MEET: John Willardson
John Willardson is a long-time member and a past president of NCADA. He is a dedicated solo practitioner at Willardson Law Firm in Wilkesboro, NC, where he also holds the position of Wilkesboro Town Attorney. John is a graduate of UNC School of Law, Class of 1972. John has also been an active volunteer with the North Carolina State Bar, the Chief Justice's Commission on Professionalism, the YMCA Northwest North Carolina, and a community volunteer in Wilkesboro where you may have seen him serving up hot dogs at MerleFest!
What drew you to the practice of law and to a litigation and trial practice? In high school, I thought that I would attend law school. At UNC, I double majored in Spanish and Political Science, spent one year in Medellin, Colombia at the University of Antiqouia and by the end of my junior year, had resolved to attend law school. I applied for and was accepted to law school but two weeks after graduation, the US Army requested my presence for basic training at Ft. Polk, LA after which I attended AIT at Fort Sam Houston, TX where I was initially trained as a combat medic and then received advanced training in physical therapy. I served 6 years in Army Reserve medical units. All of that delayed my start of law school until 1969. In law school, I realized that my interest was in litigation and having grown up in Santa Monica, California, expected to live and work in a large city. However, following law school, I had the privilege to serve as research assistant to the late Judge Robert A. (Fred) Hedrick of the North Carolina Court of Appeals and while clerking at the NC Court of Appeals, Governor Robert Scott appointed a lawyer from North Wilkesboro, the late Julius A. Rousseau, Jr., as a Superior Court judge. Although neither my wife nor I had ever been to Wilkes County, Judge Hedrick encouraged me to interview with that firm. I did so and was offered and accepted a position to begin in August, 1973 when my position as Research Assistant to Judge Hedrick ended. My wife and I moved to Wilkes County in August, 1973 and have not left. For the last 50+ years, I have engaged in a general law practice with an emphasis on defense law. Our firm’s practice covered many northwest North Carolina counties. In 2014, I became the Wilkesboro Town Attorney and have greatly enjoyed my municipal law practice in addition to my ongoing litigation practice. Since 2015 I have practiced solo for the first time in my career.
How has membership in NCADA benefited your professional life? Membership in the NCADA has certainly broadened my horizons and has allowed me to meet great lawyers and extraordinary people throughout the state.
What would you do if you were not a lawyer? Were I not a lawyer, I either would have applied for a position with the diplomatic corps or would have pursued advanced degrees with the goal of teaching Latin American/Central American history and/or political science.
What is the biggest career challenge you’ve had to overcome? As a young associate, it was truly “baptism by fire” beginning with a solo jury trial my first day in the office and one or two solo civil jury trials during the next two or three months. There was little training or guidance other than on the job training and learning through observation. It was certainly a challenge to develop the self-confidence needed to try cases when the only prior experience was in a trial advocacy class in the third year of law school
What is your favorite legal movie or TV show and why? During the 1980’s, my favorite legal television series was Paper Chase because it was such a reminder of what law school was like. Without question, my favorite legal movie is “To Kill a Mockingbird” because Atticus Finch exemplifies what each of us should aspire to do and be in our respective law practices.
Fun fact that people probably don’t know about you? I am still hoping to be discovered by a major league baseball team, but am starting to lose hope.
If you could meet one person, dead or alive, to grab a coffee with, who would it be and why? Without question, it would be the late Dean Smith because he was brilliant, great leader and coach, a masterful tactician and an even better human being.
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever done? Riding in a single engine Beech Bonanza from the Wilkes County airport to the John Wayne airport in Orange County, CA and back and spending about 22 hours in the cockpit over a 2-1/2 day period.
What excites you the most right now? Playing tennis, Carolina athletics and the return of NASCAR and the reopening of the North Wilkesboro Motor Speedway after a 26-year hiatus.
What is one piece of professional or life advice you would tell your younger self? Believe in yourself, be courteous, respectful and professional, politely accept any adverse rulings by the court, avoid showing or voicing emotion in the face of adverse rulings or during opposing counsel’s cross-examination or closing argument, be vigilant and learn from other lawyers, treat other lawyers as you would want to be treated and always be respectful of the presiding judge and courtroom personnel.
Thanks John for sharing your story!