Taking Them Head On
From Goliath companies to establishment politicians, Marguerite Willis comes ready for battle
Published in 2022 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine on April 29, 2022
“You look familiar,” a woman told Marguerite Willis as the two were buckling their seatbelts in the same airplane aisle. For Willis, a former gubernatorial candidate whose image once graced billboards and ads across South Carolina, it wasn’t an unusual comment.
She added, “Do you by chance teach at the University of South Carolina?” Willis replied that she did not but does lecture there occasionally.
“Did you come and talk about women and money?”
Willis perked up, replying that yes, she did—a talk called “Marguerite’s Laws of Bucks,” and “What’s in Your Pocketbook” is the first law. That’s when the woman reached under the seat in front of her and pulled out a hot pink Kate Spade handbag. “I bought this after your speech.”
Not much could have made Willis happier. It proved that her message about empowering women through financial independence had resonated.
Willis is not your typical fashion influencer. With her signature close-cropped hair and panache corporate attire, the Nexsen Pruet litigator has her own style—one of wielding influence where it counts, by winning major antitrust cases; going to bat for the underdog; advocating for pay equity; and preaching a financial gospel to women who, like she once did, fail to appreciate the power of the purse.
“I learned that lesson the hard way, after a spectacularly bad second marriage,” she says.
A Greenville native, Willis grew up the oldest of nine grandchildren in a conservative family. Her mother and grandmother were strong, educated women who, like most women of their generation and social status, were content playing supporting roles to their breadwinning husbands. So despite being the “smart little girl with pigtails who skipped a grade,” the former Miss Teenage Greenville expected she’d follow suit.
“I would have been a doctor if I ever thought I’d work outside of the home, but I didn’t,” she says. “I never planned on a career. I didn’t see myself home scrubbing floors, but thought I’d be a wife who was thoughtful and helpful to my husband.”
Years later, she was perhaps too helpful, earning a substantial income as a nationally renowned antitrust lawyer and bankrolling a lavish lifestyle for her second husband. While she was hard at work litigating for Howrey & Simon in Washington, D.C., she says he was squandering her hard-earned cash on another woman. The discovery of that infidelity, and of her financial vulnerability resulting from what had been her hands-off fiscal attitude, made Willis vow to take full control of her financial health, and to do everything to prevent other women from making the same mistakes.
Willis’s professional trajectory and her career-long passion for empowering women has hinged on such lessons learned. “It all goes back to getting caught in nothing but a towel in the bathroom with my boyfriend at age 19,” she confesses.
Her Southern Baptist parents mandated an immediate wedding. A week later, the newlyweds were off to Michigan, where Willis finished her undergrad, and then to Florida, where she became increasingly certain of her marital mistake. Graduate school, she thought, would be an escape route, a path toward an income and independence.
Lacking the science credits needed for medical school, Willis applied to Stetson Law School. “It was simply an available alternative to me so I could leave that marriage,” she says. “I had never seen a female lawyer. I had no idea what that was.”
A newly divorced Willis became the top student in law school, but didn’t like it. She went to Stetson’s dean, ready to quit, but he suggested she get hands-on experience in a law firm. “I did, and found I loved interacting with clients and seeing the practical application of what I’d been learning,” she says.
After graduating, Willis became the first female law clerk hired by Judge Paul Roney in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. “For my entire career, he’s been my touchstone for ethics and professionalism,” says Willis. “It was an incredible gift to me to spend a year working for him.”
In the mid-’70s, after a second clerkship with another mentor, federal Judge Peter Fay, Willis moved to Charlotte and began knocking on doors at big law firms. She got offers everywhere, but chose Moore & Van Allen “because they had a modern office, and all the others had early American furniture,” she says with a laugh.
Willis was the firm’s first female hire. “They weren’t entirely sure what to do with me, but they needed good lawyers for a big case they’d just taken on, representing Gulf Oil in arbitration with Duke Power over an alleged international cartel fixing the price of uranium,” she says. For 18 months, she immersed herself in all aspects of uranium mining. After successfully resolving the arbitration, Willis was primed for her next big cases, only they didn’t come.
“One thing I learned is that when you need something, call the boss, find the highest person in the food chain,” says Willis. So she called the general counsel of Gulf Oil.
Willis explained what she’d done on the uranium cartel case and her willingness to move anywhere. He called Howrey & Simon in DC, who represented the cartel, and they made her the first female partner at a major antitrust firm.
During her 20-year tenure at Howrey, Willis secured her reputation as a fierce antitrust litigator and champion of the Sherman Act. She has defended and prosecuted cases for Fortune 500 and 100 companies, and served as national counsel for numerous major corporations, including federal and state class actions involving big pharma, asbestos and more.
One of her biggest cases stretched from 1994 to 2001, when Willis served as national counsel for ScheringPlough in claims involving wholesale price-fixing and discrimination in drug stores and retail outlets. While the federal cases were consolidated in Chicago, state court cases were scattered across the country, including proceedings in Alabama. “Literally, because I had a Southern accent they said, ‘Well, she can handle those,’” Willis says.
She and a colleague, Saul Morgenstern, ended up being the only ones to defeat class certification. “I transformed my career by being given a cast-off and making something of it,” Willis recalls.
She was also making her voice heard as an advocate for women. “I never had a female mentor, because there weren’t any,” Willis says. “I was making it up as I went along.”
When she served on the Howrey policy committee, Willis advocated that trial-ready female lawyers should be hired by in-house counsel. She spearheaded an effective campaign highlighting the fact that courthouses everywhere featured images of Lady Justice. The message: She’s in court every day, so why not more lawyers who look like her?
During her tenure as president of the Litigation Counsel of America, Willis commissioned an in-depth survey of experienced female trial lawyers, documenting their experiences of sexism and gender discrimination, and presented the findings at a national meeting in California. “The stories were just hair-raising,” she recalls. “The men in the audience were gob-smacked.”
After returning to South Carolina in 2000, Willis helped create the Nexsen Pruet Women’s Leadership Institute to nurture and mentor the firm’s next generation of influential women. She has also elevated the firm’s profile in the antitrust realm.
“We wanted Marguerite because she was a top litigator,” says Leighton Lord, chairman of Nexsen Pruet. He admits to initially doubting that she’d find antitrust traction in South Carolina, but is delighted to have been proven wrong. “Our job is to keep our clients out of the ditch, and antitrust is an extremely deep ditch. Marguerite’s ability to use her network and the full force of her personality to develop and maintain an antitrust practice outside of D.C. has been impressive, and has set our firm apart. Our clients trust and respect her. She’s passionate about whatever she takes on, whether that’s rescuing stray dogs or helping the textile industry recoup losses from an antitrust violation.”
This passion fuels Willis’ intrepidness in taking on big dogs in the corporate realm, too, as she proved to Damon Flowers, a distributor with Bristow Oil. When ExxonMobil came in and usurped Flowers’ territory, Willis gave him hope.
“‘Look, you were done wrong and we’re going to make it right,’ she told me, and she did just that,” Flowers says. “Here I was, a little guy from a little country town who’d never been in a courtroom, much less in front of a jury, going against ExxonMobil. But she took ’em head on and helped to right a wrong. She showed them her stuff.”
Willis calls the eight-week trial in 2008 an “almost mythic battle.” It was personal, too. She understood what it was like to be gut-punched as Flowers had been. When Willis was in law school, she says the higher-ups at Liberty Life, for whom her father worked and built their statewide business, told him one day that he was too old, and they were taking over. “I remembered what that felt like, and knew I was going to take on this case,” says Willis. “I was confident I would win, against enormous odds and a barrage of legal talent on the other side.”
When the decision went to the jury, Willis recalls, “They came back in an hour and gave us what we asked for. I gave it everything I had because Damon deserved that, and my father deserved that. He just didn’t have a lawyer like me.”
Willis’ passion to elevate the status of women and children ultimately led her to run for governor in 2018. The campaign trail was familiar territory—her husband of 22 years, Frank Willis, served as mayor of Florence, and ran for governor in 2006. Willis, a Democrat, frequently stumped for him, tempering her courtroom swagger with warmth and humor. “My father sold life insurance; I can talk to anybody,” she says.
Former state senator and CNN political analyst Bakari Sellers remembers being wowed. “She was so dynamic, absolutely controlling the room. Not intimidated at all. Later I learned that there’s no room Marguerite Willis is ever intimidated in,” says Sellers, who in 2020 hired her to successfully defend him in a CNN libel suit.
Taking on the good-old-boy establishment was bold, but Willis was determined. “If there’s a rock bottom in SC, we’re at it—particularly with regard to women and children, and I just thought, ‘If I don’t step forward, who’s going to?’” she says.
Willis wound up coming in second behind the party favorite. “Just running and being visible was worthwhile—it told other women, ‘If she can do it, I can,’” says Willis, who orchestrated her friend Kamala Harris’ 2020 South Carolina presidential campaign. “By being my authentic self, by telling my stories and being unafraid to express my opinions publicly, I feel like I was doing the biggest service I could.”
Relaxing a bit after her run for office, Willis spends time running with her beloved dogs, Bella and Cotton, at her farm in Traveler’s Rest. (The property is in Willis’ name, adhering to “Marguerite’s Laws of Bucks.”) Sellers, however, hopes his friend will keep her political aspirations alive, and believes Willis could run for any office she wanted.
“She’s hard as nails, but sweet as hell. As classy and beautiful as she is smart and talented,” he says. “If my daughters want to be lawyers, I’d want them to be like Marguerite.”