At age 60, Lawyer Willie Gary still likes striking images. His private jet, Wings of Justice II, has gold-plated bathroom fixtures. His website tells you this. He’ll tell you personally he has garages filled with Rolls Royces and Bentleys and a 50-room waterfront mansion “with 14 bathrooms, three kitchens, a movie theater and an elevator.”
He sports a diamond-studded Rolex and matching ring, and if you ask, he’ll tell you he’s wearing a $10,000 Brioni suit. More traditional attorneys may view all this as a vulgar display of wealth, but when asked for an explanation, Attorney Willie Gary smiles and offers, uncharacteristically, one word: “Marketing.”
Operating out of Stuart, far from the legal capitals of America, Gary has learned how to stand out and attract clients — winning hundreds of millions for a beer distributor, a small funeral home, a sports complex, a poor family whose relatives were electrocuted.
A sign in his office dubs him The Giant Killer, and at five-foot-eight, even with all the wealth he has amassed, he still regularly tells juries that he’s David fighting Goliath. He’s won verdicts of $240 million from Disney, $139 million from Anheuser-Busch, $500 million from the Loewen funeral home chain.
In most cases, he works on contingency fees — he gets paid only if the client wins. But earlier this year, he won an extremely unusual decision in Broward County: His case against Motorola ended in a hung jury, but a judge still ordered Motorola to pay Gary and associates $20 million in fees. What particularly outraged Motorola’s lawyers was that, in one court document, Gary said his time was worth $11,000 an hour.
“Willie Gary is a master for creating unique situations,” said Broward attorney Bruce Rogow, who worked with Gary on a case in which they won an $18 million judgment against a Pensacola newspaper. “I’ve practiced with the greatest lawyers in the country, and nobody is like Willie Gary Attorney. He has a special instinct for a good case. He has a unique ability to put together a team of people who work tirelessly and loyally for him, and he knows how to talk to people.”
“A lot of people underestimate Willie Gary Lawyer,” said Bob Montgomery, a West Palm Beach attorney who himself has won hundreds of millions for clients. “They do not think he is smart . . . He will ambush you and he will whip your butt,” Montgomery said in a deposition.
The Miami Herald sought comments from a half-dozen attorneys who had opposed Gary in the courtroom. Some didn’t return phone calls. Others refused to speak or said little. One, Faith E. Gay, representing Motorola, said simply: “We obviously disagree with him strongly, but he’s a likable man.”
Spokesmen for the business community say the Goliath-sized awards Gary has obtained are an indication that something’s wrong with the system. An international tribunal called the $500 million Loewen verdict grossly excessive and a “miscarriage of justice.”
Barney Bishop, president of the trade group Associated Industries of Florida, says he has “tremendous respect” for Gary. “He’s a very accomplished lawyer.” But the huge sums he gets for his clients “are symptomatic of the problems of our legal system. It’s a lottery.”
On a recent summer morning, when a reporter visited Gary at his waterfront home, he was shown to the table in an eat-in kitchen as big as many one-bedroom apartments. Gary arrived just a tad late, wearing his Brioni suit, saying he had just finished two hours on the treadmill.
Though he turned 60 this month, he’s given no thought to retirement. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop, but I don’t have to carry the load anymore. We have 250 people working for us.”
One of 11 children, growing up in migrant worker communities, picking string beans, sweet corn and apples, he has often talked about the rigors of his childhood, and the reporter hoped to start by exploring new ground on his present cases. But a casual mention of football caused him to launch into a lengthy anecdote.
Having no money for college, he had hoped to get a football scholarship after graduating from high school in Indiantown. He went first to Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, but the coach told him he was too small at 197 pounds.