It's Good to Be the King

He may be the richest lawyer in America, but even at 78 Joe Jamail shows no signs of slowing down

Published in 2004 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2004

The king is 45 minutes late when he walks out of the elevator and into his penthouse office, high atop 500 Dallas Street in Houston. His pace is slow and regal through the lobby, as he is being politely acknowledged by his staff. He doesn’t need to explain where he’s been. After all, he is a man who claims more trial victories than anyone else, ever. A man who forced the withdrawal of three products from the marketplace because he deemed them dangerous. A man who won the largest civil damage award in history. A man whose legal victories are so astounding and groundbreaking that he was acknowledged in the Guinness Book of World Records. But this is no mere man. This is Joe Jamail — King of Torts.

Newsweek bestowed that moniker upon Jamail in the early 1970s after he won a half-million-dollar jury award for his client, an electrician who had lost his hands because of a faulty electrical box. It was the first time in American tort law that an individual had received a verdict with so many zeros on the cashier’s check, and it forever helped change Texas law concerning product liability. At the completion of that trial, Jamail’s career began to escalate, and, always working on a percentage basis, his war chest started filling up fast. And you can bet the media took notice.

Jamail has loved every minute of it. “Hey, man, I’m a ham. I love this stuff,” he says with a laugh. He relishes the spotlight and talks about his past battles as if they were playing out right in front of him. The smile that creases his face never wavers while he recalls the countless highlights of his legendary career, which has grown to near-mythic proportions.

After attending to some business, he finally settles into a brass rocking chair. In a pressed blue jacket, Jamail measures his every word like a man contemplating the virtues of a fine martini. He is 78 years old, and his blue eyes sometimes appear a bit clouded in the sunshine streaming through the windows. But they also convey a solid willingness to continue practicing and winning — which is very bad news for you if you happen to come up against him in court.

“I’ll be honest with you, when you’re a winner — and I’ve won so much — they tend to publicize it, glamorize it, romanticize it. …You know everybody’s looking for a hero,” Jamail says when asked about the king’s crown he was presented by his colleagues in deference to his mediacoronated royalty. “I’m not sure any of it means anything except that I’ve been able to be really advantageous for my clients. And me. I’ve made a lot of money.”

Yeah. That’s true. About a billion dollars or so. His name is usually found on the list of wealthiest Americans by Forbes magazine, where he has also been cited as the country’s highest paid plaintiff ’s lawyer. But Houston’s native son says there’s nothing for him to be ashamed of because he’s made his money honestly while helping out people who would otherwise end up shafted by greedy and irresponsible corporations.

“I’m not saying money’s bad. I like it. But there are no vaults where I’m going. Up or down. So I try to give back because there’s just so much money you can spend, you know? There’s just so much you can eat and drink.” He leans in, pulls the room together with his sly smile and knowing wink, then clarifies: “Good drink, that is.”

Oh, yes, the King likes to imbibe on occasion. In fact, a morning’s worth of Jamail’s stories tends to start out the same way: “I was drinking with a couple of my buddies when …”

For instance, where was he when he was first inspired to become a lawyer? In a saloon in Lafayette, Louisiana, trying to score with the barmaid when an attorney named Kaliste Soloom intervened to spark Jamail’s curiosity about the law.

Where was he when he decided to take the bar exam on a dare— with only three days to prepare? Drinking off-campus withsome law school buddies. He passed by one point — and boisterouslyclaimed that he had overtrained for the test — then headedright back out to celebrate.

Where was he the night before he was to deliver his closing arguments in the historic Pennzoil versus Texaco trial? Drinking with Willie Nelson and former University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal. “Willie and Darrell showed up in a white stretch limousine and started pounding on the front door. They kept me up drinking and bullshitting past midnight,” says Jamail.

Despite that highly unusual all-night liquid strategy session, Jamail still nailed the summation and cemented his footprints into the legal walk of fame with the verdict that followed.

By now, a trainload of ink has been spilled over that trial, and Jamail still considers it the shining jewel in his crown. It took place in the mid-1980s, a period often perceived as a decade of greed. Getting a jury to care about two big oil companies fighting over more money seemed a daunting task. What’s more, there would be substantial testimony of Wall Street dealings and business acquisitions and a whole mess of other financial stuff that might confuse or bore a jury.

Jamail was representing Pennzoil, who claimed that Texaco knowingly savaged its deal to take over Getty Oil. He agonized for weeks over how to argue it. Finally, he found the clarity he was seeking and saw the situation as a matter of honor, and that’s the foundation with which he chose his picks for the jury. “[Pennzoil] didn’t have a signed contract, but we had a word. We had a handshake. So I was looking for people with long marriages, long church affiliations … people whose word meant something,” says Jamail. “I had to try to make them understand that they didn’t give up their common sense when they got to court. And it worked for me."

Oh, it worked all right. Jamail compelled the jury to get excited enough to send a warning shot across the bow of every company in America that morality and ethics have a place in business just as they have in life’s other arenas. And it was a big shot. The largest legal shot in history, in fact. It was an $11 billion shot, and, of course, Jamail got a lawyer-sized cut of the award. (And even though the case was ultimately settled for $3 billion, that’s still a lot more money than most attorneys will rack up in a lifetime of litigating.)

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

Jamail was born in 1925. That’s possibly why he’s so passionate about what he does and about whom he chooses to look after. Though his family wasn’t terribly impacted by the events of the late 1920s and early 1930s, he still lived through the Great Depression and witnessed how people treated their neighbors in times of crisis. As he remembers it, his parents were always willing to feed a stranger passing through town looking for work, and their compassionate spirit has remained hard-wired into his quest for justice.

After serving as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II, he returned home and started taking pre-med classes, but soon changed to law at the University of Texas. That’s where his unusual approach to the profession began. Jamail says that he was so naïve at the time that he didn’t realize that he needed to take an exam to get into the law school. He simply showed up and started taking classes.

His grades weren’t stupendous at first, but his desire and his talent were apparent very early. In fact, he actually tried a case before graduating. You see, Jamail was drinking with a couple of buddies in a favorite bar when the bartender cut herself on a beer bottle that she was trying to open.

“I told her we should just sue and see what happens,” Jamail recalls. He admits to being a little lost in court, which is understandable since he didn’t even have a degree yet, but the judge guided him through the proceedings. When the defendant, Pearl Brewing Company, offered $500 to settle, Jamail asked for $1,000. He ended up taking $750 and collecting a third of it for his fee, which naturally was used to buy beers for his friends all night long.

After graduating, he took a job at Freeman, Bates & Jaworski. “I lasted about 20 minutes in that kind of corporate law-by-committee environment,” Jamail says. He then went to work for the district attorney’s office and fine-tuned his chops while working on every kind of case, including murder and the strange case of a man having sex with his mule.

Jamail eventually formed his own practice, where he could take the cases he wanted and handle them his own way, which at times veered toward the unbelievable. He immediately grabbed headlines with a case he won for the widow of a man who had been drinking and drove his car into a tree. After Jamail was through, the city paid the widow and cut down the tree.

WORTHY OF THE THRONE

He's charming and talented, but Jamail is also a warrior. He’s extremely hard-working and thorough when preparing for a case. “When you really prepare — and that’s one of the things that I’m noted for: I really get ready — then it looks like it’s all coming right off the top of your head. But look, the only thing that comes off the top of your head is dandruff. So I drive everybody around here nuts picking apart every little thing,” says Jamail. “Anybody who thinks they’re smart enough to go to court and the Holy Ghost is going to descend upon them with all the knowledge they need to win is … goofy. It just doesn’t happen like that. If you’re not prepared, you’re just not gonna win.”

Today, the man knows a lot about winning and outright success. He has a leather-bound book of victory clippings thick enough to be a doorstop at the gates of Buckingham Palace. If you own a Remington Mohawk 600 rifle or a three-wheeled Honda all-terrain vehicle, then you bought it before Jamail personally had them, along with the drug Parlodel, completely recalled because of the inherent dangers they posed. His trophy room is crammed with awards, honors and testimonials. There are statues of him around town, and the football field at Texas Memorial Stadium sports his name. Jamail, though, is particularly proud that his peers at the California Trial Lawyers Association named him “Trial Lawyer of the Century.”

But all that happened last century. What about now? “I’m starting out pretty good on it,” says Jamail, who has a full docket for the foreseeable future. “I like knowing that I’m helping somebody and I like the courthouse. It beats selling bananas. And that’s what I would have been doing if not for this.”

The discussion swings toward the current political climate — which he is none too happy with — and what he perceives as an erosion of civil liberties. He then leans in to make his last point crystal clear, and the soon-to-be octogenarian assumes the role of warrior king again. “There’s never been a bigger assault on people’s privacy and their liberties and on the Constitution itself … because of some hocus-pocus cry of ‘war-time president!’ — thereby revoking all our constitutional guarantees. Give me a break. I don’t believe that. I don’t like that and I’m not going to put up with that. I’m going to fight that.”

But now the King rises. He is off to receive guests for lunch, and he’s just a little bit late. It’s a good bet that wherever he goes he’ll probably have a couple of drinks, and who knows? Maybe he’ll figure out how to save the Constitution. Long live the King.

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