The Barrier Breaker of Baker Botts

Jim Cannon fires a shot heard 'round Texas        

Published in 2008 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2008

In James W. Cannon Jr.'s corner office at Baker Botts in Austin hangs a framed 1964 Norman Rockwell print called "The Problem We All Live With."

The famous painting portrays a young African-American girl on her way to her newly integrated school. Surrounded by deputy U.S. marshals and with books in hand, she walks past a thrown tomato and a racial insult scrawled on a wall. The picture, which hangs at eye level as Cannon sits at his desk, reminds him of his roots.

"I always said I'd have that picture in my office. The image never left me," says Cannon, who is the first African American to head a major firm in Austin. "It's a way of making sure I remember where I came from. It's people like her."

Cannon, 58, leads the Austin office of Baker Botts as the partner in charge. Intellectual property is his focus, but he is quick to say that he is not an IP lawyer. Rather, he calls himself a "general litigator who does intellectual property litigation."

Chewing on his trademark unlit cigar, he says the painting and everything it represents helps to keep him grounded and not consumed by his many professional successes, which are many.

Cannon grew up in a largely segregated society and attended all-black parochial schools in places such as Augusta, Ga., and Anniston, Ala. He was the son of a U.S. Army drill instructor, the oldest of nine children, and he spent his childhood living on military bases all over the U.S., in Europe and in Asia. "My dad instilled some real discipline in us," he says. "When I was faced with certain things, it just didn't seem as hard because of that upbringing."

His parents taught their children the importance of being role models and never to embarrass the family because they represented an entire segment of society. Those teachings stay with him even today.

Cannon gives a lot of credit to the military for helping to form the man he is today.

"We were lucky," he says. "In many ways, the military gave us opportunities that other families in similar situations didn't have."

Cannon's father died young, and as a result, the Cannon children were entitled to the war orphans scholarship program, which along with the G.I. Bill, allowed young Cannon to attend Bowling Green University, where he played wide receiver on the football team.

And while he was a solid athlete, he tries not to talk much about playing Division 1 football.

"It's actually a bigger deal that I became a lawyer," he says. "At the time there weren't a lot of African-American lawyers who practiced the kind of law that I practice. There were a lot of kids who play ball, a lot of kids. But if what I'm doing—hopefully—inspires kids to do more than that, or to use athletics as a way to get a higher education, or to better their lives, or to just be open to have more experiences, then that's more important."

When Cannon graduated from Bowling Green with a degree in political science in 1973, he owed the Army a few years of service. Entering as an officer in the post-Vietnam era, Cannon was tasked with becoming an expert on the Soviet Union. At the Army's Air Defense School, he taught American and foreign officers about how the Soviet Union might attack and how they should counter a Soviet offensive. He taught younger officers to think creatively in dealing with a threat. "You're trying to teach officers how to adapt to topography and how a variety of weapons could be used," he says.

After six and a half years in the Army, Cannon's head was so full of classified data that he was not allowed to travel to East Berlin or any communist countries for three years after leaving the military.

After the Army, at age 27, Cannon enrolled at the University of Texas Law School. He was a little older than many of his classmates—and certainly more experienced. He laughs when he remembers how other students would complain about the workload. As they griped, he says, he would think: "No sitting in mud, no bullets flying, no crowded barracks, and everyone is surrounded by bright people in a safe environment. This is great."

He moved to Frankfurt, Germany, after graduating to work for an American law firm, Ohaire, Fiore & Daly, and then came back to Austin as an assistant city attorney. He eventually landed at Baker Botts.

Cannon's early years were spent as a personal injury lawyer, and he built a reputation for defending physicians in malpractice cases. He says that three wrongful death cases in which he defended doctors, in a time of huge plaintiff awards, helped get him attention.

"Trying death cases in Texas is pretty challenging," he says. "And in those cases, I got defense verdicts. It stands out that you'd get defense verdicts in those days."

But for him it wasn't just about building a reputation.

"With runaway jury verdicts, and doctors being petrified to practice medicine and saying, ‘Why put up with this?'" Cannon says, "I was very afraid for the people in this state."

He adds that he felt at the time that the number of lawsuits and the sizes of judgments were "getting out of hand."

"If we didn't rein it in, then obviously the system would have been seen as broken," he says. "We couldn't get nurses or doctors to work here. Companies wouldn't come here. Insurance companies wouldn't want to insure people here. And there didn't seem to be any thought about that. No one was really focusing on that."

As his career developed, Cannon proved to be nimble on his feet. He switched his area of expertise, focusing his practice primarily on intellectual property and patent litigation.

His IP clients include Samsung, Wal-Mart and Motorola. But the case that helped him build a reputation in the IP world began when he took on the Goliath of technology companies: Microsoft.

In 1997 Cannon accepted a company called Goldtouch as a client. The Australian company's executives said they had trade secret and patent concerns about the similarities between the ergonomic design of their mouse, the now-ubiquitous device attached to most personal computers, and Microsoft's mouse. Cannon sums up the patent infringement/trade secret misappropriation case by pulling out his client's product and placing it next to the Microsoft version. The mice are practically identical. Ultimately, Cannon settled the case. He won't give the details, but he says his clients were pleased.

Maria Boyce, the partner in charge of the Houston office of Baker Botts, has worked with Cannon on several trials. Boyce recalls Cannon's performance on a case in which they represented the software company Sybase: "He did a great job with the cross-examination, working with our witnesses and doing closing arguments," she says. "Jim has a remarkable ability to communicate with juries and to explain very complex principles in ways juries can understand.

"It's Jim's ability to communicate so effectively that makes people instantly respect him for his intelligence, but also recognize that he is a very down-to-earth person. And those translate into excellent trial skills."

Robb Voyles, who recruited Cannon and is now the Dallas-based firmwide chair of the litigation department, says he hired Cannon for many of the same reasons noted by Boyce.

"It's so important to be able to take that complicated technology and communicate it to a jury," Voyles says. "An experienced trial lawyer like Jim brings that."

Cannon and his wife, Kelly, are raising three sons: Trey, who plays football for Chapman University in Southern California; Zach, a student at Austin High School; and Kez, the youngest, a middle-school student.

Back in his office overlooking Austin during the green springtime months, Cannon walks around in a starched shirt, tie and jeans. With his eyes locked on the Rockwell print, he explains that he searched to find the little girl in the picture. He was able to track her down and discovered she is now 54 years old and lives in New Orleans. He hopes to meet with her soon and tell her how much her image has inspired him.

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