After two weeks in trial in St. Louis, Wayne Drinkwater has returned victorious to his Jackson, Miss., office. He was representing a respiratory equipment manufacturer in a suit brought by a terminally ill man claiming the company’s products were defective. “I’m happy to report that we got a defense verdict for the company,” says Drinkwater, who is careful not to mention specific cases when discussing his clients. “My client was very concerned that if they lost this case, there might be many more, since two of the products involved in the case had never gone to trial.”
As a partner with Bradley Arant Rose & White, Drinkwater represents heavyweight clients—household names like Microsoft, 3M and Progressive Insurance—in million-dollar cases. “We represent national companies who are sued in Mississippi and other Southern states,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just one individual suing over a product, and other times I represent a client against thousands of claims. The cases are usually big and complicated and they involve large numbers of people.”
A Mississippi native, Drinkwater grew up in the heart of the South during the civil rights movement. He graduated from Ole Miss in 1971 and entered law school at the University of Virginia, but his schooling was interrupted by a stint serving in the Army. After finishing active duty with the ROTC, Drinkwater married his high school sweetheart, Ouida, and transferred to the Ole Miss School of Law.
As Drinkwater considers why he went into the legal profession in the first place, his slightly accented Southern voice goes soft. “This was 1971, and everyone in the world was going to law school at the time, partly due to the civil rights revolution in the 1960s,” he says. “I thought the law should be used to improve society.”
At first, he didn’t know if a career in law was right for him. “I’d like to tell you that I grew up watching To Kill a Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, but the truth is I didn’t know I wanted to be a lawyer until I got into school,” Drinkwater says. “I found that I enjoyed the play of ideas, and ultimately the litigation process.”
After clerking for Judge William Keady, whom he calls “the best trial judge in Mississippi history,” Drinkwater moved to Washington, D.C., to clerk for Chief Justice Warren Burger at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, thanks to Keady’s recommendation. “That was the most exciting year I’ve ever had—not just meeting the justices, but becoming friends with the other law clerks. Many of them, like Ken Starr, have become very well-respected in our profession, and I’ve enjoyed maintaining those friendships over the years.”
Settling in the nation’s capital after the clerkship was tempting, but the lure of home was too strong. “Ouida and I thought long and hard about staying in Washington. But ultimately I am a Mississippian,” Drinkwater says. “I had a hokey thought that if I came back to Mississippi, I could help a bit. So many people grow up here and leave. That’s always been a problem in our state, because the economic opportunities elsewhere are much better.”
In the 30 years he’s been home, Drinkwater has managed to help more than just a bit. Though he spends the bulk of his working hours representing large companies in civil defense cases, he’s had many opportunities to assist individuals in need, as well.
One of Drinkwater’s most important cases changed Mississippi law and was the impetus for reform in other states as well. He represented Joe Hogan, who had applied to Mississippi University for Women’s nursing school but was denied admission because of his sex. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1982, which invalidated single-sex higher education. “My old boss, Chief Justice Burger, voted against us, which was predictable,” Drinkwater says. “The case was a lot of fun. Interestingly, my wife had gone to school at MUW, and while I was working on the case we’d get letters from them asking her to contribute to a defense fund for the university.”
In another case, this one in the late 1980s, Drinkwater represented the Mississippi Ethics Commission against state legislators. “At the time, there were a large number of public officials who had contracts with the state as schoolteachers or other state workers, and they were voting on their own salaries and authorizing their own contracts,” he recalls. “It was not a case of actual corruption, but one of the appearance of impropriety. The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed with us, and I think it had a good effect on the state. People shouldn’t be voting in their own self-interest.”
At the moment, Drinkwater is deep into a class action suit against the Mississippi Department of Human Services, representing several thousand abused and neglected children. He took on the case after a colleague in New York who was investigating the situation for a national organization called and asked if he’d be interested. “I looked into it and decided it was something we needed to address,” Drinkwater says. “Our claim is that the agency isn’t giving the kids adequate treatment or housing or foster care. What we’ve learned is that when the system takes a young kid and then doesn’t treat him right, he graduates from the foster system right into a penitentiary. We want these children to grow up to be productive members of society instead.”
After three years of litigation, the state finally threw in the towel and agreed not to contest the constitutional violations. “That was a major battle,” he says. “Now we’re going to try to fashion a remedy for the kids, which will involve the state contributing more money, more case workers, better treatment and better foster care.” All the work is pro bono, of course: “These kids don’t have any money.”
Over the years, Drinkwater has learned to choose his battles wisely. “When you’re young and you have 10 unknown facts, you think you have to learn the answers to all 10 of them. As you get older you learn that only two matter. An experienced lawyer learns to cut to the chase, to identify the critical issues and focus on those.”
This talent has been increasingly important, since most of his cases are immensely complicated, involving stacks of documents and scads of lawyers. “When I first started practicing, the most effective skill I had was rhetorical, to be able to stand up in court and just do it. As my cases have gotten more complicated, legal writing and analysis and organizational skills have become more important. Over the years I’ve had a steady reduction in the number of cases that actually go to trial, as a great number of them are settled or decided on the legal analysis.”
Still, he does love a good trial—if not the prep work. “If you asked a professional football player if he loved training camp, he’d probably say he would rather just play the game,” Drinkwater says. “I love being in trial, but the preparation is something less than great. You just have to do it in order to enjoy the experience.”
By the time he’s in trial, he’s emotionally invested in the case. “I’d like to feel as if I’ve maintained objectivity, but by the time I get to trial I’m almost completely committed emotionally to the positions I’ve taken. I can’t imagine being able to persuade you of something if you don’t believe that I believe it,” Drinkwater says. “That’s simplistic, but I do believe it.”
Though he just bought a vacation condo in Oxford, the 58-year-old Drinkwater has no plans to call it quits just yet. “Ouida would be very concerned if I decided to retire and stay home all the time,” he says with a laugh. “At some point I’ll slow down, but I’d like to practice law as long as I’m physically and mentally capable.” In his spare time, he travels and does “a fair amount of slaving away for our bishop” as the vice chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi.
Drinkwater credits the era in which he grew up for his strong sense of obligation to help the less fortunate. “In the ’60s and ’70s, law school graduates wanted to do good,” he says. “Increasingly, kids come out of law school wanting to do well [financially], without the same kind of concern about public interest issues. I think that one of a lawyer’s obligations is not simply to do well, but to do good.”