Anything You Can Do, She Can Do Better
Vicki L. Gilliam holds her own fighting for clients like Brandy Nicole Williams and the Ramapough Tribe
Published in 2014 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 5, 2014
Updated on December 4, 2014
Vicki L. Gilliam, like most of us, doesn’t particularly like getting up and going to an office building. So she came up with an ingenuous solution: She simply doesn’t have one.
The idea to have her firm’s employees work remotely formed when one of her paralegals moved to Memphis. “In five minutes, my tech guy was able to connect her into our server,” says Gilliam. Then came the roadwork that dragged on for months. “People couldn’t even get into the office. I had to drive around cones, and then I just thought, ‘Why am I paying for this huge old house?’”
Gilliam first opened her own practice in Clinton, Mississippi in 2008, and she gets most of her criminal defense work by court appointment and her personal injury and appellate cases by referral. “People don’t just ramble in the office and go, ‘Hey, my husband was involved in a horrible car accident,’” she says. “It starts with a phone call, and then I go and meet them and talk to them, and hold their hand and do what I’ve always done.”
What she’s always done is represent people who are not necessarily popular. Nearly a decade ago, she waged a battle against Ford Motor Co. to get industrial sludge cleaned from the Ramapough Mountain Indians’ backyards. She later landed a multimillion-dollar settlement for a woman who broke her neck in a car crash after her seat back broke. And two years ago, she helped Brandy Nicole Williams avoid the death penalty, in favor of life without parole, in the killing of George County Sheriff Garry Welford when Williams was 18.
“The most frequent question I’ve gotten through my entire career is ‘How can you represent those people?’” she says. “I get that with criminal defendants. I got that when I represented the Native Americans who were being discriminated against. I get that when I represent people who’ve been hurt. … If you have to ask that question, you’re never going to understand why I represent them.”
She is motivated by her personal background. Gilliam was adopted as an infant from a New Orleans orphanage and raised on a farm in northern Louisiana. “I know that someone was good enough to take me and raise me, and I was lucky enough to be raised by good people in a good environment,” she says. “I always look at folks and say, ‘But for the grace of God, there go I.’”
When Gilliam eventually found her birth mother at the age of 37, she got a surprise: Her biological father came from a long line of lawyers. Though her adoptive parents didn’t have a high school education, they encouraged Gilliam to follow her dreams.
“[My mom] would always sing this little song from Annie Get Your Gun—‘Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.’ And she would kind of sing that under her breath all the time because she was a farm girl. She worked alongside my dad, and she felt like she could do whatever he did,” Gilliam says. “She’d just look at me and sing that and wink at me; you know, just keep right on going.”
The message would serve Gilliam well in the early days of her career. In the early 1990s, the senior partner at her firm, hearing that she was pregnant, stood in her doorway and asked loudly, “When are women going to learn that they can’t have babies and careers too?”
She left that corporate defense firm—her heart wasn’t in it anyway—and went to work for the Hinds County Public Defender. “I got into the courtroom, and there was no discrimination there,” she says. “You were given a full docket of cases.”
Three years later, with two children, Gilliam began teaching undergraduate and graduate law classes at Mississippi College and writing appellate briefs on the side. But she missed the courtroom, and four years later went to work for a plaintiff’s personal injury firm.
Then in 2005, Johnnie Cochran’s firm asked Gilliam to open a Mississippi branch. She was assigned as lead counsel in the Ramapough tribe’s battle to clean up waste dumped from a Ford assembly plant in the late 1960s. The Environmental Protection Agency had ordered the site’s cleanup, then removed it from the federal Superfund list. But the tribe insisted that large amounts of toxins remained and were making their children ill. Gilliam, who describes the Ramapough as “a large group of people who really stole my heart,” sued on their behalf, and the EPA did something it had never done: returned the site to the Superfund list.
After more than two years on the Ramapough case, her local office split up their partnership. Gilliam offered to continue to provide counsel, hoping to take the tribe’s case to trial, but another Cochran attorney ultimately settled the case for $12.5 million in 2009. Gilliam is featured in a 2011 HBO documentary, Mann v. Ford, which chronicles the struggles to clean up the site.
“To me, every case—every single case no matter how small or how large—in the criminal defense world is about protecting the Constitution for everyone,” she says. “As hokey as that sounds, I believe that.”