‘A Very Happy Accident’: Tom McCormick On His 40-Year Career With the City Of Raleigh

By Ben A. Mount

In September of 2017, Thomas A. McCormick, Jr., announced his plan to retire as the City Attorney for the City of Raleigh after serving in that position for over 40 years.  I’m one of many lawyers who has had the opportunity to work with Tom, and I’m sure there are many more who would be interested in learning about Tom’s career in public service.  For that reason, instead of writing an article about the law, I decided to conduct a brief “career overview” interview with Tom McCormick to share with my colleagues in the NCBA.  Enjoy!

Ben Mount:  How did your start your career in government service? 

Tom McCormick: It was completely by accident.  I finished law school in 2 1/2 years.  In those days they only administered the bar exam once a year, in July.  I was looking for a job and one day I came to Raleigh just to visit a friend who was working for newly elected Lt. Gov. Jim Hunt.  My friend mentioned that Speaker of the House Jim Ramsey was looking for someone to help him draft some bills and do some research.  I went over and interviewed with Speaker Ramsey and he gave me a job. I grew to like Raleigh quite a bit and I decided to stay in Raleigh. The City of Raleigh had a job opening for an Assistant City Attorney.  I had no idea about making that a career.  I never took a course in municipal corporations in law school. But, I needed a job, so I took that job. Then, within a year, the then City Attorney resigned. The City Council did a City Attorney search. I applied for the job and they kept me. I only intended to hold the City Attorney job for a couple of years while I decided what I really wanted to do.  Now, over forty years later, I couldn’t find anything else I would want to do more.  That’s how I got into government service.  It was an accident, but a very happy accident.

Ben Mount: Who were some of the mentors you met along the way?

Tom McCormick:  I had some great mentors. When I first started practicing law in Raleigh, Raleigh was a much smaller city. In those days, a large law firm had seven or eight lawyers.  There weren’t too many of those firms.  I was fortunate enough to work with the late Howard Manning on occasion, as well as Wade Smith, who is still practicing law in Raleigh.  Judge Pou Bailey helped me quite a bit down at the courthouse when I was a young lawyer learning how to try cases, which is what I used to do.  I had a lot of good mentors like that along the way.  Unfortunately, a lot of them have gone on or they are no longer practicing law.  There are people like Robert McMillan who was not a personal mentor to me, but yet you could observe him and the way he conducted himself and the way he practiced law, and it was kind of the way you wanted to be in those days.  There were some great lawyers in those days and they all helped me a lot.

Ben Mount: What were some of your biggest challenges working as the Raleigh City Attorney? 

Tom McCormick: The challenges were numerous. When I first started, our office only had a three-person staff. We worked pretty hard. Raleigh was just beginning to take on the growth that we now all expect to be there all the time. As a young person in my early 30s, I didn’t have a lot of experience working with local elected officials. That was the first challenge – to get the lay of the land in terms of the politics of the job instead of just being a lawyer. In the City Attorney position, you have to be aware of that. You can’t let it dictate what you do, but you do have to be aware of it.  The Assistant and Deputy City Attorneys don’t have to pay attention to those kinds of things. Thank goodness, they can just focus on practicing law and doing their jobs. We had challenges. We worked on a lot of important legislation back in those days, including billboard regulations. We began what would become a thirty-year dispute with a local quarry, which we settled a couple of years ago. It was an amicable settlement for all parties. One of the unfortunate things about the law is that some cases don’t ever seem to go away. I’m sure any lawyer who reads this will understand that. The challenges were numerous.  Sometimes you had police issues, personnel issues, and those kinds of things. This is nothing that any other city doesn’t have, but just because we were growing at a faster rate than most, we probably had more of the problems.  We probably had the same problems as other cities, just more of them.

Ben Mount: How has your role as the City Attorney changed since you first started working for the City of Raleigh? 

Tom McCormick: It has changed dramatically. As I mentioned earlier, when I first started, there were three of us – myself and two Assistant City Attorneys. We had one clerical person. We had no in-office word processing capabilities.  We drafted pleadings, motions, and ordinances with yellow legal pads and No. 2 pencils. The secretary would have to read our wretched handwriting and type these things up. She was sort of the real hero back in those days. That’s one way it has changed.

As the City got bigger and we started adding people to the staff, we started breaking off into practice areas.  For example, when I first started, I did all of the City’s trial work, whether it was at State court or Federal Court.  Once the City got bigger, we hired more employees, and the City Council demanded more things from our office.  I shifted into more of a managerial role than actually getting to be a “real” lawyer.  I began to hire smarter people who I could tell what to do and take credit for all their success.

Ben Mount: What are some of your most rewarding experiences working as the Raleigh City Attorney? 

Tom McCormick: I think the most rewarding experience has been watching what the City has become over the past 40 years. When I got here, we were closing the Fayetteville Street and turning it into a pedestrian mall, which turned out to be a disaster.  Passing billboard ordinances was rewarding.  People like to visit the City without seeing billboards.  People value that in a place where they are going to live.  Settling the quarry matter I mentioned earlier was rewarding.  We secured extra park land for the City that we would not have otherwise had, and we increased potential water supply for the City.  We have represented the City very well in all kinds of litigation over the years.  People in this office have been responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of construction that the City has done and facilitated millions of dollars more in construction that the private sector has done.  It’s been fun being a part of what’s happened here.  Raleigh is a national model for how cities ought to grow, and hopefully we have been a part of helping them do that here.

 Ben Mount: What advice would you give to lawyers seeking a career in public service?

Tom McCormick: I would advise lawyers to pursue public service.  Public service can mean a lot of things.  It can mean anything from working in Peace Corps or Legal Aid, or doing what I do here as a City Attorney, or working at the Attorney General’s Office.  It’s very rewarding, particularly here at the City.  We do things that affect people’s lives daily.  I always tell City Council members that it’s always better being in a City Council than being at the General Assembly or in Washington because you can do something here on Tuesday night at a regular meeting and it will affect people’s lives on Wednesday.  You can’t do that at the General Assembly and you certainly can’t do that in Washington.  You are doing something to help people, the City, and the people and citizens who live in the City.  It’s rewarding in that sense.

It’s probably not as remunerative as some other practice areas.  It’s not like being a plaintiff’s lawyer where you might get a huge class action settlement.  But there’s tremendous satisfaction in the work.  You do things to help folks, and the practices vary.  Again, using my career as an example, the City of Raleigh is, for all practical purposes, a billion dollar a year corporation, with the City Council being the board of directors.  Just like any corporation of that size, it has all kinds of legal needs.  We get sued regularly.  We have seven hundred to eight hundred vehicles on the roads all the time.  There are car accidents.  We buy and sell a lot of real estate.  From general ordinance drafting to code enforcement issues, the list goes on and on.  It’s an incredibly varied practice.  You can’t really say it’s just municipal law.  It’s like any other area of law.  We’re just doing it for what is essentially a very large corporation rather than an individual client.

Final Thoughts:  Many thanks to Tom McCormick for his long-lasting dedication to public service and for taking the time to do this interview.  The Raleigh City Attorney’s Office will miss Tom and we wish him all the best in his retirement.