Lewis Unglesby: The bulldog in your court

    Photo by Marie Constantin

    His admirers call him a bull in a china shop. One of Louisiana’s most knock-down, drag-out lawyers. And the kind who’d rather take a case to trial than plead or settle.

    He once threatened to whip the derriére of a New Orleans federal prosecutor during a bench confrontation in the courtroom, and he was fined $7,500.

    Those are some of the reasons why 61-year-old Lewis Unglesby remains the go-to lawyer for the who’s who of whodunits in Louisiana: Former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Former U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. Bad guy-turned-government informant Barry Seal. Former Louisiana Sen. Heulette “Clo” Fontenot. Former Livingston Parish President Dewey Ratcliff. Teamsters business manager Keith Partin. Restaurateur Al Copeland.

    When A-listers get into trouble with the law, many of them find their way to Unglesby’s office on Napoleon Street.

    But so, too, do the little guys. He’s won millions upon millions of dollars going up against big, bad corporations: for the contract worker who got mesothelioma removing asbestos from a plant, for the farmer tossed off a three-wheeler and for the 3,500 New Orleans residents whose neighborhood was contaminated by DDT and components of Agent Orange.

    Corporations and government entities also have been known to turn to Unglesby as their advocate in critical cases.

    “He’s certainly one of the premier attorneys in this area as well as the state,” says U.S. District Judge James Brady, who’s known Unglesby for four decades and has presided over many of his cases in federal court. “If you need a lawyer, he’s probably on just about everybody’s list.”

    So how did this former roughneck and gas station manager, who would have been a Mississippi riverboat captain had he not gone to law school, emerge as one of Louisiana’s premier attorneys?

    Not even Unglesby himself knows for certain.

    Perry Mason’s influence

    Unglesby grew up in 1950s-era Shreveport, living the typical middle-class life. His father was a salesman and later an executive for Esso; his mother, a housewife. He attended public schools. He started throwing a paper route in the fourth grade, and he’s been working ever since.

    There were no lawyers in the family; as a child, he’d never even met or seen a lawyer. But he knew he wanted to be one.

    “I never, ever considered doing anything different other than being a lawyer for people,” Unglesby says. “I didn’t know anything about the law other than watching Perry Mason. I didn’t know about things like successions and property and banks and all that. That never crossed my mind. I just always thought what a good lawyer did was go to trial.”

    He graduated in 1971 from Ole Miss, married his wife Gail, moved to Baton Rouge and ran a gas station until entering LSU Law School.

    Six weeks into classes, he got a job in the bail bond office at the Baton Rouge courthouse—never mind the rule against working your freshman year. He quickly got to know the judges, the prosecutors and the lawyers.

    At the end of his freshman year, a professor then in his second year of teaching—Cheney Joseph, now the vice chancellor of the law school—got Unglesby a summer job doing research. He started meeting judges and lawyers who came in for seminars from across the country.

    About the same time, a classmate helped him get a job clerking for D’Amico & Curet, a long-standing downtown firm where many of the city’s noted lawyers and judges got their start.

    Academically, Unglesby didn’t stand out as a student. He graduated in the middle of his class, 150th out of 300. But he is remembered for having an opinion on just about everything, even back then. Joseph, who remains friends with Unglesby, remembers him as “a great pleasure to have in class. He always had something to add.”

    By the time Unglesby graduated from law school, he had seen more of the legal system in action than most of his peers. Through his three jobs, he had already been to the Supreme Court nine times and witnessed countless trials at the courthouse. And he had lots of connections in the legal community.

    He didn’t draft a résumé and start interviewing as his classmates did. D’Amico & Curet already had hired him his senior year. The firm’s offices were on the very same block where Unglesby’s father had gotten his first job, as a bellboy at the Heidelberg Hotel, and his grandfather had worked his first job playing the piano at a silent-movie house.

    “I have had a blessed life,” Unglesby says. “I was 25 years old, and it was almost like I’d already been a lawyer.”

    In actuality, Unglesby was admitted to the bar just a few months after graduating from law school in 1974. Three months later, the two attorneys ahead of him quit the firm.

    D’Amico & Curet wasn’t particularly keen on sending the newcomer to court, but it didn’t have much of a choice. And by the time Unglesby was 28, he had won 13 consecutive jury trials and was receiving some notoriety for gaining favorable verdicts.

    Unglesby struck out on his own in 1977, and at the age of 27 took on his first public corruption case, squaring off against then-U.S. Attorney Donald Beckner in south Louisiana’s first RICO case. That’s when his practice really took off.

    “We were in court for two months,” Unglesby says. “It was real complicated, unique kind of stuff. And it was a terrific learning opportunity for me. From then on, lucky things just came through the door.”

    But when clients came knocking, they didn’t expect to find someone so young.

    “For some years after that, they’d come to the office and be waiting and want to know when they were going to meet my daddy,” Unglesby says. “They didn’t know it was me.”

    Two years later, he approached Robert Downing, now a retired First Circuit Court of Appeals judge, and Frank Gremillion about buying what are now his law offices at 246 Napoleon St.

    High-profile clients

    In the early 1980s, a 35-year-old Unglesby was hired to represent Stephen Edwards, son of then-Gov. Edwin Edwards, in the first corruption investigation by U.S. Attorney John Volz. Stephen was cleared of any wrongdoing before the trial, and Unglesby stepped in to represent Charles Isbell, Edwards’ nephew.

    Unglesby was being paid, of course, but says that more important, it was “a million dollars’ worth of schooling.”

    Jim Neal, who prosecuted Watergate and Jimmy Hoffa alike and is widely considered one of the greatest attorneys of his time, was heading up the defense team. Neal was joined by Camille Gravel, John Martzell, Michael Fawer and Pappy Triche.

    “They were all the lions of the bar,” Unglesby says. “They’d tell me what my part was, but I got to sit there every day and learn so much that I couldn’t get in a lifetime of learning. It was like a finishing course.”

    Around the same time, Unglesby represented the infamous Barry Seal. The Baton Rouge native and aircraft pilot was a drug smuggler for the notorious Medellín Cartel who later became a government informant. He was murdered outside the Salvation Army on Airline Highway, where U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola had ordered him to report at a specified time.

    During the Edwards trial, a federal official brought a note to Unglesby in court, notifying him that he had to be in Miami at 10 a.m. the next day for Seal’s case.

    In a room full of federal authorities, Seal would be asked to sign a document that would secure the extradition of Jorge Luis Ochoa Vásquez, one of the cartel’s founders. “It will put your client’s life in danger,” one official told them. “It’s in danger now, but it will really put his life in danger if he signs it.”

    Seal signed it without hesitation. But Unglesby had his reservations when they walked out the door. “Here’s Barry Seal, his life is in danger,” Unglesby says. “I’m thinking, ‘This is great. Now I have to walk down the street with this guy.’”

    Unglesby says representing Seal “was a great learning experience for me to see how unfortunately, and for no good reason, law enforcement and government and prosecutors do not coordinate like you would expect them to and have agendas that are independent of what us normal people might call common sense.”

    Rodney Peairs, left, and his attorney Lewis Unglesby talk with reporters on the steps of the East Baton Rouge Parish Court House in Baton Rouge, La., Sunday, May 23, 1993. Peairs was found not guilty of manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Japanese exchange student Yoshihiro Hattori. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
    Rodney Peairs, left, and attorney Lewis Unglesby talk with reporters on the steps of the East Baton Rouge Parish Court House in 1993. Peairs was found not guilty of manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Japanese exchange student Yoshihiro Hattori. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

    Unglesby also made international headlines when he represented Rodney Peairs, a Central resident who shot a teenaged Japanese exchange student he mistook for an assailant. Peairs went free, just as Unglesby predicted he would.

    “One thing I’ve always admired about Lewis is that he takes cases that are not popular,” says Gary Sligar, retired president of the Gulf Coast Region of Coca-Cola United, who has been friends and golfing buddies with Unglesby for two decades. “That’s because Lewis truly believes that everybody is innocent until proven guilty, because that’s what the law says.”

    Many times, Unglesby’s arguments on behalf of clients have made enduring case law. When representing Ratcliff, he succeeded in convincing a judge that federal authorities were overreaching in using the mail-fraud statute. He got the court to declare three-wheelers to be inherently defective, and they are no longer manufactured. He proved that seat belts are necessary on stand-up and sit-down forklifts.

    And he was the first attorney in Louisiana to successfully use battered women’s syndrome as a defense in the case of a woman who shot her husband with a deer rifle.

    The father of the woman didn’t fully appreciate Unglesby’s accomplishment, however. He called the attorney, irate that he hadn’t gotten his deer rifle back.

    Master of the courtroom

    Unglesby has won acquittals in more than 50 felony jury trials in state and federal courts. Juries have come back with 20 multimillion-dollar awards and more than 40 exceeding $1 million dollars.

    So what is the secret to his success?

    Those who know him best say it begins with confidence; some refer to the trait as ego.

    “He’s not an outgoing person from the extent he likes to be in crowds and be seen, but he does have an ego part of his personality, and that’s part of what makes him so successful,” Sligar says. “He really loves to go to court, and he has so much confidence that he will win each and every case. I don’t think he ever thinks he’s going to lose a case, and I don’t think he’s lost that many. But he never says much about the cases. He never brags about it.”

    Sligar remembers a trip that he, Unglesby and several other golfers took to Augusta National, home of The Masters, only to discover they had been sold counterfeit tickets.

    They were taken to a security trailer, where an investigator asked for their driver’s licenses. Three of them were lawyers, but it was Unglesby who stood up and said, “Don’t show them anything. I’ll take care of this.”

    “The guard said, ‘Mr. Unglesby, if you don’t sit down, I’m going to put all of you in jail,’” Sligar says. “Lewis, the big-time trial lawyer, sat down and said, ‘Show ’em your license, guys.’ We still tease him about it.”

    In the courtroom, though, Unglesby is literally fearless.

    “People say, ‘Gee, it must be stressful’ and all that,” he says. “But the truth is, probably the most comfortable I am in the world in any environment—besides my house—is the courtroom. I don’t recall ever being nervous or fearful or worried or anxious in a courtroom. The first time I ever went in the courtroom, it was kind of like, ‘I’m home. This is me.’”

    Unglesby has a widespread reputation for being extraordinarily well prepared. He frequently retreats to 1,000-plus acres north of Woodville, Miss., where he has a house by a lake and on the highest elevation in Wilkinson County, and where he is free of interruptions and distractions.

    He remains passionate about his role as an advocate for his clients. Sam D’Amico once told him that while a case might be just another case to the lawyer, and the lawyer might know how it’s going to turn out in the end, the client wakes up worrying about it and goes to sleep worrying about it. He took that message to heart.

    Once inside the courtroom, Unglesby aims for complete control. He likens a civil trial to theater, with the attorney deciding how it starts, how it ends and what songs are sung.

    He scripts everything, from what question he wants to ask right before the jury breaks for lunch to whether he wants to put in something that will wake everybody up or whether he wants to put in something dull upon their return for the sake of procedure.

    “I don’t want the jury ever bored,” Unglesby says. “I don’t want them lagging. I don’t want them wondering, ‘When are we going to do something else?’ I want to be constantly giving them entertainment in terms of evidence and people.’”

    Fellow lawyer John McKay remembers working on a mesothelioma case with Unglesby. After a week-and-a-half break in the trial, during which they were awaiting a Supreme Court decision on a mistrial, Unglesby came back and said, “We’re going to go back in there and take control of the courtroom.”

    “He cross-examined the first witness, and he was brutal,” McKay says. “It was one of the best cross-examinations I’ve ever seen. And we did have control of the courtroom before lunch.”

    His opponents are mistaken if they underestimate him. Downing remembers an occasion when he sought Unglesby’s advice in a troubling case.

    “I had something that wasn’t admissible, and I was frustrated because I couldn’t introduce it in court,” Downing says. “And he said, ‘Bob, you know it’s not admissible, but the other guy might not know it. Try it and see.’ And he was right. He has a natural instinct, you would say, for the jugular, finding the other person’s weakness.”

    Indeed, when Copeland, the founder of Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, hired Unglesby to join New Orleans attorney Jack Martzell in representing him against his ex-wife, veteran criminal defense lawyer Arthur “Buddy” Lemann III said it was a sure sign ?Copeland was gearing up for a fight.

    “Lewis is like a bull in a china shop,” Lemann said at the time. “He’s very aggressive, very combative and very effective.”

    In federal court, where Unglesby is a regular, Brady says the attorney is “always an adventure.”

    “He’s definitely a Type A personality,” he says. “Sometimes, people have to kind of rope him in a bit and make sure he doesn’t go off on some tangent that’s going to cause him a lot of grief later on. He has a reputation for being overly aggressive toward prosecutors and judges, but I haven’t seen that. He’s always the consummate professional, and I’ve never had to deal with him in any manner that I would have to call him down or do anything of that sort.”

    And Unglesby is cautious not to show his aggressive side to the jury. People who have watched him in court say he has an uncanny knack for relating to jurors, with intense, piercing eyes that capture their attention. Downing says he’s like “a big teddy bear. The jury thinks, ‘What a wonderful guy this is.’”

    Unglesby insists he draws on his life as “a very common person” to connect with the jury. He remembers an occasion, while he was working offshore his junior year in college, he acted “like a spoiled-brat college kid” when the crew had to stay a week longer than expected.

    “I’ll never forget, this older man came up to me and said, ‘Schoolboy, shut up. Next winter, when it’s raining, we won’t be out here. And our kids are still going to need food and shoes, and we’ve got to have the overtime.’ That stuck with me.

    “When I was young, I could talk to juries and they’d feel sorry for me because I was young. When I was middle-aged, I could talk to juries because most of them were that age. Now, at 61, I’d like to think I can talk to them because I’ve either been where they’ve been or I can go where they’re going. I have a lot in common with just about everybody on there.”

    A completely different person

    For all his intensity in court, Unglesby exhibits a remarkably softer side in his personal life.

    Friends and colleagues say he’s never been the type to hang out with lawyers, telling war stories in a bar. When not preparing for a case, he generally heads home to spend time with his children or grandchildren.

    He and Gail will celebrate their 41st anniversary in August. They have three sons and four grandchildren, with another on the way. One son passed away several years ago, a tragedy that Unglesby did not discuss in the interview.

    People who know him say that while the family is closer than ever, he remains deeply affected by the loss. “There’s no question that it softened him a bit; it did affect him deeply,” says Sligar, who also lost a child. “He still talks about it, and I know he still wonders what he could have done to prevent it if he could have.”

    Another son, Lance, has joined the practice after having worked in the New Orleans public defender’s office for four years. Unglesby encouraged his son to launch his career elsewhere because “he’d never reach his potential if he were just watching me. He had to learn to fly the airplane in the dark on one engine.”

    Although there was a time when Unglesby was immersed in Louisiana politics through Edwards, former Sen. John Breaux and others, he now leaves that to his law partner of 10 years, Sen. Rob Marionneaux. Says Unglesby: “His politics is the politics of the office. And he’s real good at it. I don’t want to get in the way.”

    Unglesby does have his regrets, one of them being telling that federal prosecutor he was going to “whip his ass” during the trial of former Sen. Larry Bankston and B.B. “Sixty” Rayburn Sr.

    But don’t look for him to retire anytime soon. His role models are lawyers like D’Amico and Gravel, who practiced well into their 70s.

    At the time of the interview, he was representing Southern University against former President Ralph Slaughter, acting as a mediator in a toxic tort case, and preparing to defend Greg Harris in a March trial against allegations that he brutally murdered his wife, attorney Chiquita Tate.

    “This just happens to be my thing,” Unglesby says. “I’m not a lawyer Monday to Friday; I’m always a lawyer. I’ll be in the deer stand or in church, and I may have six notes stuck in my pocket of ideas that have come through my brain that I’m interested in and that affect something we’re doing. A friend of mine said, ‘The lucky people are the ones that are perfectly matched.’ And I guess this is what I was matched for.”



    Quips, Quotes & Anecdotes from Louis Unglesby

    On political corruption: “There isn’t any. That’s a myth. The corruption—if you want to call it—in political life is a corruption of ideas and power, but rarely of greed and money. The crime rate, the violent crime rate, in this town is terrifying. If the federal government would quit worrying about people like Dewey Ratcliff or Clo Fontenot, where there are these no-harm, no-foul events, and get out there and use the power of the ATF and the DEA and the FBI and help the police clean up these streets, get these guns away from these people, it could be wonderful. But as long as we distract ourselves with wanting to chase behind some sheriff who’s not doing anything, we’re going to continue to lose a great law enforcement asset.”

    On Baton Rouge crime: “We need to rethink our priorities and get a grip on this city. It’s ridiculous that there are places people can’t sit on their porch at night, and people have to wait with their heart in their throat waiting for their children to get off the school bus. It’s not acceptable. It’s ridiculous that I can walk around Manhattan at 2 o’clock in the morning with my wife, fearless, and I don’t know about 2 o’clock in the morning I’d be happy about walking from here to the courthouse. I know that everybody wants to do that. Somewhere between the desire and the follow through, it’s a problem.”

    On the Edwin Edwards trial: “When I first met [attorney] Jim Neal, Edwin had been indicted in this real complicated indictment. Jim Neal would call these meetings, and he’d come in from Nashville. So from the beginning, all summer, he’d say, ‘Now men, we’re trying a fraud case. We don’t care what the government calls this; we’re calling it a fraud case, and we’re going to use the word “fraud” and we’re gonna win this case.’ So when the trial starts, we get the jury and everything, U.S. Attorney John Volz is making an opening statement. He gets up, and he says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t want there to be any confusion about this. This is a long complicated indictment, but essentially, this is a fraud case.’ And Jim Neal looks over at me, and under his breath he says, ‘Lewis, one of us has made a bad mistake.’”

    On one of his most memorable courtroom moments: “I can remember one time I was representing this guy in Avoyelles Parish, and it was a retrial of a guy charged with killing his wife. We were picking the jury; it was going great. The DA, who was a friend of mine, didn’t have his heart in it; he knew he was probably going to lose a second time. We get to the last juror, and he’s a preacher. My client had found religion in jail, and he just loved this guy. He said, ‘You gotta take him.’ I didn’t like that preacher. He said, ‘You gotta take him.’ I said, ‘OK, we’ll take him.’ And when I did that, you’d have thought they gave the DA a hundred grams of B-12. He just jumped up, his eyes got bright, and he said, ‘We accept him’ so fast, I thought he was going to spit on himself. It turns out the darn preacher is a cop, and he’s the spiritual adviser for the chief detective who I have to prove is a liar. I didn’t know that then. I knew as soon as we took that guy, that was a bad mistake. I didn’t know why yet, but that was a bad mistake.”