that the only reason to be in a law firm rather than practicing on one’s own was the opportunity to access the knowledge and expertise of your partners. But to do that, you had to like and, more importantly, to respect your partners, associates and staff. Loyalty – to the firm, to your partners, to your clients and to your employees – was the indispensible ingredient in a successful law firm. “If a firm ever loses that, if it ever becomes just about money, why then, you have created a monster that will devour itself,” he would say. “That wasn’t going to happen here if I had anything to say about it.”

By the sheer force of his personality Bob overcame the obstacles to the achievement of his vision of what a law firm should be. He resolved conflicts, legal and personal; he defused rivalries, great and small; he smoothed out the rough edges and sharp elbows. “It took us about 10 years to iron everything out internally,” Bob would recall, but he achieved his goal of full integration and set McGuire, Woods on the path to the success it has achieved today.

The firm made formal what had existed for years in practice on September 20, 1979, when it elected Bob the chairman of the Executive Committee. The following decade was a time of rapid growth and expansion. When Bob took over as chairman, the firm had fewer than a 100 lawyers in its two offices. When he stepped down in December 1989 it had grown to well over 300 hundred. Under his leadership the firm opened offices in Norfolk and Washington and in 1987 established itself in Northern Virginia through a merger with that area’s premier firm, Boothe, Pritchard & Dudley.

Bob’s decade as chairman saw ever more complex legal matters for the firm’s clients. The Firestone 500 litigation, the Dalkon Shield, and the Westinghouse uranium class action on the litigation side, and the spectacular growth of corporate clients like Best Products, Circuit City and S&K spurred the firm’s expansion. So did the new clients who came on board, notably Signet Bank (now Wachovia) and James River Paper. Bob himself led a team of lawyers who achieved a then record antitrust settlement against pet product giant Hartz Mountain.

One of the proudest moments of Bob’s tenure as chairman of the firm came on Jan. 18, 1982, when John N. Dalton joined the firm as a partner when his term as Governor of Virginia ended. The two formed an inseparable bond which was only severed by Dalton’s untimely death four short years later.

Bob handed over the chairman’s gavel at the end of the decade, just as a new chapter in Bob’s remarkable career was unfolding – one that represented his greatest challenge, combining his love for the law and his devotion to his alma mater, illuminating every facet of his ability and ultimately nearly breaking his heart. In March of 1990 the U. S. Department of Justice filed suit to invalidate VMI’s 150-year-old males-only admissions policy. The school hired Bob to lead its defense. For nearly six years, Bob and his team worked around the clock, scoring victories in the U.S. District Court (twice) and in the 4th U.S. Circuit. But their crusade ended with a 7-1 decision by the U. S. Supreme Court in the Justice Department’s favor.

Somehow it was fitting that Bob ended the active practice on the last day of the 20th century. He started spending most of his time with his children and grandchildren and on fishing and hunting trips, but he kept his office at the firm and was always available – right up until the end – to provide wise counsel and sound judgment to any one of us who needed it. Those who have been around for a decade or so might remember the snowy weekend when a frantic call went out for help with an emergency document review. Among the motley crew that assembled in a second floor conference room in Richmond that Saturday morning was Bob Patterson, his boots off and drying on a sheet of newspaper, his sleeves rolled up and his half glasses perched on his nose, paging through a stack of corporate records and providing sharp commentary whenever one piqued his interest.

One of Bob’s many admirers is fond of saying that Bob Patterson was born too late. If he had come into the world just 20 years earlier, school children would know his name and military historians would chronicle his successes along with those of Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley. His commanding presence, his ability to marshal resources, his capacity to inspire, his knack for getting people to lay aside their personal concerns and unite to accomplish a common goal, all were on a par with those of chieftains of legend.

Even so, Bob Patterson was the humblest of men. “I despise arrogance,” he often said. “It’s nothing more than a signal that you don’t have confidence in yourself.” As someone supremely confident in himself, there was not a shred of arrogance in Bob Patterson’s makeup.

One of the highlights at McGuireWoods was Bob’s annual lecture to new lawyers, a tradition that continued as his career wound down and for several years in his retirement. His old colleagues would crowd into the room to hear Bob, in characteristic fashion, start out by making the room full of young men and women – on whose licenses to practice law the ink was still damp – feel like equals. “You and I are part of a great law firm,” he would say. “Good feelings and good will pervade this firm, and I hope that as the next leaders of the firm you will work to see that it continues that way.”

He always led with the most important subject – families. It was an article of faith for him that lawyers were people first and their first obligation was to their loved ones. “If you have to work at night, which you’re going to have to do,” he would say, “you make sure you go home at the end of the day and have dinner with your family. Then you can come on back down here and work all night if you want, but don’t you ever neglect your family.”

Next he would turn to the subject of loyalty. “Whenever you are with an organization, you evince pride in it,” he would say. “You let people know that you are with this firm and you are damn proud of it.”

Then he would bring the crowd up short by reminding them who they were. “There’s no difference between you and the man on the street except that you went to school for seven years. Don’t you ever let a client see an air of superiority, because you are no better than any one of them except you went to school.” He would grow serious as he admonished the audience about their relationships with the staff. “They are just as important as you are and don’t you ever forget that. You need them, and you need to be there when they need you.”

Work hard, always conduct yourself as a lady or a gentleman, share recognition when you succeed but accept responsibility if you fail, and never try to get ahead by stepping over someone else. These were the simple truths that Bob Patterson imparted to each year’s new crop of lawyers, and the truths he lived by.

“As long as there is a McGuireWoods,” said current firm Chairman Richard Cullen, “Bob Patterson will always be with us. He will be present whenever we pause to share a laugh, whenever we sit down at a secretary’s desk on another floor and find out how her mother is doing in assisted living, whenever we spontaneously decide to let off steam in the middle of a project and take the team out for drinks (and vow to get in all the earlier the next morning). Each day that we strive together to achieve a common goal for our clients, in short, whenever we act as McGuireWoods professionals, he will be with us.”

The funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday July 14, 2012, at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 12291 River Road, Richmond, VA 23238. Burial will follow in the church cemetery. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to the Robert H. Patterson Jr. 49C Scholarship Fund, c/o VMI Foundation Inc., P.O. Box 932, Lexington, VA 24450.