Just Plain Fun

Christy Jones never wanted to be anything but a lawyer

Published in 2009 Mid-South Super Lawyers — December 2009

Have you heard the one about how many lawyers it takes to screw in a light bulb? Christy Jones has.

“Despite all of the bad jokes about lawyers, I really believe that the legal profession contributes significantly to society,” says Jones, the chair of Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens and Cannada’s pharmaceutical, medical device and health care industry group. “Lawyers are our leaders, and whether this sounds idealistic or not, I truly believe that what I am doing contributes to the well-being of this country and the people that live here.”

A fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, Jones has been called one of the best product defense lawyers in the world, earning her stripes representing Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Baxter, and GlaxoSmithKline.

But to Jones, a prestigious résumé with its accompanying salary does not a good trial lawyer make. “I don’t think I’ve ever known a really good trial lawyer who was in it for the money,” she says. “Something else separates excellence from mediocrity: passion, talent and the ability to inspire the confidence of your clients.”

Jones has come a long way from her high school glee club in Holly Springs, a small town in northern Mississippi. Her voice is low, Southern and rich, but she was no singer, so the choral director insisted she emcee. As a bonus, she got to write the club’s programs. “The first one I did was a patriotic Thanksgiving program, and I absolutely loved writing and standing up and speaking and telling the story,” she recalls. “From that day forward I never sang again, and I suppose if there was a single event that prompted me to go to law school, that was it.”

Upon graduation from the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1977, Jones didn’t intend to move back to Mississippi. She had job offers in other states, but they were primarily in the corporate field, and Jones had already made up her mind to go into trial law. “At the time, there were very few women in trial practice. Law firms were concerned about a woman effectively representing their clients in the courtroom,” she says. At her interview with Butler Snow in Jackson, Jones told Larry Franck, who later became her mentor, that she wanted to try lawsuits. “If you want to try lawsuits, you can try lawsuits,” he replied. The deal was sealed.

Jones’ first case was a real trial by fire. “I was scared to death!” she says. The case was supposed to be a hearing involving $6,000, but it turned into a jury trial at the other lawyer’s request. “So rather than an insignificant hearing, I suddenly had a jury trial on my hands and I’d never selected a jury before.” Thanks in part to an all-night preparation session, Jones emerged victorious.

In another early trial, Jones represented a skating rink. “They were always getting sued when someone broke a leg,” she says. Another Butler Snow attorney came along to offer support, and she jokes that she was bruised for months afterwards because he kept elbowing her in the ribs as a signal that she should get up and object. “The skating rink is long gone, but my breakfast room table is made from a piece of that skating rink floor. It reminds me from whence I came.”

These days, Jones specializes in products liability often handling cases in the medical field, representing mostly pharmaceutical and medical device clients. “Although I said there were barriers to women trying cases early in my career, I [sometimes] benefited immensely from being a woman,” she says. In the late 1970s Butler Snow took on two mass tort cases dealing with medical devices and drugs given to women. One was the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), given to women in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s to prevent miscarriage. By the 1970s, research showed those women’s daughters were more susceptible to vaginal cancer because of DES. Jones soon became integral to the firm’s efforts: “I began taking depositions from the women that were involved, and sometimes we had to go into very personal issues involving their sexual activities and that kind of thing. Having me as a woman take the depositions was easier on the plaintiffs.”

Jones started getting calls to work on other types of contraceptive cases, and her practice grew from there. After Merck lost a significant trial involving the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx in Texas, it received an onslaught of bad publicity. “Pundits were predicting the demise of Merck,” Jones recalls. So the company brought her in for a subsequent trial in New Jersey. “We were able to obtain a defense verdict that was ultimately the first of several. The decision had a significant beneficial impact on the company and its good employees, and was a significant contributor to the favorable resolution of later cases.”

Jones has heard the criticisms leveled at those who represent pharmaceutical giants, but she doesn’t buy them. “Three things are important here,” she says. “First, our judicial system is fair to our democracy. Its long-term success depends on it being a fair place for dispute resolution for all parties, whether they’re individuals or corporations. Second, it’s easy to attack a big corporation and forget that it’s made up of doctors and scientists and people like you and me who are dedicated to making our lives better. And third, it’s important that these companies have effective representation to ensure that they’re able to continue conducting the research and product development that contributes to the public health of this country.”

Jones is clearly passionate and driven, but she also hopes her colleagues, opposition and the courts view her as professional, fair and easy to work with. “I might be demanding with my partners and younger lawyers, but I’m a nice person,” she says.

To Jones, going to trial is as good as it gets, but her travel schedule can be brutal. “I’m gone at least 50 percent of the time,” she says. “I love to travel for personal pleasure, and I like to travel for work because of the opportunities it provides in the practice of law, but in terms of dealing with flight delays and airport security, it’s an abysmal life.”

When she’s not on the road, Jones is a cyclist and an avid cook who has written a family cookbook. For extended vacations, she travels to Third World countries in Asia for a mix of volunteer work and outdoor activities like white-water rafting. She plans to practice law for many years to come, but in the distant future would like to spend more time in Asia doing volunteer work.

Like many lawyers of her generation, Jones grew up watching the Perry Mason television series. “I’m still aspiring to be as good as he was,” she says. She believes young people considering the legal profession should do two things: spend time in a courtroom watching the proceedings, and really examine their motivations.

“People shouldn’t go into the law because they see it as a job. It’s a service profession, and to do it right requires lots and lots of hard work, constant preparation, the ability to write well, constant revision, creativity, and the courage to stand up and represent the interest of a client that may be unpopular,” Jones says. “Not only are lawyers important to our democracy, but it’s just fun to think about how to present a case, how to simplify something, how to deal with the emotional challenges of a particularly difficult case, how to convince the judge that the law ought to be changed. It’s just fun.”

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