95 and Nonstop: The story behind Robert McMillan’s 70+ year career

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Robert McMillan

95-year-old Raleigh attorney Robert McMillan has walked past an award for 50 years of service for the past two decades, and he continues to show up for work each day at his law office.

The Wake County attorney received his license from the North Carolina Bar Association in 1949. He first worked with his father, Robert McMillan, Sr., at the law firm of Douglass and McMillan. He now works with his son Duncan at McMillan & Smith, which houses its offices on West Martin Street less than a block from the Wake County Justice Center.

McMillan attracts attention many mornings as he walks around downtown Raleigh.

The 95-year-old stands out as he always wears a suit, a stylish hat, and carries a tote bag with the words “Adorable Mail Carrier” printed on the side.

“People like to look at me dressed up. I can tell. You can sense it. And the young women love to see this thing,” he said in reference to the tote bag. “They giggle a little.”

McMillan retired from taking cases to trial at the beginning of the millennium. He stopped driving once he turned 90 and now relies on family members to get around town. He referred to himself as a “considerable nuisance,” though Duncan disagrees.

The soon-to-be centenarian said he realized his limitations and decided he was no longer competent to do those components of the job, but he did not want to step away from work.

“I didn’t want to just sit on the porch and rock for 15 to 20 years,” McMillan said. “I put on business clothes and come up to town. Otherwise, I’d sit there at home and wear pajamas and look at the boob tube all day, and that wouldn’t be much of a life.”

His daily duties primarily include trips on foot to the post office and bank, but McMillan’s resume includes tens of thousands of trips to courthouses for cases ranging from minor crimes to multiple homicides.

McMillan believes he has defended more murder suspects than any other Wake County attorney in history.

“I developed a very strong sense of calling in that I’m serving my client and I’m also serving the American way of life: liberty under the law. No matter how heinous a crime, a man deserves a fair trial, and it’s my duty to do my best to make sure he gets a fair trial. The criminal lawyer does not win a case or lose a case. He presents a case” McMillan said.

“People used to ask me, ‘How can you represent that man or woman when you know that he or she is guilty?’ First, I don’t know that he or she is guilty. I was not a witness to the case. I don’t know what happened. You ask that question as if it was a question of judging morals. I’m not dealing with morals I’m dealing with law. Only God can deal with morals. For us to deal with morals is blasphemy,” he said.

“For me, that’s none of my business. My business is to see it that my client has a fair trial. I don’t have to like the client. I certainly don’t condone murder or serious crimes, but I do advocate assuring that the man charged with murder has fair representation. I do my best the give him the best service I can.”

His Christian faith is the foundation for his life. McMillan is a lifelong member of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church near the NC State University campus. His parents became members of the congregation in 1919, and McMillan took to the pulpit in March to celebrate his family’s century of involvement.

McMillan continues to teach Sunday School at the church as he approaches his 96th birthday in September. He has had close friendships with every pastor since he was old enough to establish relationships and welcomed Reverend Nancy Petty when she arrived in 1992.

“When I became pastor of the church, I went to Robert for advice. I said Robert, tell me one thing. Just give me one piece of advice, because I can’t handle a lot,” Petty said.

“He said Nancy, everything you do, every single thing you do, somebody’s gonna love it and somebody’s going to hate it,  and he said you better always do what your conscience tells you to do. As long as you follow your conscience, he said you’re going to be okay and you’ll do a good job,” she said.

“I took that as advice that Robert had lived by his entire life.”

Petty said McMillan is always among the first group of people to arrive at church on Sunday mornings. He sits and sips his coffee before Sunday School, taking care not to spill anything on his suit and tie.

He dresses the same way for work and has done so for his entire career.

“Most of the people whom I represented in criminal court have been low-income people, not well-educated people. They want their lawyer to look like a lawyer, and so I’ve always made a point of dressing up, and dressing like I’m going to church,” McMillan said.

“When a man is charged with a serious offense, he wants his lawyer to look like a lawyer that’s going to try to accommodate him. Also, the courts appreciate it. You don’t want a bunch of people looking sloppy Joes, wearing overalls and long hair, you want them to look like a lawyer.

“I like to look my best when I go somewhere. In my house, I don’t dress like this — well, I do dress like this, but I don’t dress like this when I go to bed,” he said with a laugh.

McMillan bought coats and ties when he started his career, despite having a small bank account and three children to support. He had $1,026 when he left the military after World War II, following enlistment in the Marine Corps. He served again during the Korean War.

He initially had no interest in the legal system, but his father encouraged him to go to law school. McMillan first contacted Wake Forest College, where he received his undergraduate degree, but their semester was already underway. Then he reached out to the University of North Carolina.

All of the slots at UNC had been assigned, but there was one admitted student who was receiving medical treatment at Fort Bragg. That man did not get out of the hospital in time for school to start, so McMillan received the slot.

Seventy-three years later, he remains pleased with his decision and the law-based life he continues to live.

“I’m still able to sit up and take nourishment, so I’m going to continue to come as long as I can,” McMillan said.

The plaque in his office is In recognition of the completion of 50 Years Or More Of Service as a member of The North Carolina State Bar. It remains to be seen if the Bar prints its first ever 70 Years edition come August.

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