You'll Not See Nothing Like the Mighty O'Quinn

The man The Wall Street Journal calls the “second richest lawyer” in America says when it comes to winning cases, he’s number one

Published in 2004 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2004

I have a question for you,” John O’Quinn says before I even have a chance to sit down. He’s stone-faced behind his desk waiting to be interviewed, his eyes — the eyes, maybe, of a jailhouse preacher who knows your fate before you do — fixed on mine. He holds a copy of last year’s Texas Super Lawyers.

After grimly shaking my hand, he says, “I noticed that my good friend Don Godwin is on the cover. The last time I saw him in court he was representing Halliburton, which is rich and powerful. They offered me nothing, but when it was all over I had a judgment for over $100 million.” At this point he puts down the magazine and gently folds his hands in front of him, never releasing my eyes from his. After waiting for an uncomfortable beat, he asks his question: “I’m wondering … if you put Mr. Godwin on the cover, where do you put the lawyer who beats him for $106 million?”

I stammer. I stutter. I assure him I will check into it. And then O’Quinn erupts into laughter that threatens to loosen the windows from their frames. “I just thought I’d give you a tease to get started,” he says, finally looking away, very pleased with his mischief. I look out the windows and notice a colorful banner attached to a light post outside. It would seem that O’Quinn’s office is appropriately located in the heart of Houston’s Theater District.

O’Quinn is certainly part showman. Not the circus type, though his lanky 6-foot-3-inch frame lends itself to the image of a ringmaster. O’Quinn is more of the confident narrator, guiding his audiences from one plot point to the next, connecting all the dots until there is not but one logical conclusion to the story in front of you. And you can bet if you’re a juror, you’re probably going to see it O’Quinn’s way. He makes sure of it.

But no, he isn’t on the cover this time around. [Note to Mr. O’Quinn: I tried. I really tried.] But he could be because he is nothing if not driven. His track record makes it quite clear that if you see him coming — in court, that is — you’d better run.

“People fear me. And the human reaction to fear is you hate what you fear,” he says. “But juries love me.” They love him like barbecue loves mesquite. In fact, he and his firm, O’Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle, have exceeded $20 billion in verdicts and settlements during the past decade.

A huge chunk of that came from the monumental $17 billion tobacco settlement he helped secure for the state of Texas in 1998. It was the largest such settlement in history, and O’Quinn and others shared about $3 billion for their time. But to hear O’Quinn tell it, the showdown nearly didn’t happen.

“I did not believe that we would win,” says O’Quinn. “However, I did believe that we should win. The tobacco industry hadn’t been beat and they don’t settle. But this is an evil industry that has done evil things and gotten away with it for years. They knew tobacco was addictive, and they lied about that. They knew it causes cancer and they lied about that.” It’s here that O’Quinn — while vividly recalling the session that was convened to decide whether they should even attempt to beat Big Tobacco — becomes very solemn. He’s right back in that conference room, laying it all on the line. “It didn’t look like we were going to take it on … until it comes time for me to vote. I said, ‘Maybe they’ve never been beat because they’ve never been up against the best. And we are the best. Maybe they’ve never been up against somebody that had enough money to stand toe to toe with them. And we have enough money to do that. I don’t think I can end my career having turned my back on this. I would always think what would have happened if I had just had the courage to stand up to them. So my vote is yes. Let’s do it.’” It was a speech that would have made coach Bill Yeoman proud.

He speaks quietly and lucidly most of the evening while recounting his other strategies for various trials, but there’s a smoldering undercurrent of agitation beneath his tone. He’s very restless, leaning forward in his chair, leaning back. Looking up at the ceiling. It finally gets to him and he tells me that he had just made an appearance on “Kudlow & Cramer,” a CNBC show of news pundits, and he’s unsure of how he did. “You wanna see it?” he asks.

We retire to a small annex next to his office where he cues up the video. “Well, some time ago, they got on and lambasted the verdict I got against Wyeth and the fen-phen case. One case. One billion,” he explains. “Damn, they got their facts wrong. So I got over there today and helped straighten them out.”

As the tape rolls, it’s clear that the hosts of this show are no fans of John O’Quinn. While they initially give him the chance to refute what he feels was misrepresented or misreported on the earlier program, which he does with graceful composure, they eventually interrupt him to sling a few tit-for-tat arrows at him.

On the tape O’Quinn continuously deflects these with what he says are the real facts of the case that he won in early 2004. It was a shocker — to everyone but O’Quinn — that the jury awarded $1 billion to the family of a woman who hadn’t taken the diet drug for four years and who died of primary pulmonary hypertension. But one of the hosts (and I have no idea which) gives up on that case and starts attacking O’Quinn on a completely different issue: his victories in the breast implant cases. (Later, O’Quinn will tell me he thought that such out-of-left-field line of questioning was like a drive-by shooting.) The host asks him if he’ll give back the money he won because science may have proved his side wrong. O’Quinn responds with his own scientific evidence upholding his original position, and then lobbing in for good measure: “If the courts want to retry the cases I’ve tried, we’ll retry them and I’ll win ’cause I’m right.”

O’Quinn’s irritation starts to show, but he remains masterfully restrained, until the same host shamelessly attacks O’Quinn about his fees, claiming he personally takes up to half of the settlements.

“Well, first off, you got your information wrong. I do not take 40 or 50 percent of the settlement, sir. You got your facts wrong, sir,” says O’Quinn. As the whole train is about to roll right off the rails (which I secretly would love to see), the other host intervenes, “We appreciate your point of view, and that’s what makes horse races …”

“If we can’t agree on the facts, we can’t have an intelligent debate.” Those are O’Quinn’s last words before being cut off completely.

The television monitor goes black and I ask, “Well, what do you think?”

He looks back at me, again with those preacher eyes, but this time with a look of relish, and he says, “I think I kicked their ass.”

WELCOME TO THE MACHINE

O’Quinn has the inner workings of his law firm running like clockwork. He explains that ever since he was a novice trial lawyer, his dream was to be like an English barrister.

“We have 30 lawyers and about 100 other professionals, and we have 5,000 cases in the pipeline,” he explains. “And I don’t prepare any of them. My machine prepares those cases — first for settlement. If they can’t be settled, then a team leader comes to me and describes the efforts.”

O’Quinn decides whether they’ve been offered enough on the settlement or whether it’s time to play hardball in the courts. Thirty days before the trial, the updated file is presented to O’Quinn.

“At that point, everything is excluded from my mind except the case. I learn the case. I master the case. And then I go and try the case.” He leans close and says with no hint of irony, “And I win the case.”

The machine is set up so that he can spend the majority of his time thinking about the cases: going over the salient points, blasting holes in the defendants’ arguments and figuring out just whom he wants on the jury.

For O’Quinn, picking a jury is his major strength. “Is it a gift? Yes. A bit. But on the other hand there are definite things that lawyers can do to figure out who is going to help them. And I have spent a lot of time in my 30 years of being a lawyer … and the truth is nobody is better at picking a jury.”

He says he was the first lawyer in Texas to use a psychologist to help pick a jury, and, as he explains at enormous length, complete with examples and footnotes, he is always armed with arguments designed to appeal either to the jury’s left brain or to their right brain. “I’ve gone way beyond the point of your interview,” says O’Quinn as a way of wrapping up. “But I just wanted to give you an example of what makes me so deadly. I have charisma. I can make jokes. I can make them laugh. I can entertain and I can out-think them. The first ‘them’ is the jury; the second ‘them’ is the other lawyer. That’s why they never beat me.”

Among his victories, O’Quinn has grossed about $3 billion in awards and settlements in about 10 years from the makers of breast implants; he’s taken down Wal-Mart for a breach of contract case; and he won $8.5 million for the death of a pet bull named Superman after it was sprayed with a toxic chemical. It was the largest jury verdict in America for an animal.

It’s late and we head across town to Vic & Anthony’s, where we dine with O’Quinn’s girlfriend, Darla Lexington. It’s only now in the noisy dark confines of the steakhouse that he loosens up a bit to speak about his childhood. While dismantling a platter of veal chop Milanese, O’Quinn brushes each memory with huge Norman Rockwell strokes: roller-skating around the block; the mom across the street who’d feed and care for you if your mom was out; fantastic adults all around.

“My father was an automobile mechanic who owned a small garage. One summer he sent me to the General Motors Mr. Goodwrench School and I spent three months learning how to fix everything on a GM car, from front to rear bumper,” he says. He probably learned there how to think through a problem to its logical conclusion, too.

He attended Rice University and studied to be an engineer before switching to law at the University of Houston. O’Quinn graduated first in his class, was editor of the law review, and won the state moot court championship. After a three-year stint at Baker & Botts, he began the process of heading out on his own. He’s never looked back, being driven by his motto: Work Wins.

He had no time for a hobby, until one day when he spotted an ad in the newspaper for a car auction, which included some Duesenbergs. That was his father’s favorite automobile, so he felt compelled to attend. That was last year. Today, O’Quinn owns more than 200 vintage automobiles housed in seven warehouses. “I even have the car that the Queen of England used to tour Canada,” he says.

After hearing O’Quinn and Lexington exchange stories of who drives what, it becomes obvious that Lexington — who admits to having the male gene for cars — is usually the one found behind the steering wheel. That revelation simply confirms what’s already known about John O’Quinn: Just like in his practice, he is nothing if not driven.

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