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Columbia Business Monthly

Wyche Firm at 100: History of Legal, Community Leadership

Dec 23, 2021 02:55PM ● By Kevin Dietrich

Wyche P.A. celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, but the well-known Greenville law firm looks nothing like the entity that began operations just after World War I.

Some of the practice areas the firm is known for today, such as venture capital, renewable energy development, and disability rights, were unknown in 1921. Others, such as antitrust and trade regulation, product liability, and securities and corporate finance, were far less complex.

Wyche, however, developed as business and society changed, embracing new and more complex areas of law and reinforcing its position in South Carolina legal circles.

The transformation Wyche underwent mirrored that of South Carolina. In 1921, the state’s economy was largely agriculture-based; as the decades passed, industry and manufacturing came to play a significant role, and today technology is increasingly important. Wyche’s practice areas reflect the direction of the state.

“There have been a lot of changes within the legal profession over the years, especially the movement toward consolidation,” said Wallace Lightsey, who’s been with Wyche for 35 years. “But we’ve been able to retain our niche market. We believe we offer a value proposition that bigger firms can’t offer.”

The firm began as Dean, Cothran & Wyche, a general practice firm that handled the more common areas of the profession, including estate law, family law, and criminal defense. Tommy Wyche, son of C. Granville Wyche, one of the founders, joined the firm in 1949 and played a key role in its high-end metamorphosis.

It was renamed Wyche, Burgess, Freeman & Parham in 1964, and Tommy Wyche’s leadership and the support of others such as Al Burgess, David Freeman, Jim Parham, Bill Kehl, and Jim Shoemaker, helped enhance its reputation. 

The firm sought out talent from leading law schools and high-performing professional backgrounds. Wyche’s approach was to embrace the view that excellence trumps revenue maximization, community should prevail over narrow self-interest, and ingenuity is more important than brute force. 

The firm simplified its name to Wyche P.A. in 2011.

“We are still a small firm – particularly by national standards, but even by South Carolina standards,” said Lightsey, a member, or partner, with Wyche. “We still have a small-firm culture, and we work to preserve and protect it. There is very much a family feeling here. We’re actually friends, close friends in many cases, and that tends to be more unusual at larger firms.

“What we try to bring to our clients is having a small group of very smart, very creative people working on their behalf rather than an army of people,” he added. “Creative, imaginative solutions are things we really promote.”

Wyche has been involved in many significant cases over the years. In recent months, it’s prevailed for clients in two big cases:

In November, Wyche won a case for Zdenek Bakala, a Czech-American entrepreneur and philanthropist, in a defamation case against Slovak businessman Pavol Krupa. Krupa was found liable on two counts of violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO)and one count of common law defamation. Bakala, a South Carolina resident, was awarded damages of more than $32 million.

In October, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff, represented by Wyche, in Duke Energy’s appeal of the S.C. Public Service Commission’s decision that Duke could not recover North Carolina environmental clean-up costs in its South Carolina rates. Duke had sought to increase the electricity bills of its South Carolina customers by close to $1 billion to recoup expenses it will incur for environmental clean-up actions required by a North Carolina law, Wyche stated in a release.

There have been occasional bumps along the road to the 100-year mark, as well.

Wyche came under scrutiny nearly 20 years ago for work done on behalf of Lexington-based HomeGold Financial and subsidiary Carolina Investors. Both companies filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003, leaving about 12,000 investors, many of whom were retirees living in the Upstate, out approximately $278 million. 

The Greenville News, citing Securities and Exchange Commission documents, reported HomeGold was a finance company that specialized in originating, selling, and servicing subprime first- and second-lien residential mortgages. Its business was funded through loans from Pickens-based Carolina Investors, which sold unsecured notes and subordinated debentures to its depositors, The News reported. 

The News also reported:

The Wyche firm was HomeGold’s corporate counsel and prepared annual prospectuses for Carolina Investors. Tommy Wyche was an officer on HomeGold’s board of directors. 

The state Supreme Court, in response to an appeal from a former Carolina Investors’ executive, said in 2008 that it was “concerned by the apparent conflict of interest created by the fact that a single law firm attempted to provide legal services to two companies whose relationship, given the financial characteristics of the situation, was anything but symbiotic.” 

Wyche and the firm weren’t accused of any wrongdoing.

Past, Present and Future

Wyche has a number of long-standing client relationships. This includes Dexter Hagy, a Greenville businessman and entrepreneur who has worked with Wyche since 1969. Hagy has used the firm as general counsel for several companies he’s been involved with over the decades. Today, Hagy helps operate Soma Research, an Upstate company that deals with intellectual property in the medical field.

“They’re really an exceptional law firm,” he said. “The three or four attorneys I’ve really worked closely with are very thorough and great problem solvers.”

Wyche has helped Hagy over the years in everything from getting businesses started and serving as counsel on acquisitions to assisting with complicated contract negotiations and handling lawsuits.

“Wyche attorneys have always been very talented and balanced in their judgment,” Hagy said.

Wyche’s reach extends beyond courtrooms and legal filings. This year, as Wyche began its second century of operation, it launched its Centennial Legacy Project, designed to support projects across the state involved with advancing the business community, societal impact, community transformation, and environmental stewardship.

“Wyche has had the privilege of being part of many projects and legal outcomes that have shaped our region’s growth and success over the last century,” Tally Parham Casey, CEO and chair of Wyche, stated in a press release. “Often, those initiatives have involved collaboration with other leaders and organizations that share Wyche’s commitment to making a lasting difference.

“The Wyche Centennial Legacy Project was formed with that collaboration in mind, knowing that our legacy is shared and strengthened in partnership with others who are focused on inspiring positive change that can be felt for generations,” she added.

Part of what makes Wyche is its approach when seeking attorneys.

“We look for lawyers who are coming out of the top law schools, but who want a different experience than making a lot of money, working long hours and living in a big city,” Lightsey said. “We’re looking for people who want a chance to have a better quality of life, and an opportunity to engage in the community in a meaningful way.

“The partners here could be pulling down a million-dollars-plus in a big city,” he added. “Money is important, of course, but It’s not the most important thing here.”

Today, the firm has more than three dozen attorneys spread among its offices in Greenville, Columbia, and Spartanburg.

While Wyche is noted for plucking promising prospects from the nation’s top law schools, including eight University of Virginia Law School graduates, six Harvard Law School grads and three graduates of Yale Law School, it also brings in attorneys with varied experience, as well:

Inez Tenenbaum was chair of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission under President Barack Obama and was twice elected S.C. Superintendent of Education prior to joining the firm; 

Jim May served as an assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina from 2012 to 2021 before joining Wyche; and

Eleanor Winn Nordholm began her career serving as assistant district attorney for the Bronx County District Attorney Office in New York where she oversaw financial and fraud investigations for the Investigations Division.

Wyche has five core practice groups: commercial real estate, corporate, employment, environmental, and litigation.

While the legal landscape is constantly changing, Wyche attorneys don’t anticipate any big adjustments for the firm anytime soon.

“What is most likely going forward will be a strong commitment to growth, but growth in an organic way,” Lightsey said. “We’re not looking to acquire a firm in, say, Charleston, and we’re not looking to be acquired by a firm in, say, Charlotte.”

When Wyche expanded beyond Greenville, opening an office in Columbia in 1995 and Spartanburg in 2017, it was the result of hiring attorneys outside of Greenville who wanted to keep practicing law in their respective cities.

For now, Wyche will stick with its gameplan of seeking to outwork and outthink competitors to help clients both in the courtroom and on the balance ledger.

“Large companies, in particular, are used to working with large law firms. They want to know you’ve got a deep bench and can throw bodies on a situation when needed,” Lightsey said. “We can do that if necessary, but we’d rather be creative and more efficient than simply pulling everybody in.”