Over the course of a 40-plus year law career, Kinston lawyer Bob Whitley has collected plenty of stories.
Some of them have happy endings. Many, as one might expect for a lawyer specializing in personal injury and wrongful death claims, have an element of tragedy. For Whitley, each has a lesson to teach, which is what led him to compile some of his most memorable cases into a book, entitled Attorney on Call: Lessons from a Life in the Law.
"The book memorializes two different aspects, I think, of my practice," Whitley said. "One of them is some of my most memorable trials and clients and families, kind of intertwined with what I consider to be helpful information to anybody about what I do, personal injury law and some of the basics about insurance and other helpful information."
The people, more than the technicalities of law, are the main focus of the book. Whitley said he had always wanted to write about his clients, partially to dispel myths about the kinds of people who pursue injury claims.
"I've been so fortunate to have crossed paths with some wonderful people," he said. "I wanted to share it with the public that people who pursue claims don't want to be doing that. I think sometimes they get branded by some bias that exists in our society about bringing claims and trying to get money, frivolous lawsuits and things like that."
Whitley opened his law practice in 1975, working without a mentor or partner while he learned how to apply what he learned in law school. He knew the letter of the law, Whitley said, but not what to do with it.
"For example, I knew the grounds for a divorce, but I didn't know how to file a divorce complaint," he said.
Early on, Whitley worked with Lenoir County in child support enforcement, both in establishing paternity for children born out of wedlock and then getting support for those children. This led to one of the major cases included in the book, when Whitley took on a three-year statue of limitations on paternity claims which existed in 1975.
"If the child was more than 3 years old, that paternity claim would be barred, and that child would never have a legal father," Whitley said. "I just thought it was extremely unfair and unconstitutional, and we did take the case to the North Carolina appellate courts and had that statue declared unconstitutional."
That decision opened up hundreds of thousands of paternity claims for children who otherwise would have never had legal backing.
Whitley's favorite story in the book is one he called "The Trial from Heaven." The subject matter was far from heavenly ---- the trial dealt with the death of a 16-year-old girl in a car crash, who the highway patrol had declared to be at fault in her own death. The girl's mother was determined to prove that her daughter was not driving at the time of her death, as she was in the car with two other girls. Whitley said he was initially hesitant to take the case, but eventually agreed. Things went well from there.
"Everything in that case turned out far better than I could have expected," he said, urging people to read the book to learn what happened.
Other stories deal with anything from smoke detectors to motorcycle accidents, each with some sort of legal lesson to learn. The book released in early October to an "outstanding" reception, Whitley said. While he has no specific plans to write another, he said he does want to do so at some point.
For Whitley, it is vital to remember that the stories in his book represent the real, often traumatic experiences of human beings he has worked with.
"Remember that when you're hired in a personal injury case, something really bad has happened to your client," he said. "It's a time in their life when they need the best of service, not the worst.
The most important message in the book is directed at fellow lawyers, Whitley said.
"When you get in a case that is so important to your client and your client's family, there really shouldn't be anything you wouldn't do, so far as time and effort and preparation, to give that client and that family the best chance they've got of recovery," he said. "Don't leave anything undone."
"Attorney on Call: Lessons from a Life in the Law" is available for free at www.whitleylawfirm.com. You can also request a copy at 1-800-785-5000, or purchase the book on a Kindle device. a