Gary Gwilliam has been a trial lawyer for nearly 60 years. Credit: Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli and Brewer

This story is one in a series brought to you by Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer, an Oakland-based law firm dedicated to helping people who are injured and suffering get the compensation and results they need to move forward.

After nearly six decades practicing law and over 180 jury trials, Gary Gwilliam is still crossing swords with powerful interests on behalf of wronged and injured plaintiffs at Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli and Brewer, the Oakland firm he founded in 1978.

“I’m still in the game. I’m still ready to go out and take on the bad guys,” said Gwilliam, who claims former President Jimmy Carter—still active at age 96—as his role model.

Almost nobody else from Gwilliam’s 1962 graduating class at UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law is still practicing, but Gwilliam continues commuting the 20-plus miles from Alamo to his downtown Oakland office, where he keeps taking cases, presiding over partner meetings as president, and notching victories.

“The truth is I do it because I love it. Call me a workaholic if you want. But it is by choice,” Gwilliam said.

Gwilliam’s vigor and passion for the work completely belie his age, said Steven Brewer, former Managing Partner at the firm.

“He’s a very young 83, let me tell you,” said Brewer, who is in semi-retirement. “I’ve always said, he’s going to be the last one out of the door. He loves to strategize. He loves the battle. There’s nothing about it that he does not take great solace from. He was born to do it.”

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Gwilliam said his intuition told him long ago that his experience and perspective would prove valuable later in life. That has since proven true. In 2020, he said, with COVID-19 shutting down many court operations and causing a backlog of cases likely to last years, Gwilliam has still successfully settled cases and moved cases forward.

The financial challenges that such backlogs present for civil litigation firms like Gwilliam’s, which operate almost entirely on contingency fees, can be daunting, and Gwilliam predicted that weaker firms may not survive. Gwilliam was confident, however, that his company would endure.

“We are the strongest firm in the East Bay doing our kind of work,” he said. “To a certain extent, it’s going to be survival of the fittest.”

Gwilliam speaks with the calm confidence of a combat veteran who has spent his entire career doing serious litigation. In every area of consumer law, Gwilliam has won major judgments and settlements involving serious automobile and construction accidents, product liability, bad faith insurance practices, employment, and more. He has also won big dollars for clients in cases involving employment and civil rights abuses, areas that have increasingly drawn his attention.

Some of Gwilliam’s notable and historic victories over the years include:

  • A $5 million settlement in 2019 for six women who alleged they were forced out of their jobs at a Lehman Brothers subsidiary in Sacramento because they alerted bosses to fraudulent subprime loan activities of the sort that led to the financial services firm’s bankruptcy, the largest in U.S. history. 
  • A $37 million settlement for 130 individual clients who were wrongfully terminated from the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Laboratory. The case was in litigation for over seven years and required two 60-day jury trials before it was settled in 2015. 
  • California State Automobile Association, the largest auto-insurance carrier in Northern California, paid a multi-million-dollar settlement in 1995 to resolve complaints about unpaid medical bills from 78 accident victims. Gwilliam’s firm spent over $600,000 and took more than 350 depositions preparing for trial.
  • A $6.1 million jury verdict in 1992 for a 29-year-old man who became a quadriplegic because of injuries he suffered when the roof of his Corvette was crushed in a roll-over accident. It was the largest single injury verdict in Contra Costa County history.
  • A $5.5 million jury verdict in 1985 for a 19-year-old man who suffered severe hand injuries caused by a press machine at his place of work. It was the largest hand injury verdict in the United States and the largest single injury verdict in Alameda County history.

An attorney for plaintiffs

Gwilliam has spent almost his entire career as an attorney for plaintiffs and has a mountain of medals and honors to his name, including the California Lawyer Association’s Attorney of the Year Award for employment law. He is the past president of Consumer Attorneys of California, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, and the Alameda-Contra Costa County Trial Lawyers Association, and has been a leader in the fight against tort reform efforts by insurers and others aimed at limiting the ability of plaintiffs to sue for damages.

Fresh out of law school, Gwilliam started working as a prosecutor in Ventura County and rose to chief trial deputy. After four years, he moved to an Oakland civil litigation firm, and he never looked back, becoming a partner there before starting his own firm after 12 years.

In the ensuing decades, Gwilliam saw the legal sector undergo major changes. One of the most striking is how few cases go to trial today, compared to the past. 

As a result, said Gwilliam, there will never be another lawyer like him, with so many trials under his belt. “Someone today would brag about trying 20 or 30 cases.”

One welcome change, Gwilliam said, has been the increase in the number of women in the profession. He proudly cited Jayme Walker, a partner at his firm, as an example. A rising star, Walker is currently following in Gwilliam’s and partner Eric Ivary’s footsteps by becoming president-elect of the ACCTLA.

“Gary is the primary reason I am where I am today,” said Walker, crediting Gwilliam with mentoring her and letting her take the lead on important cases when others would have kept the spotlight for themselves. 

“He has supported me unconditionally as an attorney and also as a mother,” said Walker, who has a two-year-old son. 

Gwilliam has been remarkably open about his own transformation as well—from a hard-drinking and stressed-out attorney to a sober, balanced person and devoted family man. He recounted much of his life and “psycho-spiritual journey” in a 2017 memoir, “Getting a Winning Verdict in My Personal Life: A Trial Lawyer Finds His Soul.”

The book offers an unflinching look at Gwilliam’s delinquent youth without a present father figure and his wild days at Pomona College, where his raucous fraternity brothers included future actor and singer Kris Kristofferson (nicknamed Kritter). He describes how his early success as a lawyer transformed into alcoholic despair, accompanied by the death of four premature babies and the collapse of two marriages. A turning point came after the devastating loss of a case in which a jury declined to find an automaker liable in a fatal truck crash. 

The book recounts how Gwilliam gave up drinking in 1984 and sought a more spiritual path in his professional and personal life through psychological analysis, metaphysical study, inner-child work, and past-life readings. That search gave him more equilibrium professionally and led him to his current, happy marriage. 

About the time he quit alcohol, Gwilliam also transitioned politically. Once a far-right conservative, he became a champion of progressive causes. 

During his more than three decades sober, Gwilliam has sought to help other lawyers suffering the pain of addiction and other emotional challenges. He has written extensively and conducted seminars and workshops across the state and nation on quality-of-life issues, stress reduction, substance abuse, and ethics. 

In doing so, Gwilliam has openly talked about subjects that few other lawyers are willing to broach, and he has found appreciative audiences. One popular article published in national and state law journals was titled “The Art of Losing,” in which Gwilliam wrote about finding the courage to go on, and the compassion for others that can come from defeat. 

“I’m proud of the fact that I’m willing to talk about losing, as well as the wins,” said Gwilliam, whose ethics teachings won him a 1994 Consumer Attorneys of California Presidential Award.

That said, Gwilliam’s “tenaciousness” in seeking victory for his clients is formidable, Brewer said.

A classic example was the Lehman Brothers case that finally settled in 2019 after 14 years of litigation. For his work on the case, Gwilliam was selected as a finalist for CAOC’s 2020 Consumer Attorney of the Year award. The lead plaintiff suffered major emotional and financial setbacks after losing her job and was tempted to accept a low-ball offer from the bank, something Gwilliam’s partners also thought might be a good idea. 

“That was the never-ending case. There were a lot of times along the way when we were looking at him and saying, ‘Gary, what are you doing? Cut and run,’” said Brewer. “Gary would say, ‘I’m going to get this case resolved.’”

Gwilliam even loaned the client money to get her through a rough patch. That sort of care reflects the principles of the International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers, of which Gwilliam is a member. The idea is to treat clients as people with a range of needs that go beyond just cash judgments. 

More than ever, Gwilliam said he remains motivated to get plaintiffs justice.

Recent cases that inspire him include a suit against the Bay Area Air Quality Management District by two ex-employees who say they were fired for complaining about improper destruction of enforcement records; a suit against the Stanislaus County District Attorney alleging wrongful prosecution of a defense attorney and his family members for murder; a suit over the death of a mentally ill man after Pleasanton police officers violently arrested him while he was calmly standing on a sidewalk; and a large multi-plaintiff case for age discrimination and other serious claims against a major national insurance company.

“We stand up for the little guy. We have no fear of taking on anybody, whether it’s a big corporation, or the state of California, or the United States government,” Gwilliam said. “As long as I can stand up and walk through this firm, I’ll keep fighting for the things I believe in.”