Politics & Government

NC lawyer steps away from profession, troubled by the legal field

Attorney Lewis Pitts in a portrait shot in 2013 or 2014.
Attorney Lewis Pitts in a portrait shot in 2013 or 2014. Courtesy of Lewis Pitts

North Carolina recently launched a top-to-bottom review of the judicial system, a comprehensive look that will come from the assembly of judges, lawyers, government officials, business leaders and others called on by the state’s chief justice.

At about the time that review was beginning, Lewis Pitts, a lawyer who has accumulated many awards and recognitions for his work on children’s rights and more, was stepping away from the legal profession in North Carolina, ending his 40-year career in dismay.

Pitts, 68, was so troubled by what he perceived to be the common practice of attorneys and law firms to put making money above goals of seeking economic and social justice that he pushed the N.C. State Bar to establish a procedure for resigning from the profession.

Though the state bar, for many years, had allowed non-practicing lawyers to slip into “inactive status,” Pitts wanted something different, but he had to go to the N.C. Supreme Court to win approval for the resignation procedure that fit his goals.

“My resignation is because I see an overall breach by the Bar as a whole of the most basic of professional conduct and ethics such that I do not want be be associated with the Bar,” Pitts said in a letter on April 23, 2014, to Ronald Baker Sr., who was president of the N.C. State Bar at the time.

In a four-page letter, Pitts proceeded to outline his observances of a profession that had him working in South Carolina, the District of Columbia and then North Carolina since 1994.

“I do not mean to be mean or flippant,” Pitts said in his letter. “The ministry of law has been a powerful force in my life and I have had the pleasure of working with many terrific people in pursuit of justice — lawyers and non-lawyers. I want these parting words to stir your minds and hearts into reflection, boldness, and transformational action.”

Pitts, a Greensboro resident now, spent almost two decades at Legal Aid of North Carolina, where he founded the statewide children’s unit and fought with others against the so-called Schools to Prison Pipeline.

A North Carolinian who hails from South Carolina, Pitts, a graduate of Wofford College and the University of South Carolina school of law, has experienced peaks and valleys while taking on the big and small in a career that includes bringing lawsuits against a former North Carolina governor, a state Supreme Court chief justice and trying to subpoena political adviser Karl Rove.

He describes himself as a public interest lawyer and he worries that others in the legal profession have left the public out of their interests.

“From my earliest days as a lawyer, I have been concerned that the role of our profession has been to serve and protect the political and business Establishment and not to uphold Rule of Law,” Pitts said in his letter of resignation from the Bar, which was not official until October, when the N.C. Supreme Court ruled on the new North Carolina procedure to “relinquish” membership.

Pitts, a colorful speaker who is tenacious but typically upbeat, has been on both sides of the bar — not only representing the accused but facing accusations for his participation in a range of political protests.

Reached by telephone recently, Pitts talked enthusiastically about the conversation he hoped to start when taking the unusual step of relinquishing his bar membership. Pitts said he was concerned his colleagues in the legal profession had known for years about injustices in the justice system that have laid the foundation for the #BlackLivesMatter movement and this country’s high rate of incarceration. He complained about the indefinite detentions ordered by the president and contended that people and corporations with financial means get better representation than those who cannot afford high-priced attorneys.

“Yet the Bar does little but applaud as big firms make millions; hourly rates on the corporate side are sinful,” Pitts said. “...The quality of legal representation on either the criminal or civil side depends on the amount of money one has. What a travesty: Millions of people desperately need legal representation while there are a flood of lawyers who cannot find work such that bar associations discuss the crisis of too many law schools.”

Several attorneys gathered at a N.C. State Bar disciplinary hearing last week in Raleigh read Pitts’ letter, and though they did not disagree with many of his points, chose not to respond publicly.

When asked why he did not stay in the profession and try to make it better by working within his field, Pitts responded: “I did for 43 years.”

There was no “hair trigger” that made Pitts decide to step away when he did. “It was like the hypocrisy was eating my physically and psychologically,” Pitts said. “There are individual lawyers that have a conscience, but they’re trampled by the system.”

Pitts called his appeal “a desperate plea” in “some explosive times when the rule of law really needs to mean something.”

“I guess it’s time for our profession to undergo a moral checkup,” Pitts concluded.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1