Q&A: Benjamin H. Hill III
Whether a fellow lawyer is in a sticky situation or a civic group needs help, people tend to turn to this commercial litigator at Tampa’s Hill Ward Henderson
Published in 2011 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
on June 10, 2011
Updated on June 21, 2011
Q: What’s it like being the lawyer other attorneys turn to when they’re in trouble?
A: It is a fascinating practice. You’re dealing with very good lawyers usually … who are probably much more talented than I am, and, you know, I’m sitting there giving them advice.
Q: Obviously, you’ve earned their trust.
A: I’ve tried lawsuits throughout the state. And slowly but surely, to the extent that I did a job worthy of remembering, those lawyers would call on me for assistance. I think probably one of the greatest compliments that an attorney can have is when you try a case against a lawyer on another side, and two or three years later that lawyer comes to you for assistance for their own personal needs, or they’ve referred one of their good clients to you.
Q: What is a typical legal malpractice situation?
A: The one I probably get the most of is the lawyers who have allegedly made mistakes because they had a conflict of interest. When they take on a client and they have other conflicting interests that arguably do not allow them to give the client their full attention, and if the client becomes dissatisfied, there can be a lawsuit. Those conflicts of interest are very, very difficult to handle.
Q: Do any cases stand out?
A: I have represented a large number of very large firms, both in Florida and the eastern part of the United States; and those firms, when they are involved in a legal malpractice action, the matters are usually very significant. They deal with an awful lot of money, they deal with securities, they deal with big pieces of property, and allegedly they’ve made mistakes along the way. I did have one where I was representing a large firm that was involved in giving advice with respect to the purchase of 2,000 acres of land with some 6 to 8 miles of waterfront. You can appreciate how valuable that piece of land was. It involved mangroves, it involved Indian mounds, it involved eagle nests and just about every other environmentally protected animal or plant that you can name. My opponents, the people who were suing the law firm, were some of the best-known athletes, I can’t go any further than that, but some of the best-known athletes in the United States. So it was a pretty high-profile matter with a lot at stake. [My client was] accused of not fully informing [its] client of all the problems associated with developing the property. The property today still exists intact, undeveloped, and the clients blamed the law firm for allowing them to buy the property and then not being able to develop it. It turned out that the law firm did not do anything wrong, but I don’t want to say that it was an easy case.
Q: You’ve also been involved in some major issues involving public officials.
A: Probably the highest-profile one in the Tampa Bay area was when I went up to Tallahassee and was working with the governor [as his general counsel]. As a coincidence, within a week … three of the five county commissioners of Hillsborough were indicted, which caused them to be removed from office, leaving only two county commissioners, which is not a quorum under the law. So Hillsborough County was literally stymied; could not transact business in any way; couldn’t technically sign a paycheck. We had an emergency situation where we had to find at least one more county commissioner to be appointed by the governor; since I happened to be from Tampa and happened to be his general counsel at the time, [I] was charged with going out to find [one]. I located one county commissioner who came in and served on an interim basis until we could locate three more to serve permanently. It was a real public crisis at the time. I happened to be there when that crisis developed, and I happened to be in a position to help solve the problem.
Q: How did that end up?
A: The county commissioners came from different districts in the county, so you had to find someone not only who was good but from a certain district. You had the opportunity to find someone who really knew something about running a business or developing. A lot of the successful people had no desire to serve, but we were able to find highly qualified people, [including] the first African-American who served in county government, and those three did a tremendous job of bringing the county back to a functioning county.
Q: You are one of those very rare folks who actually grew up in Florida.
A: I was born and raised in Tampa. I grew up basically in the country, outside Tampa. You had an awful lot of activities dealing with the outdoors, which I thoroughly enjoyed; I also participated in athletics. That was probably one of the best things I did growing up, in the sense of learning the value of teamwork, hopefully learning how to become a leader, and hopefully appreciating what is necessary to win. We lived on a small lake and had a little bit of acreage, and we had a horse or two. We could pick up a shotgun and go hunting, walking out the front door and just starting basically in the backyard.
Q: And when did you decide to be a lawyer?
A: I probably started thinking about it when I was in high school but wasn’t entirely sure. I went to college, majored in business, and following my college graduation with a business degree, went to work for a very short period of time in a textile mill in South Carolina as an accountant. After three months of doing that type of work, it became crystal clear that accounting was not what I wanted to do, and I enrolled in law school. In its broadest sense, I learned quickly that the whole purpose of law is to serve others in times of need. That’s what I enjoy the most about law, and that’s what I learned in law school that the practice of law was all about.
Q: In fact, you are heavily involved in community service.
A: Well, it’s something that my dad did, and I could see the pleasure that he got out of it; I could see the contributions that he made. All those contributions and activities obviously influenced me, and certainly I have tried to do my share.
Q: What are the groups you’ve volunteered with?
A: At the present time, I am on the executive board of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, which is one of the largest cancer centers in the United States, and I spend a great deal of time working and trying to provide some leadership in the Moffitt organization, and working with some awfully good people.
Q: How else do you spend your free time?
A: My family will tell you that my first hobby, quite frankly, is that we’ve built a very good law firm, so I’ve spent a lot of my time doing what I could to contribute to the building of the firm. I have two sons, and I encouraged them—not to go to law school, but once they decided to become lawyers—certainly to become good lawyers, and I’ve tried to work with them as well as with all the younger people in our firm. … I’ve never lost my interest in outdoor activities, ranging from golf, which I would love to play a lot more of … [to] upland hunting, which is bird-shooting, basically, and fishing. I enjoy traveling with my wife. And to the extent that I can break my children’s habits, because they now have their own families, but to the extent that I can say, “Come join us,” I love to travel with the entire family.
Q: Both your sons work at your firm?
A: Yes, Ben and Gordon. I am proud of them. Both of them have held offices in the Hillsborough County Bar Association; both of them have been head of the Young Lawyers Division of the Hillsborough County Bar. It’s always good when you can see your children pick up some of the things that you deem so important in life.
Q: And you’re helping the American Bar Association rank judicial candidates?
A: I’m on the ABA committee that is charged with evaluating all the federal judges that the president wants to appoint. When the president decides that he wants to consider someone to nominate for the Senate to consider, he sends it immediately to our committee and we have to evaluate that potential judge and make a rating for the U.S. Senate to consider. It’s dealing with trying to fill the huge number of vacancies in the federal court system … across the United States. This is something the ABA has done since 1956, and the president won’t go forward without getting the rating from the ABA. It’s a very time-consuming process, but one in which hopefully we’re contributing to really making the federal judiciary a strong judiciary, and that includes trial judges as well as circuit judges, as well as members of the U.S. Supreme Court. We’re lucky to have good people that I’m working with, who take it very seriously.
Q: Did you always practice business litigation?
A: In law school I seemed to excel, to the extent that I excelled academically, in tax courses. So I thought, well, maybe I will be a tax lawyer. Then I came to Tampa and began working for a firm that immediately put me in litigation and had nothing to do with taxes. I thoroughly enjoyed the litigation part: You’re working with people, you’re solving people’s problems, you’re protecting people, you’re advancing the interest of people. It was a challenge that I just continue to appreciate.