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Champion for the underdog.

As one of the nation's top trial lawyers, Willie Gary brings a new level of alcout to personal injury law.

WILLIE E. GARYS PRESS CLIPPINGS READ LIKE the stuff of Lotto dreams: "Jury Awards $3.1 Million," "Boy's Family Awarded 8.1 Million," Willie Gary And Team Win $16,250,000. . ." Gary is a winner. But the headline-grabbing victories he claims are not dreams come true - they are salvaged from nightmares.

Gary is a plaintiffs attorney and his job, while incredibly profitable, is one of the most difficult a lawyer can have. It doesn't revolve around remote and complex legal principles, but around people - everyday folks in the midst of the worst tragedies imaginable.

The number of his clients who have lost limbs in auto accidents are too numerous for him to count; Gary has represented more children irreparably damaged by improper medical treatment than he cares to recall. When the paralyzed victim of a car wreck seeks Gary out, if s not to make his legs work again. Those channels have already been exhausted. What Gary's clients need is money for what's looming ahead: decades of medical bills, compensation for lost wages, lost opportunities, lost lives.

Putting a price tag on such things is a rather grizzly concept. But Gary, the 46-year-old head of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Finney & Lewis, says he believes in the value of what he does, and the record shows that few, if any, do it better. He hasn't lost a case in 14 years.

How he wins is no mystery. "Mine are the cases that, for the most part, you're going to have to file a lawsuit and do some work," Gary says. "Nobody's writing you a check for $10 million or $15 million without your proving to them there's no other way out." Proving that involves hundreds of hours of painstaking fact-gathering on each case; taking depositions from every witness within reach; calling on numerous experts; investigating every minute factual detail of an incident and exploring each emotional, less tangible angle as well. The key to victory lies in being right and in tapping into what will not just tug at the heartstrings of a potential jury, but will rip them right out.

Gary has a reputation for being unrelenting in that quest. A sideline motivational speaker whose brother is a preacher, Gary is renowned for his presentation skills as well. Affable and rather low-key in person, Gary bursts to life before a judge, a jury, or an audience of any kind. Although his natural bent is to punctuate the air with his hands and speak in rousing tones (described by one observer as "a cross between Clarence Darrow and Jesse Jackson"), Gary grows still and speaks barely above a whisper when such an effect is warranted. Willie Gary's style, his flair, his talent, as he says, is "in the blood. I just do mything."

Gary's "thing" has won admirers, even among opponents. "There are a lot of great trial lawyers," says Lewis N. Jack, who has defended more than a half-dozen cases against Gary. "There are a small percentage in the category where I would place Willie." In a game where the best persuader wins, Jack notes, there are two ways to persuade: with reason and with passion. "Depending on the case, a good lawyer uses one or both of those," Jack says. "Willie can do it both ways, and in that sense he's unique."

Driven To Succeed

Gary's success has not given him immunity from the caricatures of his trade. He has heard all the slights ("ambulance chaser" is the most common). But the stereotype doesn't hold up against this resourceful 1974 graduate of North Carolina Central University Law School, who is now the managing partner and majority shareholder of his 18-lawyer firm. After almost 20 years of practice, he is far from chasing cases - he is the sought-after one. And given Gary's track record, even in a county that is a mere 6% black, he isn't fazed by his specialty's unsavory rap.

"It's the insurance companies and big corporations and doctors and defense lawyers who ridicule what I do," Gary says. "The common person - the blue-collar people - they understand the value of what I do, because they know what it is to become victims of the medical establishment. When you have money, for the most part, you don't have to deal with that. I champion the causes of the little people."

He identifies with his clients more than they probably realize. His birth was a complicated one in which his twin did not survive. To pay the medical bills, his father literally had to sell the farm, move his large family from Georgia to Florida and start over as a migrant worker. From an early age, Gary was driven by a need to make up for his parents' losses.

That drive led him to pursue college, a far-fetched goal given his family's poverty. What happened next is well-known by now: Young Gary forged his way onto Shaw University's football team after being cut by Bethune-Cookman, only to graduate, make good, and, in 1991, donate a stunning $10 million to his alma mater. That money saved Shaw from sudden death and catapulted Gary into the national spotlight. His rags to Rolls Royces biography got Gary and his wife, Gloria, featured in The New York Times, on Oprah and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and into the White House for dinner with the Bushes. For all his elbowrubbing with the stars, though, Gary always returns home.

Friend and Foe

Gary launched his firm - the first black-owned law firm in Martin County, Florida - in 1975. His first big civil case came about one year later and ended in a $250,000 settlement for the widow of a North Carolina truck driver killed when he swerved to avoid a woman who pulled into his path. It remains the highest personal injury settlement ever awarded in Putnam County.

The case that established Gary as a superstar resulted from an accident with multiple victims. In 1985, Gary represented Troy Fulks in a massive law suit against Florida Power & Light Co. Seven members of Fulks' family died instantly when a power line carrying 8,000 volts of electricity coursed through their car. The exact amount of the settlement remains sealed, but it's reportedly in the $50 millionplus range, about 30% of which Gary was paid for his efforts.

He says his 70-employee firm, headquartered in a grandly refurbished landmark hotel overlooking the St. Lucie River, has "routinely grossed more than $100 million a year" since the mid-1980s. Each year, Gary personally handles 10 to 15 cases, each with the likelihood of an outcome in the millions, of which his firm receives a contingency fee of 25% to 40% of any money awarded. If his clients get nothing, he gets nothing-a big incentive for pulling out all the stops.

Late last year, Gary and his team negotiated a series of multimillion dollar settlements for Jahida Black, a three-year-old who suffered brain damage as an infant after being improperly treated for meningitis. The final settlement, against HCA Lawnwood Regional Medical Center, came in November, two weeks into trial and as Gary was preparing to call the child's mother to the witness stand. Maria P. Sperando, a senior associate in Gary's Ft. Pierce office who worked on the case, recalls Gary walking over to the hospital's insurance adjuster in court and saying, "Look, why don't you smell the coffee? Some of the jurors are nodding in agreement as we present our case." The adjuster folded.

Mason H. Grower ill, an Orlando-based defense lawyer whose client decided to a settle in the early phases of the Black case, calls Gary's work on it "extraordinary." Gary says about 85% of his clients cases are settled out of court, many (like Black's) for undisclosed sums. Gary does admit that he has structured settlements of more than $200 million.

The fruits of his labor can be seen in things other than his grand philanthropic gestures. Gary's office, with its silk curtains, gold-plated sink, marble bar, mahogany desk and massive fireplace, is nearly as legendary as his case record. But there is a reason beyond his lavish taste for the indulgence. Says Gary: "Personal injury work is war. I need to let people know that if we go to battle, whatever their resources are, I can match them. This office, without a doubt, says you are in for a fight.- Indeed.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:lawyer Willie Gary
Author:Clarke, Caroline V.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Biography
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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