Willie Gary
 

Willie Gary was born in 1947, in south Georgia, the sixth of 11 children. The family lived in shacks. No shoes. No nothing. The richest thing in his life was the red Georgia clay under his nails.

Willie Gary knows better than anyone that tough times never last but tough people do. Growing up in a poor migrant family, Gary beat the odds to become a multi-millionaire nationally renown attorney, who is known for giving back to the less fortunate.

Flo-Sun Inc., an umbrella company for the sugar empire of the Fanjul family of Palm Beach, recently hired Gary to handle multimillion-dollar lawsuits that claim thousands of cane field workers from the Caribbean were underpaid for years.

Attorney Bob Montgomery, who reportedly also was approached about the lucrative assignment, described Gary as "a power in the courtroom'' and said Flo-Sun made a very good choice.

Within two years of opening his Stuart law firm, Willie Gary was a millionaire.

He has made big money ever since. And he has given away large chunks of that money: $10 million to Shaw University, thousands to local health charities, $60,000 to fund a Stuart day-care center, $100,000 to help build a new Baptist church in Indiantown, thousands to African-American scholarship programs.

Gary has made his fortune taking big liability settlements from insurance companies in wrongful-death suits. His fee averages 35 percent. He says he'll give up some or even most of that fee to help a poor client reach the right settlement.

He made national news when he reached a settlement of more than $40 million with Florida Power & Light over the 1985 electrocution of seven rural Palm Beach County residents.

He made global news in 1996 when he won a $500 million jury award from the Loewen Group, a Canadian funeral home company he had sued for breach of contract. Loewen had been buying up U.S. funeral homes and driving the competition out of business. As part of the settlement, he received stock in Loewen and agreed not to sue the company again.

More important than TV coverage, he says, was ABC News naming him "Person of the Week'' in 1992. "It meant they recognized me as a man, not just as a lawyer.''

But the law is the key that unlocks Gary, his philanthropy, his sense of style.

His firm employs 150, including 21 lawyers, eight partners, two investigators, dozens of paralegals, a medical director and a public relations specialist. It represents more than 7,000 clients, including two groups of more than 2,000.

Most of the cases are small, less than a million dollars. But a million here, a million there adds up to around $55 million per year in settlements. Most of the clients are small--working men and women, the rural poor, children. Most of the opponents are big--hospitals, chemical companies, insurance companies. Gary's associates call him the giant killer.

His firm is not big by national standards, but it brings in more dollars per associate than the biggest firms in the country. The 100 largest U.S. law firms average $400 million in revenues, employ an average of 450 lawyers and generate about $500,000 per year in profits for the partners, according to the American Law Journal. Gary's firm generates almost $3 million per lawyer in gross revenues.

"I'm the rainmaker. Every firm needs a rainmaker, the guy that brings in the business. The stiff-collar, old-school firms might do their marketing at country clubs and on the golf course. I do mine in court.''