Watkins Receives Business Law Section’s Distinguished Service Award

Thomas C. (Tom) Watkins of Schell Bray PLLC in Greensboro is the 13th recipient of the NCBA Business Law Section’s Distinguished Service Award. The award was presented on February 9 at the section’s annual meeting in Winston-Salem.

Section Chair David Broughton presented the award.

Watkins is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1973) and UNC School of Law (1978). He began his legal career with Smith, Moore, Smith, Schell & Hunter and has practiced with Schell Bray since its establishment in 1987.

Law partner April Kight nominated Watkins for the award.

“I have been with Schell Bray for almost 18 years,” Kight said, “and was lucky enough to work with and learn from Tom from the beginning. He is a wonderful teacher and leader. He is an excellent lawyer and advocate for his clients, with the best combination of knowledge and practical application.

“He has given much of his time to the management of our firm, the bar association, and the community. I can’t think of a more deserving recipient.”

Tom, a white man with grey hair, wears a pale grey shirt with a blue suit. He holds a small blue award in his hands and stands in front of a window with a large building visible behind him.

Tom Watkins displays Distinguished Service Award.

Watkins was touched at having been honored in such a manner by his peers.

“It’s a real honor,” Watkins said. “I love business lawyers and I enjoy working with them. To have my peers – my fellow business lawyers – recognize me with an award like that was something I am very proud of.”

Watkins previously served on the NCBA Board of Governors and is a past chair of the Business Law Section, which was established in 1979 as one of the NCBA’s original five sections. Longtime law partner Doris Bray was the founding chair and Watkins has been involved in the section for virtually his entire career.

“Pretty close to it,” Watkins said. “Doris Bray became chair of the section when it was formed – shortly after I started practicing law. I got involved in the section early on and then got more and more active over time and sort of worked my way up through the section. Doris was a mentor for me, and I certainly admired her role in the section. Then I got involved myself, at first through committee work, and then it was the section council, and then the chair’s position.”

Bray and the late Braxton Schell were also his mentors within the firm.

“They were wonderful lawyers,” Watkins said, “and both of them were perfectionists.  They aspired to do things the right way, and I learned a lot from both of them. I was fortunate to have both of them as mentors, and I was really lucky that they were both huge Carolina fans too!”

Being an active member of the Business Law Section, Watkins added, has definitely enhanced his career.

“It’s a great opportunity for interaction with business lawyers all across the state, which I thoroughly enjoyed. If you’ve got an issue anywhere in North Carolina, if you’ve been active in the section, you pick up the phone and call somebody and get some guidance or assistance on whatever the matter is. Involvement with the section just really, really facilitates your ability to make those calls. I encourage any young lawyer to get involved.”

In a similar vein, Watkins has also been involved in the NCBA throughout his career.

“I had a lot of mentors who were who were involved,” Watkins said. “Doris Bray, of course, was a section chair and went on to be on the Board of Governors. I eventually became a section chair and went on the Board of Governors. And back in the old Smith Moore days before Schell Bray was formed, I practiced with Don Cowan, who went on to become a president.

“It was sort of all around me, and I had the opportunity to admire a lot of people who were active in the bar and in the bar association. I could tell that it was fun, and it just felt like something that you needed to do, and at the same time it would be beneficial to your career. And much more recently, after my time with the Business Law Section leadership, our partner here at Schell Bray, Barbara Christy, continued our history of bar and bar association involvement by serving as president of the State Bar.

“My involvement with the Business Law Section and the business lawyers across the state has definitely been a special part of my career.” One thing Watkins says that he now knows for sure is that “there’s nothing better for a transaction than to have a really good business lawyer on the other side of the deal.”

The Business Law Section Distinguished Service Award was established “to recognize, and to encourage others to emulate, extraordinary service to the Section, the legal profession or the public, above and beyond the call of any official duties to the Section, in an endeavor or endeavors relating to the field of business law and the mission and activities of the Section.”

Previous recipients of the award are:

2009 – James P. Beckwith Jr.
2010 – Kenneth M. Greene
2010 – John R. Miller
2011 – Alan R. Palmiter
2012 – Mark Davidson
2013 – J. Scott Dillon
2014 – J. Norfleet Pruden lll
2015 – Warren P. Kean
2016 – Benjamin W. Baldwin
2017 – William B. Gwyn Jr.
2018 – Doris R. Bray
2023 – Stephen Lynch
2023 – Stephen Later

Russell Rawlings is director of external affairs and communications for the North Carolina Bar Association.