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Exactly Rocket Science

Gary M. Paul’s work during the heyday of the space race

Published in 2022 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine

It was November 14, 1971, and Mariner 9 was about to become the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. NASA had launched it six months earlier, to much fanfare, and now it was time for the California Institute of Technology’s celebrated Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to handle the ignition burn—firing a rocket to slow Mariner down so Mars could capture it into its orbit. 

A young scientist named Gary M. Paul handled the countdown. As a control systems engineer for the laboratory, he had spent much of the mission chairing flight operations meetings and manning the flight desk. “They put the clock in front of me, and I did ‘10, 9, 8 … ,’ and then, ‘Ignition!’” he recalls. “There was a huge amount of cheering. … There must have been 25 people in the room.”

By that point, Paul had been working for JPL for nearly two years. He’d been part of the team for Mariner 8, which failed to make it into Mars’ orbit and wound up in the Atlantic Ocean, so Mariner 9’s success was especially sweet. Soon he would be part of the team for the Viking probes, which landed on Mars in 1976.

But something was missing from his life. “I had this yearning to be dealing with things individually,” Paul says. Plus, after the moon landing, congressional funding of space programs started to dip, and Paul wanted job security. “If the next president comes along, and he says, ‘That’s a really cool idea, but we’re not going to do that anymore …’ I wanted something more consistent.”

Paul’s father had been a machinist who worked off engineering drawings, and he encouraged all three sons toward engineering. “He figured, ‘I want my boys to be the ones to do the drawings,’” Paul says.

After graduating from Arizona State University and getting his master’s from UCLA, Paul worked for aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas. “They said, ‘We’re working on antiballistic missiles. You’re going to get involved in the radiation effect and electronic effects on missiles. Here are some handbooks,’” he recalls. “It was a lot of computer programming and testing.”

It was missile defense rather than offense but he had issues with the job. “There’s no question I was working in the military-industrial complex,” he says. So he was happy when the JPL opportunity came along. He worked there from 1969 to 1975. 

Then the yearning. A few friends suggested the law. “It fit in with an engineer—the idea was to come to a solution,” he says. “My torts instructor believed the law can change industry’s behavior. That really appealed to me.”

So while putting in 50- to 60-hour weeks and raising a family, Paul earned his J.D. at Loyola.

At his first trial, he represented a man who suffered hearing loss after an accident at his auto mechanic’s garage caused a part to ricochet into his ear. Paul wanted a photo of the contraption so jurors might understand it. “I found a garage,” he says, “and I asked the first guy: ‘Do you mind if I take some pictures?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I really do mind. Go away.’ So I found another garage and told him I was an engineer. I was able to get a picture of it that way.” Paul’s client won $7,500.

Paul’s engineering background proved useful for more than just getting in good with garage mechanics. “I’d meet with an expert witness who was used to dealing with a lot of lawyers and he would say, ‘Gary, let me explain this to you.’ And I would say, ‘No, I got it.’”

In the early ’90s, Paul repped a California Highway Patrol officer who suffered brain damage after his motorcycle tire burst on a freeway; the tire company went through “every shenanigan they could” to avoid liability, he says, but Paul’s client won more than $1.5 million. More recently, a client won a $27.5 million verdict after proving he developed mesothelioma, a form of cancer; the client alleged his father, who worked at brake-manufacturing company Eaton Airflex, brought home poisonous asbestos dust on his clothes for years. “It was the largest verdict in the history of Ohio,” Paul says.

Now a partner at Waters, Kraus & Paul in El Segundo, Paul still keeps up with the engineering field and subscribes to magazines covering the space program. Oh, and all of his engineering brothers? “Believe it or not,” he says, “all three of us became lawyers.”

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