Speed Law

Apr 22, 2005

It is fair to say that attorney Rhea Law, the first female president and chief executive of the Tampa Bay, Fla.-based law firm Fowler White Boggs Banker, knows something about moving quickly–and decisively.

She has flown an F-16 fighter plane, gone skydiving from 13,500 feet and is a longtime car racing aficionado. Law, 55, also happens to be the only woman to head one of Florida’s 25 largest law practices.

Founded more than 60 years ago, Fowler White Boggs Banker is a full-service firm with more than 200 lawyers in nine offices throughout Florida. Law has been president and chief executive since May 2002. Her practice areas include acquisition, permitting, environmental representation, land use and zoning matters, with specific emphasis on commercial, industrial and residential matters.

Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Law to the Florida Council of 100 and to the University of South Florida’s Board of Trustees. Last year, Law was selected by Florida Trend Magazine as one of Florida’s “Legal Elite,” representing the top 1.6% of practicing Florida Bar members. She was also selected as one of the most influential people in Florida.

“I’ve really been blessed to do a lot of exciting things,” she says.

Forbes.com recently spoke with Law about her passion for exhilarating sports.

Forbes: What kind of auto racing do you do now?

Law: We have a little car that we bought a year ago, a HYPERLINK “http://www.forbes.com/lifestyle/vehicles/2004/08/16/cx_mf_0816test.html” Mini Cooper. My husband has completely revamped everything, including the supercharger and suspension. He’s just about doubled the horsepower in it–it’s just a little pocket rocket. So we took it out to Autocross [Autocross/Solo II events are Sports Car Club of America-sanctioned low- to medium-speed auto racing events that often run on parking lots and airport runways], and we ended up winning our class. My husband came in first, and I came in second. That’s pretty neat.

The Mini Cooper will actually give my Corvette a run for its money, as long as it’s going around corners. If you get it straightened out, the horsepower of the Corvette will take it every time. If you’re running a tight road course, that little Mini Cooper is pretty deadly.

How did you first become interested in racing cars, and how did you learn to do it?

I learned by doing. The first thing my husband and I did together, before we became husband and wife, was build a car from the ground up. I did all the body work, and he did all the engine work. Much to my incredible surprise, after having it sprinkled out across the garage floor for a year, when we got it all assembled, he said, “OK, let’s crank it up.” I never thought it would start, and he said, “Oh sure it will.” We got in it, and it cranked right up. It was wonderful.

I’ve just always liked things that were fast, and I’ve always liked big machinery. Anything you can get into and go fast, I like. At one point, I had an 88-mph boat–and that’s a big thrill. I used to race SCCA and also Motocross motorcycles.

How many races do you think you’ve been to in your life?

Oh my, I wouldn’t know how to even count that. A lot!

What are SCCA races like?

I’ve heard people describe a golf game they played five years ago, and they can tell you everything–from what it felt like approaching the ball to what kind of swing they used. Race car driving is like that, too. You remember the course, you remember the corners and how you felt. Racing takes total concentration. You can’t think about a client problem or a leaky faucet at home. None of those things come into play, because you have to have total concentration on what you’re doing, or else you’ll end up off the track someplace. When I think about racing, I think of the speed and the exhilaration. And hopefully, I win.

What is it that you enjoy most about racing?

The speed. The exhilaration of that kind of excitement.

What’s the fastest speed you’ve ever gone to?

One hundred eighty miles per hour. Pretty fast. But then again, I’ve had an opportunity to fly an F-16, and we broke the sound barrier. It was unbelievable.

How did you get to do that?

By begging. We have McDill Air Force Base here. As I was coming up to be chair of the Chamber [of Commerce], I was interested in doing things in concert with the base. In years past, the base used to be an F-16 base, and the new chair of the chamber would always get an opportunity to fly in an F-16. But the F-16s went away years ago. I had told them that it would be very cool to be able to do that. I was most surprised one day when I got a call from the Pentagon, and they said, “You’ve been cleared for a ride in an F-16, and we’re sending one down next Wednesday.” I quickly pulled up my calendar and thought, “Oh, what a terrible day for me.” And then I thought, “What am I saying?” So then I called everyone in the department and said, “We have a problem, you guys are going to fix it, because I’m not going to be here next Wednesday.”

I had training in the morning, and then I got to fly. He let me fly the majority of the mission, which was unbelievable. We went out and we broke the sound barrier. We did a lot of aerobatics, which he actually let me execute. Flying back to McDill, he said, “I’ll take over now to land,” and I said, “I can land this.” And he said, “Yes ma’am, but you’re not going to.”

Had you ever done any flying before that?

You know, I’ve had a lot of experience in flight, but without benefit of a license. I used to have a client and we used to go up to Tallahassee three times a week, and he used to let me fly and would explain it to me and all that. Someday, I’ll get a license–I just don’t have the time at the moment. I’ve really been blessed to do a lot of exciting things, and I really like that.

You seem to like speed. Have you ever done any other “extreme” activities?

Just recently, I got to jump out of a perfectly good airplane with the U.S. Army [Parachute Team] “Golden Knights.” It was incredible. The jump was 13,500 feet, and we did a free fall to 8,000 feet, and then we popped the shoot and came on down. Boy, what an excitement that is. It was a real thrill. It was my first time skydiving. It was with the same jump team that jumped with George Bush the senior. I figured if there’s anybody that’s going to take good care of me, it would be them.

How do the lessons you’ve learned from sports apply to your business career?

I think you have to have a certain amount of aggressiveness and competitiveness. I think sports are really important to being good in any kind of career, but certainly in the legal career. It goes back to that concentration I was talking about before–you have to be disciplined, and you have to concentrate totally on what you’re doing if you’re going to be good at racing. You have to concentrate totally on what you’re doing as you’re prosecuting a legal case, or whatever it may be. That preparation, and then that execution are important.