William Peña Wells is the GLS housing staff attorney for Pinellas County. His roots are in Spain. His grandparents left the country right before Francisco Franco took power, and sought refuge in Cuba, where his parents were born. William was born in New York City, “the greatest city on planet Earth, except Paris,” he says. William was an artist from a young age and attended the New York High School of Art and Design. The school is very well known both here in the U.S. and nationally and has graduated artists like Marc Jacobs, rapper A$AP Ferg, and others.
There, William was trained as a portrait artist, “the old fashioned way.” He learned to grind pigments and stretch canvas. He loved art and was prepared to work for DC Comics, but his life course changed when he interned at a law firm and “got bitten by the law bug.” During his internship, he realized he didn’t always agree with those in power at the firm. It became his mission to learn all that he could to become a better lawyer than them.
After high school, William moved to Miami, “because every Cuban has to come back to Miami eventually.” There, he stayed close to his artist roots by acting as the editorial cartoonist for the student newspaper at Florida International University. He was also in student government and a member of Phi Theta Kappa, an invite only honors society. William raced through his undergraduate degree, anxious to start his law school degree at the University of Miami.
William followed a similar trajectory at U Miami, studying people’s law, civil rights, employment and housing while acting as the managing editor of the school newspaper, which went on to win several national awards. He loved law school and especially enjoyed talking with professors and visiting scholars, such as Pulitzer Prize winning author James Michener, who was in residence during William’s time at the school. William was also fortunate to meet Michael Graham, one of the nation’s leading evidence professors and commentators.
Graham’s work was fascinating to William and he grew interested in the psychology of law and how evidence is mined, specifically eyewitness testimony. He was already excited about his law career simply so he could help others, but now he saw more opportunities to be an advocate for people who were victimized by problematic procedures and laws.
After graduating with national honors from the University of Miami Law School, William attended graduate school for his Master’s in Psychology. He focused on cognitive psychology and memory, specifically in regards to witness identifications. He loved learning more about how and why people do the things they do. His goal was to become a researcher and consultant on jury selection. It was through this work that he co-authored the law article The Right to Counsel at Videotaped Lineups: An Emerging Dilemma.
With many successes already, William went on to open his own law practice in Miami, where he did civil litigation. His mission was to help people who “wouldn’t be able to help themselves,” to ensure they wouldn’t be victimized by the law system that was supposed to protect them. His did this for three decades before he and his husband retired and decided to move to St. Petersburg.
He loved St. Pete, the slower pace, the culture, food, and numerous art galleries. He thought he would focus on art after his retirement but found that he couldn’t give up on his law practice. He spent a few years taking clients here and there as a private practitioner. In 2019, he responded to an advertisement for a housing Staff Attorney at Gulfcoast. The organization had always been on his radar. “It’s local,” he says. “It’s right here and can respond quickly to the needs of the people in the community.” Deputy Director, Robin, and Supervising Housing Attorney, Caryn, were thrilled with William’s experience and hired him on quickly.
“William is the complete “attorney package” – experienced, fearless, dedicated and kind. He repeatedly goes above and beyond on behalf of our clients. He is both a professional and extremely humorous all at once. I am lucky I get to work with him!” – Caryn Rosencrantz, Supervising Attorney
“William has a wealth of experience practicing law in Florida. After a successful career on many fronts, he joined GLS several years ago, and we’ve benefited from his wisdom. Recently, he’s been successful in “sealing” some eviction cases for our clients, which means that the eviction case is removed from our client’s court record. William’s life has been devoted to advocacy for the disenfranchised, and he’s been instrumental in sharing our work with the community and the press.” – Robin Stover, Deputy Director
William likes working for GLS because here he can have a direct impact on people’s lives. “The changes I help them make impact their lives for the better quite directly.” He is excited to continue his work here with more focus on impact litigation. He has also been working on sealing and expunging eviction records, which is especially important in light of the economic impacts from COVID-19. This work has helped him and GLS gain notoriety across the state. Currently, William lives in St. Petersburg with his husband, David, who is a chef.