‘The Biggest, Baddest, Meanest Dog in the Yard’

If you ask Tony Buzbee, only losers are OK with losing

Published in 2014 Texas Super Lawyers Magazine — October 2014

Photo by: Felix Sanchez

Tony Buzbee was a 22-year-old lieutenant just out of the ROTC at Texas A&M, serving in the Persian Gulf in 1991, when he faced his platoon of Marines for the first time. If his men had any thoughts of testing the new “kid” commander in Kuwait, they were soon erased.

“There’s nothing you can beat me at,” Buzbee said to the group. “Not at boxing, or in one-on-one basketball, or in cards or a footrace. I’m stronger than you and I’m smarter than you. So don’t try me.” Any questions?

“That’s how you lead in the Marines,” he says more than two decades later, in his large and sparse office that looks over downtown Houston from the 73rd floor. “You’ve gotta be fearless.”

Buzbee, who is defending Gov. Rick Perry against abuse-of-power charges, brings the same refuse-to-lose swagger to the law firm that bears his name—and he’s been able to back it up. “Prepare, prepare, prepare,” he says when asked how he uses his military experience in the legal field. “Then execute.”

Juries eat up the Tony Buzbee Show, a mix of homespun charm and vitriol.

His epic battles against oil corporation BP, which Buzbee estimates yielded about $400 million for his clients in Texas and Louisiana, landed the Houston attorney on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 2010. He may be the closest the Southwest legal field has to an action hero, and there’s even been talk of making a movie based on his fights with BP. Asked who he sees in the lead role, Buzbee smiles. “Gerard Butler,” he says. Butler, the Scottish 300 star who drank his way out of the legal profession and onto the big screen, would have to work on a slight East Texas accent.

“Tony Buzbee is the biggest, baddest, meanest dog in the yard—that’s a fact,” says Houston attorney Chad Pinkerton, who worked at The Buzbee Law Firm from 2005 until starting his own office in 2006. “But he’s also generous and he cares a lot about his people and his clients. He taught me everything I know about practicing law.”

Fashionably dressed in a trademark Brioni tailored suit, Buzbee says, “I’m not the lawyer people hire because I have a cool website or a nice ad placement in the Yellow Pages. They hire me to beat the other guy. … They get so pissed that they say, ‘I’m gonna call Tony Buzbee!’ If that doesn’t send shivers up the spine of some pompous corporate lawyer,” he says with a big smile, “well, it should.”

He hates losing so much that he hasn’t been present to hear a jury’s verdict read since 2001. “It’s just too nerve-wracking. Thank God it’s rare that I lose, because when it does happen, I just want to roll up in a ball like a baby. The next day it feels like I’ve been beaten by sticks. My feeling is that if you can handle losing, you’re a loser.”

One of Buzbee’s rare losses came when he ran for state representative in 2001. When he does have a setback, he tries to learn from it. “The first case I lost was a young girl who’d been burned by a garment her parents purchased from Wal-Mart,” he recalls. “Oh, I gave the best arguments,” he says. “My opening statement? You could’ve put it in a book. Cross-examination? Brilliant. Closing argument? Of the eight jurors, there were seven crying.” Buzbee’s excited cadence is reminiscent of a Southern preacher. “In each of the discrete elements of the case, I shoulda won. But I got poured out. The jury note came back: ‘Can we give this little girl money and still find Wal-Mart not liable?’” Buzbee knew he’d lost the case.  

“I hate to lose, but what I won’t say is that the jury sucked,” he says. “What I won’t say is that the judge screwed me. It all comes down to the architecture of the lawsuit. That’s what I drill into all our young attorneys. For the most part, the work you’ve done before you step in there means the case has already been decided. … Have you presented a story that the jury buys into?” 

Houston trial lawyer Frank Spagnoletti, who has worked on cases with and against Buzbee, has known him since Buzbee was a clerk just out of law school. “Tony Buzbee is a different cat,” says Spagnoletti. “But he’s leading the next generation of top lawyers in Texas. I’ve known Joe Jamail and John O’Quinn, and Tony is a throwback to that era. He has the legal abilities, the financial abilities and, most importantly, the huevos that most other lawyers don’t have.”

A few years ago, wondering where the hardcore competitive streak came from, Buzbee went in search of answers on Ancestry.com. Then he visited the Alabama towns from which his people hailed. “I found that I come from a long line of Buzbees with chips on their shoulders,” he says, “and it continues to this day.” He traced his lineage back to his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Reeves Buzbee, who was in jail in Coosa County, Ala., in 1860 at age 70 for murder. Buzbee visited the jail and stood in one of the tiny cells for a long time, thinking.

Actually, he didn’t have to go that far back to find evidence of the Buzbee flame. “My dad is a true character,” he says of meat-cutter Glen Buzbee, who now tends his son’s ranch outside Atlanta, Texas. During courtroom breaks, Buzbee loves to tell stories about his old man, like the time he wrestled a bear to settle a barroom bet. “He would not only fight at the drop of a hat, he’d drop the hat himself.” Buzbee recalls one altercation that started when his father called the parents of a boy who had thrown some of Tony’s things out the window of a moving school bus. “The kid’s mother answered and my dad gave her a good cussin’,” Buzbee recalls. When the boy’s father heard about that, he called Glen back and threatened to whup him next time he saw him. “Come over right now!” Glen yelled into the phone. “We waited and waited, and the guy never showed up, so we went to bed,” Buzbee says. About midnight, the man rolled up to the house and got out of his car. “He’d had a few beers for courage, I guess.” Glen jumped out of bed, charged outside in his underwear and clocked the guy on the side of the head. But he slipped on the dew and fell down, which gave the other father an opportunity to jump in his car and hightail it on out of there. Buzbee laughs as he recalls the sight of his father “chasing the guy all the way down the driveway in his tighty whities.”

Buzbee says he did not apply himself in high school, but he desperately wanted out of his small town in the upper right corner of Texas. “Going to A&M was really the turning point in my life,” he says. “Being from a podunk town, I wasn’t sure I could be as good as everyone else.” He earned the rank of commander of the 7th Battalion in the Corps of Cadets. “Our motto was ‘the best in every way,’ and A&M gave me the confidence to believe it.” Buzbee was recently appointed to the Texas A&M Board of Regents; he donated the money to build the Buzbee Leadership Learning Center for cadets on campus.

Buzbee went straight into the Marines out of college, a newlywed deployed to the Middle East. “It was tough on my wife,” he says. “In four years, I was home four months. But she’s a strong person and we made it work.”

He says he “ate, slept, breathed the Corps. Except for the fact that you couldn’t make any money, I’d still be in the Marines.”

After his military bid was up, Buzbee attended University of Houston Law Center and graduated in 1997, a week after his first child was born. While at law school, Buzbee admired UH alum John O’Quinn. In addition to being known for his $1 billion verdict against Wyeth Laboratory for its diet pill fen-phen, O’Quinn was known for having a fleet of cars—more than 600 luxury and vintage models—that would make Jay Leno drool.

When Buzbee started winning million-dollar judgments, he also started accumulating expensive cars. Then, O’Quinn died in a single-car accident in 2009 and Buzbee had a shift in priorities. “John O’Quinn didn’t leave behind any children. He didn’t have a wife. He just had all those cars,” Buzbee says. “I was thinking that if John O’Quinn could come back to pass on one last bit of wisdom, he would say, ‘Cars are just a bunch of metal.’”

Around the same time, Buzbee was starting to worry that his family—he and his wife, Zoe, have four children—was being defined by what it had: “My kids would ask me what car I was driving that day because that’s what the kids at school wanted to know.”

Buzbee decided to donate his car collection for a charity auction, raising $2 million for The Jesse Tree, which helps homeless people. “I kept only one car,” he says, with a twinkle. “But it was a Maybach.”

Buzbee is rich beyond his dreams. But in his heart he’s still the son of a meat-cutter from East Texas. “You remember those notes you used to pass around in school to girls? It would say, ‘Do you like so and so, check yes or no.’ When I was in sixth grade there was this girl I liked a lot, and when I got the paper back, under ‘Do you like Tony Buzbee?’ she had checked no. I was crushed.

“It feels the same way when you lose a case. It’s the ultimate rejection.”

As Buzbee excuses himself to polish an opening statement he’s been working on for three weeks, the attorney he’ll be facing might wish that little girl from Atlanta, Texas, had just checked yes.

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