Attorney at Law Magazine Jacksonville Publisher Tom Brady sat down with W.C Gentry to discuss the future and what accomplishment he’s most proud of.
AALM: What experiences have taught you the most?
Gentry: The experiences that most shaped my legal career were those at the Bedell firm where I was fortunate to learn from and work with some of the finest lawyers anywhere. From the “boss” Chester Bedell, I learned the importance of a lawyer’s independence and paramount obligation to the courts. From Nathan Bedell, beside the value of exhaustive and meticulous preparation, I learned the most important thing in life, in front of a judge and certainly in a courtroom, is your credibility. And, I was also fortunate to practice against exceptional lawyers like Ray Erhlich, Noah Jenerette and Mal Kirby, who taught me many lessons “the hard way.”
AALM: What trait most aided you in your drive to create your own firm?
Gentry: I think the main things that led me to start my firm with Kitty Phillips was the fact we had been blessed with great success and although we and the partners at Bedell worked to try to accommodate our different practices, we came to the point we wanted our own firm focused solely on complex personal injury litigation. It was a very difficult decision to leave friends and partners of some 15 years, but it was done in the right way and to this day, we still maintain close relationships.
AALM: How has the legal community evolved most drastically over your career?
Gentry: When I was a young partner and began to try more and more cases, business came because we were successful. It was always a high honor when other attorneys would come to the courtroom to watch us try a case. Today, it seems that advertising as opposed to quality of representation and success is a major determinate of who gets what business. And, your word was your bond, with many settlements and agreements based solely on a handshake because you knew you could count on it. In some respects, the practice seems to have become much more of a business, with too many lawyers performing as technicians and not exercising professional independence.
AALM: What flaws do you currently see in the legal landscape? What steps can lawyers and the legal community take to rectify them?
Gentry: What I see as a major flaw in the present legal system is the huge increase in discovery and concomitant cost which makes it increasingly difficult to handle meritorious smaller claims. Over the years, we constantly have had to ratchet up our minimum case value in medical malpractice and product liability cases. With endless Daubert hearings and discovery depositions and the penchant for experts in even the simplest of cases, it makes it very difficult for some plaintiffs with valid claims to go to trial or if they do, to obtain any sort of reasonable net recovery. I think nothing short of major civil rules changes can stanch this tide of “litigation” which thwarts the speedy and efficient pursuit of justice we are supposed to be about.
AALM: Looking back on your career, which case most impacted your practice?
Gentry: The Dobbert case, which I handled early in my career with John DeVault, brought to light the horrors of child abuse and paved the way for important changes in the law. The International Harvester case, where we obtained the first eight-figure verdict in Duval County, went a long way to change corporate policies having to do with alcohol. And, obviously, the representation of the State of Florida against Tobacco involved some of the greatest challenges any lawyer could face and had a huge impact on public health. I am also very proud of being on the founding board of Trial Lawyers Care and helping create the system whereby hundreds of lawyers provided free services to the victims of 9/11. It was a high point of my career and one of the finest hours of our profession.
AALM: What do you most hope to accomplish in the future?
Gentry: Looking to the future, I hope we can continue to make a difference from time to time through the type of litigation we pursue. I also want to use whatever skills I have to focus on the problems of our community. Nearly half of our economically disadvantaged children cannot read proficiently, thereby foreclosing their potential and putting many on the path to dependency and in too many cases, crime and violence. If Jacksonville is ever going to reach its potential, we must solve this fundamental problem that has plagued this community since I was a boy growing up on Talleyrand Avenue.
AALM: Thus far in your career, what are you most proud of accomplishing?
Gentry: I think what I am most proud of accomplishing is having three daughters who have become amazing women and successful in their own careers. This is a large testament to their mother, Susan, and the commitment we had to our family. Particularly when you practice at the level we were fortunate to achieve, it is very difficult to keep things in perspective and devote the time a father needs to help raise his children. Although I know there were failures along the way, I think we were able to keep that balance and I am extraordinarily proud of my girls.
AALM: What would you say to a young lawyer are the most important considerations?
Gentry: There are three things I think are most important. First, keep your moral compass finely tuned and always maintain and protect your integrity and credibility. There are no shortcuts to good character and reputation. Second, try to connect with a respected mentor and consume all you can about being a lawyer and the law. If you’re not in a firm with senior attorneys, don’t be afraid to ask a respected lawyer outside your firm – most lawyers are generous with their time and ready to help young lawyers who are genuine. Finally, and this may be the hardest, while doing all that’s needed to represent your clients with utmost fidelity, don’t short change your family and your health. Cases will come and go, but your family is forever and forever depends on how well you care for yourself. Besides, you’ll be a better lawyer if you’re content with your personal life and are in good health.