Future Lawyer of America

Jessica Palvino has come a long way from walking her cows every morning to walking the halls of the courthouse.

Published in 2016 Texas Rising Stars — April 2016

Q: Straight from college, you walked into the middle of a huge case at McGinnis Lochridge.

A: I did a summer clerkship here, then right out of school in June of 2005, I immediately started working [here] with Ray Chester, who at the time had just filed the first or second Ortho Evra [contraceptive] case in the nation.

My very first hearing that I ever got to argue at was a motion to compel hearing on the Ortho Evra cases—sick with the flu, by the way. I was not going to miss that opportunity for anything. Ray obviously took the lead on it, but he has always given me opportunities to get out in front and do things, and have opportunities like that. We won that motion to compel.

 

Q: And what was the outcome?

A: We settled all of those cases after deposition. None of them went to trial. Those cases are always going to hold a special place for me.

 

Q: After that you decided to stick with personal injury law?

A: McGinnis is interesting, because you get an opportunity to do a little bit of everything. So I’ve done other things along the way. But the products liability stuff is just what I keep coming back to. Litigation, I knew that I wanted to do pretty much from the time I knew I wanted to go to law school. That’s why I chose Baylor, actually, because of their litigation program. Products liability, that happened a little bit by chance.

 

Q: Was your plan always to go to law school?

A: I think it was about my junior year [when] I realized that agriculture—ag business—was not going to be the path that was right for me. So I just started looking around at other options, and had a friend tell me they thought I would be a good lawyer. At the time I was taking a business law class. So that and my love for John Grisham—and working for an attorney there in College Station—were what ultimately propelled me into law school.

I was very driven once I decided that I wanted to go to law school. It just felt like a calling to me. My grades had not been the greatest, to be honest, the first two years of school. I realized, if I wanted to get into law school, I had to turn it around. I had a 3.9 or 4.0 for the last two years of college.

 

Q: Well, you impressed them at Baylor—you were on the law review and graduated with honors. But your original major was agribusiness. What led you to that path?

A: I was a country girl. I raised cattle. I showed horses and cows, and I was president of the Future Farmers of America. I mean, I was on the horse-judging team. So I was kind of the quintessential Texas girl growing up.

 

Q: What values did your parents instill?

A: I think any kid who grows up raising farm animals—you’re up at 5 o’clock, 5:30, before school so you can feed the animals. I used to take my cows on walks every day. There was kind of a joke around the neighborhood, because you’d look out and see Jessica walking down the street with her cows to get them out. You want to get them good muscle for the show. So I think [they instilled] the value of hard work.

My dad was a veterinarian, and my mom—she got her degree in animal science, but she started as a [school] bus driver, when my brother and I were young, to give her flexible hours. She eventually worked her way up to be the head of their transportation department, and then moved over to Houston ISD, where she was the head of Houston ISD’s transportation department.

 

Q: Did you ever think about becoming a veterinarian?

A: I briefly entertained the idea, and then I took my first chemistry class. I was not destined for the medical sciences.

 

Q: Has your background in agribusiness come in handy?

A: I have not had a case yet where I had to litigate anything about cows or livestock. I’ll certainly be prepared for that day. But the business part of it, I think, is helpful. That’s always something that is helpful, no matter what you’re doing.

 

Q: And you probably had to take some sciences?

A: That’s another thing that has definitely been useful. I really enjoy delving into the complex issues. Learning the ins and outs of the electronic voting machines. On our pharmaceutical cases, learning the ins and outs of the science of the product that we’re dealing with, and of the effects that it’s causing, that our clients are suffering from. I’ll spend hours researching medical literature on PubMed.

 

Q: After Ortho Evra, you had another set of mega-cases.

A: Botox. Our first trial was out in California in 2010. That was the Spears trial. About a six-week trial out in California. Our first trial, we actually lost, which was heartbreaking. We had another trial scheduled six weeks later, in Oklahoma, and we hadn’t done any depositions. So Ray and I, we literally split up. He was on one side of the country and I was on the other side, taking depositions. We wanted to get justice for our clients. We got it to trial six weeks later, and that was our first Botox verdict, which was the Helton verdict.

 

Q: A huge victory.

A: It was $15 million, which [in 2014] was affirmed on appeal.

Our most recent trial started in early November [2014]. That was the Drake trial—on behalf of a little boy who developed seizures after he got Botox injections.

 

Q: Why would a child have Botox injections?

A: Most commonly, it’s for spasticity associated with cerebral palsy. That’s what this boy had received it for.

 

Q: Are the Botox cases all wrapped up now?

A: Yes, the court agreed to our settlement and the case is now resolved. We don’t currently have any Botox matters pending.

 

Q: More recently, you represented Austin City Councilman Greg Casar.

A: The case was filed as an election contest, but it was more than an election contest. If the contestant [Laura Pressley] had won, it really would have had widespread implications for the electronic voting system that we use here in Travis County, and throughout our state. They were running for a brand-new seat. Basically, she argued that the machine did not comply with Texas statutory requirements governing electronic voting machines. We won that case on a summary judgment motion, which is currently up [on appeal].

I was the primary architect, I would say, of that summary judgment motion. The lead attorney on the case is an excellent lawyer, a man named Charles Herring, here in Austin. He argued most of the summary judgment hearing. I became the expert on the actual electronic voting machines. So I spoke to that at the summary judgment hearing. We did get an award of sanctions in that case, which is also up on appeal right now, against the contestant and her lawyer. I cross-examined the contestant at the sanctions hearing.

It’s probably the only hearing I’m ever going to participate in that was live-tweeted. It had its own hashtag, which was just hysterical. I found [that] out after the fact, when everyone knew the results of it before we got back to the office.

 

Q: What’s your favorite part of the job?

A: The most challenging and rewarding part of my job is going to trial. I love being in trial. We do a lot of it. Nowadays, I think, with the vanishing jury trial, young lawyers especially don’t get as many opportunities to be in trial. So I’ve been very thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to be in trial a lot. It may also be the hardest part of my job—being in trial—because, especially this last one in Vermont, I was away from my kids for a month. That’s really difficult. We did a lot of FaceTiming.

 

Q: You have twins, right?

A: They’re almost 5 now. I took off about a year and a half, two years, after my kids were born in 2011. My firm has really been incredible. When I took off for my extended maternity leave, they were very understanding. Then, when I was ready to come back, they welcomed me back with open arms. We work hard, and they know that I’m working hard after the kids go to bed. You have to find odd hours to work.

[In my practice goup], it’s basically just me and Ray, and then we have two associates. So we’re a pretty small team, which for young lawyers is great because it gives lots of opportunities for trial experience. It also forces you to be very versatile in your practice. It’s not unusual that one week we will all be out in a field in jeans, doing an accident-site inspection. The next day, I’m doing legal research. Then the next day I’m doing a deposition. It’s very, very fun. We’re always having to learn something different.

 

Q: How do you think women are faring in the legal industry?

A: Speaking from my limited view of the world, I feel like I’ve been really lucky to find the support and enthusiasm for my career that I have. I obviously hear discussions and read things about other women in the legal profession not having the same experience that I have. But, like I said, that hasn’t been my experience. I don’t know if it’s generational, because I’m more recently out of law school—I’m not exactly sure what it is.

For me, personally, I will always try to find opportunities—especially for our younger female associates—to have the same experiences that I do. I’ll try to take them along with me on depositions, making sure that they’re getting opportunities to do depositions and to get trial experience. Because I guess the one thing I will say is, if you look at the number of first-chair trial lawyers, you do see a big discrepancy in the percentages of male versus female trial lawyers. I don’t know what all the reasons for that are, but I think for that reason it’s important to lift up our young female litigators. That’s always what has been done for me at my firm.

 

Q: What’s it like working in Austin as compared to, maybe, Dallas?

A: Well, I love Austin. I hope to never move to another city. It’s a more casual environment. It’s not unusual to see some of the partners at our firm show up to the office in a Hawaiian shirt. It’s a very collegial and close-knit legal community. There’s fewer of us, so we all know each other and mostly like each other.

 

Q: What do you like to do out of the office?

A: Most of my free time is spent doing volunteer work and hanging out with my kids. We spend a lot of time just hanging out at home, doing fun things together.

 

Q: What sort of volunteer work do you do?

A: I am on the board of the Thinkery, which is our local children’s museum. We’re reinventing ourselves as more of a science center for kids, focusing on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. And I’m chairing our nominations and governance committee. Then I’m also on the board of our Austin Young Lawyers Association.

This year I’m co-chairing the Women’s Resource Fair, which is a really great event that the Young Lawyers Association puts on. It’s annual, for low-income women in Austin. We have all kinds of medical providers. We have a clothing drive. We just have all kinds of resources available to women. They can go in and get mammograms. They can get their hair cut and they can get clothing.

 

Q: What would your co-workers be most surprised to find out about you?

A: I think a lot of my colleagues would be surprised to know that I was president of my FFA and was such a farm girl growing up. I’ll brag on myself a little bit: I’m very proud of the fact that I had the grand-champion steer at the Tomball FFA project show for two years in a row. It’s actually one of my crowning accomplishments.

 

This interview was edited and condensed.

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