UF Law alum built business from law, represents national corporations

Published: March 21st, 2011

Category: Feature

Eugene K. Pettis (JD 85) has represented major national businesses such as Starbucks and Exxon Mobil.

Eugene K. Pettis (JD 85) is not a just a partner in the law firm of Haliczer, Pettis and Schwamm. He is a partner to every business, government agency or individual that the firm represents.

“My job brings about not just the responsibility for litigating, but I also must manage my client’s needs prior to and after any legal issues arise,” Pettis said. “My clients know they’re getting an experienced lawyer and a counselor to their business and legal matters.”

For more than 25 years, Pettis has worked to stand out from the massive field of lawyers in Florida and across the nation. In doing so, he took risks, marketed himself and built his firm into a business.

The result was enormous success for the Fort Lauderdale native who has represented Starbucks, Exxon Mobil and other Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies in civil litigation.

However, Pettis grew up resisting his mother’s insistence that he should become a lawyer. He originally enrolled as a pre-dental student at the University of Florida, completing advanced chemistry and mathematics courses. He left the program after realizing that he wasn’t passionate about the subjects.

“It was then that I realized maybe Mom was right,” he said.

After a brief stint focusing on an interdisciplinary study of environmental law, Pettis switched to political science.

Continuing his studies as a Gator, Pettis enrolled in the Levin College of Law, where he became heavily involved in moot court.

“Even though it focused on appellate-type work, it helped sharpen my advocacy skills,” he said.

Upon graduation, Pettis returned to Fort Lauderdale to work for the firm of Conrad, Scherer and James. When one of the firm’s senior partners and his mentor, Rex Conrad, retired in 1991, Pettis and James Haliczer chose to leave and to start their own firm. Richard Schwamm joined the firm in 1996, establishing the trio’s current firm.

“I chose to step out on faith as a young lawyer and develop ownership of my own firm,” Pettis said.

Since then, he has worked hard to develop his firm into a business that his clients and the public can trust.

“One thing is to practice law, but the next thing is to build a practice into a successful legal business, which encompasses excellence in law and client service,” he said.

Pettis is successful on both fronts. He was included in the 2010 and 2011 editions of The Best Lawyers in America and earned Martindale-Hubbell’s top AV rating among multiple other professional recognitions.

In the field of medical malpractice and personal injury, he has earned many favorable verdicts for the defendants he represented and multimillion-dollar settlements and verdicts for the plaintiffs who hired him. He also represents corporate clients in areas of commercial litigation and employment matters.

Pettis also represents hospitals, the School Board of Broward County and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

In his career, he has had more than 60 trials of complex legal matters.

“I have fun structuring the case and the case strategy,” Pettis said, “but the true test for litigators is to lay out that strategy in front of a jury and have (it) accept your case as the most persuasive.”

To build a successful business, Pettis has made his firm a staple in the communities of Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, where a second branch of his firm exists.

“We spend a lot of time trying to make Broward and Orange counties better places,” Pettis said.

Rooted in humble backgrounds, Pettis always made community involvement a priority in his personal and professional lives.

Pettis grew up the youngest of seven children, and he watched as his father, a janitor and a waiter, and his mother, a teacher’s assistant, managed to make ends meet.

His family was named by Nancy Reagan as a Great American Family in 1985 and was awarded a trip to the White House for the honor.

“It was truly a symbol of the job my mother and father did in raising all of us,” Pettis said.

In honor of his mother’s commitment to education, Pettis and his wife, Shiela, and other siblings have created several scholarships and endowments in her name to help students in Fort Lauderdale and Broward County afford a college degree. In 2004, Pettis and his wife established the Pettis Family Endowed Scholarship, which gives annual scholarships to selected students at Broward College.

“You have to give people the tools to better themselves,” Pettis said. “Only then will they be able to stand on their own two feet.”

Pettis continues to hold strong family ties. He has two daughters, Shenele, 21, and Shardè, 16. His nephew, Yohance A. Pettis (JD 04), is an associate at his firm.

Pettis also remains committed to UF. He is a member of the Law Center Association’s Board of Trustees and served eight years on the board of directors for the University of Florida Foundation.

“I think that there is no more rewarding career than the practice of law,” Pettis said. “But to benefit from its richness, you have to get involved in your community and practice.”