PUBLISHED:September 16, 2011

K. Morgan Varner ’66: The volunteer

It was easy to spot Morgan Varner’s law school classmates at their 45th reunion last April: Many of them were sporting “Duke blue” neckties or scarves emblazoned with Duke Law shields laid out in a crisscross pattern and the embroidered legend, “The Great Class of 1966.”

“I thought we ought to have a symbol of our class pride and our class esprit de corps,” Varner says of his gift to his classmates. “I think ours is a really amazing class, but we’re scattered. About the only time we get to see one another is at reunions.”

A partner at Stites Harbison in Atlanta, Varner reached out to his classmates in advance of their reunion, both to encourage their attendance and as chair of their Class Gift Committee; their gifts and pledges to the Annual Fund totaled $299,000 — a record for a 45th reunion year — and $837,000 to all Duke Law funds.

“Morgan is one of the most dedicated volunteers with whom I have ever worked,” says Kate Buchanan, assistant dean for Alumni & Development “His love for Duke Law runs very deep, but what makes him especially effective is his ability to spread that enthusiasm to others. He is a model volunteer: He attends meetings, makes valuable contributions to the discussion, and supports the school in any and every way he possibly can.”

Varner has never missed a meeting of the Duke Law Board of Visitors or its Development Committee over his six-year term of membership, which ends in the fall, Buchanan notes, and is a regular attendee and host of Duke and Duke Law gatherings in the Atlanta area. He and his wife, Chilton, a partner at King & Spalding, have recently accepted an appointment to the Leadership Gifts Committee for Duke University.

For his part, Varner developed his dedication to Duke while in law school. As a Princeton undergrad, Varner was lured to Duke Law — and away from a northeastern law school — by Dean Elvin “Jack” Latty during one of the dean’s many recruiting stops. An Alabama native who always planned to practice in the South, Varner says he made the right decision.

“Dean Latty recruited a great cross section of people from all different parts of the country and from all different sizes of schools. He put us all in the same pot and let us blend,” says Varner. “Then he guided and molded us into people who could think like lawyers. I think it gives you pride to have gone through all that with people that you came to admire and respect. And the qualities of those people — the qualities of people who were not like you — that was the difference that helped us expand our horizons.”

During a telephone interview, Varner cites numerous lessons learned at Duke that influenced his legal career. These include Latty’s directive to hone in on the legal issue in every case, and Professor F. Hodge O’Neal’s advice to “know your client,” a lesson Varner implements routinely in serving his many entrepreneurial clients as de facto outside general counsel.

“I make a point of going to my client’s place of business to get a physical view of what it looks like, even where people sit,” he says. “I get somebody to explain how the routine daily operation works.”

Varner spent four years as an Army artillery commander following his Duke Law graduation. Stationed in Germany near its border with Czechoslovakia, he spent much of his service on Cold War high alert, armed with nuclear weapons and preparing for attack by Russian forces — and under continual scrutiny of high-level military brass. “I viewed that as terrific training,” he says with a laugh, noting that he was far younger than many troops under his command. “You had to make decisions time and time again under really close observation.”

His service experience, coupled with his Duke Law training, may be why Varner had the confidence to launch his own firm very early in his career. He and his partners quickly found clients in Atlanta’s burgeoning development sector and building expertise in structuring limited partnership agreements.

Acquiring the representation of a large Dallas-based general contracting firm and immersing themselves in three multi-year lawsuits on the client’s behalf cemented their specialty in construction law and spurred the expansion of their firm; Varner took the lead on an action concerning a $100 million Florida healthcare campus.

Once those actions were resolved, Varner says he and his partners opted to broaden their services and expand through a merger with a firm that shared a common philosophy and “culture.” They found a good fit in Kentucky-based Stites Harbison, which now has about 240 lawyers in offices across the Southeast. Varner is a member of the firm’s construction services group and an adjunct member of its complex litigation and corporate services group. In addition to his broad transactional and business dispute resolution practice, he handles business succession and estate planning for his clients.

“I would never choose a profession other than law,” says Varner. “It lets you do so much. If you are competitive you can get to the courtroom or you can negotiate. Ideally it’s a win-win, if everybody is doing it right.

“That’s another thing I learned at Duke — that if you drill down far enough, you might find a common ground where everyone can get some percentage of what they wanted, and they’ve avoided the expense of a conflict, so they are coming out a winner.”

Varner sees Duke Law School as a clear winner, challenged only by its relatively small endowment — which he is determined to build.

“We’re a terrific law school,” he says of Duke. “But we don’t get the recognition we deserve because people look at the endowment. So we have to build it.” Keeping in touch with alumni is key to that goal, he says.

“The community is really the most important asset that a relatively young university like Duke has, and it’s growing. So we’ve got to keep in touch with our alumni and keep them in touch with the Law School. That’s what’s going to build our ‘war chest,’ so to speak, up to the proper level.”