Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, Class Is Now in Session
Julia Huston brings an educator’s eye to the law
Published in 2010 New England Super Lawyers magazine
on October 18, 2010
Updated on October 20, 2010
For Julia Huston, standing in front of a room full of people and delving into esoteric matters that only she has a full grasp of seems only natural.
But then again, we’re talking about someone who traded a classroom for a courtroom––and used her skills as a former educator to win the biggest case in the musical-instrument industry, earning her client a whopping $20.7 million.
Not that, growing up, she ever expected to be working with millions. Huston, who was born in Ohio, moved to New Jersey with her family as a sixth-grader and attended the Montville Township High School, then moved to Boston to study at Boston University. There, she earned a double major in psychology and special education, graduating in 1987.
“I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do when I was young,” Huston says. “I had an interest in psychology, but I didn’t really know where to go with it.”
But she did know she wanted to help people in the community, so a career in education seemed the obvious choice. She taught autistic children in Southborough, Mass., and earned a master’s degree in education policy and administration as a part-time student at Harvard University.
It was almost simple happenstance that she came to the law.
Huston began an internship at the Center for Law and Education, “a nonprofit organization whose goal is to ensure students receive appropriate educational services despite their low-income status or any other disabilities they may have,” she says.
“It was the first time I had an opportunity to get to know lawyers, and I was very surprised by what they did,” Huston says. “I saw how they worked, and how passionate they were about their work, and I decided I wanted to be like them. The lawyers there didn’t just go the extra mile, they went one mile beyond that.”
The lawyers were just as impressed with the young Huston.
“I thought she was very smart,” says Kathleen Boundy, the co-director of the Center for Law and Education. “We were really just impressed with how capable she was, and she was a real member of the team.”
The work Huston was given was a taste of the kind of litigation she loves now. In two similar cases, children in juvenile detention centers in New England states were being denied special-education services. The center was suing both states, insisting they improve their educational offerings to the children.
“What we needed was a very detailed analysis of student records from a computer database none of us could figure out,” Boundy says. “[Huston] came in and self-taught herself to use a database called Paradox, and not only did she teach herself how to use the database, she learned how to make it useful to us.”
Huston wasn’t just an intern––she was also a witness, taking the stand in one of the cases to describe the work she’d done.
“She was an excellent witness. Lots of poise, confidence, and she knew exactly what she had done and explained the methodology and the charts and the data,” Boundy says.
As a result, both states settled, and the children in question “received significantly better education, and it helped to address the behavior they were incarcerated for,” Boundy says.
After graduating from Harvard with her master’s in 1989, and despite an opportunity to work for the state of Massachusetts on educational matters, the idea of staying in the teaching field just didn’t have the same zest anymore for Huston. She’d caught the law bug.
But she still didn’t know where the law would take her.
“I didn’t intend to specialize in any particular area,” she says, “[but] I knew that I wanted to do litigation.”
Fresh out of Boston University School of Law in 1992, she took a job at Hutchins & Wheeler, mainly handling commercial litigation and a small amount of intellectual property work. After about three years there, she moved to Bromberg & Sunstein, which was then a boutique firm of about 12 attorneys. She stayed there for 15 years, becoming a partner. Along the way, she developed her expertise in IP law––mostly trademark litigation with a healthy dose of patent and copyright cases.
“It was challenging and fun, and there were many cases along the way that made me feel I was on the right track,” she says.
She found that many of the skills she’d developed as an educator came in handy in her new profession.
“It’s important to connect with the jury and be a real person. I tend to make my presentations very simple and relate it to things that the jurors can understand from their own lives,” she says. “I think about how people learn, how people understand information and make decisions. I think sometimes I feel in a courtroom like I’m teaching a jury or a judge, and that is a very natural role for me.”
She put those skills to good use in the record-breaking Brook Mays case, filed in 2003 and decided in 2006.
Huston’s client was First Act, a Massachusetts company that sells band instruments to schools around the country. The company, still new, had devised a way to provide students with high-quality, U.S.-designed musical instruments at a lower price by basing its production in China while keeping its own staff of 25 to 50 there for quality control and training. It was catching on, selling its trumpets and clarinets to major retailers like Walmart and Sam’s Club.
That’s when a rival, Texas-based Brook Mays, circulated an e-mail to 8,000 school band leaders and music teachers. In the e-mail, the president of Brook Mays, Bill Everitt, disparaged the First Act products, among other companies’, as “instrument-shaped objects,” not real musical instruments. He did so despite the fact that he hadn’t even seen or played the First Act products himself.
The e-mails were circulated and reprinted. Many students returned their instruments to First Act because band leaders and music teachers were claiming they were unacceptable.
The case went to federal court. Huston knew that the key to winning was proving that the First Act instruments, though inexpensive, were not inferior. She reached back to her alma mater and enlisted the director of bands projects at Boston University, Chris Parks, as an expert witness.
“[Everitt] stated that he believed the instruments were of low quality, and that he was assuming that was the case … because First Act instruments were sold in discount stores and made in China,” she says. “Chris Parks purchased some instruments at a discount store––they were not selected for him––he put them in the BU Marching Band as the lead instruments and saw how they performed over a whole semester, and they performed great.”
But Huston didn’t stop there. She had Parks play “Misty” for the jury on a First Act instrument. They were enthralled.
The opposing legal team, on the other hand, called to the stand a concert flutist, who testified that he didn’t think the First Act flute was of good quality. Huston asked him how much the flute he normally plays cost.
“Fifty thousand dollars,” he answered.
The jury awarded First Act $20.7 million.
“It was the biggest [judgment] that I’ve had. It was the biggest verdict in the musical-instrument industry, we were informed. And it was the biggest false-advertising verdict of any kind of that year,” Huston says.
But she hasn’t left her nonprofit background behind. She’s the legal counsel for the Old North Church, a national landmark that’s the oldest standing church in Boston––a popular tourist attraction and an active place of worship. She constantly has to be on the lookout for infringements of its many trademarks by souvenir hawkers and those looking to score political points by associating themselves with an institution that calls itself the birthplace of the American Revolution. Huston, a former congregant, volunteered to take on the church’s legal caseload, involving 20 individual trademarks, pro bono.
“She’s done yeoman’s work for us,” says Edmund Pignone, the executive director of the Old North Foundation. “If you’re dealing with the hordes of film crews eager to film inside the Old North Church, you have to be very careful because this is a sacred space, not just from a spiritual perspective but from a patriotic perspective.”
Huston has also testified in the state Legislature, as president of the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, against a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in 2007, and has taken on the role of president of Greater Boston Legal Services, a nonprofit group that needs a strong hand at the wheel as it deals with the potentially crippling impact of the financial crisis.
In 2009, Huston moved to Foley Hoag, where she’s litigating cases like the trademark infringement lawsuit Bear Republic Brewing Co. v. Central City Brewing Co., and is heading up the firm’s trademark, copyright and unfair competition practice group.
“This move was very energizing––it was the right move at the right time,” she says. “And we launched a blog!”
And, as always, she sees the potential cases before her as a series of teachable moments, and the courtroom as her classroom.
“I get to work with clients in a variety of industries … and the products are constantly changing,” she says. “It really keeps it fresh.”