by Sean McManus
There’s a plaque behind the couch in George Gabel’s office that identifies him as an honorary counsel for the country of Norway. And while it’s a designation only a king can bestow, Gabel doesn’t really feel the need to put it on the wall. Gabel, like Norway, is quiet and reserved.
Gabel, the distinguished maritime lawyer who recently took the helm of Holland & Knight’s Jacksonville’s office, did hang a picture of a sinking ship, though — the Oriental Warrior — which caught fire off the coast of St. Augustine 30 years ago. Gabel was rushed to the scene representing the ship’s Japanese owner. As the story goes, the port didn’t want the captain to steer the fiery ship onto the dock. The fire department sunk the Oriental Warrior, and somehow, Gabel ended up with the picture.
“Anything that can happen on land can happen on a ship, except for real estate problems,” said the trim and tanned Gabel who practices media and hospitality law in addition to maritime law. “And it really gets to the core of how nations get along with each other.”
Gabel, a former trustee at Davidson College where he received a bachelor’s degree in English, and a graduate of the University of Florida Law School, dispersed his legal interests into the three categories that fell under the auspices of one of his early clients — the Flagler System — Henry Flagler’s corporate monolith that spanned railroads, hotels, shipping lines and newspapers.
As an attorney with Gabel and Hair, with his former partner Mattox Hair, Gabel handled work for every big newspaper in Florida, including The Florida Times-Union. He is also general counsel for a hospitality conglomerate that handled workers compensation for hotels all over the state.
Gabel’s specialties have led to a string of noteworthy cases, many of which had international consequences.
“During [Gen. Manuel] Noriega’s time, 22 Panamanian stowaways came into Tallyrand docks and tried to claim political asylum,” said Gabel. “It was a mess but eventually they were sent back to Panama.”
Gabel also represented Fox Entertainment when they were sued by the Outlaws motorcycle gang after Fox featured them on America’s Most Wanted and The Orlando Sentinel in a case relating to race car driver Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy photographs.
“And two years ago, I fought to make sure there would be cameras in the courtroom when they were deciding the presidential election in Florida” said Gabel. “We won.”
The reason why Gabel is an honorary Norwegian counsel is because Norway’s top lawyer always calls Gabel for advice.
“I used to have Norwegian ships as clients,” said Gabel, who often travels to that country, Japan and London. “Issues come up with visas and passports.”
Holland & Knight approached Gabel & Hair in the late 1980s about a merger, a deal meant to bolster Holland & Knight’s maritime and media practice. The merger eventually happened in 1998.
“Certainly, whatever entrepreneurial spirit I may have had may have dragged out the conversation,” said Gabel. “But all of those apprehensions regarding autonomy proved to be untrue.”
Gabel said the volume of ideas and information shared around a firm of Holland & Knight’s size and stature, along with the scope and the resources, makes it well worth it.
“The irony is that I approached the merger with the idea that I would get away from some of the administrative aspects of working in law and now I’m executive partner,” said Gabel. “But I get the feeling here it is more of a leadership role.”
Gabel is a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyer, a division of the American Bar Association, and served as chair of the media and defamation torts committee and was on the admiralty and maritime law committee. He’s on the admiralty law committee and the media law committee of The Florida Bar. He’s past president of the Rotary Club of Jacksonville and the North Florida Council of the Boy Scouts.
Gabel has been married to his wife Judy for 40 years. His daughter Laura lives in Boston and his daughter Meredith lives in Charlotte. The Gabels have four grandchildren.
Gabel traveled recently to Portland, Ore. He’s working on a big media case. Holland & Knight defends major media outlets all over the country.
“We are very interested in protecting the rights of the press,” said Gabel. “Or should I say, the public’s right to know.”