High Profile: JOE RICE

Joe Rice stands in his office at the Motley Rice law firm in Mount Pleasant. The room reflects Rice, who calls himself a "frustrated cowboy."

Joe Rice is 54, and he loves candy corn. So much that on his company's jet, he stashes small containers of the sweets into the plane's cubbyholes.

Yes, candy corn.

"I'm sure people picture folks flying around on private jets eating caviar and Champagne," says Anne Ritter, one of Rice's partners at the law firm, Motley Rice LLC. "But Joe is back there with his candy corn and an occasional box of Moon Pies."

Rice loves sweet tea poured into plastic tumblers, the ice cubes melting into long crescent moons. And he loves brownie pudding on his birthday, the way his mom made it.

On Christmas, he insists on another favorite, red and green Jell-O with boiled custard. Then, other times, Thin Mints Girl Scout Cookies.

It's amusing — a man with an entire set of sweet teeth — until his smile is scratched, the clever tongue revealed.

"He is without a doubt one of the premier negotiators in major litigation in the United States," says Francis McGovern, the accomplished mediator and Duke University law professor. "He is right at the top of his game."

Rice shook down Big Tobacco for nearly $250 billion, brokered billions more in asbestos suits and has represented clients whose family members died aboard the Sept. 11 flights. In the process, he has made himself a millionaire many times over.

Which, of course, doesn't exactly happen from giddily snacking on candy corn.

The practice

Ten years ago, Rice and Ron Motley stamped their crowning achievement, the largest civil settlement in history. The tobacco industry agreed to shell out $246 billion to 46 states, the penalty for health costs related to smoking.

Rice and Motley, a brilliant strategist responsible for winning the case, cut a fine pair. Rice played bard of the boardroom, the wizard behind the curtain, while Motley acted as courtroom don, holding the main stage.

"He never participated in settlement discussions, and I never participated in what was going on in the courtroom," Rice says. "I just made the assumption in the courtroom we were going to win, and he made the assumption in the courtroom that he was going to try the case."

The two still work together, starting their practice after the messy 2002 breakup of their old firm, Ness Motley Loadholt Richardson & Poole. Former members sparred over fees, use of company planes and other issues.

The two also continue to make headway: lead paint litigation, more asbestos work and a landmark $1 trillion lawsuit pending in New York against the alleged financial backers of Sept. 11. The case is being tried separately from the aviation cases related to those who lost family members on the planes.

Those suits, the tobacco settlement particularly, color their work, linking Rice and Motley, different though they may be. Rice is folksy, unflappable and attentive. His better-known counterpart — Motley was portrayed by actor Bruce McGill in "The Insider" — relies on flash, chutzpah and emotion. He's also "the smartest person I've ever met," says Rice.

"Joe has a very strong business sense," Ritter adds. "He's able to look at the numbers, the cost of handling cases, the cost of resolving cases and to think about that in a big picture, and at a micro level. Ron is looking more at the story of a case, the dynamics of the case and not as much at the dollars and cents. Ron is more of a drama person. Joe is more of a nuts-and-bolts person."

For instance, Motley owns a 156-foot yacht named Themis for the Greek goddess of justice. Rice calls his 100-foot Hatteras boat Rice Quarters. Motley named a pair of golden retrievers Chrysotile and Amosite after types of asbestos. Rice named his Labrador retrievers Cassie and Lizzie.

Rice and Motley share detractors, though, their work scrutinized by Fortune magazine and last year in the conservative opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal.

The criticism is not unfamiliar. Sometime after the tobacco settlement, The Journal wrote in a July 2, 1999 editorial, "Asbestos are being invited to opt out of the U.S. legal system in favor of one run by the U.S. of Joe Rice."

Rice shrugs. "When The Wall Street Journal cusses you, you're doing well."

Out of the boardroom

Those who know Rice professionally rarely see his other side, that of the "frustrated cowboy," the kid who loved Westerns, and never stopped.

He keeps nine horses, including his treasured 16-year-old paint horse, Thunder, at his equestrian estate on the Intracoastal Waterway in Awendaw. He has his dogs, a nice fishing pond and about 200 acres to ride.

To celebrate his father's birthday a few years ago, they and a few friends drove cattle across the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. He rode across the Continental Divide in upper Wyoming, and he once spent a week in the high country of the Gila wilderness, rounding up cattle, bringing them down to brand them before the first cold snap.

Up there, when asked what he does, Rice says, "I'm a lawyer." That's all.

When he skis Telluride, Colo., where he also owns a home, Rice listens to country, old soul and beach music on his MP3 player, smoking a Montecristo No. 2 cigar down the slopes.

At the handsome Bull's Bay Golf Club in Awendaw, where Rice is principal, the clubhouse is decked in longhorn skulls and cowhide chairs. A mounted rattlesnake rests coiled, ready to strike under Plexiglas, and during tournaments, Rice brings his bull, Titleist, to the course, where the beast dawdles, chained beneath a tree.

Rice also prefers a decidedly Western look: wool coat flecked with red, white and green lines; large belt buckle; Durango boots or an expensive Lucchese pair on dressy occasions.

Similarly, Rice's good-time cowboy — Weekend Joe — is seldom seen in the boardroom, the sides compartmentalized, the partner hardly a "pardner."

"In a social setting, he really is as much the South Carolina good ol' boy as you would ever want to find," McGovern says. "In a professional setting, that same kind of relaxed demeanor is there. But there's a steeliness, a recognition on the part of folks that he's not going to give up on something just to get along."

A matter of approach

But Rice holds to a philosophy: "Don't burn the bridges."

It's the Tao of Negotiation, according to Rice, who has spoken at a number of law schools and taught for three semesters as a lecturer at Duke University.

"Always remember the person you're negotiating with, you'll see again," he says. "You don't have to kill the other person. You just have to get a result that's good for your client, and if you get something out of it that's good for their client, that's OK, too."

The advice, Rice imparts in an easy drawl, simple and blunt, his accent similar to Billy Bob Thornton as coach Gary Gaines in "Friday Night Lights": direct and pragmatic.

Rice always wanted to be an attorney, save a brief time in high school when he considered being a Baptist preacher. Rice felt the tug of his church and youth group, says his wife, Lisa.

His father worked in the textile industry, moving the family — Rice has an older brother and sister — around the Carolinas. Rice was born in Winnsboro and attended high school in Gastonia, N.C. He also worked in the textile mills, driving a forklift on third shift and bagged groceries at the A&P in Gastonia.

"My parents took good care of us," he says, "but if I wanted gas to borrow the car and go out Friday night, it was because I worked for it."

He went to the University of South Carolina, meeting his wife at a fraternity party. He had joined Alpha Tau Omega; she was in Alpha Delta Pi.

"He was the best-looking guy I had ever seen," Lisa says.

Rice stayed in Columbia to attend law school. In the summers, he tended bar in Myrtle Beach at the Spanish Galleon, earning a degree in beach music. From there in 1979, he moved to Barnwell, teaming up with Motley for the first time at Blatt & Fales, P.A.

Now, the two do business from their $25 million headquarters on the Cooper River, the firm's other bureaus in New York; Hartford, Conn.; and Providence, R.I.

Without worry

Rice's fifth-floor corner office jibes with his personality; a stitch of country prevails above the harbor. He hung a framed photograph of Thunder over the fireplace, appropriate seeing the horse holds a special place. During the tobacco settlement, he'd ride Thunder on his farm, mulling negotiations, recording his thoughts into a Dictaphone, at times holding conversations with state attorneys general.

Pictures of his family are around the office. He introduced his only child, Ann E., to horseback riding as a kid. She started at about 4 and now shows in English hunter/jumpers competitions. Rice's cell phone plays Tim McGraw's "My Little Girl" when she calls.

A friend from Oklahoma named Okie built the cabinetry. He brought the wood, dense blackjack oak, and stayed in town for three months, cutting and carving. Another friend from Beaumont, Texas, helped find the desk, sofas and tables. Rice even covered a pair of chairs in cowhide; deer and elk antlers balance the room.

Atop his desk sits a pair of binders related to the Sept. 11 aviation cases. Rice and the firm must resolve seven more suits, comb through testimony, more stories.

"To meet with those families and try to deal with it," he says, "it's been very gut-wrenching."

He's got a daddy, 37, 38, he says, who died that day. He had a routine at night; he'd put his three daughters to bed, do a dance, a go-to-bed dance.

Rice shakes his head. He loves kids, always has, his family, in fact, pledging $1 million to the Dee Norton Lowcountry Children's Center.

The only time he worries, say his colleagues, is when someone is hurting, a family member sick.

He's generally cool and steady, much like today as he drives to Bull's Bay in his bronze Chevy Suburban. It's an easy stretch, not too far from the office or the Rices' expansive home on Hobcaw Creek in Mount Pleasant's Olde Park subdivision.

His iced tea in the console, cell phone by his ear, Rice reaches over and turns down the dial on a country station.

He's not wearing his seat belt.