- March 11, 2010
Land-use lawyer Rhea Law is undoubtedly one of the most powerful women in the Tampa Bay business community.
She is the only female to head one of the largest and oldest law firms in Tampa. At 63, she has been CEO and chairwoman of Fowler White Boggs for 11 years.
In addition to her business achievements, Law has a love of excitement and speed that has taken her to 13,500 feet with the Army's Golden Knights and into the cockpit of an F-16.
Although she and her husband, Wayne Williams, no longer race cars or motorcycles, the fifth-generation Floridian hasn't given up her love for speed. She drives a 2011 Carbon Corvette with 620 horsepower. And in July she strapped on a jet pack to ride 30 feet above St. Pete Beach in a ride called JetLev.
While Law makes her leadership role at the law firm and in the community seem natural, she's more of a rarity that some might realize.
Women make up only 15% of all equity partners at the nation's top law firms, according to a 2013 report by the American Bar Association. And only 4% of the nation's 200 largest firms had a female as the firm-wide managing partner in 2012, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers.
The following are excerpts from a conversation with Law about life and what's next for her industry.
FLORIDA CRACKER: Law and her younger sister, Andrea, grew up in Tampa. Their parents worked at van lines companies and eventually owned their own businesses. Law graduated from Chamberlain High School, the University of South Florida and Stetson University College of Law. The colors at Tampa-based Fowler White and in Law's office are gold and green, the colors of all three of her schools.
BREAKER ONE-NINE: Law has a heavy foot. That's why she had a CB radio in her car while commuting from Tampa to Gulfport to attend law school in the late 1970s. She made the drive across the Howard Frankland Bridge at 5 a.m. so she'd have time to study before class.
For a couple weeks, a man in a car traveling in the same direction tried to talk to her on the CB radio. “I would listen, but I wouldn't speak. They talked that funny language, 'Breaker, breaker one-nine.' ”
The driver told his boss about the lady in the white Toyota who wouldn't answer. His boss took on the challenge of getting her to talk and began carrying on a one-way conversation via CB radio with her. “I absolutely ignored him,” Law says.
After days of getting nowhere, the boss came on the radio and asked Law to stop at the bridge's scenic overlook to share a granola bar and coffee. “He had a delightful voice, I thought I had to meet him. ... He was just as delightful as I thought he'd be.”
That man was Wayne Williams, whom Law eventually married.
LATE FOR THE WEDDING: On the day of their wedding in 1985, Law had to complete a contract and deliver it to a client waiting at Tampa International Airport.
She raced home from the airport to dress for her small church wedding. As she was running out the door of her house, she broke her high heel.
“I had to stop at Payless on the side of the road. I ran into the store yelling, 'I need something to match this' at the top of my lungs. I was panicked.' ”
Everyone in the store stopped to help and she found shoes that matched her white suit but were a half-size too small.
She was 10 minutes late for the ceremony. Her fiance and family thought maybe she wasn't going to make the wedding. “We didn't have cell phones then. I couldn't call and explain,” Law says.
After the wedding, they had dinner at Tampa's University Club. “I took my shoes off and walked in barefoot. My feet were killing me.”
LOVE OF EXCITEMENT: Law and Williams share a love of speed, from race cars to motorcycles to airplanes to boats. “I like doing exciting things,” Law says. In the beginning of their marriage, Law and Williams built a race car in their garage from the ground up. Law did all the bodywork; her husband built the engine.
FIRM GROWTH: With about 200 employees, Fowler White is looking to grow its existing offices as well as add new markets in the Southeast through mergers.
Law says the firm has started focusing on economic development, and in Tampa, the medical field is poised for expansion with all the research and development now occurring. “We're seeing an uptick all the way around,” Law says. “Health care is almost at the forefront of growth at this point.”
RECOVERING REAL ESTATE: Although development stalled in the recession, it's begun again with a variety of projects, Law says.
“More mixed-use projects are being brought forward,” Law says, particularly because banks have begun lending again. “For a while they didn't want anything to do with real estate at all.”
Residential infill projects are going strong after a five-year hiatus. Developers, investors and owners are discussing office and industrial projects.“I think you're going to see some new building in downtown Tampa,” Law says.