Special Force

After 50-mile marches and parachute jumps, former U.S. Army Ranger John Agnew may have been overprepared for courtroom combat

Published in 2017 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2017

As a 19-year-old college student, John Agnew was partying too much and feeling lost. So he went to the Army recruiting office and asked, “What’s the hardest job?” 

“The Rangers,” the recruiter replied. The enlistment officer later tried to discourage him, noting that Ranger duty is dangerous and doesn’t pay extra. But the son of a Presbyterian minister was not dissuaded. 

The highlight of his Army career, Agnew says, was participating in three grueling Best Ranger competitions. These 60-hour competitions involve two-man teams typically covering more than 50 miles on foot with an 80-pound rucksack. Participants get little sleep and must excel at tasks including a parachute operation, long marches and land navigation, marksmanship, obstacle courses and demolitions. Most years, more than 40 teams compete, and half don’t finish.

In his second competition in 1998, Agnew and his partner placed third. His last “rodeo,” as he calls it, came in 2006 when he was a National Guardsman, had just completed law school at University of Kentucky, and at 31 was significantly older than the other competitors. His team placed fifth.  

“You’ve got the best of the best from every unit,” he says. “If you’re a really competitive person, you want to see how good you are compared to everyone else. Just finishing is a big deal, and placing is a bigger deal still.”

Agnew’s most sobering military duty came in 2003, as a squad leader in the U.S. stabilization force in Bosnia, near Srebrenica. More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims had been killed there in 1995. Mass graves were still being discovered. When President Bill Clinton arrived to dedicate the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial, Sgt. Agnew, as one of the Army National Guard’s best marksmen, was assigned to sniper overwatch duty.

“It was a crazy-type experience,” Agnew recalls.

Knowing how to handle that kind of stress more than prepared him for the high stakes of business litigation. “When I showed up as a newly minted lawyer, I might not have known the nuances of the law, but I knew how to read people, confidently communicate with them and manage expectations,” says Agnew, 42, a partner at Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt in Fort Myers.

“His experience as an Army Ranger set him apart from other young attorneys we’ve hired,” adds Vicki Sproat, a partner at the firm who put him to work soon after he joined in 2006, as second-chair in a federal noncompete case. “I was surprised by how fast he came around as an attorney. He’s unflappable.” 

Just seven years after starting practice, he was elected president of the Lee County Bar Association. 

Last year, Agnew represented a family-owned roofing company in a suit against the founders’ son, who had left, Agnew says, with most of the firm’s 110 employees and 75 percent of its business. After an intensive discovery process, Agnew got an early mediation that led to a settlement, transferring the son’s 49 percent stock back to his mother and sister. 

“Thankfully, the family has been able to get the company back on track, hired new employees and salvaged many client relationships,” Agnew says. 

David Mitchell, a plaintiff’s attorney at Maney & Gordon in Tampa, brought a federal Telephone Consumer Protections Act case against a client of Agnew’s in 2014, and it settled the following year. “I always thank him for his professionalism and how easy he makes it to litigate a case,” Mitchell says. “He knows his law and how to argue and litigate a case. I know I won’t be dealing with unnecessary conflicts.” 

Agnew says his military experience gave him an invaluable perspective: “Even though the case you’re working on is the most important issue in your client’s life, it’s about money. No one’s dying. Everybody is going to bed safe at night.” 

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