Force of Law

If you see Rhea Law coming—especially if her helmet’s on—best get out of the way

Published in 2007 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2007

Clad in regulation camouflage and wearing an Army helmet, Tampa lawyer Rhea Law approaches the tank.

As a participant in an invitation-only program sponsored annually by the Secretary of Defense, she is one of a select group of civilians enjoying a close-up look at the inner workings of the military. The Joint Civilian Orientation Conference is open to about 60 prominent business leaders a year.

Law and her fellow conferees go to briefings, talk to soldiers, learn about missions. They get to fire weapons, land on aircraft carriers and take the machinery of war out for a spin.

Chaperoning her through the tank experience is a young soldier accustomed to civilians being intimidated by heavy machinery.

“Don’t be afraid of the gas pedal,” he says encouragingly.

Poor fellow. He has no idea who he’s dealing with.

Pedal to the metal

If a vehicle has an accelerator, chances are Rhea Law’s foot is on it.

Life is an adrenaline rush for Law, a 57-year-old land-use attorney and president of Fowler White Boggs Banker in Tampa. She’s the only female head of a large Florida law firm.

She knows only one speed: flat out, pedal to the metal, aim for the horizon and don’t stop.

A self-described adrenaline junkie, she has raced cars and motorbikes. Law has also raced go-karts, which sit about three-quarters of an inch off the ground and top out at 125 mph. It’s the only activity she’s ever given up, and only because she wrecked her vehicle and suffered a compression fracture of the back.

The first gift she received from her husband—romantic fellow that he is—was a session of racing school in Sebring, home of one of the oldest continuously operated auto racetracks in the nation. She’s performed acrobatics in planes, and strapped on a parachute and jumped out of them as well. And now she takes the wheel of a big honkin’ tank.

“How fast does this thing go?” the petite, ever-professional Law inquires.

“Oh, about 50 or 60 (mph),” replies the unsuspecting enlisted man.

Music to her ears. Law takes off in her trademark style. When she goes over a rise too fast and comes down hard enough to rattle molars, the soldier begs her to stop.

What’s behind her need for speed? Many have asked, but she doesn’t know and she doesn’t analyze why.

“I just kind of grew up that way,” shrugs Law, who has made a career, and a life, out of leaving lesser contenders in the dust.

Reality check

A native of Tampa, Law learned to drive at her dad’s knee. She loved Motocross and water skiing, and as a youngster dreamed of being in the shows at Cypress Gardens theme park.

The water-skiing fantasy never turned into a real option, but she didn’t immediately gravitate to the legal profession, either. Her first job was at the University of South Florida (USF), where she did project administration in the office of sponsored research. The university let its employees take six hours of classes per semester free, so Law inched her way to a bachelor’s in business administration. It took her 10 years, but she graduated with honors and gained a decade of real-world experience in the process.

She’s risen far since those days, and come full circle as well. In summer 2006, Law became chair of the USF Board of Trustees. She also sits on the Florida Council of 100 and is active with local chambers of commerce and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, among myriad other community and business organizations.

Dealing with USF’s contracts and grants inspired her to go to law school at Stetson University, where she again graduated with honors—this time in just 2 and a half years—and was executive editor of Stetson Law.

Law’s career-appropriate last name came from her first husband. She met her current spouse, Wayne Williams, on the CB radio. He is no slouch in the speed department either—he also races cars.

Her first job as a lawyer was in a small Tampa Bay-area firm, where she combined her business expertise with her new legal degree. The firm later merged with Fowler White. In 2002, she was elected—unanimously—as president and CEO of the fifth-largest law firm in Florida. The boss of 240 lawyers in 10 offices, she is the only woman in the Florida legal community with that level of responsibility.

Law is modest about how she achieved her status. The board voted for me, she says without elaboration.

Others aren’t surprised that she’s so far ahead of the pack.

She’s “extremely smart and analytical,” says Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean, a friend as well as a professional contact. She’s also very personable and loyal to friends and colleagues, Bean adds.

Taking charge

Since taking the helm at Fowler White, Law has streamlined the firm’s organization and overseen a major updating of office technology.

Racing cars or jumping out of planes has no apparent connection to her day job, though she acknowledges that her extracurricular activities demonstrate tenacity and a competitive spirit.

“You have to play hard if you’re going to work hard,” she says. “That moment of adrenaline is what makes it all come together.”

A person with her foot on the accelerator is somewhat fearless, she says, someone who is able to say, “Let’s determine the right decision here and do what’s necessary to make it so.”

New developments

Speed, in fact, seems at odds with the often glacial pace of her specialty: environmental and land-use law in the Sunshine State.

One of her fields of expertise is DRIs, or developments of regional impact. She shepherds her developer clients through the complex, multi-jurisdictional process that can take one to three years—sometimes longer—to secure approvals from county and state agencies.

It’s work that puts her at odds with many of her fellow Floridians.

Development is a volatile subject in a state with 17 million inhabitants and 1,000 more unloading their U-Hauls every day.

Law navigates the development minefield pragmatically.

“It’s very short-sighted to assume that not another soul will enter the state of Florida in the future,” she says.

The solution, as she sees it, is to do development right: protect the environment and concentrate on quality of life. Besides, developers aren’t all cut-down-the-trees-and-pave-everything types. The good ones are environmentally aware and insist on the best use of the property, she says.

Environmental concerns are increasingly important to developers, acknowledges Don Whyte, regional president of Newland Communities Southeast. Whyte met Law about 20 years ago. She was another developer’s lawyer then, and he was impressed with how she conducted herself at the podium when addressing county officials. Shortly after he went to work for Newland, he hired her.

Development is about more than money, and Law understands that. Developers compete with each other, Whyte explains. They all have computers and calculators and know they’re going to pay about the same price for land. What can close a deal is listening to the sellers and protecting what’s special about the parcel.

Bexley Ranch, a 6,500-acre tract that one day will contain 7,000 homes and more than 600,000 square feet of retail and office space, is a case in point. One of the last large undeveloped tracts in Pasco County, it was owned by a family who wanted to preserve an oak tree that measured 27 feet around and was believed to be more than 500 years old. Newland won the contract and Law was instrumental, Whyte says. The tree is now a focal point of the development.

Law is known for being a negotiator, and she usually looks for ways to work things out. Sometimes, though, Bean says, she has to call on those qualities that make her the first driver around the track. She has been known to point out that, if differences over a project couldn’t be resolved, her client would walk away, raising the specter of insensitive or hodgepodge development that her opponents would rather avoid.

Usually, though, she keeps such tactics out of the office. But other racers had better watch out. That goes for tank drivers, too—and practitioners of any other activity she decides to take up.

“I’m looking for the next exciting thing to do,” she says.

Whatever that turns out to be, you can bet she’ll get there fast.

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