From Linebacker to Lawyer

John M. Husband took Woody Hayes' football lessons to the courtroom

Published in 2009 Colorado Super Lawyers — April 2009

In his 30-year career, John M. Husband, a labor and employment lawyer with Holland & Hart, has represented Fortune 500 companies, tried hundreds of cases in 21 states and faced some of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals' toughest judges. Many would balk at the pressure but not Husband. After all, he played football for Woody Hayes.

Husband grew up in Elyria, Ohio, an industrial town along the Black River, less than 30 miles from Cleveland. He was an All-American running back in high school, where he scrimmaged alongside Les Miles, the current head coach at Louisiana State University; then he donned the scarlet-and-gray Ohio State Buckeyes uniform, switched to linebacker, guard and tight end, and played for coach Hayes.

A lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II, Hayes was a strict disciplinarian. "His whole thing was hard work, discipline and preparation," Husband remembers.

Hayes put his players through their paces in the bitter Rust Belt elements: from the suffocating humidity of summer to the biting cold of winter. "It taught me discipline and hard work," Husband says. "It's influenced everything I've ever done." He adds: "Woody always used to say, ‘When preparation meets opportunity good things happen,' and there's a lot of truth to that. It applies to law all of the time."

It certainly applied to football. During Hayes' 28-year tenure, the Buckeyes won 13 Big Ten conference titles and three national championships. Husband played on three Big Ten championship teams, earning a berth in the Rose Bowl each of those years and winning it once. His teammates included future NFL stars Archie Griffin, Jack Tatum and Randy Gradishar.

Husband traveled a different road. The Chicago Fire of the upstart World Football League asked him to tryout for the team, but, he says, "Back in those days you really didn't think about going pro. You looked forward to the new challenges."

His involved law school at the University of Toledo, where he graduated first in his class. Then he worked briefly for Cleveland-based Jones Day.

Husband's preparation met opportunity in 1977 when, at the age of 25, he received a one-year clerkship in Denver with Judge Robert H. McWilliams of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The clerkship was a very significant opportunity for me," Husband says. "Judge McWilliams is the finest gentleman I have ever met."

He describes McWilliams as a careful decision maker, and one who cared about the careers of his clerks. He often took Husband to lunches at Denver's University Club, where he could meet other judges.

"He took a personal interest in making you feel welcome in the Denver legal community," Husband says.

Husband and his wife, Jan, may have come to Denver for the clerkship but they stayed for the lifestyle. Denver was a growing city, and they relished that energy, and the friendliness and active, outdoors-oriented lifestyle of its citizens. "We knew we weren't going back to Ohio," he says.

In 1978, Husband accepted a position at Holland & Hart, where he started as an associate attorney specializing in labor and employment law.

 

Football is the Rust Belt's undisputed pastime, but labor issues are its passion. The heavily industrial region lives and dies on the strength of labor relations, especially since the 1970s, when manufacturing jobs started to decline. And just as the industrial communities of Husband's youth have their team allegiances, they have their union and management loyalties as well. Husband has had the unique experience of playing for both sides.

In college, he worked on the assembly lines in area factories, and in his career he's negotiated contracts for employers dealing with truck drivers, nurses, pilots, grocery clerks, assembly line employees and steel workers. In law school, he worked as a law clerk and bail bondsman for the Teamsters Union, where he was, he says, "exposed to labor and employment law from a union perspective." His experiences help immensely now that he represents management in his practice. "I can appreciate both sides of the argument," he says. "Typically, there are two sides to a story."

At Holland & Hart, Husband has been involved in nationwide class action cases involving Texaco and United Parcel Services; he successfully prevented class certification in each case. He also argued the leading decision on at-will employment before the Colorado Supreme Court for Continental Airlines.

Recently, Husband represented Denver's Exempla Lutheran Medical Center in an unfair labor practice case. About seven years ago, several employees filed charges against the hospital, and, though the hospital insists the charges were unfounded, the case was settled out of court. Then in December 2006, a former employee (who was part of the original lawsuit), the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the National Labor Relations Board brought charges of unfair labor practices against the hospital. Although the previous charges dealt with unrelated issues, it was argued that the previous settlement was an admission of guilt and demonstrated the hospital's anti-union motivation. By May 2007, Husband won the case, taking on the four opposing attorneys and their clients and arguing that the hospital took its actions for legitimate reasons.

"My first impression of John was his professional demeanor and his ability to make people feel comfortable with him, secure in the fact that he was going to be able to help," says Scott Day, the vice president of human resources at Exempla Lutheran Medical Center. "He's able to walk in the shoes of people who have never been involved in a court case."

He adds: "John is probably one of the most meticulous attorneys. He must turn things over and over and over in his mind until he understands the case from all perspectives."

In the best-case scenario, Husband helps clients avoid lawsuits altogether by helping them create better policies and procedures. He estimates that in the past two decades he has trained more than 30,000 company supervisors and managers on their obligations in the workplace. In particular, he has worked in the area of discrimination law, including age discrimination. The age law forbids companies from discriminating against employees over the age of 40.

"There are a lot of employees that are in that age group now," Husband says. "I expect that will be an area of law that will continue to grow as more people get into that protected age category.

"It comes up a lot when employers are reorganizing or laying people off," he adds. "Employers have to be careful and make sure they have objective rather than subjective criteria."

Husband has written extensively on this and other topics for The Colorado Lawyer magazine, where he has served as the editor and sometime-writer of its labor and employment column for two decades. He is also the editor of the Colorado Employment Law Letter, a monthly subscription-based newsletter that keeps employers apprised of local laws and policies and updates on recent court rulings.

Some of his favorite articles concern double-breasting in the construction industry (in which a company uses nonunion shops to do the same work contracted in its union shops) and a historical piece about the Ludlow Massacre, "The Colorado Coal Wars of 1913 and 1914: Some Issues Still Debated Today," which ran in The Colorado Lawyer more than a decade ago.

"It was about how things in the past still had influence today and how things had either changed or hadn't changed," Husband says. "I've had people tell me they kept that article because they enjoyed the historical perspective."

In 2007, Husband was elected to chair Holland & Hart's five-person management committee, the firm's highest elected position, which he assumed in January and will hold for three years.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge of helping the firm grow in the future," Husband says.

 

Approaching 57, Husband is long past his days of gridiron glory, but for a number of years he served as the commissioner in a local lawyers' football league. And as a competitor, playing wideout and middle defense, he led Holland & Hart's team to three league championships.

"We were a defensive team," he says. "I always told our offense if they scored one touchdown we'd win."

The competition was actually quite stiff, Husband says. The teams featured a number of lawyers who, like Husband, had played college ball, including players from the nearby Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and Kurt Horton, who played quarterback at Notre Dame.

These days, Husband likes to hike, ski, play tennis, golf and ride his bicycle. The latter is often a family affair and includes his daughter, Heather, 28, and son, John Ross, 26. When Heather graduated from college, the entire family biked across Scotland to commemorate the occasion. The cross-country trek took a week to complete but it wasn't the distance that was daunting. "The hardest part was getting through some of the weather," Husband says with a chuckle.

Through the firm, Husband has been actively involved with the Leadership Denver Association, Volunteers of America and Meals on Wheels. For 25 years he has also worked pro bono for the Colorado Safety Association, a private nonprofit that specializes in occupational safety and health issues, which offers programs like CPR training, defensive driving and accident prevention to companies and individuals in Colorado.

"He's served on our board of directors and has handled all of our legal work," says Melodye Turek, the organization's president. "He is so versatile. I don't know anybody who knows so much about so many different things. He is the guy that you want on your side."

Husband returns the compliment. "Working with my clients has been the greatest satisfaction I've had," he explains. For an Ohio boy who played in the Rose Bowl under Woody Hayes, that says it all.

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