Dallas litigator Victor Vital makes it his business to parachute into cases and stick the landing with juries
Published in 2020 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on October 19, 2020
Updated on October 26, 2020
On the second-to-last day of March, with much of the country scrambling to adapt to shelter-in-place orders issued in response to the spread of COVID-19, it’s business-almost-as-usual for Victor Vital.
He is dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and lightly patterned yellow silk tie as though heading off to court. Instead, he’s working from his home in De Soto, as he has for the previous three weeks, and as he will do for the foreseeable future. He sits at a desk in his spacious home office, the walls painted a pale sage green. His wife, Dee, is in another part of their two-story home, as is their 12-year-old daughter, who was being home-schooled even before it became an everyday part of the new normal across the country.
Some of Vital’s cases are on hold; others are being discussed and moved forward by phone. A court appearance in Hidalgo County scheduled for the following week will now be handled virtually, thanks to Zoom, which has become such an integral part of life that Vital is working on an article about how it can inspire legal reform.
“The virus has imposed upon us something that we should have been doing anyway,” says Vital, who practices high-stakes business litigation and white-collar criminal defense as a partner at Barnes & Thornburg in Dallas. “Virtual hearings, as they’re called, should be the rule rather than the exception.” He’s talking about the amount of time most attorneys spend in court, and the way that Zoom and similar communications technologies might be able to eliminate some—or even most—of those in-person interactions that require little to no evidence. “We go to court for many things that we really don’t need to go to court for,” he says. “Why am I burning fossil fuel to go to court when I can do [the work] via phone?”
But he also believes that even the most sophisticated technology can’t always replace human contact: “We will never lose the need to connect with people personally. The essence of being human sets us apart from technology.”
Vital, 50, is known for his relatability in the courtroom—with juries, judges, and even opposing counsel. “Victor is sincere, he’s personable. He’s really good in front of a jury,” says Judge Dale Tillery, who oversees the 134th Judicial District Court in Dallas County. “Victor doesn’t treat the jury as if they’re a tool for the lawyers. He really lets them feel like he’s entrusting them with these facts, and they’ll do whatever they collectively think is right.”
The judge should know. One of his favorite cases featured Vital—whose clients’ health care company was being sued for fraud—convincing a jury that the plaintiffs had also violated the law by secretly taping his clients without their knowledge. Vital refers to the 2016 trial, which he handled while at Greenberg Traurig, as the Spy Pen Case, after the ballpoint pen that doubled as a recording device.
Vital’s realization that his clients had been recorded without consent was an aha! moment. Prepping for trial, Vital repeatedly listened to the recordings—obtained during discovery—while driving. One day he realized that, at a particular point in the conversation, he was hearing only his clients. The plaintiffs had stepped out of the meeting to use the restroom. Unbeknownst to Vital’s clients, he says, they had left on the conference table a recording device that looked like an ordinary ballpoint pen. Texas law stipulates that only one party has to consent to being recorded. But when the persons with knowledge of the recording left the room, the legal recording became a wiretap.
The jurors agreed with Vital’s clients on their wiretapping allegation against the plaintiff, and while the jury found that Vital’s clients had committed fraud, it also found that the plaintiff had been aware of the fraud and proceeded with the transaction anyway—and thus that Vital’s clients were not liable.
It is this dedication to preparation, says Tillery, that makes Vital a successful trial attorney. “Victor took that case from a dead-bang loser on the contract to actually winning—only because of his preparation, which is second to none,” Tillery says.
Growing up, mostly in St. Louis, Vital knew no one in the legal field. His father worked for AT&T; his mother was a hospital nurse. After high school, Vital enrolled at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, a historically Black Seventh-day Adventist college. His goal was to become a preacher. He had grown up watching preachers “pound the podium,” which he admired. But in college he discovered what he liked best about being a minister. “It’s not that I don’t have a heart or empathy,” says Vital. “[But] I liked the oratory.”
A friend suggested he consider law school, where he could pursue that love of oratory in the courtroom. Vital threw himself into his studies at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Initially, he believed that his classmates who had lawyers in their families had an advantage. He gradually came to realize that a major part of becoming a good lawyer involves process and preparation. “It’s not something you’re born with; it’s something you learn,” he says. “It’s a way of seeing the world. So when you see a banana on the floor of Target, you say, ‘That’s just a banana.’ When I see it, I say, ‘I see a potential premises-liability case.’
“I learned all the rules for the various types of actual situations where I would have to apply the law,” he continues. “I knew that you took a rule and you applied it to a fact pattern and you reached a conclusion. Then I just skipped my classes and waited for the final exam.”
Instead of attending classes, he started showing up at the Harris County courthouse in downtown Houston to watch attorneys try civil and criminal cases. He learned about situations like negligence and premises liability, and he watched how a variety of attorneys presented the facts and tried their cases.
It worked; he graduated second in his class.
As a young attorney, Vital benefited from the guidance of several mentors, including the late George Bramblett, who handled high-stakes litigation in a variety of areas. He says he also had “mentors from afar,” starting in those law school days at the courthouse. He learned about the power of swagger and confidence, for example, by watching the late Joe Jamail choose a jury. He even adopted Jamail’s “Houston chic” style of wearing cowboy boots with a suit, buying his own pair of Lucchese boots that mysteriously disappeared when he and his wife moved to Dallas after he switched firms. Years later, he discovered that she had quietly removed the cowboy boots from their box before it was loaded onto the moving van. “I think she thought that look was country,” says Vital, who these days favors loafers and wing tips.
About 10 years ago, Vital realized that, while he loved standing in front of juries and making arguments, he did not like taking depositions and wasn’t fond of sending out interrogatories. He decided to work toward what he calls a “parachute” practice, in which other firms would call on him to jump into a case just before it went to trial. “I developed my brand around that idea, and it just started to materialize,” says Vital, who estimates that his work from outside firms makes up 60% to 70% of his caseload.
He researched other attorneys who had built similar practices, then attended their jury trials and watched them on YouTube. “I essentially Google-stalked a bunch of folks that I thought were true trial lawyers and figured out what they did to develop that brand,” he says. Gunslingers he learned from included Ted Wells at Paul, Weiss; Rusty Hardin in Houston; and Bill Dawson at Gibson Dunn. “I studied their bios. I studied their cases. I studied what they said and what they wrote. I’d go to trials and watch them try cases when they didn’t know I was watching,” he says.
One of Vital’s most high-profile “parachute” cases involved a dispute over profits from VideoGames, a popular YouTube channel. Vital represented plaintiffs David Tyler Moss and Brandon Keating, who leveled allegations including fraud, conspiracy and breach of contract against the creators of the channel. Acting as co-lead counsel, Vital came onto the case two months before it went to trial in 2016 and secured a nearly $34 million jury verdict. The case also set something of a precedent as a business dispute involving a YouTube channel. Three years later, the verdict was upheld on appeal.
Fellow Barnes & Thornburg partner Billy Martin, who practices out of the firm’s D.C. office, didn’t know he was one of Vital’s role models until after Martin joined the firm in 2018. The D.C. attorney is also known for his ability to connect with juries, particularly in high-stakes cases involving well-known clients like former NFL quarterback Michael Vick. Martin recognizes a similar relatability in Vital. “Victor is very engaging, and he listens. He’s able to determine who’s listening in his case and how to reach those whom he may have not gotten to listen. Victor gets you to pause for a minute and hear his version of the story. That’s a skill.”
When Vital stands in front of juries today, two decades into his career, he draws on something he learned while trying his very first case on a third-year provisional bar card. The defendant was accused of evading arrest. The weeklong trial, in which Vital secured a conviction, coincided with his first week in the Harris County district attorney’s office, where he worked for three years. “This was a projection, I suppose, of where I’d be in the future when people would just throw me files and I would go to trial,” says Vital.
He confided to the jury at the start that he was nervous because it was his first time trying a case. “They just melted,” he says. “And I realized, this is how you relate to people: by telling the truth and being authentic.”
A bracelet of black prayer beads peeks out from the white cuff of Vital’s starched shirt. He says his spirituality has evolved over the years, but that his work today isn’t that different from the subject he pursued as an undergraduate. In the courtroom, he says, “My spiritual reference is the law, and I use the law and the facts to advocate my point of view,” Vital says. “Now, I stand in front of juries and preach to them.”
The Three ‘Be’s’ of Mentorship
Victor Vital was in his 20s before he met an attorney, so finding mentors was crucial to his development. At one point, after changing law firms, he found himself between role models. “I walked in the wilderness of no mentorship for quite a while,” he says. Then he remembered the mentors-from-afar strategy that helped him get through law school. He used that to continue advancing his career, and also started reaching out to help others. When Vital put the word out among his colleagues that he was open to being a mentor, his phone started ringing and emails filled his inbox. Some just want one-time advice about trial prep. Others need an ongoing mentor. Here’s what he’s learned so far.
- Be grateful: “Gratitude is the fuel for mentorship. You have knowledge, skills, talents and wisdom to share.”
- Be humble: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
- Be open: “You just might learn—or be blessed—as much as your mentee.”