“If police officers got in trouble, they went to Bill Terry. If attorneys or judges got in trouble, they went to Bill. Any question about a bar hearing or a disciplinary hearing, they could rely on Bill. He kept it low-key. He never talked much about it. But judicial disciplinary work was one of his specialties, probably more so than any other attorney.”
That’s how Tom Pitaro, Terry’s longtime close friend and confidant, and himself a giant in the Las Vegas legal community, described Terry, the celebrated Las Vegas defense attorney who died January 15 at age 74.
If you spent any time with Terry, whether across the courtroom or across the permanent inversion layer of cigarette smoke that settled over his desk, you got the sense that there was a nuclear reactor-fired intellect at work within his mind.
In that rarified air at the peak of the defense bar, Bill Terry was one name that countless attorneys of all stripes turned to for advice.
“I don’t particularly value anyone else’s opinion on law, except for Bill’s,” Pitaro said. “He was the only one. If I had a question, I would run it past Bill first. Someone said to me, ‘Bill Terry is the only person you allow to give you advice.’ I said, ‘you’re right.’ Look at the [Ted] Binion case with Sandy Murphy — when it got reversed, [Alan] Dershowitz took all the credit. Actually Bill wrote that. That was his.
“The thing I’ll say about Bill is that most attorneys are practitioners of the law. Bill was a student of the law. That, to me, is a profound difference. He would understand the philosophy and the essence of the law. He was a true student of the law.”
And there was really only one man Terry would turn to: Tom Pitaro.
Prominent attorney Ozzie Fumo, a longtime friend of Terry and partner of Pitaro, said of Terry’s relationship with Pitaro: “Tom was Bill Terry’s guy. If Bill had a question, he would always want to know what Tom thought. But Bill was better than any of us. He was the best. The only person he could turn to was Tom, and Tom could only turn to Bill. I don’t know what Tom is going to do now.”
Terry had a secret to making his practice and his encyclopedic knowledge of criminal law look easy: He just never stopped working. Given a choice, he was most at home in his office seven days a week. It Terry called to go to lunch on a Saturday, he wasn’t coming from home. He was taking a break from the office — same thing on Sundays.
Fumo said those seven-day work weeks set the stage for a lasting string of sessions about life and the law. “He came up to me one day and said, ‘I noticed you work Saturdays. Let’s get together for lunch.’ This was about 15 years ago, and it had been going on since then with Bill, Tom and myself.”
It wasn’t just a chance to shoot the breeze. Fumo said: “Bill would always want to discuss a particular issue with us, and being the consummate professionals that they are, Bill and Tom would never mention the name of whoever they were discussing. If Tom or Bill was representing a judge, say, I would never hear the name — only the issue. Their ideas would ping pong back and forth at lunch, and I would listen and gain all this knowledge. These were some of the most valuable times of my life. About five years ago he brought attorney Ryan Helmick along, who was like a son to Bill.”
It says something when a young attorney is trusted enough to be brought into a group of friends like that. “They kind of took me in to their Saturday lunch crew,” said Helmick, of the Richard Harris Law Firm. “I sat there in awe as a young lawyer. I felt like I was sitting there with these giants of the Las Vegas legal scene, these guys with experience in the biggest cases. I just tried to absorb as much information as I could.”
Fumo said that when the lofty talk about legal issues wrapped up, Terry had a routine he followed before he returned to work on Saturday afternoons. “He would take leftover food from meals and give them to a homeless guy right outside the Courthouse Bar and Grill, and never talked about it or advertised it. Just like he would give Halloween candy to kids with cancer, never mentioned it. He just did it. He didn’t even talk about it.”
Helmick said it was that compassionate spirit that made Terry his ultimate role model.
“Bill was my dad’s lawyer, and my dad asked Bill if I could shadow him,” Helmick said. “So I would shadow him once a week for his court dates. I started reading up on him, and I was so in awe even before I got to know him. I felt very fortunate and blessed that I had the opportunity to learn from the best of the best.
“So we had the mentorship, then he started inviting me to breakfast at the Courthouse Bar and Grill, Bill and some of the guys including Ozzie, Tom, some judges and prosecutors. He was a phenomenal lawyer. He cared about his clients and he was able to portray that in a way that also got the judges to care.”
It’s telling that for all of his legal accomplishments, Terry counted his greatest achievements outside the courthouse.
“The thing he was most proud of was being a father,” said Pitaro. “He loved his kids [Billy, Jenny and Freddie]. Everything he did was dedicated to them. It was a remarkable thing to see how he did it. He was always there for them. When you go into Bill’s house, he has walls of photos of his kids. In his office, he has school photos of them from every year.”
Fumo said Terry always remained grounded: “No matter what case was going on, no matter what else was happening, every Wednesday night was reserved for dinner with his kids.
Pitaro added: “If you say that Bill Terry was an outstanding attorney, that’s true. If you say he was a student of the law, that’s true. If you say he worked seven days a week at his law practice, that’s true. But within that, he was Bill Terry the father. If you knew him you would see it.”
Those could sound like mere platitudes for an old pal, but there is evidence Terry took the father thing pretty seriously.
“Bill would always have Easter parties and Christmas parties,” Pitaro said. “At Easter, Ozzie would be the Easter Bunny in a costume. At Christmas, I would dress up and be the Santa Claus at his party, give out presents to everyone.”
For the record, Bill Terry got Ozzie Fumo to dress up as the Easter Bunny. He got Tom Pitaro to dress up as Santa, for years. That is a persuasive attorney.
“The Fourth of July was special too because Billy would bring in fireworks from other counties and there would be a big fireworks party,” Pitaro said. “By the way, they were neither safe nor sane.”
To those closest to him, Terry was fondly remembered for his basic approach to the little things in life — his wardrobe being one. Every single day Terry wore one of two colors: black or dark black.
Helmick said Terry was a two-car kind of guy — but not the kind of cars you would expect: “He drove an old pickup truck and an old Toyota Camry. He wasn’t flashy. He wore a Mickey Mouse watch. He carried the same briefcase since I’d known him.”
If there are takeaways, Helmick said the secret sauce of Terry’s skills set is an uncommon one. “His listening skills were unbelievable. We call it ‘listening with the third ear.’ Bill was always able to pick apart things that the client was missing, or wasn’t able to say, or was really feeling,” Helmick said. “I thought, wow, how did he know that? How was he able to pick up on that? He had a secret antenna to pick up on the true feelings of people. He took the sugar and the hammer approach. You try the sugar first, and if that doesn’t work you hit them over the head with a hammer. He wasn’t afraid of a fight. But he treated everyone well and was always professional and humble. That’s the approach I try to use to this very day.”
His empathy for clients gave Terry a laser focus that became the core of his approach, according to Pitaro.
“He was always ready to take on whatever argument was there,” Pitaro said. “He was never screwing around. He was always ready. He never raised his voice much — not like me or Ozzie. He was a calming influence. Every judge that he ever appeared in front of him would take what he said as gospel. They knew that he wouldn’t embellish. They knew he would tell it like it is. He did a lot of work behind the scenes that others might have gotten credit for. It’s a great loss.”
Judges and attorneys weren’t the only ones at the courthouse who were treated with respect.
“I noticed how he treated the security guards and the courthouse, he’d give them cigars as gifts. He always had little gifts for the clerks,” Helmick said. “I got to watch this man and how he lived his life. I always did a lot of listening. I saw how important his family was to him. I tried to emulate all that as best I could. He was a superhero to me, as a lawyer and as a person.”
How important is it for a young attorney to find their Bill Terry in their career? Helmick said: “It’s so important to learn from somebody else, to pick up knowledge from another person in your life like that, to help pull you up the ladder. Fewer people think that is important anymore, but I think it’s extremely important. It was for me.”