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Vol. 3, Iss. 6
April 1, 2014

The Coverage Opinions Interview With Joe Jamail -- The Richest Practicing Lawyer In America

Turning One Beer Into $14 Billion;

Saying The Unprintable;
Doing The Wave;
Where Do You Sit When The Football Stadium Is Named For You?

Joe Jamail is the richest practicing lawyer in America. But it has nothing to do with the fact that Forbes recently listed his net worth at $1.6 billion. There’s more than one definition of the word “rich.” It can also mean deep in color. And there may be no lawyer – ever – that has more color than Joe Jamail. I suspect that many billionaires are deadly dull. Jamail sure isn’t one of them. He has a 100,000 seat football stadium named for him at the University of Texas. And there’s also the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark in Houston. Enough said.

Of course Jamail handles a lot of personal injury cases. You don’t make that kind of money billing by the hour – even at some obscene New York rates. And of course Jamail is from Texas. The most colorful lawyer ever couldn’t possibly be from anywhere but Texas.

Mr. Jamail was kind enough to speak with me from his Houston office a couple of weeks ago. I was pretty nervous about the call. Not because he’s rich and famous. I’d seen and read enough about Jamail in preparing for the call to know that he was going to be an affable guy. And he certainly was. My concern was that I don’t speak Texan that well. I was afraid that I wasn’t going to understand some things that he said. I missed a few words along the way but all in all I got it.

Here’s what I mean by Jamail being affable. One thing that I learned about Jamail from all of my preparation was that he’s quite capable of saying things that are unprintable in a family publication. But on my call I wasn’t getting any of this. This wasn’t Joe Jamail on the phone. It was Atticus Finch. So about seven minutes in I mentioned to Mr. Jamail that I felt like I was being short-changed because he hadn’t yet said anything unprintable. He saw my concern and immediately obliged by saying something unprintable. See what I mean – a completely affable guy.

There are many ways to measure a lawyer’s success. But there is usually one in particular that gets the most attention – especially when you are talking about personal injury lawyers. And in that category Jamail has succeeded in an unimaginable way. His tally of judgments and settlements over his career is about $14 billion. That’s more than the gross national product of Iceland. And just think how much more it could have been if Jamail didn’t flunk Torts in law school (really, he did).

When a lawyer is 88 years old and the 342nd richest person in America (Forbes), the obvious first question is how much longer he plans to keep going. Jamail told the ABA Journal in 2009 that he planned to continue trying cases for another decade or so and then slow down a bit. I asked him if that were still the case. Jamail didn’t put a timetable on it but he told me that as long as he’s mentally and physically able he wants to keep at it. He told me that he was trying a case on Christmas Eve just a few months ago.

A lot of pictures that I’ve seen of Jamail have one thing in common -- he has a glass in his hand. Scotch he told me. Or beer by the bay. I wasn’t too surprised when he told me that Heineken is his favorite. Heineken isn’t complicated. And keeping things simple is Jamail’s courtroom weapon of choice.

Speaking of beer, that’s how Jamail got his start in the courtroom. The story goes like this, as told by Jamail in his wonderfully entertaining and informative 2003 autobiography Lawyer: My Trials and Jubilations. Jamail had passed the bar exam before graduating from the University of Texas Law School (that’s a story all to itself). In the course of celebrating the exam he found himself in a bar when Dorothy, “the barmaid,” opened up a bottle of Pearl Beer and the top chipped, cutting her thumb. Jamail sued the Pearl Brewing Company for making a defective beer bottle. Six months before graduation Jamail found himself in an Austin courtroom about to try his first case.

Here’s how Jamail described the scene in My Trials and Jubilations: “The courtroom was packed with my law school chums, and they were trying hard to contain their excitement. I am just grateful that ‘the wave’ had not been invented yet.”

Despite all the support that Jamail had in the gallery, the judge quickly sized up that he had no idea what he was doing and mercifully orchestrated a $750 settlement. The only downside – Jamail had to buy the beer all night long.

I read this portion of My Trials and Jubilations while on the train. When I got to the part about Jamail’s description of his excited friends in the courtroom, and him being grateful that the “wave” had not yet been invented, I burst out loud laughing. Not a little laugh that only the guy next to me could hear. No, not that kind. This was a full-bodied guffaw that every person in the train car could hear. I told this story to Jamail and asked him if he remembered writing that ten years earlier. He did and we shared a healthy laugh about it.

That Joe Jamail ever even had a first trial is quite an amazing thing. Jamail started at the University of Texas as a pre-med student. The experience did not go well. Nor last long. He ended the first semester with five Fs. Jamail laments in My Trials and Jubilations that he regrets that he didn’t squeeze out just one D. Then he could have claimed that he spent too much time on one subject. At that point Jamail left school, forged his parents’ signatures on an enlistment form and joined the Marines, spending 27 months oversees during World War II. But even in an outfit as strict as the Marines, Jamail found ways to get into trouble. He spent time in the brig for violating the terms of a 48-hour leave during basic training. Then, just when he thought he was about to be discharged it was determined that he owed the Marines 30 more days – payment for getting drunk and driving a jeep into an officer’s barracks, not to mention doing so while on guard duty.

But Jamail can also thank the Marines for a lot. Those five Fs from his freshman year at Texas were going to be a deterrent to getting into law school. Jamail went to see a Dean at the University of Texas who had been a Major in the Army during the First World War. Jamail explained that he had left school to join the Marines. The Dean told him that his only nephew had been killed in the Marine Corps. The next thing Jamail knew, the Dean was signing five drop-slips that had been back-dated to 1942 and Jamail was soon enrolled in the University of Texas Law School.

Law school didn’t fare any better than the Marines in teaching Jamail to do as he was told. He finished school and went to work for the law firm that would become Fulbright and Jaworski. Jamail described his first day at the firm in My Trials and Jubilations: “This fierce-looking woman opened the office door and laid down a list of rules: ‘You will not sign any documents that leave this office. You will use this stamp. You will not this and you will not that.’” Jamail quit. His career there lasted twenty minutes.

After a brief stint in the Houston District Attorney’s office, Jamail went into private practice, describing himself as a “sore-back lawyer.” Of course, his cases went on to involve much more than sore backs. As I mentioned, Jamail has rung the bell for $14 billion in his career. According to My Trials and Jubilations, he has been lead counsel in over 200 personal injury cases where recovery by verdict or settlement was in excess of $1,000,000. And that statistic comes from a book that was published a decade ago. Jamail has tried over 500 cases. Three of his cases resulted in product recalls – Remington 660; Honda All Terrain Three-Wheel Vehicle; and prescription drug Parlodel. To be sure, Jamail is a trial lawyer. As he told the ABA Journal in 2009, “They invented this new term ‘litigator.’ What the &%$#@* is a litigator?”

What made Jamail a household name (even more than he was) was his 1985 verdict in Pennzoil Company v. Texaco, Inc. On its face it has the appearance of being a very complicated case. Pennzoil sued Texaco for fraudulently inducing Getty Oil to break a contract that would have given Pennzoil one billion barrels of oil reserves. The trial lasted five and one-half months and produced 25,000 pages of trial transcript. But Jamail made it easy to understand, turning it into a case with a simple theme – keeping your word. In the end the jury awarded Pennzoil $7.53 billion in compensatory damages and $3 billion in punitive damages. With interest the total ball of wax was $11.12 billion – the largest civil award in history. What’s even more staggering than $11 billion is that we’re talking here about 1985. That was back in the day when a billion dollars was so unusual that it was common to add the clarifier – that’s a billion with a B.

Jamail has been dubbed “The King of Torts” by The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and others. I asked Jamail if he thinks it’s more difficult for him to try cases with his reputation because his adversary may work twice as hard to win as it would be a trophy to say that they beat Joe Jamail. His response was immediate. “I don’t think it. I know it!”

In the first part of My Trials and Jubilations, Jamail sets out vignettes – three, four, five pages each – about some of his cases. They generally involve ones where Jamail has represented people who have been seriously injured by a variety of causes. Some of them resulted in what were record verdicts at the time. But they have something else in common other than Jamail securing compensation for his clients. You can tell from Jamail’s descriptions of them that he had an emotional attachment to his client. Jamail told me that students are taught in law school not to become emotionally attached to their cases. “&%$#@*,” he said. He has been quoted as saying that if you are not emotionally involved, your client is not getting your best effort. Unless you are emotionally involved, Jamail told me, you can’t make the jury feel involved in the case. Along these lines, Jamail said that, as a trial lawyer, you must bring all of your life’s experiences to the courtroom. This is how you come to understand what motivates people and to get the jury to react a certain way.

Jamail makes clear in his book that he doesn’t set out to bankrupt companies. Although he was quick to point out to me that he has done it three times. All bankruptcy does is make it more complicated to collect a judgment he told me. That being so, much of Jamail’s clients’ money has surely been paid by insurers. I asked him what percentage of his $14 billion in judgments and settlements has come in the form of checks written by insurance companies. He went silent. I could hear him thinking over the phone. Finally, after this long pause, he proclaimed: “&%$#@*. I never thought about that.”

You can’t talk about Joe Jamail’s money without also talking about how much of it he has given away. A lot. Much of it to the University of Texas. According to an ESPN story from a couple of years ago, Jamail and his late wife, Lee, have given away $230 million. And while Jamail has a college football stadium named for him, athletic funding is just a small piece. He told ESPN that for every dollar he’s given to athletics, about 27 have been given to higher education or medical research.

It’s hard to keep track of it all, but there’s the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center, Joseph D. Jamail Center for Legal Research, Lee Hage Jamail Academic Room, Joseph D. Jamail Pavilion and thousands of students owe their University of Texas education to scholarship money provided by the Jamails. Also, according to the ESPN story, one-in-three graduate nursing students are on Jamail scholarships. And then there’s the University of Texas Law School, where the library has benefited from the Jamails’ generosity, as well as support helping to fund more than ten academic chairs, five professorships and several student scholarships. And somewhere along the way Rice, Texas Southern and skateboarders in Houston have benefitted from the Jamails’ philanthropy. [According to awesome-skateboard.com, the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark, built in 2008, is “huge and totally rad.” Jamail contributed $1.5 million toward the $2.7 million project.]

The University of Texas Longhorns football team plays its games in the Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium at Joe Jamail Field. When someone has a 100,000 seat football stadium named for them there is one question that has to be asked – where do you sit for games? Jamail told me that he has a suite on the 40 yard line, next to the athletic director and he can host 15 or 16 guests per game. It’s “quite nice” he said. And he also told me that he pays for it. After listening to his description of the suite I responded: “Mr. Jamail, I was expecting you to say ‘Anywhere I &%$#@* want.’” “Well I can,” he said. “But I’m not going to say that.”

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