Q&A: Charles Pillans III
Bedell, Dittmar, DeVault, Pillans & Coxe, Jacksonville
Published in 2009 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
By Beth Taylor on June 15, 2009
Pillans, who descends from a proud line of Florida “crackers,” has been practicing commercial litigation and criminal defense for more than 40 years. He loves the law, but in another life might like to be a pianist. First, he’ll have to learn to play.
Your firm is 144 years old; its building has stood for more than a century. Are you a history buff?
I’m an unusual person in Florida: I’m a fifth-generation Floridian, on my father’s side. They moved here before it was a state, around 1840, so I take pride in Florida history.
Have you collected any memorabilia?
I have, most of which has been passed down … such as my great-great-grandfather’s Civil War saber and belt buckle and spurs, and some Confederate bonds, which are [laughs] not any good any more. I’ve also inherited lots of photographs of my family … showing what the Florida “cracker” life was like.
Any surprises while your firm renovated the old Carnegie Library?
The second floor had a drop ceiling, which, when we took it out, revealed a big barrel ceiling with a large stained-glass skylight that we’ve always believed to be a Tiffany.
Are there other lawyers in your family?
I’m the first attorney. In high school, I had a severe injury playing football, so I went out for the debate team and I won a high school state championship. That led me to think, well, if I was a good debater, maybe I could make a living as a lawyer.
What else would you like to be doing?
I’d like to be a piano player; an entertainer. But I don’t know how to play the piano, see. I’ll be 69 this month; I’m not going to take up the piano now.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Orlando. That was pre-Disney, when it was a 50,000-person, sleepy little town; a wonderful town to grow up in. It was all citrus. Of course, there are no citrus groves to be seen anywhere within miles of Orlando now.
What was your first job?
In the summertime while I was in college, I was what was called a citrus enumerator. We would go out when the oranges were just little green things on the tip ends of the tree limbs. They would count the same trees each year to try to get a projection as to what the orange crop was going to be.
Do you recall that job nostalgically?
There were a lot of thorns and it was very hot.
What’s the most important thing you learned from your dad?
He always viewed things with a humorous eye.
Has that come in handy on the job?
No [laughs]. Humor is not something that gets the job done, for me, in the practice of law. I’m not generally considered to be a very humorous person. You have to know me very well to see the humor.
Except for a couple of years as a prosecutor, you’ve been with the same firm. Why is that?
Professionalism has always been a part of our firm, and it’s what we’ve been known for. We’ve made many contributions to the profession in that sense. Two of our practicing partners have been presidents of the Florida Bar, and three or more have served as presidents of the Jacksonville Bar.
Any memorable cases?
There was a criminal trial that went on for nine months—probably still one of the longest criminal trials in the history of Florida—involving a fellow named Glenn Turner and a pyramid scheme. It ended up with a hung jury after all that time. One of the defendants in the case was also one of the lawyers, F. Lee Bailey.
Wasn’t Turner the multimillionaire who went around wearing neon suits and a rhinestone U.S. flag pin—and was building a 40-room castle?
Yes, everything about that case was bizarre. Turner had these two dwarves who were twins. He dressed these identical twins up like Uncle Sams and brought them into the courtroom. One afternoon we were having a bench conference and we heard all this tittering in the back. We turned around and one of the dwarves had fallen asleep on the arm of the bench, his head cocked back, mouth open, just snoring.
OK, but litigating can’t all be laughs.
I try to go home at night and put it all behind me. I have a lot of hobbies. One of them is following the Florida Gators. I attend all the home games and a couple of away games every year. I have some memorabilia but my wife makes me put it all in the garage.
You Gator boosters are a loyal bunch.
There are several kinds of Gators. Before [coach] Steve Spurrier came, Florida people were loyal, but we didn’t win a lot. We’ve been winning ever since Spurrier came, so there’s a lot of loyalty, but the true loyalty is the people who stuck with them through the bad times.
Who would you invite to lunch?
I’d say [Confederate Army Gen.] Robert E. Lee. He was so respected by the people who served under him. I’d like to get to know him and find out what were the traits that inspired so much loyalty.
Any favorite movies?
I like silly movies. I see enough tragedy and drama in the day; I don’t need to go see a lot of drama afterward.
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