Sometimes when a person dies with a little money in the bank, things can get messy. And other times, things can just get plain weird. From stolen dolls to contested sex shops, Berry F. Laws III has seen it all.
Many attorneys avoid this emotionally and logistically complicated work. But not Laws, 53, managing partner of Kansas Citybased firm Martin, Leigh, Laws & Fritzlen. He relishes rolling up his sleeves and digging into the messiest of cases. And he has developed quite a reputation.
“I’ve done so many of this type of thing that the judges around here designate me as the ‘go-to guy’ when there’s an off-color or complicated estate litigation case,” Laws says. “It sure beats sitting in an office processing interrogatories. I run companies. You don’t get to do this a lot as a traditional fiduciary attorney.”
Laws built his reputation 13 years ago when he was appointed to investigate a case in which a group of Jackson County public probate workers were accused of plotting to defraud estates they had been hired to represent.
In one of the cases, Laws discovered that the group had “stolen over $500,000 from an old lady who had a very expensive doll collection. The judge appointed me as lead council to investigate and file suits and coordinate with the prosecutor’s office. I filed the civil proceedings, and all individuals involved eventually went to prison.”
After the Case of the Missing Dolls, Laws’ assignments kept getting stranger.
A little more than a decade ago, a judge appointed him to take over the operation of E.R. Morris Funeral Home, a financially troubled Kansas City mortuary.
“The owner of the home had passed away and there were fights within the family about who should succeed to the ownership of the home,” Laws explains. “There were will contests and petty arguments. So I stepped in and got involved in the funeral business.”
Getting involved in the funeral business meant getting up close and personal with all aspects of the company. Acting as court-appointed CEO, Laws toured the facility, studying the services it provided. In order to settle the case and move the family out of receivership, he needed to understand what went on at the operation — from the ground up.
“I was a little taken aback upon seeing the people in the funeral home,” Laws says. “When I say ‘people,’ I’m talking about the non-living. I didn’t embalm bodies or anything like that, but it was my job to learn everything about the funeral home, and that is a big part of what they do.”
Eventually, Laws was able to get family members to agree to a settlement. Acting as a mediator, he negotiated buyouts for some parties, settled outstanding debts and helped select individuals to place in leadership positions.
“It takes time, but in the end there’s always a resolution,” he says.
One of Laws’ most complicated fiduciary cases was also one of his most notorious. In 1998, he was appointed to administer Erotic City, a multimillion-dollar adult entertainment complex in Jackson County, Mo. The owner had died unexpectedly without leaving a will, and his family (eight children by various mothers) and business associates were fighting for control.
For six years, Laws became the CEO of Erotic City. “I didn’t sit in the physical building every day,” he says, “but I was running the business. There were a lot of people trying to muscle their way in, and I had to use various legal means to keep them at bay.”
Eventually, after negotiating a series of buyouts, Laws was able to help establish new leadership at Erotic City and step away from the company’s daily operations. “It took a long time, but we were finally able to clean that place up,” he says.
Growing up in Kansas City, Laws never expected to become an attorney. He always thought that legal work would be boring, a lot of sitting behind a desk and shuffling papers. But his grandfather knew different.
“He always told me that I was going to be the first lawyer in the family,” Laws says with a laugh. “With a name like Laws, how can you avoid it?”
Laws didn’t take a direct route to legal practice. From 1970 to 1973 (beginning at the age of 17) he served in the Marine Corps. After a brief stint working in the oil fields, he went to college and then on to law school. An early probate case opened his eyes to the promise of fiduciary law. His firm now has four offices in Missouri and Kansas and employs 80 people. Over the years, he’s handled more than $150 million in trust or estate money.
At work, Laws sees people at their worst. The experience has made him wiser — and more wary — when it comes to preparing for his own demise.
“Before you go, make sure your family gets along,” he advises. “Make sure they understand your intent and wishes before you die. But if there’s a lot of money at stake, odds are someone is still going to feel cheated. So it might be a better idea to just spend it along the way.”