The Future for Conrad & Scherer Law Firm Remains Bright

If you list the biggest legal cases in South Florida during the past 50 years, expect William R. Scherer Jr.’s name to dot the list. “Bill” Scherer represented George W. Bush in the Bush vs. Gore recount, was general counsel of the North Broward Hospital District for seven years, knew Scott Rothstein before the Ponzi scheme was caught, and represented many of the victims who were made whole. He has major litigation pending over the opioid crisis.

As Scherer celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Conrad & Scherer law firm, he has three of his children as members: Executive Partner John J. Scherer has been with the firm for 20 years and is also president and owner of Gulf Building. Last year, John was joined by Senior Partner William R. Scherer III, who returned from his own practice, and Partner Elizabeth Scherer, who finally joined the firm last year after handling over 75 cases as a prosecutor and gaining national attention as the judge who presided over the Parkland shooter trial.

Conrad Scherer is a firm with a bright future, but the paternal member shows no signs of slowing down.

The kids talk

Scherer says he was a normal dad who dressed nice and told them about law growing up. But he is also a bit of a prankster and has been an adrenaline junkie when it comes to motorcycles, jet skis, and ski boats.

“If you see him walking a little bit lopsided, it’s because he’s been in so many motorcycle accidents and had himself put back together so many times. He used to race them,” Elizabeth says. “He likes to go fast in everything he does.”

William III and a friend were sleeping the day after a 4th of July celebration when his dad threw firecrackers in their cabin bedroom to wake them up. Maybe that’s why young William got a break after he and Chris Conrad, one of Partner Rex Conrad’s sons, were spotted throwing rocks off the office building during their lunch break while working as runners at the firm over the summer.   

Partner Rex Conrad called young Bill into his office the next day and told him he had not decided if he would fire him since his father was out of town. His father later called and asked if he knew the song Up on the Roof before adding that he had just used up his free pass.

Elizabeth, the middle child, says, “Our dad is a great guy, he’s funny and he plays these kind of pranks–but there’s a line that you don’t cross, thank God. I think I was probably near the line a lot of times growing up and the only thing that kept me on the right side of the line was knowing that I would get in big, big trouble.”

William III, the oldest of the siblings, says their father became successful in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “I was born in 1969, so we had a modest house in The Landings in Fort Lauderdale growing up. We eventually moved to Rio Vista, and I lived there until I went to college in 1987.

He started performing in bands as a teenager. His parents booked time at New River Studios, and he recorded a single called “Engine No. 9.” Elizabeth says her brother is very talented and remembers dozens of teenage girls screaming when he did a gig on Las Olas Boulevard. The website for his Crosstown Chameleons band says of Scherer: “Dude can sing, write, play guitar and bass. And write a mean law brief. All at the same time.”

William III thought he might make a career in music in the 1990s when the Miami area had a more thriving indie scene, but it never quite came together. Fortunately, his father had a backup plan: “He encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do as long as I got a law degree.”

Elizabeth said a college English professor told her she was very talented and should become a teacher, but her father explained how teachers were overworked and underpaid.

She went to law school and had a revelation during a litigation class in her third year.

“I was better than all the guys. I got the best grade in the class, and I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie myself. I would just get this high coming out of doing a trial and I knew this is what I wanted to do,” she says.

She had planned to join her dad’s practice after law school but stuck with State Attorney Michael Satz after an internship.

“My dad said, that’ll be a great job. You can stay there for three years and then you can get a bunch of trials and then you can come work for me,” she recalls. She began working on violent crime cases, and Satz convinced her to stay for four more years.

Later on, he suggested she become a judge, and she did.

She had many big cases, but the Parkland shooter case towers above them: It was the most widely publicized, had the biggest crime scene, and had the biggest number of witnesses and victims, and it was topped by her former boss Satz being the lead prosecutor.

She had learned to emotionally desensitize herself from years of prosecution, including a case where a man set his wife on fire, but this was an even bigger challenge because her daughter was the same age as the young victims.

“Let’s say a father is talking about his son, who was the youngest of three children, how he was a mama’s boy, and how he was such a sweet kid and an old soul. You can’t ever think, oh my gosh, my daughter is that. … It’s hard enough to keep your cool, but if you for one minute cross that line and make it personal, you’ll lose it,” Scherer says. During the trial, “Everybody was crying. Big armed deputies who are macho men were crying, and I just felt, as a woman, you’re not going to see a male judge crying. So, I can’t cry.”

Elizabeth, who was under intense national scrutiny during the trial, knew that after the case, it would be time to move on.

William III worked for the firm as a lawyer for 20 years before leaving to build his own practice. Nine years later, he says he faced the choice of hiring another associate for his growing practice or rejoining his father’s firm.

Elizabeth said she would join the firm if he came back. “I said, because we’ll be a team, and it will be two against one because my dad can be difficult.”

Elizabeth says her older brother is brilliant and hard-working, but he always faces the challenge of people making assumptions because of his name. It was good for him to get out and build his own business, just like she built a career.

The last and youngest of the trio, John, was already at the firm. He got a degree in Construction Management at the University of Florida. After graduation, he started working as a project manager for a construction company. He spent much time looking at legal documents and thought maybe he should get a law degree like everyone else. He went to Nova Southeastern University Law School at night and kept working during the day for three years.

He became an associate attorney at the law firm but was also general counsel of Gulf Building. He eventually became president and CEO and bought Gulf in 2008. His expertise in construction and its legal aspects gives him a focus at the law firm. As an executive partner, he also handles many managerial duties, such as examining the overall business, hiring employees, and managing back-of-the-house operations.

Gulf Building is thriving with an impressive list of projects over the last 30 years and employs nearly 90 professionals.  Some recent projects include the YMCA on Sistrunk Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale and the Parker Theatre in Fort Lauderdale for Broward Performing Arts Center. Gulf is also currently building the new terminal at Key West International Airport among other projects.

The Scherer law firm is more than just a family affair, though, with 10 other attorneys.

Among them is partner Steven H. Osber, who provides another perspective on Bill Scherer Jr.

“He’s tenacious. He’s unrefined. He’s rough around the edges. He’s a pit bull, but he is well thought. He’s a strategist,” Osber says. “He’s very well connected and teaches the practical aspects of being a lawyer very well. He’s got a legacy that he’s carved out for himself. He walks into a courtroom and the judges give him respect.”

Scherer is good at forecasting how judges and juries will react and is great at identifying issues, Osber says. “Sometimes he brings a ball peen hammer and sometimes he brings a battering ram to get his point across. It just depends on what’s going on.”

Scherer is also the king of PowerPoint presentations in courtrooms.

Indiana boy and a ‘gun bunny’

Scherer grew up in a blue-collar family in Terre Haute, Ind., with his mother being a beautician and his father a railroad brakeman. One night, his father was flagging cars to stop at a crossing when a drunk driver went through and crushed him against the locomotive, causing severe injury. A significant verdict gave him an appreciation of how important attorneys can be.

He attended Franklin College, a small liberal arts college in southern Indiana, and later served as a trustee for 10 years. After graduating in 1969, he was doing well selling Xerox machines when his wife filled out applications for Indiana University and the LSAT law school admissions test.

“I thought, ‘Why do I want to do that?” He was surprised to be accepted because he thought his college grades weren’t good enough. Years later, he heard that his college football coach, Stewart “Red” Faught, put in a good word with the governor.

During his first year in law school, Scherer got a low number in the draft lottery amid the Vietnam War, so he joined the Indiana National Guard.

Law school was interrupted by six months of basic training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky and six months of active duty at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where Scherer became an artillery man or “gun bunny” in Army slang.

Back on campus, the law school dean arranged a job working for a justice in the Indiana Supreme Court. Scherer did that during the day and went to law school at night, graduating magna cum laude.

The adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard was also the Indiana attorney general. “When he found out I was a law clerk and I was a gun bunny serving under him, he made me one of his [Guard] law clerks,” Scherer says.

After he finished law school in 1972, the dean recommended that he take a clerkship with U.S. District Court Judge Charles Fulton in Miami. Scherer also became a law clerk for the Florida Army Reserve.

Scherer would have headed back to Indiana after his time with the Reserve was done, but his captain, Tom Panza, suggested he practice law in Fort Lauderdale, which was more Midwestern than Miami.

A sleepy beach town

Scherer says Fort Lauderdale was sleepy, with one downtown high-rise, the Landmark Bank Building. The federal judge in Miami recommended Scherer to the bankruptcy court trustee, and he started handling cases at the new federal courthouse on Broward Boulevard. In a couple of years, he became a partner at Druck, Grimmett, Norman, Weaver & Scherer, the firm now known as Conrad Scherer.

He soon recruited Rex Conrad, who was widely regarded as one of the best trial lawyers in Fort Lauderdale, Scherer says. “He was acerbic and rough, but he was a great lawyer.”

Scherer gained mentors who helped him become a key power player in Broward. One was Hamilton Forman, whose father was a Broward pioneer and owned a dairy farm in Davie. Forman donated land for Nova Southeastern University and helped form the North Broward Hospital District, where Scherer eventually became general counsel. Prominent attorney Don McClosky also was a close friend and mentor.

The original partners, Conrad, Forman, and McClosky, have all passed away now.

Bush vs. Gore

However, Scherer also has younger friends, such as Jeb Bush. In 2000, Scherer was doing some pro bono work with a state agency when the Gore vs. Bush recount saga began. It was apparent Broward would end up being an epicenter for the recount, so Scherer was tapped to represent George W. Bush in the county.

“I got a lot of face time on that Thanksgiving day where they were counting chads,” Scherer says. He was across the table from Judge Robert Rosenberg when one of the most famous photos in election history was taken: Rosenberg looking through a big magnifying glass at a dimpled ballot.

John says Gore vs. Bush is when he really started understanding his father’s prominence.

“I was at the University of Florida, and I walked into my room with my fraternity brothers, and I looked at the TV and CNN’s on. My dad’s on TV arguing for President Bush. And everyone’s like, ‘Is that your dad? I said, ‘yeah. … And then they said, ‘Wait, is your dad going to jail? He looks like he’s getting handcuffed because he’s getting thrown out of the courtroom.’”

Scherer was angry that the canvassing board didn’t seem to have any standards in divining voters’ intents with the dimpled chads on the ballots. At one point, the Democratic judge leading the canvassing board threatened to remove Scherer. Scherer recalls holding out his hands like he was ready to be cuffed.

A model for others

With all his work and connections, it’s no surprise that Scherer became a lawyer others wanted to emulate. He remembers a Daily Business Review article where flamboyant attorney Scott Rothstein said he wanted to be like Scherer and McClosky.

Rothstein often approached Scherer and other leaders at Jackson’s Steakhouse on Las Olas Boulevard.

“He would have these fundraisers at his house, sit down and regale everybody and play the piano beautifully and sing. He was a talented guy and obviously the consummate salesman to sell people, sophisticated people, these Ponzi investments and have this major Ponzi scheme,” Scherer says.

Scherer started asking questions when Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler ballooned in size and Rothstein lived an ostentatious lifestyle. One rumor was that Rothstein had gotten in on the ground floor of internet porn. 

Scherer asked him how his firm could make that much:  “Scott, how the hell can you, because I am a very successful lawyer and we don’t make that kind of money.”

Rothstein told him he had gotten to know some hedge fund managers.

Like many others, Scherer learned about the $1.2 billion scheme, one of the largest in Ponzi history, after Rothstein temporarily fled to Morocco. On Nov. 3, 2009, a retired judge was appointed receiver to the law firm.

Rothstein had sworn his investors to secrecy, saying their investments were related to out-of-court payments to sexual harassment victims.

Victims started calling Scherer and showing him letters from banks that painted Rothstein favorably. Scherer realized the banks had legal liability and Rothstein later admitted he compromised bank officers.

Rothstein was represented by criminal defense attorney Mark Nurik, who called Scherer.

“I said, ‘What’s Scott want?’ He said he just wants you to tell the truth that he helped cooperate with you when the time comes for you to write a letter. And I said, OK, done,” Scherer recalls. “So, I wrote a letter to the judge that he was very helpful in us getting recovery and telling us exactly how everything happened and all that, and who the bankers were and how he compromised them.”

On Nov. 25, 2009, Scherer filed an amended civil complaint seeking $100 million for his clients. None of the civil cases went to trial. Settlements with banks and insurance companies, plus bankruptcy court proceedings, made the victims whole, which was unprecedented in a Ponzi case.

Rothstein is currently in an undisclosed federal prison under protective custody, serving out a 50-year sentence after ratting out some low-level mobsters.

Not slowing down yet

Scherer has no plans to retire. “I want to keep doing it as long as I’m capable. When the day comes, I hope I know it, that I’m no longer capable of convincing the jury. That day isn’t here yet.”

He has a whopper of a case ahead in Broward Circuit Court as part of a team representing 25 Florida hospitals against the manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers of opioids. The hospitals say they have had a financial burden caring for opioid users.

Scherer is gearing up: “It’s going to go to trial in 18 months. We’re in discovery. We’re spending huge amounts of time and money.”

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