After getting a law degree at North Carolina Central, he moved to Stuart — 30 minutes away from his mother — and married Gloria, his childhood sweetheart.
Soon, he started his own law firm. “He didn’t have a choice,” said Gloria, who had come into the kitchen in her workout sweats and sat down beside him. “He tried to interview with a few lawyers around town, but he was the first black lawyer here, and they weren’t willing to give him a chance. It was a blessing in disguise. . . . He was afraid, but you have to do what you have to do.”
In his first big case, he represented the widow of a truck driver who died in an accident after his truck was hit by a car driven by a wealthy woman. “Even as a young lawyer, I had the presence of mind to go visit her [the widow] in North Carolina. She was an old lady. I needed to know her life story so I could tell the jury.
“I’ll never forget. She lived on a farm, on a hill. She fixed food for me. There were leaks in the roof, and she said, ‘If. . . ‘ “ He paused, searching.
“Charlie,” said Gloria.
“Charlie! ‘If Charlie were here, he’d fix that roof, and the grass had grown up out in back. And Charlie would mow the grass. . . . And late in the afternoon, I’ll never forget. The sun was going down, and she heard the sound of an airhorn, from a truck in the distance. Boom, boom boom. And she said to me — never before or since have I ever been faced with this — ‘Mr. Gary, is that my Charlie coming home?’ “
He is of course repeating his closing argument: “Members of the jury, what can I say? Because I knew Charlie was never ever coming home again. . . . How can you value her loss? You can’t bring him back. . . . I asked for $250,000. That was big money back then. And I got it — from an all-white jury in Putnam County.”
This trial took place in the mid-1970s, and he was suing “the matriarch of the city, the richest family in Putnam County, which was near Polk County, where the Klan was running rampant.”
So how did he do it? “I didn’t even know I was supposed to be afraid. I went in there like I was just a lawyer like anybody else.”
That truck driver trial — and many others to follow — has given Gary an image that he’s a folksy guy who knows how to say magical words that compel jurors to do what he wants. When a reporter repeated that idea to Gary, he winced. “It’s more than that. There’s a lot of work.” During a trial, he usually doesn’t get to bed until 5 a.m. “You have to have a work ethic that’s second to none.”
These days, Gary has a huge staff to help him. About 35 attorneys (including seven named partners) and a staff of 125 others (including investigators, accountants and nurses for researching malpractice cases) work out of a converted hotel in downtown Stuart. “I washed dishes here in 10th grade.” His key partners include Linnes Finney Jr., president of the National Bar Association, and Tricia (C.K.) Hoffler, a graduate of Smith College and Georgetown Law School, who left a successful law practice in Washington to move to Stuart. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hoffler said. “He’s a stickler for detail. His preparation is exceptional. And he has a way with people. He can talk to the queen of England and a homeless person.”
When he feels he needs to, he reaches outside the firm, as he did when he brought in Rogow, a Nova Southeastern University professor who’s an expert in media law, when he represented a road paver, Joe Anderson Jr., in a lawsuit against The Pensacola News-Journal in 2003.
They did not dispute the facts in the story: Anderson killed his wife with a shotgun; authorities ruled the killing accidental. But they argued the story twisted facts to portray Anderson in a “false light.”
Anderson had a huge construction business that grossed more than $100 million a year, but again this was a tale of David versus the giant Gannett newspaper chain. “The Gannett Co. has a lot of power,” Gary told the jury, according to the St. Petersburg Times. “And, buddy, when they set out to get you, they get you.” He asked the jurors to award Anderson “billions” in damages.
Rogow said he was fascinated with the ease in which Gary can ask for such sums. “There’s a shyness of many people in asking for substantial numbers, but it’s a product of his personality, of his confidence. He’s raised the bar for many people. He gets juries inured to big numbers. He’s really the billion-dollar man.”
The jury awarded his client $18 million — still a huge amount for a newspaper case. On appeal, many attorneys for newspapers argued the “false light” claim set a dangerous precedent. An appeals court threw out the verdict. Gary and Rogow have appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
On rare occasions, Gary clearly was not on the side of David, as when he represented Florida sugar companies being sued in three cases by cane cutters. “I thought long and hard before I took the case. . . . This was clearly a frivolous case.”
When he talked to cane cutters in the Caribbean, they told him the Florida companies had paid them well and according to their agreement. He said he won all three cases.
Still undecided is the Broward case, in which he represents SPS Technologies, a small, defunct Fort Lauderdale firm that accused Motorola of illegally appropriating SPS’ vehicle-tracking technology.
A team of about 20 lawyers and paralegals worked on the case with Gary. Last November, the case ended with a hung jury. Gary, always the fighter, argued that Motorola should pay his legal fees because its attorneys had broken the rules of the court by allowing its witnesses to read the testimony of other witnesses. “That way they could change and shape their testimony,” Gary told The Miami Herald. “This is not a small matter. The whole process is tainted.”
In one court filing, Gary said his time was worth $11,000 an hour. “Now, I don’t charge $11,000 an hour,” he said. But legal fee calculations allow for additional amounts in special situations. “If there was no cheating, you wouldn’t have $11,000 an hour from Willie Gary.”
Circuit Judge Leroy Moe agreed that Motorola attorneys ignored his instructions about its witnesses and ordered the big Chicago
firm to pay Gary and associates $22.9 million in fees and expenses. That was a huge sum, but only about a tenth of what Gary had requested. That matter is still winding its way through the courts and no retrial has been scheduled.
Outside the courtroom, business hasn’t always been as fruitful. A major business venture, the Black Family Channel, flopped. For years, he pushed it as a wholesome alternative — “no violence, no cursing, none of that stuff.”
But the channel attracted few viewers and Gary says many cable channels refused to carry it, saying they already had BET and that was enough. “You have all these sex channels, fishing channels, golf channels, and even Hispanic channels, but not African-American channels. That really hurt us.” Gary cut his losses, merging Black Family with the Gospel Music Channel.