James Ferraro, JD '83
It is just before daybreak in early spring in an industrial section of Coral Gables. Pounding music and the sounds of grunting (and, honestly some yelling and swearing) cut the otherwise still air. Jim Ferraro, J.D. '83, doesn’t stand out among the dozen or so others deadlifting kettlebells and medicine balls the size of deep sea buoys or doing squats with obscenely huge dumbbells, today's Rx'ed workout.
Ferraro, a former Miami Hurricanes football player, has embraced CrossFit, the almost cult-like fitness program famous for Zen-like pain from sets of calisthenics, jump training, weights and resistance, and adherence to a Paleo diet. He feels like it gives him an edge, and Ferraro is all about the edge.
Last August, Ferraro, with his son James, Jr., J.D. '13, sitting in second chair, won a $17 million judgment in an asbestos case from one of the largest international building supply manufacturers. For that case, Courtroom View Network named him Florida Plaintiff’s Lawyer of the Year. But Taylor v. Georgia-Pacific was just the latest in a line of tens of thousands of mesothelioma cases Ferraro has brought on behalf of blue-collar workers exposed to cancer-causing asbestos from building and manufacturing. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer most often associated with contact with asbestos.
When Ferraro took on his first mass tort case in 1989, he likens himself to one of author Malcolm Gladwell's subjects in "Outliers: The Story of Success" and the 10,000 Hour Rule. The theory suggests that the key to dominating any field requires 10,000 hours of perfectly executed practice before one rises to the top. "Opportunity is the random factor, but if you are prepared..."
He would go on to win the first trial ruling ever in the world holding a chemical company liable for a birth defect, a verdict that was affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court.
"Many lawyers, young and old, don't know how to prepare a case," he said. "It's a lot of work. It's often working until 3 a.m. to be ready. Most people will get opportunities in their life but can't do anything with them because they are not prepared. They aren't a good enough lawyer to take that case, or make that case, or win that case. They didn't practice enough."
Ferraro didn't set out to be a lawyer. He is proud Italian-American from Greenwich, Connecticut, where he played football and baseball at his Catholic school.
He came to Miami and UM in 1975; he received a Bachelor in Business Administration and a Master of Science in accounting. He became a CPA and starting earning his 10,000 hours working as an accountant at Deloitte Haskins.
"For college, I was really just looking to go into business after graduating," he says. "Accounting was the hot profession, it opened doors; it was the language of business."
After the first two degrees, Ferraro decided a third would not be horrible. He started at Miami Law taking night classes while working as an accountant 55 hours a week.
"The last year I was going to quit the accounting firm and be a normal law student," he says. "I used to see all these kids eating bagels on the bricks and I would be running in at night, a complete mess, with a bag from Wendy's to eat in class. I had been having these anxiety dreams where someone was chasing me with a knife. Third year was going to be the Promised Land; sitting in the library, getting all my work done."
But fate would intervene. Two opportunities presented and at the start of third year, he was teaching accounting at UM in the early morning, then clerking in the tax department at Greenberg Traurig, then back at Miami Law for classes. "There goes the promised land," he says.
After law school, Ferraro would start out at Finley Kumble, splitting his time between trial work and sports representation. Two years out of law school, he set out on his own.
He started the first of two laws firms. "The first couple of years were bumpy," he says. "But two years later, I am in mass torts.
"At this point, I was convinced that sports representation had limited appeal," he said. "I was a trial lawyer, and there were an unlimited number of cases that I could charge a third and I am actually doing something that is really good; you are helping people. You have blue-collar workers dying of mesothelioma trying to go up against the DuPonts of the world. I can make good money and it's not a 24-hour a day thing, like with sports. I can go on a vacation with my family."
On his way to a Malcolm Gladwell moment, Ferraro tried a single case of a smoker who was also exposed to asbestos. After he won the case, the head of a local union -- who was also the best friend of the now-deceased smoker -- took the young lawyer out to lunch to thank him for the representation. The man introduced him to union bosses all over the country. "Within eighteen months, I had gone from fifty cases to a thousand," he says.
Soon he and a friend would open the second firm, between them they would handle over 50,000 mesothelioma and environmental toxin cases.
At one point, he founded the arena football team, the now-named Cleveland Gladiators; fellow Miami Hurricane Bernie Kosar was a minority partner in the venture. Ferraro also owns an Italian restaurant in Coral Gables, Randazzo's Little Italy.
"I have UM and Miami Law to thank for starting me on the road to find that opportunity," he says. "It helped me find my way -- starting with sports law and tax -- and taught me most importantly how to be prepared. There is no lesson about preparation so life changing as having not read the case, and being called on in Dean Hausler’s contracts class.
“It’s because of this, that I am a donor to Miami Law,” he says.
The sun has yet to break in the morning sky when Ferraro, sweaty and spent from exertion, heads home to prepare for another day chockablock with research and client meetings and court.