He may be best known at the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing as the guy who for years played in the pro-am with Steve Spurrier.
Big crowds followed Spurrier as the trash-talking, visor-tossing football coach who led the University of South Carolina Gamecocks to their greatest heights.
But his playing partner, who few recognized, sports a winning record in a different field that may never be matched.
That tall, tanned man is Joe Rice of Mount Pleasant. He’s one of the most successful trial lawyers ever. He has negotiated the largest settlements in American history. The dollar figures soar into the hundreds of billions, with cases that have household names like asbestos, tobacco, BP and 9/11.
But besides playing for nearly a quarter of a century in the pro-am, Rice is literally a big part of the Heritage.
He is the owner of the 100-foot yacht, the Rice Quarters, that makes everyone touring the Harbour Town Yacht Basin stop, gawk and whisper. This year, it is flying a large tartan flag as the Heritage celebrates is 50th year.
The pile of shoes on the dock outside show that a lot of people drop in to see a family that’s Carolina to the bone. That pile of shoes also proves that Rice believes what he says: the Heritage is “spring break for adults.”
Rice doesn’t look the part of a cut-throat lawyer whose schedule can still take him to five cities in four days, and who has done battle with corporations, governments and fellow trial lawyers.
The graying hair of a relatively new grandfather pokes over his shirt collar. He speaks softly.
And he loves to play a laid-back game on the home golf course he built and owns, the Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw. There, he can light a string of Montecristo No. 2 cigars, sip from an insulated glass of iced tea and play country music from Sirius XM Channel 56, “The Highway,” from the golf cart while he nurses a 17 handicap.
I rode nine holes with him in a recent year as his club hosted the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate Golf Tournament.
Along the way, the old master shared some secrets to negotiating that could help us all.
“You want to do what people think can’t be done,” he said.
Joe Rice worked the door at the Spanish Galleon in Ocean Drive.
He bagged groceries by day at the A&P in North Myrtle Beach, and by night worked at the hottest spot on the Grand Strand for beach music and the shag dance.
“Clemson boys might have a little trouble getting in,” he recalled. “But the girls never did.”
Rice was born in South Carolina but spent most of his youth near Gastonia as his father moved from town to town, climbing the ladder in textiles management.
Rice went to USC in Columbia and met his wife, Lisa, at a fraternity party. She’s from Newberry and has family in the Lowcountry — the Youngs, who used to run Billy’s IGA in Allendale.
He went to USC Law School, not knowing exactly why he wanted to be a lawyer. Butt he was intrigued by a schedule that meant lawyers didn’t have to be in court until 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning.
Rice figured he’d live out his life practicing law by the sand and surf.
“And that was when Ron Motley came into my life,” he said.
Motley’s courtroom theatrics would later make him the lead character in the movie “The Insider.” His courtroom winnings would bring him to the Heritage in a yacht called Themis that was larger than the Rice Quarters.
But at the time, in 1979, Motley needed help with a small law firm in Barnwell that included powerful South Carolina names: Blatt, Ness, Richardson, Loadholt.
Rice agreed to stay two years..
But only Motley’s death in 2013 separated the two.
They played good-guy, bad-guy; inside-outside. Motley prepared to win big cases in the courtroom, while Rice handled settlement negotiations outside.
The whole world saw it after hundreds of millions of tobacco settlement fees started rolling in. And the law firm split apart.
Rice said their differences were settled. He said he and Motley opened a new firm because they wanted to be more aggressive than some of their former partners did.
“Shortly after that is when we sued the Taliban,” Rice said.
Rice said he didn’t learn negotiation in law school.
Others say it’s more like something you’d learn in business school.
He said he would go into every negotiation assuming his partner was going to win in the courtroom, and making sure his opponent knew that.
It is said that Rice has a sixth sense about money, calculating on the fly what a case will cost each side, depending on changing circumstances.
He tries a thousand ideas, his colleagues say, and gets a lot done away from the negotiating table. He can also now lean on his star power.
Rice and the Motley Rice firm, headquartered in Mount Pleasant with offices around America, are constantly rated among America’s best.
“In a courtroom full of workaday bankruptcy and insurance lawyers, Rice looks like George Clooney at a Rotary luncheon,” Roger Parloff wrote in Fortune magazine.
He’s taken heat from other lawyers and supporters of tort reform who believe plaintiff lawyers get too much money.
But Rice said, “We’ve used the jury system to do what Congress couldn’t get done.”
Rice talks about dealing with Middle East war lords, state attorneys general, Congress, the Taliban and and rooms full of lawyers.
But if you want to know how to negotiate with your teenager or spouse, maybe some of his tips can help in less glamorous settings.
Rice said the secret is preparation.
“You need to be creative and energetic,” he said, “but you’ve got to work with the other side.
“If you can’t solve their problem, you can’t solve your problem.
“When you’re doing a deal, you’ve got to recognize that the people on the other side have got a job to do. They’ve got an opinion, and you’ve got to respect that. Be willing to listen. Be respectful.”
At home, Rice sees a strong future for golf.
About dying country clubs, he said, “You shouldn’t be worried if you don’t get too greedy.”
He said clubs have cut out too many potential members by charging too much.
He takes the game seriously. He won at Pebble Beach National Pro-Am with professional golfer and friend Dustin Johnson in 2009.
He continues to think he’s a cowboy, raising and riding horses near home and taking annual trips to herd cattle out West.
He and Lisa have given enough to their beloved Gamecocks to have a new building on campus named the Rice Athletics Center.
Their daughter, Ann E. Rice Ervin, practices law at Motley Rice. She and Tucker Ervin have a little boy, also being raised on the Heritage.
He calls his grandfather “Jo Jo," and he may be the only one who can beat him in a negotiation.