David Lauderdale

Lauderdale: RBC Heritage pro-am player Joe Rice a superstar you might not recognize

Charleston attorney Joe Rice big fan of RBC Heritage

FILE: Celebrated attorney Joe Rice talks about the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing at his Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw, South Carolina on April 1, 2016.
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FILE: Celebrated attorney Joe Rice talks about the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing at his Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw, South Carolina on April 1, 2016.

Steve Spurrier will create a buzz when he tees off in the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing pro-am Wednesday.

Everyone knows 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 will recognize, sports a winning record in a different field that may never be matched.

You want to do what people think can’t be done.

Joe Rice

That tall, tanned man playing with the retired “old ball coach” 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.

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Rice, 62, has played with Spurrier a number of years and has been part of the Heritage pro-am for more than 20 years. His 100-foot yacht, the Rice Quarters, is always one of the largest in the Harbour Town Yacht Basin this week. 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.

And it shows that Rice believes 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 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. He lights a string of Montecristo No. 2 cigars, sips from an insulated glass of iced tea and blares 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 earlier this month when his club hosted the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate Golf Tournament.

He shared some secrets to negotiating that could help us all.

“You want to do what people think can’t be done,” he said.

Carolina core

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 Galleon, then the hottest spot on the Grand Strand for beach music and the shag.

“Clemson boys might have a little trouble getting in,” he recalled. “But the girls never did.”

Shortly after that is when we sued the Taliban.

Joe Rice

Rice was born in South Carolina but spent most of his youth near Gastonia as his father moved from town to town, moving up 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 but intrigued by a schedule that meant they 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.

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 law firm split apart after hundreds of millions of tobacco settlement fees arrived.

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 partners did.

“Shortly after that is when we sued the Taliban,” Rice said.

The secrets

Rice said he didn’t learn negotiation in law school.

Others say it’s more like something you’d learn in business school.

He went into every negotiation assuming his partner was going to win in the courtroom and making sure his opponent knew that.

They say he has a sixth sense about money, calculating on the run what a case will cost each side, depending on changing circumstances.

In a courtroom full of workaday bankruptcy and insurance lawyers, Rice looks like George Clooney at a Rotary luncheon.

Fortune magazine

He tries a thousand ideas, his colleagues say, and gets a lot done away from the negotiating table.

He now has star power, with he and the Motley Rice firm, headquartered in Mount Pleasant with offices around America, 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 will help.

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.”

Cowboy

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 6-month-old son.

Little Beckett Rice Ervin will call his grandfather “Joe Joe.” There’s a crib for him on the Rice Quarters. And he may get to go watch that stranger playing with Steve Spurrier.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale

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