Gene Atwood was obviously cut out to be an attorney, but it took him two decades to realize that and embrace it.
He first thought about a law career in 1973 while an English major at Jacksonville University.
He took the Law School Admissions Test but opted to go into commercial real estate instead. He’d worked construction in high school and liked building things.
When Atwood applied for a position with The Haskell Co., he underwent two days of psychological testing to assess his career aptitudes.
The psychologist who administered the tests told him his scores also indicated he’d be well suited for the law.
That “planted a seed,” Atwood said.
But at the time, that’s all it was.
Atwood worked his way up from assistant project manager to division manager at Haskell.
He then left the company to join Mel Smith Inc., a small Jacksonville firm. Smith was a friend from high school and Atwood enjoyed the atmosphere of a smaller firm.
In the early 1990s, while working on a $10 million project at the Jacksonville International Airport, Smith’s firm became involved in a lawsuit against the city, along with 21 other subcontractors.
Atwood worked with the attorneys representing the firm. “After spending time with me, they encouraged me to go to law school,” Atwood said.
So 20 years after he first took the LSAT, he took it again.
And in 1994, at the age of 42, he took out student loans, moved to Gainesville and became a full-time student at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
“The timing was right,” he said. “Mel Smith was going to downsize and I didn’t want to go back to a big company and all the traveling again.”
He’d enjoyed being a project manager, but it was a high-stress, 60-hour-a-week job. Law school “was fun” by comparison, Atwood said.
“Most people talk about law school in hushed tones, but for me it was a three-year vacation,” he said. “I’m not saying there was not hard work involved, just not as hard as construction.”
Atwood realized then it was the right move because things “clicked” and he earned a 4.0 grade point average his first term.
He also knows now it was the right move, because he is enjoying his career as a partner at Regan Whelan Zebouni & Atwood.
The firm, based on Old St. Augustine Road in Jacksonville, specializes in construction law and litigation, business and real estate litigation and governmental affairs — all areas where Atwood’s expertise and past experience in commercial real estate are invaluable.
“I love it,” he said. “I’m 64 and I still love going to work every day. You can’t ask for more than that.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy being a project manager, because he did.
“I liked getting the plans at the beginning of a project, then sitting down with the owner, working through budgets and the timing, and then making sure it all happened,” he said.
Working with architects and engineers as well as owners was fun.
His job was to keep everything on budget, so scheduling was a primary responsibility.
That meant working with many subcontractors and figuring out how they all fit in the schedule.
Projects that are $15 million to $20 million typically involved 15 to 20 subcontractors.
Some of the projects he worked on during his career included the Gulf Stream Airspace in Savannah, Ga., the Maidenform Manufacturing Plant in Jacksonville, Coggin Nissan on Atlantic Boulevard, St. Catherine Laboure Manor in Riverside and two middle schools in St. Johns County.
But now, he said, “that feels like another lifetime ago.”
In law school he was one of the oldest students, but not the oldest. Even so, most of his friends were 23 and 24 year olds, which was fine.
“I knew they were going to be my peers in the profession,” Atwood said.
He feels his age was an advantage, because he was more focused, relaxed and motivated than he would have been when he was younger.
And 15 hours of classroom time every week combined with 30 hours of studying were still far less than the long high-stress hours he’d been used to.
When Atwood graduated in 1997, he wasn’t looking to go into construction law. He thought he might take a position in Atlanta, a city of big offices and high salaries compared to Jacksonville.
But when Rogers Towers offered him a job that summer, he took it.
That is where he met Jeffrey Regan, who convinced him to stay at Rogers Towers, when they realized Atwood’s strengths were in litigation and contract law.
Contract law plays a major role in construction law, which is not specifically taught in law school, Atwood said.
His real-life experience prepared him well, but at times he also finds it “a double-edged sword.” Atwood often has to remind himself he is a lawyer and not a contractor.
His background in construction helps when he is trying to understand something technical in a case, he said.
“But when I have to explain it to a judge or jury I have to make sure I don’t skip steps,” he said.
Atwood enjoys the challenge.
He recently served as lead attorney in a case involving an apartment complex, where he represented the general contractor.
An insurance company was suing the contractor for defective performance with balconies and windows.
Atwood came up with a repair protocol costing $4 million, which was far less than the $14 million for which they were being sued.
In another case, he represented the city of Ormond Beach, which was being sued for $14 million by a general contractor who claimed he was forced to perform extra work for which he wasn’t compensated.
“We convinced him he wasn’t,” Atwood said, and the claims were dismissed.
“I love it,” Atwood said of his law career. “You get to meet new people all the time and help them through their issues.”
He also is in good company with his partners, because they all worked in other industries prior to attending law school.
Regan served in law enforcement, Edward Whelan was an estimator and project manager with mechanical contractors, and Tony Zebouni was an analytical chemist and a certified marine chemist.
“It is not unusual for people to go to law school after working other careers,” Zebouni said.
He’s even known some who went after retiring in their 60s.
But Zebouni finds it ironic he met Atwood years ago when “he was the enemy.”
Zebouni was representing the Jacksonville International Airport in the lawsuit involving Mel Smith Inc. and took Atwood’s deposition for three days.
He didn’t encourage Atwood to go to into law because at that time they were on opposite sides.
“He wasn’t particularly fond of me then,” Zebouni said. “But I did recognize him as being clever.”