20 Questions with Marguerite Willis
All things being equal, money is power. For women in large firms to become more successful, they must put "big bucks" on the table. In most firms, this means young women need to associate themselves with lawyers who have big books of business. As those women progress, they must develop their own substantial business, but this may be difficult to achieve without the support of other women.
I am a big believer in what I call "shared success." For example, I believe that to the extent a woman is successful in a corporate setting, I "share" her success in the private sector. Similarly, to the extent that I am successful in private practice, women lawyers in corporate America are viewed as more "valuable" in their organizations. I have long advocated that every general counsel, when considering outside counsel for "bet the company" cases, should include at least one qualified woman in the slate of candidates recommended to management. The more women are seen as "competent" for the biggest lawsuits, the more successful we all will be, regardless of the setting.
2. How do you think a woman's perspective on life and society differs, if at all, when standing before a jury?
Studies show that jurors, once they move past any initial gender bias, tend to believe women lawyers more than their male counterparts. The reason is that women, generally speaking, are seen by jurors as (a) teachers and (b) people who, in the family setting, establish and enforce the "rules." Accordingly, a jury will tend to believe a woman who "teaches" them or demonstrates that "rules" have been followed or broken. I try to remember, when I stand before a jury, that I have this advantage.
3. You have enjoyed many successes as a trial lawyer. Have you had that once in a career moment, that Perry Mason moment, where you achieved a point in trial that exceeded even your wildest dreams?
Over the years, I have had witnesses confess crimes, recount prior testimony and, in several instances, dissolve into tears. Just last month, for example, on the third day of what was to be a three week trial, the plaintiff, when confronted with evidence of a crime he had denied in deposition, decided it was in his "best interest" to dismiss his case with prejudice. But, my favorite moment of this sort occurred years ago when I was trying a case in rural South Carolina. Lawyers, as we all know, are supposed to avoid contact with jurors, but in a small courthouse, some encounters just happen. On one morning, in the middle of this difficult trial, I had been absent, preparing an expert witness. After lunch, as I was returning, I walked past several jurors and overheard one say, "Well, here comes that Mrs. Willis. You know something big is going to happen now." I won that case, which just happened to be against Exxon Mobil.
4. What do you enjoy most about being a lawyer?
5. You presented to LCA Fellows at the Monterey conference in 2009 with one of the most unique deliveries I have ever seen. When standing before juries, do you view it as a teaching opportunity and do you incorporate humor at every opportunity?
Jurors tend to accept women as teachers. Accordingly, I am always teaching, and I like my witnesses to "teach" as well. As far as humor is concerned, I am more cautious. Most jurors treat their jobs very seriously, and they expect you, as an advocate, to be "appropriately" serious, too. That being said, a little humor, at the right moment, can work wonders.
6. What impact do you think the discovery process has had on the number of cases being tried?
Relatively few civil cases are actually tried these days. I do not know whether it is a result of the discovery process being so "successful" that the litigants are able to resolve their differences or so "onerous" that the parties simply quit. I do think, however, that the discovery process is all too often used as a "tool" to block timely resolution by whichever party has greater resources.
7. What was your evolution toward litigation, and did it begin before, during or after law school? That is, did you go to law school because you were attracted to the aesthetics of courtroom work, or did you want to become a trial lawyer after getting out of law school and experiencing other areas of practice?
Growing up in the Deep South, I honestly did not think I would ever "work outside the home." When I graduated from college, however, I had a rude awakening: I needed a job. As an English major, my best alternative was law school. I quickly discovered that I hated "law." In my senior year, however, someone suggested I sign up for a trial practice course. That entire year, I attended every trial practice session, either as a student, a witness, or a juror. I knew, by the time I graduated, I was destined for trial practice.
8. I once practiced with a fantastic, though legendarily difficult trial lawyer named Olin Zeanah. One of my partners, beginning when we were associates, kept a list of "Zeanahisms." They were little gems of knowledge that Zeanah would occasionally impart. Did you have a trial icon or mentor in your early years of practice who shared with you the wisdom of years of practice? If so, please tell us about them.
Early in my career, the general counsel of a major corporation gave me a piece of advice I still follow today. He said to me, "Marguerite, even if your witness says he killed his cat, barbequed it and served it for Thanksgiving dinner, never let opposing counsel see you react."
9. Do you read legal fiction? Which author in particular do you think nails the practice of law more closely than anyone else?
I read legal fiction because jurors shape their views of lawyers, in part, by reading contemporary novels. While I am not particularly a fan of this genre, I think Scott Turow does the best job of capturing the legal profession as I know it. (I also read the National Enquirer every week, since I believe many people, including jurors, "secretly" read this publication as well.)
10. What has been the biggest change in the way law is practiced between the time you first began until now?
Without question, the advent of computer-assisted legal research.
11. Litigators tend to travel a great deal. What are some of your favorite cities or places, and what fascinates you about them?
I have been fortunate in my career to have practiced in 49 states. Accordingly, I have spent a lot of time in what many people might consider "out of the way" places, many of which have charmed me. For example, I had a case in Tupelo, Mississippi, where my local counsel arranged for a private tour of Elvis Presley's Birthplace and Museum. Another time, I had a matter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and my client took me to Cornhuskers game. And I remember distinctly a case I had in Lake Guntersville, Alabama, where every day for two and a half weeks, my team and I ate at the Tasty Freeze for lunch. When that matter ended, the good folks at the Tasty Freeze actually hung a banner that read, "Goodbye, Marguerite! We will miss you." Oh, and I also love Paris.
12. Have you ever had a case in which your opposing counsel went over the line ethically in representing their clients' interests? How did you deal with it?
During a particularly contentious trial, I called an employee of the defendant as an adverse witness. I had deposed this gentleman for several days, and therefore, I was quite familiar with his deposition testimony. To my surprise, however, his trial testimony was, in virtually every important respect, completely different. When I was unable to effectively keep up with the changes in his testimony, I requested a break. After the jury left, I told the court I suspected the witness had been coached. The judge, who had a great deal of experience on the bench, looked at me and said, "Mrs. Willis, that is a very serious accusation. Do you have any proof?" I responded, "No, Your Honor. I would have needed a camera in the room when the witness was being prepared. But I can tell you that, in almost every major way, this witness has changed his testimony." The judge then turned to opposing counsel and stated, "Well, counsel, it is the worst case I have ever seen of a witness changing his story." Ultimately, I won the trial. But, even today, that opposing counsel will not speak to me.
13. Has trial law's golden age passed or have we yet to reach it? What intrigues you about prior generations of trial lawyers?
I generally refuse to believe that the "golden age" of anything, except perhaps the dinosaurs, has passed. Instead, I prefer to think that the best of almost everything is either present or yet to come. As far as prior generations of trial lawyers, the only thing that intrigues me about them really is why any of them ever wore wigs.
14. What is the first thing that comes to mind if I ask, "If you were a judge, what would you do differently from what you deal with most frequently in your practice before presiding jurists?"
Without question, if I were a judge, I would routinely impose sanctions for discovery failure and abuses.
15. What is your greatest extravagance?
Aside from shoes, my greatest extravagances are my three Labrador Retrievers: "Star," my 13 year old "grande dame;" "Bojangles," my six year old rescue; and "Cotton," my seven month old puppy, fondly known as "the Terrorist" in my household.
16. What object in your office serves to re-energize you when your mood needs an adjustment?
I am a collector of "sayings." When my mood needs an adjustment, I tend to focus on one of three of my favorites, which you can find in my office. First, I have an inspirational paperweight that reads, "What would you do, if you knew you could not fail?" Second, I have an angel ornament, which is engraved: "The world is round and sometimes the place that seems the end is only the beginning." And finally, taped beneath my computer, where only I can see it, I have the following saying: "Before you begin the journey of revenge, dig two graves."
17. If you could have a candid conversation over dinner with anyone from history, who would it be, and why?
I would have dinner, and a candid conversation, with my great-great grandfather, Major James Lide Coker. "The Major," as he is referred to in my family, was wounded in the Civil War and returned home to South Carolina to find his farm and his "fortune" ruined. He managed, in the aftermath of this devastation, to found a bank, start a seed company, open a mercantile store, and establish a company, which today still exists as a Fortune 100 corporation. I would like to ask "The Major" how he managed to accomplish these feats. I suspect--although I will never know--he would answer in a self-effacing way and say something simple like, "I just got up every morning and did what I had to do."
18. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA's mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the next issue of Litigation Commentary & Review, as well as the Diversity Law Institute's website. So in a word, sentence, or paragraph, what in your opinion is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
I am the product of judges, law firms, and clients wanting to achieve diversity in their respective areas. I was the first female law clerk ever hired by the Federal Circuit Court Judge for whom I clerked with after law school. I was the first female associate ever hired at the Charlotte, North Carolina, law firm where I practiced after I finished my clerkship. And I was the first woman partner at a major antitrust firm, in which I was placed years earlier by a major corporation. As a beneficiary of diversity, I believe it is my obligation to continue to push for diversity in the practice of law. There is no question, in my experience, that diversity matters; it mattered to me.
19. What trait do you most value in your friends?
20. What is your motto?
I have two mottos in the practice of law: first, "If it's easy, you don't need me"; and second, "Always re-read the rules."
Marguerite S. Willis is a member in the Columbia, South Carolina office of Nexsen Pruet, LLC. A native of Greenville, South Carolina, Ms. Willis graduated from the University of Michigan, with high distinction, and the Stetson University College of Law, with honors. Following two federal clerkships, she joined the firm of Howrey, LLP, in Washington, D.C., where she became the first female partner in 1981. Ms. Willis joined Nexsen Pruet in 2000, following her marriage to Frank Willis, then the Mayor of Florence, South Carolina.
Ms. Willis practices in both federal and state courts in the antitrust area. She also has substantial experience in litigating unfair trade practices cases under state law. From time to time, Ms. Willis takes on other matters that "call to her heart." For example, she is presenting representing a former cadet who was bullied, beaten, and sexually assaulted while attending a military academy.
Ms. Willis is a member of the bars of the States of South Carolina, Florida, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia. She has served as Out-of-State Governor of The Florida Bar and President of the Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia. She presently serves as Treasurer of the South Carolina Women Lawyers' Association and as a founding Director of the Academy of Antitrust Law of the Litigation Counsel of America.
By G. Steven Henry