A dead cat in a sack was the beginning of years of college-major indecision for international arbitrator Burton Landy, who still isn’t sure whether attending seven colleges and universities in six years set a record.

But it’s more than his 65 years in legal practice, which indicates he eventually found the right major.

At 87, Landy is a chairman and arbitrator in international arbitrations, an honorary Korean consul general, founder of organizations including the Florida International Bankers Association, the Miami International Arbitration Society and the defunct but once well-known Miami law firm Paul, Landy, Beiley & Harper. He’s currently senior counsel at Harper Meyer Perez Hagen O’Connor Albert & Dribin and a mirthful storyteller.

The Chicago-born son of a small business owner and a legal stenographer, Landy began college as a pre-med student at the University of Illinois in the 1940s. But when he soon found himself carrying around a dissected cat in a sack that reeked of formaldehyde for a homework assignment, he realized pre-med wasn’t for him. So he switched to a junior college where he took two years of Latin, German and Spanish. When studying Spanish, he decided to attend a summer exchange program at the National University of Mexico, living with a Mexican family and studying typical dances and songs.

“You had to pay a fine if you spoke any English, so that was a big incentive to speak Spanish,” Landy said. He then headed to Roosevelt University, where he took any course that sounded interesting until his mother told him a law education wouldn’t hurt. He applied to a Northwestern University law program designed for World War II veterans and was accepted, but after 1½ years of remembering the warmth of Mexico from afar, he transferred to the University of Miami School of Law, which had one of the few Latin American law programs in the U.S. While at UM, he got a scholarship to attend a summer law school program at the University of Havana in 1951. He never met his fellow law student Fidel Castro. “While Castro made revolution, I made love,” Landy joked in Spanish.

Litigation Training

After law school, he joined the U.S. Air Force judge advocate general’s office. Stationed in Texas, he told the personnel department he spoke Spanish, had lived in Mexico and Cuba, and his talents were being wasted. He suggested reassignment as a diplomatic attache in Latin America. “I was only 22 then — it was kind of a dumb thing to do,” Landy said. Ten days later, he was reassigned to Korea. “I started to be concerned whether they were still shooting over there. They were.”

To his relief, he arrived in South Korea days after they signed the 1953 ceasefire. Landy lived in a tent and tried courts-martial out of a domed metal hut.

“In two years in active duty, I participated in over 100 courts-martial that ranged from very minor to major — rape, murder, all types of things,” he said. “I got a lot of trial experience. I got experience being an adviser to the colonel, which was good because I was so young. We had to be resourceful. That was excellent training.”

After joining a Miami solo practitioner with a Latin America practice, Landy was asked to judge a Jaycees beauty contest and fell for one of the contestants. Fretting she would win, move on and forget him, he encouraged his colleagues to vote for others. They married, and he told her years later that he had torpedoed her chances. Their 60th anniversary is this month.

In time, he opened a law firm with Bob Paul. Paul, Landy, Beiley & Harper grew over the next 30 years to 44 lawyers, including some of his current partners at Harper Meyer and his daughter, Miami lawyer Lisa Landy.

When he organized a conference for aviation lawyers in the Americas, the research resulted in opportunities to represent international air carriers. He also became president of the World Trade Center Miami, worked to promote international trade in Florida and launched FIBA, a trade group for foreign banks with U.S. operations.

Among the first lawyers to become involved in arbitration in Miami in the 1970s, Landy and other lawyers drafted legislation that produced the nation’s first state law governing international arbitration act.

Full Circle

But the firm’s story wasn’t all roses.

“If we were smarter, we would have remained a boutique and not tried to take on all practice areas. There was a lesson there,” Landy said. “I see now that we should have been an aviation and international banking boutique and left some of the other disciplines to other law firms.”

The business side of the firm had a crucial weakness. It was very active in a cyclical practice area — litigation.

“We weren’t smart enough in building up working capital,” Landy said. “We weren’t capitalized enough to ride the different waves where you have some drought. We were good lawyers. We had good practices, but we probably didn’t marshal our assets as well as we could have.”

In retrospect, there were also issues with the partnership itself. Some weeks, partners stored their paychecks in a drawer to make sure there was enough money to pay bills and employees.

“We really didn’t have a formal partnership agreement,” Landy said. “It was a handshake deal. It wasn’t as businesslike as it should have been. We could have used more help on the business end.”

The real lesson is to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and concentrate on your strengths, he said.

In 1994, Landy and some of his partners, including Jim Meyer, joined Steel, Hector & Davis.

“It wasn’t pleasant closing a law firm after 30 years, but I feel good about that — we placed all our people, paid all our creditors and closed it with dignity,” Landy said. “There’s a pretty impressive diaspora of Paul Landy Bailey & Harper lawyers still practicing, so that’s comforting to see how well they’ve done. We had a good run.

A few years later, similar issues cropped up at Steel Hector, and he moved to Akerman, where he practiced another 20 years before rejoining some of his former Paul Landy colleagues this year at Harper Meyer.

Landy serves as chairman and arbitrator in international commercial and investment arbitrations in Latin America and the Caribbean and focuses his practice on the inbound structuring of foreign-client operations and investments in the United States and outbound investments for U.S. clients.

Harper Meyer co-founder Jim Meyer said the idea of Landy joining the firm came up after co-founder George “Rocky” Harper died in February. Landy had been Harper’s mentor, as Harper had been Meyer’s, and the three had worked together at Paul Landy along with fellow partner Steve Hagan.

“It all came together in this light version of the law firm that we enjoyed so much at the start of my career,” Meyer said. “It made all the sense in the world. It was a way to honor Rocky as well because Rocky admired Burt so much.”