Retirement isn’t even on the horizon for 66-year-old William Hubbard. The partner at Columbia’s Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP might have been expected to begin winding down his distinguished law career after completing a term as president of the American Bar Association in 2015, but that certainly hasn’t been and isn’t likely to be the case.
“I don’t think I would be a very happy person in retirement. My whole instinct is toward problem solving. That is what I like to do, and I think that is my skill set. I enjoy helping people get through situations,” he says.
William loves practicing law, and he thrives being connected. For him that means being relevant and involved in issues that are important to the rule of law, to the state, and to his alma mater, the University of South Carolina. “I hope to continue to be in a position where I can still make a contribution,” he says. He has been making contributions throughout his entire life, whether it was to his community, the university, or his profession.
His law firm essentially gave him a year off to travel as ABA president. “Being the first South Carolinian to be president of the ABA is certainly something that I am proud of, and it was a way to promote South Carolina both across the nation and across the world. I always made sure people introduced me as being from South Carolina. I was trying to be a good ambassador,” William says.
But once again his law practice, where he specializes in complex business litigation, comes first. “I’ve been involved in some matters over the past 18 months that have kept me busy. I’ve spent less time on bar-related work. I still have my finger in some things, but most of my time recently has been on the law practice.”
One of those activities outside of his law practice is serving on the search committee for the next president of USC. “We will certainly miss Harris and Patricia Pastides, who have been remarkable.”
William holds both undergraduate and law degrees from USC, where he received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, the university’s highest student award. He has served on the USC Board of Trustees since 1986, including as chairman from 1996 to 2000. “Because of the leadership of many, I think the university is a much stronger institution both in reality and by reputation than when I joined it.” In 2010 he received the university’s highest recognition, an Honorary Doctor of Laws.
Among his honors he also counts the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian award given by the governor of South Carolina.
William includes family among his greatest influences. He grew up in Florence, where he learned discipline and hard work from his late mother, a school teacher, and his late father, who owned and operated a dry cleaners. “We had to be on time, and we had to be prepared. There was no fluff in our schedule, and everybody was expected to pull their weight,” William says. “My mother was a Baptist Sunday school teacher, so we got a good dose of what’s right and what’s wrong.”
At the center of his family life in Columbia are his wife of more than 35 years, Kappy, and their children and grandchildren. “Kappy has always tried to make sure that I was centered, that my priorities with my family were protected, and that I didn’t get too full of myself. She has been a great influence.”
Following law school graduation in 1977, William clerked for federal Judge Robert F. Chapman. “I learned from him the importance of having a sense of humor, despite the complexity and the weight of the matters,” William says. “He really emphasized getting the work out the door. Don’t sit on things too long and don’t over-think issues; people need a decision. So it’s more important to get a decision than just sit there and write a law review article for every decision that you have to make.”
A year later, he became the 17th lawyer to join the Columbia firm of Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough. Among his influencers at the firm, he points to founders Ed Mullins and the late Claude Scarborough. He also cites as a powerful influence the late Steve Morrison, with whom he practiced law at the firm, especially in terms of his preparation and approach to cases. “I learned an awful lot from him, and I consider him really one of the top two or three trial lawyers of our generation. I wish he was still with us,” says William. Steve passed away unexpectedly at age 64 in 2013.
The rule of law clearly continues to be William’s greatest passion and has taken him around the world.
He currently serves as chairman of the board of the World Justice Project, an entity spun out of the ABA. His involvement started when he was asked to chair a commission in the ABA “to look at ways that we could fundamentally address the rule of law and strengthen it around the world.” The World Justice Project was created in 2006 under the leadership of Bill Neukom of Seattle and became a separate organization in 2009.
The centerpiece of the work is the Rule of Law Index, an annual assessment of the strength of rule of law in 113 countries. “And it is not just looking at laws on the books; it is actually the implementation and how the laws are followed or not followed. It is a pretty good gauge on corruption in a country,” he says, adding, “The takeaway is that the rule of law has declined worldwide over the past couple of years, a problem of which we all should take notice.”
But the World Justice Project is not just about lawyers and judges. “It is about journalists, and public health officials and providers, architects, engineers,” he says. He cites examples of buildings collapsing because of faulty materials used as a result of bribery; when an earthquake or a tremor occurs, people die. “So the rule of law really does affect everybody. The rule of law is the foundation for communities of equity and opportunity and fairness.”
The ability to work with people from around the world and to see the impact of the project has been eye-opening for William. The World Justice Project has helped provide microgrants, such as the $5,000 given to distribute pamphlets in a poor African village describing the rights of victims of domestic violence.
“Sometimes these laws are on the books, but nobody knows they are on the books and how to get any relief,” he says. “We all have so much in common. We have much more in common than differences, and I think we need to start emphasizing that. I find that people everywhere want the same things. They just want basic security; they want a place to live. They want decent food, health care, and better education for their children than perhaps they had. It seems universal, from cab drivers in Lebanon to people in China and all around the world.”
The World Justice Project, having hosted five world justice forums, is planning a sixth to bring in representatives, not just public officials, from more than 100 countries. “We have provided financial support for people in the trenches trying to do things in their own countries that promote the rule of law,” William says.
He is justifiably proud of the World Justice Project, which has grown from just an idea into an entity with an approximate annual budget of $7 million and more than 20 employees. “And we have a much greater impact than our budget would imply. Today we have a global board of directors, with directors from Qatar, the Philippines, Brazil, Romania, South Africa, and other countries.”
One of his most memorable moments that exemplifies William’s passion for the rule of law came on a trip to China. The day before he was to speak to a group of lawyers and business people, he received a written communication from the conference organizers that he should not say anything that would be considered critical of the Chinese government or the Communist Party. Thinking about how to be true to himself and his role and yet not be arrested, he picked up the English version of a Chinese paper and found an article about how the theme of the Communist Party’s upcoming convocation was going to be “the rule of law.”
“So I threw my speech in the trash can. I got up and said how pleased I was that the Communist Party was going to have the main theme of its fall session on the rule of law. I said, ‘So let’s talk about what the rule of law is.’” William went into the four definitions from the World Justice Project: transparency, fairness of judges, participation by the people, and lack of corruption. As the speech was being translated into Mandarin, he began to see the discomfort on the faces of some of the audience.
“I could see people start to filter out of the room, so I know it was making some people nervous. I hope it made an impact. Some people stayed through the speech and hung in there with me. But it was a little bit of a risky thing to do.”
In a career that has been filled with honors, one that touched him the most came in June 2015, when as ABA president he participated in the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta — the foundation of English law — and the rededication of its monument at Runnymede, England. William spoke to a crowd that included Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, and other members of the royal family, as well as then British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“Being with the Queen of England, escorting Princess Anne, and going backstage with the prime minister was pretty interesting,” William says. “I was amazed at how healthy and fit Prime Minister Cameron looked, having just gone through an election in May 2015. But with the Brexit vote in 2016, he resigned a little over a year later.”
A trip to London in February 2015 gave William a glimpse of what Queen Elizabeth herself calls the Duke of Edinburgh’s “unique sense of humor.” During a reception at Buckingham Palace, Prince Philip walked up to a small group with whom William was talking and asked, “Where is the American?” William replied that he was an American. “Prince Philip then said, ‘Well, we protected you in the French and Indian War. Then we asked for a small tax to provide for your own protection, and you left us.’ I waited for him to burst into laughter, but he didn’t. I must say, however, he did have a twinkle in his eye.”
While in England, William was also named an honorary member, or “Master of the Bench,” at Middle Temple, an elite English lawyers’ group. “It was both humbling and exhilarating to have been involved with all of that and be asked to be an honorary bencher at Middle Temple, to be connected to that long line of law and development of law,” says William, noting the significance of Middle Temple and Temple Church to Magna Carta. “Some of the first meetings involving King John and the barons about Magna Carta were in Temple Church, which is contiguous to Middle Temple.
“Being connected to that kind of history was really fascinating. I don’t know if I fully appreciated it at the time, but on reflection it really was a remarkable opportunity.”
The Nelson Mullins firm, which was founded in 1897 and now has about 800 lawyers, announced this past summer a combination with Florida-based Broad and Cassel to become a national law firm with 25 offices in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
For years William chaired the recruiting committee at the firm. “Our firm hired a number of people who have turned out to be really good lawyers and leaders for the firm, leaders in the community, and leaders at the bar. Seeing the firm evolve from a Columbia firm to a truly national firm, handling the most sophisticated matters, and contributing to that as a team leader and a group leader in the firm has been a privilege. I am so grateful to have been part of such a collegial and supportive firm.”