The $500 Million Man
Saying “I’ll see you in court” to Pete Law is probably not the best way to start the day
Published in 2016 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 19, 2016
Updated on March 11, 2016
The coincidence of name and career are just that, a coincidence, and one Peter A. Law is reminded of on a routine basis. He’s cool with that.
“Every time someone walks in, I hear what a great name I have,” Law says. “I used to hear about it in law school, because the professors would always say, ‘Where’s Mr. Law? I understand we have the law in our classroom.’ Really, it doesn’t get old. It’s like an icebreaker.”
But he didn’t become a lawyer because of his name; he became a lawyer because of a construction worker.
In the summer following his freshman year at Florida State, Law was once again working construction back home in Haworth, New Jersey; and one day, as Law remembers it, he and his longtime boss Richard Hubschman were driving across the George Washington Bridge when Hubschman asked him what he was studying in college:
Law: Hotel and restaurant management.
Hubschman: Nah, don’t do that. You should be a lawyer.
Law [after a long pause]: Do you think I’d be a good lawyer?
Hubschman: I know so.
“And that was it,” Law says, adding, “Then I had to find out what lawyers do.”
According to most people, he nailed that last one.
Since he founded Law & Moran, a plaintiff’s personal injury firm, in 1995, approximately 150 of his cases have resulted in a settlement or jury verdict of at least $1 million. His cases combined have brought in more than $500 million in compensation.
“His track record alone, with all those verdicts and settlements, places him among the top personal injury lawyers in the U.S., so let’s not limit this to Georgia,” says Paul Weathington, a medical malpractice defense attorney whose streak of 50 consecutive victories ended in 2012, against Law. Law got punitive damages for his client—“more than anyone predicted,” Weathington says. “His record is extraordinary, and there are probably tons of confidential settlements I have no knowledge of.”
“He’s got more million-dollar verdicts than I do,” says Tommy Malone, a longtime plaintiff’s med-mal attorney who has been called The King of Torts. “I don’t count them, but I know that I read about Pete’s verdicts more than I do mine. The thing about Pete is, he’s always been credible, and if you maintain credibility, you should win most of your cases.”
Law is behind some of Georgia’s largest jury awards, including a $54 million verdict in a 2008 tractor-trailer negligence case that resulted in the death of a 50-year-old nursing assistant; and a $73 million verdict in a 2015 premises liability case for injuries suffered by a 53-year-old former teacher when his apartment exploded.
According to colleagues, Law projects a sense of confidence without arrogance, toughness without intimidation, empathy without artifice. Law’s early blue-collar experience hasn’t hurt his ability to connect with juries, either.
“There is a sometimes unfair image of plaintiff’s attorneys, and a jury may have preconceived notions,” Weathington says. “Pete embraces and dispels that potential negative perception from the first ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury’ he utters. He does it with a touch of class and some self-deprecation. It’s very effective.”
“I think there’s an aspect to Pete, that sense of self-reliance and pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, that is a big part of who he is and what makes him an effective attorney,” adds Mike Moran, who joined Law’s firm in 2004 and became a partner in 2010. “He truly is real people. That works well for a trial lawyer. A jury is supposed to be a cross-section of society, and Pete can relate to that. He understands how a jury of our peers is going to see a case.”
As a result, he’s not afraid to go to trial.
“A lot of lawyers are hesitant to engage in an all-out brawl in front of 12 strangers and a judge in a courtroom,” says Barbara Marschalk, a defense attorney and partner at Drew Eckl & Farnham, where Law began his career before leaving to start his own firm. “Pete’s definitely not one of them.”
There are other stories that help explain why Law is good with the law.
When he was 9 years old, Law hauled a neighbor’s discarded riding lawnmower to the family garage and took it apart, labeling each piece and diagramming his work. “My father came home and I said, ‘Dad, look at what I’ve done! How cool is this?’” Law remembers. “He didn’t share my enthusiasm.
“I still love mechanical stuff. I’m interested in how stuff works. There’s a tremendous connection with that and my work in the law—understanding the way things work and being able to take apart a case and put it back together.”
His parents, Peter and Hilda, were public school teachers, and his older sister, Tiffany, followed in their footsteps. Law enjoyed sports in high school but was much more interested in earning a buck. “I played some football and ran a little track, but baseball was my thing, that was my sport,” says Law. “Mostly, I worked.”
In addition to giving Law great career advice, his early boss, Hubschman, also taught him an important lesson in self-reliance. “He always had this attitude of, ‘Figure it out and don’t rely on someone else to do it,’” Law says. “That stuck with me.”
Of course, Law has a story that exemplifies this.
One day, Law was driving one of Hubschman’s pickup trucks on the Jersey Turnpike when it broke down. “I called him and said something was hanging down and I didn’t know what it was or how to fix it. Honestly, I didn’t really try,” Law says.
Hubschman drove out and within two minutes fixed the problem with a coat hanger. He didn’t say anything; he just looked at Law, shook his head, and drove off. Message sent. “That was an important moment for me,” Law says. “Sitting there on the side of the turnpike after he left, knowing that I could have fixed the problem so easily.”
Since then, Law has honed his problem-solving skills to the point where, according to his partner, he’s developed an almost preternatural sense of how a case will unfold.
“Pete has this ability to know, from the moment we take a case all the way through discovery and trial, how every fact or witness or piece of evidence or turn of discovery will affect our ability to win at trial,” says Moran. “It’s uncanny. In a trial, he knows in real time, not upon reflection, how something will fit into the big picture, and he has the ability to make an immediate adjustment. He’s got the quickest, sharpest mind of any person I’ve ever met.”
Marschalk agrees. She compares Law to a battlefield general making brilliant flanking maneuvers in the heat of combat. “He recognizes the defense’s case sometimes before the defense,” she says.
And he works quickly, which is to his advantage. Long ago, Law realized that because most jurors watch television, “they get the whole story in 30 minutes or 60 minutes, including commercials. They want information quickly and efficiently. So we started trying cases that way. Cases that traditionally would take two weeks, we try to finish in three or four days.”
“From the moment the trial starts,” Weathington says, “it is his aim to get to his closing argument as quickly as possible. He doesn’t waste the jury’s time, doesn’t belabor points with witnesses. Even his cross-examination is efficient. He wants to get to the closing argument, where he can stand in front of a jury for 30 or 40 minutes and use his persuasive skills to produce a positive verdict for his client.”
It’s a case he lost, though, that is foremost in Law’s mind. He represented the family of Sgt. Keith Carmichael, a severely brain-damaged U.S. soldier who was injured during a 2004 fuel convoy wreck in Iraq. His wife, Annette Carmichael, sued civilian contractor KBR, its former parent company Halliburton, and the truck driver in 2006.
“It was a clear case of negligence,” Law says. “But we lost at every single level, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. We lost, but we raised some important issues about the legal hurdles in cases involving wartime events.”
In college in the 1980s, Law and his buddies used to go to Atlanta during weekend trips, and that’s when he fell for the city. When he decided on Emory University for law school, he was choosing it because he was choosing Atlanta. It’s also where he met his wife, Agnes, and where they raise their five kids.
“This felt like a young, energetic city that had a lot of opportunity for people who didn’t necessarily have roots here,” says Law. “It felt like an accepting and open city. I felt I’d have a chance to succeed here.”
His office, an old brick building on the corner of Spring Street and Linden Avenue, is perfect for a lawyer who likes to move fast and take things apart, because it used to be the Red Vogt Garage. A master mechanic, Vogt serviced the cars of moonshiners and champion drivers from the 1920s to the 1950s; he even coined the name NASCAR. There are still parking stripes on the floor of Law’s third-floor office, and a 1967 GTO convertible on the second floor, in Law’s expansive and well-equipped workshop.
Law still loves working with his hands. He chops firewood, fixes broken appliances, and works on cars. If it moves, it interests him. “Trains, planes and automobiles,” he says. The ’67 GTO is his. “Runs like a top.”
The lobby of the building features some of Law’s other favorite toys: a 1938 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead and a 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA, a military bike that evokes Captain America and sits just off the corner of a 7-by-9-foot painting of Abraham Lincoln by artist Alexi Torres. Called Reconstructing the Classics IX, it’s a depiction of the Lincoln Memorial painted to look as though it were woven.
“We’ve had people stop in just to take a picture with the painting,” says Law.
The bikes also have their admirers. One man who had been in a recent motorcycle accident was shopping for a lawyer. “He was in the middle of interviewing three firms for a big case, as he should, and looked at [the Knucklehead] and said, ‘This is my favorite motorcycle ever. Do I even need to go anywhere else?’ He hired us because of the motorcycle.”
The second-floor workshop is for business as well as pleasure. In May 2010, Steve Wells was severely burned when his apartment exploded because of an uncapped dryer gas line. It was a difficult set of circumstances to explain, so Law and his team went to the workshop and built a model of the utility room and gas line where the problem erupted.
“Once you see it, it’s easy to understand, and we wanted the jury to see it,” says Law, whose team used the model throughout the January 2015 trial. It led to a $73 million verdict against the apartment complex owners and the management company.
“That model was very useful at the trial in explaining their case from the beginning to the closing statements. It really helped the jurors get a literal picture in their minds,” says Y. Kevin Williams, a defense attorney at the trial, and a top-rated civil litigation lawyer in Georgia.
Williams is typical of the kind of opposition Law gets. Defense firms tend to send their ace when Law is working a case. For instance, in the case of a 6-year-old girl injured by a foul ball at Turner Field, he’s facing former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, who is representing the Atlanta Braves.
“There are a number of these foul ball cases, and most don’t make it to trial,” Law says. “We’re working toward that, but we might settle at any time, too.”
Law recently won another large, confidential settlement on behalf of a client in a tractor-trailer case, against a familiar foe.
“It was the highest figure I’ve paid in 17 years of practicing law and it makes me want to vomit,” says Marschalk. She opposed Law in that case, as she has in numerous other cases through the years.
Their first meeting didn’t go as smoothly as Marschalk would have liked. A simple mediation turned into an invective-riddled outburst when Law interrupted Marschalk’s opening presentation.
“Pete gave this blustery presentation and, when it was my turn, I was more harsh than usual,” says Marschalk, who directed her blunt comments toward Law’s client. “So Pete said, ‘We’re not going to do this, we’re done.’ Then I said, ‘You may be Pete Law and I know that’s supposed to scare me, but I sat through your bullshit, so you sit there and listen.’”
That’s when Law slammed his notebook shut and left the room, the two lawyers spraying obscenities at each other, according to Marschalk. (Law says he only used PG language.) A few moments later, a mortified Marschalk was sitting in a quiet caucus room when she recalls the mediator entered and calmly explained, “Barb, I thought I was past the point of having to tell you that saying, ‘Fuck you, I’ll see you at the Fulton County Courthouse’ to Pete Law is probably not the best way to start the day.”
They still settled the case by 11 that night, eventually recognizing a kindred spirit in each other.
“He’s a plaintiff’s lawyer through and through,” Marschalk says, sighing out of resignation rather than contempt. “But he’s like me—a scrappy fighter, smart as hell and dangerous in a courtroom.
“You need certain elements to be a skilled trial lawyer,” she adds. “You can be street-smart, well-versed in the law, good-looking. If you’re just one of those things, forget it. You need a combination of all of the above, and Pete’s got it, and I hate that I’m bragging on him, because he is my mortal adversary.”