At Arnold & Itkin in Houston, friendship is the main ingredient for success
Published in 2013 Texas Rising Stars Magazine on April 2, 2013
Kurt Arnold and Jason Itkin say they are 95 percent alike. They attended the University of Texas and UT School of Law at the same time; practiced business law together at Susman Godfrey; then formed their own Houston firm, Arnold & Itkin, in 2004.
That other 5 percent, according to Itkin, 36, “is where we come up with our most creative ideas.”
The firm, which specializes in personal injury and commercial cases, now comprises 10 lawyers and a staff of 30. Arnold & Itkin has fought cases in more than 20 states, including such high-profile battles as its representation of crew members in the Deepwater Horizon explosion. And in 2011, the firm won clients some $250 million in verdicts and settlements.
“I guess you could say I’m more of the taskmaster and Jason’s the mad scientist,” says Arnold, 33. “He’s more outside the box.”
Arnold, who grew up in and around Houston, and Nebraska native Itkin barely knew each other as undergraduates, but became better acquainted during law school. Arnold earned his bachelor’s degree in government, with high honors, at 19. He worked for the governor of Texas, interned at the Texas Supreme Court and clerked for a federal judge in the Southern District of Texas. Itkin earned his bachelor’s with special honors, and at law school won the Dean’s Achievement Award in Professional Responsibility. At Susman Godfrey, their apartments were in the same building and they walked to and from work together.
“We started talking about [forming] our own firm,” Arnold recalls. “We were young and dumb, really, but neither of us had a family yet; we were lean and hungry and we worked hard.” They went to Office Depot together to buy a speakerphone, setting up shop with one assistant in a space of less than 1,500 square feet. In one of their first cases, they won a $38.2 million verdict—more than they’d sought—for a Houston investor after convincing jurors he’d been secretly cut out of a deal to acquire a Hawaiian lumber company.
“I’ll always remember that one,” Arnold says. “We were so young, the venue [Hawaii] was so far from home, there were 30 depositions, the trial lasted five weeks.”
Today, their workload includes catastrophic and personal injury cases, maritime and industrial accidents, defective medicines, land contamination and transportation accidents. The firm also handles business disputes involving fraud and breach of contract or fiduciary duties.
In the Deepwater case, Arnold & Itkin represented 27 crew members of the oil rig that exploded in 2010, killing 11 and causing the BP oil spill. “These were great guys—mostly small-town guys who didn’t know where to turn, and we especially liked being able to help them,” Arnold says. The plaintiffs received confidential, individual settlements.
In another memorable case that stands out in Itkin’s mind, a mentally disabled girl who did odd jobs at a retail store was taken to and from work by a taxi company contracted for that purpose. Itkin says she was locked in a portable toilet and sexually assaulted by her driver, who had a previous criminal record but had not been background-checked by the company. In addition to damages awarded in 2008, the case prompted the taxi company to do background checks on employees and install video cameras in their vehicles. “That’s the kind of results nobody hears about but it makes you especially happy as a lawyer,” Itkin says.
And in 2010, a Louisiana mother who was seven months pregnant was being rushed to the hospital when her ambulance driver crashed into the rear of a truck. Arnold and Itkin told jurors the driver had a history of dangerous driving and poor vision, had been on probation with the company a number of times before the accident and had reached down to pick up something he’d dropped. The woman suffered a severed spine, paralysis in three limbs and severe brain injuries. Her daughter was delivered prematurely. Arnold says her $117 million award broke Louisiana’s personal injury record.
Arnold and Itkin believe their friendship figures into their success. “Juries watch how you interact, and they like that,” says Arnold.
Both men are now married, but they still make time for regular basketball games.
Says Itkin: “Some of our best ideas come from marathon games of one-on-one. Neither of us is very good, so it’s pretty rough basketball, lots of fouling, and during those breaks I’ll say to him, ‘I’ve been thinking … ’”