The Magazine

In Defense (sort of) of Trial Lawyers

From the December 15, 2003 issue: Their excuses are well known, their virtues less so.

Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By WILLIAM TUCKER
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Often the first of their families to attend college, plaintiff lawyers are universally scornful of the Ivy League and other East Coast centers of privilege. Joe Jamail, the foul-mouthed Houston lawyer who won the $11 billion Texaco-Pennzoil case, nearly flunked out of law school at the University of Texas and displays a savage animosity towards New York lawyers. John O'Quinn still smarts because Democrats overlooked him in favor of New York über-advocate David Boies in arguing the 2000 Florida recount. "If I'd been representing them, Al Gore would be president right now," he says with finality.

Third, the new trial lawyers have rebelled against the staid old privilege-laden profession of law by openly becoming businessmen. "We're the first generation to approach the law from an entrepreneurial perspective," says Wayne Reaud, who made a billion on the Texas Gulf Coast suing oil companies for asbestos exposure. "It used to be that a lawyer would win one big case and then buy a thousand acres in West Texas and watch his cows grow," says Reaud, whose father was a pipe fitter. "We were the first to put our winnings back into the next case. That made it possible to do a lot of things that hadn't been done before."

Finally, the most successful trial lawyers are generally socially conservative. Jere Beasley, the Alabama attorney who won $675 million from Monsanto for PCB contamination in Anniston, supports Alabama chief justice Roy Moore's efforts to display his Ten Commandments statue in the courthouse. "I think his beliefs are sincere," he says. Wayne Reaud displays a large crucifix on the wall behind his desk in his Beaumont office. Mark Bocci originally wanted to be a priest. Talk to any one of them long enough and they will tell you they feel a religious calling to their profession. "I'm basically a preacher," says O'Quinn, who often strikes an evangelistic tone in front of juries. "I'm like a man preaching about Christ who really believes in Christ. I happen to believe in it myself but that's not the point of our discussion. Go ask Rev. Ed Young, who has a parish of 25,000 here in Houston. He'll tell you I'm doing exactly what God wants me to be doing."

Granted this all smacks of religiosity--the same kind that prompts baseball players to point to the sky after they hit a home run. But it is a religiosity that is utterly American--and particularly prevalent in the states where the Republican party now draws its strength.

SO WHAT IS IT that places the trial lawyers so irrevocably in the Democratic party, and makes them generally regard Republicans as the scum of the earth?

The single dividing issue is the trial lawyers' view of corporate America. To trial lawyers, corporations are the incarnation of evil, sinister megaliths directed by amoral men who use their monstrous power to get away with enormous crimes. This is a rebirth of early 20th-century Populism, but with a twist. The Populists never dragged corporate America before the civil bar, stripping them of billions in the process.

"What kind of country are we living in?" asks John O'Quinn, his voice rising with the emotion that has swayed many a jury. "Was Lincoln just a fool when he said this is a country of, by, and for the people? Or did he say something that we can really believe in, that little children can recite with pride in school? No! This is a country of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the filthy rich corporations. A corporation can be a criminal--an absolute criminal--and nobody can do a damned thing about it!"

Part of this rant is for show. But trial lawyers also encounter corporate America in a way that few other individuals ever do--through its legal departments. Corporate defense attorneys commonly pursue the strategy of wearing down opponents, filing motion after motion, and challenging every single aspect of a case before anything ever gets to trial. They pursue General Patton's tactic of making the enemy spend all his resources before we spend all of ours. (Cynics argue that corporate defense attorneys prefer this strategy because they are being paid by the hour.) Through most of the history of product liability and other tort cases, the plaintiff bar has been completely outgunned by corporate treasuries.