An Organized Mind
Montana attorney Bill Jones knows the facts—and big-fish clients know Bill Jones
Published in 2009 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine on June 22, 2009
In the March 11, 1954, issue of the Montana Kaimin, a spitfire young editor named Bill Jones delivers a concise-but-blistering indictment of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s attempts to criminalize Communist Party membership. The piece is on page two of the decades-old University of Montana paper, tucked among sports scores, cigarette ads and articles about the Sadie Hawkins dance. A prominent headline asks, “Is Outlawing the Cure?” and below it Jones offers his rebuke: “It is indeed unfortunate that a Senator has used such poor discretion in determining which means justify an admirable end.”
William Evan Jones has been a civic leader in Western Montana since Burma-Shave was big, the days when he penned editorials from the front porch of his frat house. And while his name still appears among the letters to the editor in the Missoulian, Missoula’s daily paper, these days it carries more weight.
This summer, Jones celebrates 50 years as a trial lawyer at Missoula’s Garlington, Lohn & Robinson, during which he’s tried a whopping 131 cases voir dire through verdict. He’s defended the state of Montana in scores of major death cases, and he routinely serves as local counsel in products liability and major negligence cases for high-profile clients like General Motors, Glock and Bristol-Meyers Squibb. Travel and collaboration are among his passions, and while this partly explains his fondness for working with national counsel, Jones is also motivated by a devotion to fact that stems from his nascent career as a newspaperman. “I’ve found this: You’d think a jury naturally would gravitate to help ‘the little guy,'” he says with conviction. “It’s not true; they listen to what the facts are.”
His firm occupies a simple two-story building, and Jones is content to leave the high-rise office suites to the urbanites. “In terms of quality of life, Montana has Manhattan and Washington beat all to heck,” says the 76-year-old. His Montana roots run deep. Jones grew up in the state’s eastern hinterlands, helping his dad run a 300-head cattle ranch before heading west to study journalism at the University of Montana in 1950. His column on McCarthyism landed him an internship at Newsweek in New York, where he monitored the wires in the newsroom. But it wasn’t long before a comment from a stranger turned his attention back to his alma mater.
“I was living in a fraternity house next to the Columbia campus,” Jones remembers. “A law student stopped by and was looking at my desk. Everything was in order, and he said, ‘You should be a lawyer—you’ve got a very organized mind.'”
The comment bounced around Jones’ head during a post-internship stint as an officer in the Air Force’s public information department, and in 1956 he returned to the University of Montana for law school. Admission was easier in those days—it was graduating that was tough: Jones’ 108-member class was whittled down to 16 graduates. Garlington recruited him shortly thereafter, and though five decades of representing national clients has sent him around the country more times than he can count, he’s lived in Missoula ever since. He raised three kids there—including one lawyer—all of whom have left and then resettled back in the mountain city.
“People come here to serve as expert witnesses and they just sit in the office and look out at the mountains, look at our style of life,” Jones says. “It’s a vibrant community—kind of the San Francisco of Montana.”
He speaks with the quiet, measured tone of a patient physician, and in the courtroom, he has a reputation for not wasting words that’s characteristic of his journalist’s training.
“Bill will get up in front of a jury and say, ‘For the next 20 minutes I will …,'” says Peter Stokstad, one of Jones’ Garlington partners who has served as the veteran attorney’s second chair. “I’ve looked at my watch, and he has always finished in exactly the time he told the jury he would take.”
The power of brevity hit home for Jones when he helped defend the Montana Power Company against a negligence claim in 1980. A wildfire had scorched 1,200 acres outside of Missoula three years prior, and property owners argued that sparks from improperly installed power lines were to blame. The trial stretched on for two months, and, out of respect for exhausted jurors, Jones delivered a succinct closing argument. The judge later confided that he saw the concise speech as a turning point. “It gave me the idea,” says Jones, “that even though a closing argument is short, if it appeals to tired jurors, then it’s the most meaningful thing.”
“Bill doesn’t engage in needless argument,” says Bill Gianoulias, chief defense counsel for Montana’s Risk Management & Tort Defense Division, who has hired Jones to defend the state on countless occasions. “He understands what motivates people, what drives them. A big part of that is knowing which words to use and which to cut out-and Bill cuts out most of them.”
Jones has defended a number of headline-making clients. He worked on behalf of Brown & Williamson (now R.J. Reynolds) during one of Montana’s earliest instances of Big Tobacco litigation in the late 1980s, a case the plaintiff dismissed after nearly three years of discovery. Around the turn of the century, Jones took major depositions in dozens of suits against fen-phen manufacturer American Home Products, depositions that helped lead to settlements he characterizes as “reasonable for both sides.” Jones’ legal philosophy is a natural fit for such cases, eschewing spin and rhetorical bombast in favor of a just-the-facts-ma’am approach and a dogged commitment to research. “If you’ve got the facts,” Jones explains, “then you’re probably going to win. Just like a journalist, you are a conduit of information.”
After a half-century of practicing law, Jones cites defense attorneys’ increasing eagerness to settle as the biggest change he’s seen, and he’s not too shy to express a little disappointment. Jones prefers to see his cases through to jury.
“As soft-spoken and understated as Bill comes across,” says Stokstad, “he loves to try cases and be in that public setting. I’ve been to several settlement conferences with Bill where, when the case finally settled, he’d just look at me and say, ‘Darn.'”
Jones says he’s “essentially a competitive person,” a trait that clearly hasn’t diminished with age. He seems to consider retirement about as often as he did while pounding out editorials for the campus paper, and his office is ringed with museum-quality display cases dedicated to various forms of competition. One exhibit shows off artifacts from the Jack Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons prizefight that dominated Montana headlines in 1923. Another displays yellowing ticket stubs and box scores tied to World War I-era pitching great Walter Johnson, the former Washington Senator who was Jones’ father’s favorite baseball player. Jones himself is a Yankees man and another case contains rows of that team’s gleaming World Series pins. When Jones gestures at it, he shrugs. “I like to associate with a winner.”