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So maybe a couple billion dollars can’t buy happiness after all. Just ask the lawyers who once practiced together at Ness Motley Loadholdt Richardson & Poole. Arguably the country’s most successful plaintiffs’ firm, they were in the forefront of the fight against Big Tobacco, securing a $246 billion settlement for the states and scoring fees estimated at $2 billion to $3 billion. Today, the Charleston, S.C., firm has been ripped in two, and the lawyers are going at each other with the ferocity and panache of World Wrestling Federation superstars. Last February four of the firm’s six shareholders walked out and started a new firm, leaving just Joseph Rice and Ronald Motley at the top. Then, in November, after a year of trying to resolve conflicts through arbitration, the warfare spilled into court. Four former Ness Motley partners sued the firm to get compensated for their share of the firm’s flashiest asset: a deluxe Falcon 50 private jet. A week later Ness Motley struck back and sued the split-off group, alleging that it absconded with Ness Motley clients. Even the firm’s name has become entangled in a court spat. Dodging epithets like “Antichrist” and “dictator,” Rice and his backers say they’re glad the defectors are gone. “There is a tremendous amount of ugly, ugly, animosity,” says former Ness Motley partner Joel Berly III, who left the firm two years ago and is not involved in this litigation. “The tobacco money exacerbated an already bad situation.” Rice offers a different explanation: “We are victims of our own success.” Like many plaintiffs’ firm, Ness Motley — which had close to 80 lawyers at its peak, and today has 50 — housed a collection of supersized egos. Existing tensions were aggravated when the firm’s compensation agreement was renegotiated in April 1999, roughly six months after the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) was signed. Under the MSA, the bulk of the firm’s fees were awarded through arbitrations and are to be paid by the tobacco companies over roughly 25 years [ See " Trophy Fees"]. The new contract put the firm’s tobacco fees in a separate profit center, with different profit percentages applied to these funds. Roughly 40 percent of that money goes to Motley and Rice, according to one person familiar with the agreement. The rest is divvied up under a formula that considers seniority and activity in the tobacco cases. Rice declined to confirm that percentage; Motley did not return calls. Two years ago, Ness Motley partner John McConnell Jr. sounded cheery about the tobacco money’s impact on the firm. “Surprisingly, it hasn’t changed the firm as much as I expected,” he told The American Lawyer. “One effect it’s had is that it’s allowed us to take more time to smell the roses” [ See " Money to Burn"]. But in the fall of 2001 McConnell, who worked closely with Rice on the MSA, filed an arbitration claim against Ness Motley. McConnell, who is still at the firm, says he was frustrated with the “obstructionist ways” of certain partners, including name partner Terry Richardson Jr., and filed the arbitration to enforce proper decision-making procedures. He claims this group held up important decisions as a ploy to gain leverage to try to improve their compensation. Most of these lawyers, he says, had been less active in the tobacco crusade. Richardson and others filed a cross-complaint trying to improve their stake in the tobacco funds. McConnell declines to disclose how the arbitrator ruled. But he says the November 2001 decision settled details of how the firm distributes the tobacco money and largely favored Rice, Motley, and others (like himself) who were heavily involved in the tobacco cases. Three months later, in February 2002, a group led by Richardson walked out and set up Charleston’s Richardson Patrick Westbrook & Brickman, eventually taking a total of 11 partners and roughly 15 associates. Motley and Rice shortened their firm’s name to Ness Motley. “Joe Rice wanted to be a one-person dictator,” says Richardson, citing this as one reason he left. He also claims that Rice refused to pursue certain new tobacco litigation, specifically cases involving low-tar products. (The Richardson group maintains that some of its members were quite active in the earlier tobacco cases.) Richardson Patrick partner Blair Hahn portrays the exodus as driven by Ness Motley’s excessive spending. In particular, he says, Rice and Motley refused to sell the Falcon 50. The aircraft, largely used by Motley, had been purchased for $18 million, and cost nearly $4 million a year to fly and maintain. It is a top-of-the-line trophy plane, comfortably seating at least 10 and capable of cruising nonstop from Charleston to Paris. The firm also owned two more modest jets, purchased for $2-3 million each, but sold one last year. McConnell agrees that the Falcon was controversial, but says that’s not why the Richardson group left. “They left for one reason — and that was greed,” he says. “Good riddance to them. It’s the best thing that’s happened to the firm.” And that just scratches the surface of the enmity that envelops both sides. Richardson Patrick partner Thomas Rogers goes so far as to call Rice “the Antichrist,” adding for good measure, “He’s a slow-witted piece of crap — and you can quote me on that.” The barrage of insults has been backed by a flurry of arbitration claims and lawsuits. At press time four arbitration actions had been filed, as well as three suits. The Richardson Patrick lawyers claim they’ve been denied money due to them, and Ness Motley charges that the former partners haven’t properly compensated them for work they took. (Some of these client matters claims were settled in early December for an undisclosed amount.) Just how much money is at stake is a matter of controversy. Rice says it could exceed $100 million, including tobacco money. The defecting group says the tobacco money is vested and not in dispute, and the amount at issue is much less. The firm’s name may well be a casualty of the breakup, too. Richardson, as it happens, is married to the daughter of Julius “Bubba” Ness, the deceased former chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, and the Ness in Ness Motley. In late November, Ness’ widow and children (including Richardson’s wife) sued Ness Motley to force the firm to relinquish the Ness name. Rice says he thought the firm had settled that matter before the suit was filed by agreeing to give up the name in February. Now, he says, “I don’t know where we are.” But he’s open to suggestions. Unfortunately Motley Crew is taken. Is Mess Motley too close to the wound?

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