A Modern-Day David
Don’t underestimate attorney Lorenzo Williams JD’77. A cadre of corporate heavyweights — and their big-city, Ivy-league lawyers — have paid handsomely to learn that lesson.
For the past 25 years, Williams has been a partner with Gary, Williams, Parenti, et al., a Stewart, Fla., law firm known for going toe-to-toe — and winning — against big name defendants with well-financed defense teams. As personal injury and corporate law specialists, Williams and his colleagues have successfully litigated more than 150 cases with awards exceeding $1 million.
Like a modern-day David, Williams relishes the role of underdog fighting giant Goliaths. “I enjoy looking across the table at lawyers who think that they are smarter, tougher and more skilled than me,” he said, smiling broadly.
In person, his easy carriage suggests an old-fashioned country lawyer. It’s a style that’s both appealing to juries and disarming for opponents. However, beneath Williams’ affable demeanor, lurks a skilled legal tactician. It’s a winning combination in the courtroom.
Williams is the second of seven children born to working class parents in rural South Florida. His was a life anchored in work, honesty, respect and responsibility. His parents were strict, insisting the children attend church and do their chores and homework without question. Despite never attending college themselves, his mother and father saw to it that every single one of their seven children received a college degree.
“There were three things my parents stressed: citizenship, education and religion,” he said.
Law was not Williams’ first career choice. Like a lot of young men, Williams craved adventure, excitement and glamour. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” he said, laughing at the memory.
However, life’s hard lessons showed him the impact law could make. As a young man working and living on his uncle’s farm in Georgia during the 1960s, Williams felt the sting of Southern segregation. He remembers separate bathrooms and waiting areas, second- hand schoolbooks and having to wait for the white kids to finish using the gym so he could practice basketball. He combated this kind of racism not through anger or militancy, but by setting an example.
“If you look people square in the eyes and speak to them with respect, eventually they realize that there is no harm in speaking to you. In a quiet way, you encourage your fellow man to respect and appreciate you.”
As the Civil Rights Movement unfolded around him, Williams saw many examples of individuals employing that kind of quiet courage. The idea of using his mind in the pursuit of equality and justice suddenly became very appealing. “I liked the idea of using words, of using one’s presence and knowledge of the law, to help affect social change.”
After graduating in 1974 from Shaw University, a historically black college, Williams found few law schools willing to provide the financial aid he needed. One small, private Pacific Northwest law school, Willamette University College of Law, was willing to make the investment. When Williams arrived at the Portland Airport, Carlton Snow, both a professor and dean at the College of Law, was there to welcome him personally. Snow’s greeting made an unforgettable impression on the young Williams. “That planted the first seed for me that Willamette is a first class university,” he said.
Williams calls his experience at Willamette “one of the best decisions of my life.” He was challenged to grow both socially and intellectually. As one of five African Americans in his class – and one of only a handful in the entire Salem community – Williams was out of his element. He and his classmates – both black and white – formed a bond of collegiality and friendship that transcended racial, cultural or geographic differences. “They were all top-of-the-ladder, first-class human beings,” he said.
After graduating from Willamette in 1977, Williams returned to Florida and reunited with a young lawyer friend and Shaw alumnus named Willie Gary. In many ways, the partnership forged between these two African American attorneys was groundbreaking. At that time, African Americans represented only a small fraction of practicing law professionals. African American law firms were almost unheard-of. Williams and Gary were well aware that it would take incredible effort for them to succeed.
“As the products of Southern farms, both Willie and I knew that it’s the person who gets up the earliest and works the hardest who reaps the greatest rewards.”
Williams and Gary succeeded by sticking to one simple philosophy – take on cases you can believe in. Most of their early work came through the local public defender’s office. Their clients were poor, often uneducated minorities who couldn’t afford legal representation on their own. Williams had almost no money himself to hire experts or investigators, so he did all of the investigation and information gathering on his own. The workload was immense, but it taught him how to build an effective case from the ground up. “It really helped me hone my skills as a trial lawyer.”
Those skills were on full display in what became the defining case for Williams and his partners – O’Keefe vs. Loewen. The case involved Jeremiah O’Keefe, owner of a small Biloxi, Miss., funeral home who was being driven out of business by Loewen Group Inc., a large Canadian-based funeral home chain. It was the first big test of commercial litigation for Williams and his colleagues. Loewen’s attorneys mistakenly assumed that a couple of small time lawyers from South Florida couldn’t put up much of a fight. They were dead wrong. The jury awarded the plaintiff more than $600 million – a verdict that remains one of the largest single awards in U.S. history.
“To this day, if you put one of Loewen’s lawyers under oath,” said Williams, “they’d admit that they underestimated our ability to practice law.”
O’Keefe vs. Loewen was more than just a tale of the underdog winning against all odds. The case affirmed William’s belief that the law can be a great counterweight to injustice.
“In many ways, lawyers are like social surgeons,” he says. “When we do our jobs correctly, we help keep the system, and the people that system is supposed to protect, healthy. We should not let anybody, for any political reason, tamper with the Constitution, which forms the basic fiber of American justice.”
Today, Gary, Williams, Parenti, et al., has a staff of more than 130 and a national reputation. Williams has helped clients win judgments against some of the biggest corporations in the world, including Walt Disney World, Anheuser-Busch and Hewlett Packard.
Despite his success, one thing remains the same for Williams. “I never take a case I can’t believe in. I will never go to bed at night worrying about whether my credibility is intact. Whether I win or lose a case, all I have as a lawyer is my credibility.”
Today, as a father, Williams sees the values that shaped his life and his legal career, coming full circle. With their children, Williams and his wife stress the importance of hard work and a reverence for citizenship. He has also set up a scholarship fund through his local church to provide money for students who are good students and contribute to their community.
“I try to encourage kids and let them know that no matter their background, if they work hard and treat others with respect, there are people out there pulling for them.”
For someone with his skill and integrity, a judgeship might seem a certainty for Williams in the future. However, he’s considering becoming a teacher instead. Williams believes strongly in public education. He encourages professionals like himself to volunteer in the school system as mentors and role models.
“I think the presence of strong professional people in the classroom has a very positive impact on students,” said Williams. “There are three things that run parallel across all successful people – work ethic, integrity and good citizenship. In a student’s education, those three things should be non-negotiable.”
As he talks about the future, Williams’ voice carries the same intensity we hear from him in the courtroom. He’s clearly excited about the possibility of passing on his experience and values in the classroom. There’s no doubt that he’d make an inspiring teacher. But there’d be a lot of change and new challenges to face. It wouldn’t be a problem. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Lorenzo Williams, it’s that you shouldn’t underestimate him.