A 1985 Campbell Law School graduate, Shelby Benton has practiced law in Wayne County, North Carolina, for the past 35 years. In 1995, she became a Certified Specialist in Family Law by the North Carolina State Bar. She is the first Campbell Law School alumna to serve as president of the North Carolina Bar Association (NCBA). A recipient of the Campbell University Distinguished Alumni Award in October 2015, Benton is among a number of women leaders being featured in the law school’s alumni spotlight series.
You served as the NCBA president from 2015-16. What was the best part of that experience and how did you balance that role with your private practice?
The opportunity to learn the amazing work that all walks of the legal profession do to serve the State of North Carolina and our citizens was the best part of my experience as NCBA President. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to interact with lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants and to learn all the things that are being done across this state and then have an opportunity to assist some of them in fulfilling their goals. I was able to balance my practice and my duties as NCBA president through the remarkable support of my law firm, my local Bar and the staff of the NCBA. The Benton Family Law team kept the home fires burning and worked whenever I needed them to work including nights and weekends. The judges and the lawyers of my Bar were very understanding and worked with me when I was available. The staff at the NCBA are excellent at serving the profession and assisting the president with all the duties of that office. The real key is to surround yourself with smart, confident, hardworking people and they help to make you successful. What you hope is that each of the people that support you feel your support for them as well. When that occurs, everyone succeeds.
What other leadership roles in the NCBA have you held?
I have served in many roles at the NCBA. Some of the most fulfilling other than the presidency were: as the Chair of the Family Law Section, a member of the Board of Governors, a member of the Legislative Advisory Committee, the Chair of the Audit and Finance Committee, President-Elect and Chair of the Past Presidents Council. At present I am co-chairing the Leadership Academy. This is an exciting program. The NCBA affords 16 members of the profession, who have practiced law for less than 10 years and are under the age of 35, significant leadership training over a four-month period. I have co-chaired this academy for four years and it has been a highlight to get to work with these young leaders in our profession.
Tell us about your extensive experience in private practice and the process of becoming a specialist in family law.
I have been a practitioner for thirty-five years in Goldsboro, North Carolina. For the first 10 years I practiced criminal defense and family law primarily. In 1995, I focused my practice on family law and that year sat for the N.C. State Bar’s Specialist exam for family law. The practice of family law has changed over my 35 years. The entire body of law around equitable distribution has developed during my years of practice. In 1995, the alimony statute was significantly modified. These changes have resulted in the practice of family law becoming very specialized. In order to represent people in family law matters you need a personality to want to assist people during the most difficult time in their lives, a willingness to study the developing law and the ability to step up to change the law through legislation when necessary. Many people ask me how I can practice this type of law. I generally respond that no day is ever like the day before. There is always something new to learn about the law, people, businesses, finances and the like. I get the opportunity to learn all the very interesting ways people make a living, manage their families and personal relationships, interact with their children and then use that information to craft a resolution for the family. It is normally rewarding and allows me to be a lifelong learner.
Do you have some skills that have been applied throughout all your positions? How did Campbell Law School prepare you?
At Campbell I learned how important it is to be prepared, perhaps over-prepared, to think on my feet, and to develop relationships with others. No question that these skills have applied across all the opportunities I have had to serve the citizens of North Carolina and the Bar.
Share a memory that had a lasting impact on your career.
In 1991, I learned that the senior partner in the small firm I was with was not properly using his trust account. I attempted to discuss issue with him, and he would not explain or correct the issue. After consultation with three other members of the Bar, a Campbell classmate of mine and two practitioners from the senior partner’s generation, I determined I had to report him to the State Bar. That action, of course, forced me to have to leave the law firm. At the time I was twenty-nine years old with two young children and no job. All the firms in the area knew I had made the report to the State Bar. I knew my ethical obligations and regardless of my personal losses I knew I had to do what was right. Within a week of my exit from the firm another Campbell graduate, Jean Hollowell, learned of the situation and asked me to become a law partner with her. We were law partners for twenty years until her retirement in 2011. Lucky for me the paralegal that I worked with at the firm decided to join me and we have practiced law together my entire career of thirty-five years of which I am so proud. That I am a very loyal person. I doubt I would have ever left the law firm I was practicing with at the time had I not been forced to have to make the ethical decision to report the senior partner to the State Bar, however, I know that this was absolutely the right decision for the citizens of North Carolina and for my practice.
What does Campbell University’s motto “leading with purpose” mean to you?
As a member of the Bar we have earned a special trust and obligation to the people we represent and the people that look to us for leadership. We have a duty to be leaders. The community looks to the Bar and we must serve the people who put their trust and confidence in us. So, it is my suggestion that you find what you are passionate about and lead. If you are passionate about something, then you will have purpose and your legal training at Campbell will assist you in knowing how to lead. In the words of Maya Angelou, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal, instead, pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.”
Want to learn more about Benton? Visit Campbell Law’s YouTube channel here.