“What we need to do is always lean into the future. When the world changes around you and when it changes against you—what used to be a tail wind is now a head wind—you have to lean into that and figure out what to do because complaining isn’t a strategy. ”
Attorney Daryl M. Williams not only flies clients, trial witnesses and often a videographer and court reporter all over the western U.S. in a Cessna 421C that he pilots himself-he also trailblazed his own bit of aviation law.
Twenty years ago, Williams was devastated by a diabetes diagnosis, which meant that he could no longer fly airplanes. Applying the same zeal he has used in more than 150 jury trials, Williams pursued a six-year lobbying and letter-writing campaign to persuade the FAA to change its regulations, enlisting support from the American Diabetes Association, lawmakers and aircraft pilots and owners. In 1996, the agency rescinded its ban on granting medical certificates to diabetics who must use insulin. As a result, diabetic pilots who can demonstrate that their condition is under control are now able to fly.
Some accuse Williams of being a workaholic, but he disagrees. Music is a perfect antidote to the law, he noted, saying that he finds time not only to play his Yamaha C7 grand piano daily but also to give a concert in his home once a year, when he regales the audience with his favorites from Liszt, Beethoven and Chopin. "I love what I do, and I do what I love," Williams said.
How does private aviation help your law practice?
I can do more work in less time. If you're from the East Coast, you may think everything is convenient and close, but many towns in the West are almost five hours from a commercial airport. I always give clients the option if they want me to fly commercially or in my own plane, and I've never had a client choose commercial. It's too expensive, because I charge by the hour.
Once I offered to fly a Wall Street lawyer from Phoenix to Sierra Vista on the Mexican border, to a hearing where we were representing American Express. He chose to drive five or six hours instead, across some of the most desolate desert in the Southwest, and said, for an hour, he never saw another car. On the way back, he took me up on my offer. In another case, I had to fly to a company's headquarters in Sioux City, Iowa, plus Texas, California, Indiana and Arkansas for depositions. I also fly to Mexico City to see my helicopter charter operator client there, SACSA.
I understand you take a videographer to depositions?
Believability is what matters in a courtroom. It's said that 50 to 90 percent of all communication is nonverbal. If a witness says "yes" but his body language says "no," a jury should see that. How about a witness who gives a cute answer, then turns to his lawyer, smirks and winks? You have to show that on tape to a jury. And when you do, the jury will hate that witness.
Before 9/11, if you took all that video equipment on commercial planes the baggage handlers either abused it or broke it. After 9/11, as a practical matter it's impossible to take what you need [on an airline flight].
When did your interest in flying start?
In high school. My piano teacher's husband was a pilot who flew U-2s and took me up in his Cessna 182. I became passionate about flying and tried to join the Navy's flying program as a senior, but was rejected due to my eyesight.
When did you buy your first airplane?
In 1979, three years after law school, I told my wife-we had two small kids and hardly any living room furniture-that I'd bought an airplane, a Piper Seminole, and she didn't walk out on me. I didn't know how to fly, but the Piper came with flying lessons. It was a repossessed plane I bought from the equipment lender, and I did a deal with a flight school to lease it out once I owned it because I wasn't in a position to afford it. The school was happy to have a training aircraft and promised me free flight training as an inducement to buy it. When my family got too big, I bought a six-seat Piper Seneca. But it wasn't suitable to fly for work, so I bought my Cessna [421C], which is the Cadillac of non-jet planes.
Tell me about the campaign you won to allow diabetics to pilot airplanes.
One of the most devastating effects of my diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes when I was 40 was that I could no longer fly because of the FAA's blanket prohibition on granting medical certificates in view of the perceived risk of hypoglycemia. It seemed an anachronistic rule. I had to fly with young flight instructors, who were the official pilots on board, though they had less flight experience.
Air Surgeon General Dr. Jon Jordan said, "This [granting pilot licenses to diabetics] will never happen on my watch." Six years later, he called to say he'd changed the law and would personally sign my application, allowing me to fly again. I now have 3,000 flight hours on multi-engine planes under my belt, where an automatic insulin pump is clipped.
How have you used your airplane in charity work?
Through Veterans Airlift Command-which lets pilots volunteer their time and airplanes to take veterans and their families to medical facilities, especially around the holidays-I flew the wife and three kids of a veteran wounded in Iraq from Tucson to San Diego Naval Hospital. I also work with Challenge Air, which gives the physically challenged the joy of flying, and I've had kids sit in the copilot seat.
Getting back to your courtroom experiences, how important is physical appearance during a jury trial?
ExxonMobil once sued a client of mine for millions, and a principal witness [for the oil company] was a field engineer, who seemed very competent. I was concerned about her until she walked into the courtroom in heels, hose and a low-necked dress and with her hair perfectly done. I asked her to read blueprints that I put on a table, so she stood up and bent over to see the plans. The seven guys on the jury just gawked and had no idea what she was talking about. After we won, jurors said they assumed she got the job by sleeping with someone and didn't take her word seriously because she didn't look like an engineer.
Did you really once tell a client to shop at Kmart?
I represented a famous baseball player who sued a contractor because his new multimillion-dollar house had construction defects. I asked him and his wife to come in dressed like normal people. His wife, as attractive a woman as I've ever seen, showed up looking like a million bucks, like the cover of Vogue. I told her, "My legal assistant will be taking you to Kmart this afternoon to buy your courtroom outfits, and you have absolutely nothing to say about it." Finally, she looked like a regular person, not a ravishing beauty the jury would hate since they would never look like that. Afterward, she thanked me profusely-and said she was throwing the outfits away the next day.
Do you try to pick certain types of jurors and avoid others?
It depends on the case. Certain personality types are more emotionally affected by what is going on, and I have a system to understand who they are and how they are likely to react. We once wanted compensation for land seized by the state of Arizona for a highway, so we wanted two personality types: people who would be outraged and emotional, and those with analytical ability to give us the amount we want. Arizona was willing to pay $700,000. We won more than $7 million.
I noticed a witness kept looking down at his lap as he spoke and realized he was looking at answers written out for him by a very new assistant attorney general. After the judge allowed me to take his script away, I announced to the jury at one point, "It says in the script I will be making an objection now, so I guess I will." Juries are very unforgiving of this sort of unfairness.
Any other memorable moments in your practice?
When I was starting out, I represented a man accused of stealing a wad of $100 bills from an elderly woman who kept it under her bed. I had been doing the case pro bono, but I became suspicious, so I asked him for $2,000 right before trial. He pulled out a wad of $100 bills exactly like those described in the case and peeled off a bunch. When I asked him where he got them, he told me an obviously made-up story. I could not get out of the trial and won in spite of myself.
Why do you have such distaste for the phrase "no comment"?
It is a great disservice to the client [for his attorney] to say "no comment [to reporters]," because that is tantamount to an endorsement of what is reported. I will protect my client from the undue prejudicial effects of publicity initiated by someone else. I instruct clients to refer all media inquiries to me because I don't want them saying something that would then be admissible in court if not reported correctly.
You represented the Baptist Foundation of Arizona, which was accused of operating a Ponzi scheme.
Prosecutors did not understand the complexity of the financial transactions involved. The assets were five times the amount of liabilities, and investors would have recouped every penny if the state had not closed down BFA. My client did not personally benefit from the transactions and there was nothing fraudulent. Makes me wish there was a DNA test for fraud cases. Juries have convicted lots of people for crimes that DNA now proves they didn't commit.
What do you do in your leisure time?
I play classical music every day for an hour on my grand piano. It's a great release and an entirely different experience from law, where I tend to be very analytical. I also make fine furniture in a 1,500-square-foot woodworking shop in my house. I don't sell the furniture-if you sell it, people think they own you and keep asking you if it's ready. But if you give it to them as a gift, they're delighted.
Do you have a philosophy of life?
A framed motto at our house says, "Return with Honor," which reminds me to be true to my convictions. My family is the center of my life, and I'm a devout Mormon.
Do you use your airplane outside of work?
I'm a grandpa with a plane, and I exploit it to its full unfair advantage. If I'd known how great grandkids were-I have five-I would've skipped the kids and gone directly to grandchildren.