The Greatest Lawyer Who Ever Lived

Legal disclaimer: “Salty language” doesn’t begin to describe the words Jamail uses in this piece. If you read on, which we recommend, and find yourself offended, you will have no appeal.

Joe Jamail should not have as much going on as he does. The Houston attorney, renowned as one of the state’s most aggressive litigators, generous philanthropists, ready Scotch drinkers, and artful deployers of the word “motherfucker”—and quite possibly the greatest trial lawyer in American history—was born in 1925. Leaving aside who was president at the time, I’ll note only that Ty Cobb hit .378 that year. At the risk of sounding ageist, it was a long damn time ago.

Yet there Jamail was, in a Beaumont courtroom in December 2013, sitting first chair at the plaintiff’s table in another wrongful death trial. In a blue suit and pink tie, he was leaning forward on folded arms, with a white legal pad, black felt-tip pen, and knobby cane laid out in front of him. He patted at snow-white hair and took in his surroundings with intent blue eyes. The courtroom was round, with dark wood panels behind the bench, fifty empty gallery seats on the wall facing it, and a bullring in the middle for the lawyers. The bailiff had just exited to fetch potential jurors.

It was a rare quiet moment. The previous two days, Jamail had been at the center of a blur of activity, arguing pretrial motions in this court, racing across town to argue another motion in federal court, instructing co-counsel on strategy during breaks, throwing back drinks at the Holiday Inn lobby bar in the evening, and staying glued to his iPhone every free moment in between. His close friend and client Mack Brown was under pressure to resign as the University of Texas’s head football coach, and Jamail was constantly calling either Brown or UT president Bill Powers, in Austin, working to ensure that Brown would be taken care of should he decide to step down. Repeatedly I’d heard him say, “I love you too, Coach,” as he hung up, then turn to Janet Hansen, a diminutive attorney with a pageboy haircut who’s assisted him in a hundred-plus trials over 32 years, and tell her he’d rethought which witness to call first. Then, if the hour was right, he’d take a slow sip of Scotch.

His focus was now squarely on combat, and the prospect had him gleeful. “I’ve only tried one other case with Walter,” he’d announced on the way into court, nodding to Walter Umphrey, the Beaumont plaintiff’s attorney who’d gotten rich from asbestos cases and as an architect of the late-nineties tobacco litigation. “It was a cop with a leg injury. His only damages were pain and suffering. The defense attorney offered to settle for $300,000 before trial and for $5 million at trial. I’ll let Walter tell you the rest.”

“Joe asked if they’d give us that in writing,” said Umphrey. “The defense attorney said, ‘What if I just read it into the record?’ and Joe said, ‘No, I need you to put it on paper—so you can wad it up and shove it up your ass.’ ”

Jamail laughed like it was all news to him, tucking his head in his shoulders but keeping his eyes up to watch the reaction of everyone in earshot. He grabbed my arm to make sure I heard the real punch line. “Then Walter and I took them for $16.6 million!”

Like that case, this one was against an eighteen-wheeler driver and the trucking company that employed him. Early on Thanksgiving Day 2012, a retired couple named Vincent and Debra Leggio had set out for Mississippi from their home in Pearland. They were headed for a Biloxi casino to celebrate their forty-second wedding anniversary, even though it meant spending Thanksgiving without their three kids for the first time. But a thick fog covered Interstate 10 that morning, and the Leggios were soon part of a hundred-car pileup. Their Suburban crashed into a stopped Ford Fusion, and shortly thereafter, an eighteen-wheeler plowed into them. The Leggios died instantly, the destruction so total that DPS troopers didn’t realize there was a vehicle under the rig until hours later. Within days, the Leggio children hired Umphrey to sue the truck’s driver, Richardo Kerr, and his trucking company, C. R. England. A few weeks later, Jamail was brought in. His executive assistant of 34 years, Denise Davidson, gets her hair done by Mrs. Leggio’s sister.

From a legal standpoint, it was a good case but not a great one. The liability of the driver would be easy to establish. The black box in his truck showed that Kerr had never applied the brakes. At the point of impact, he’d been traveling 72 miles per hour, the maximum speed allowed by a device on the truck’s engine, despite federal regulations that require commercial haulers to use caution in bad weather. The fact that the wreck occurred in a jurisdiction as notoriously plaintiff-friendly as blue-collar Beaumont also boded well for the Leggio kids. But the amount of money they could recover made the case worth a gamble by the defense. As cynical as it sounds, their parents’ sudden deaths meant there were no medical bills or pain and suffering damages. And the parents were in their sixties. Though their age guaranteed a certain sympathy from the jury, their children were adults and fairly well-off.

Merely getting Jamail’s signature on their pleadings added value to their claim. No lawyer has ever known the kind of success Jamail has. His $10.5 billion verdict in Pennzoil v. Texaco in 1985—still the largest jury award in history—was merely the most famous. He’s had five verdicts for over $100 million and more than two hundred for at least $1 million. Forbes has repeatedly declared him the world’s richest practicing attorney and estimates his net worth at $1.7 billion, a particularly staggering figure when you realize that most of it came from contingency fees from settlements and jury awards. That record has created a mystique around Jamail. Or if you’re less romantic, it gives him sixty-plus years of very real momentum, and in the courtroom it’s unmistakable. Two days before the start of the Leggio trial, the defense attempted to move the case to federal court. The motion was argued before Judge Ron Clark, a George W. Bush appointee who’d been a favorite of the tort reform lobby when he served in the Texas House in the nineties. In a quick decision from the bench, he stated that while he had the power to take the case, he would deny the motion based on its timing (the jury panel had already been seated in state court). But out of nowhere he added that he’d polled his clerks and staff, and they’d voted to sustain. “They wanted to keep it, and I think they would have learned a lot,” he said. “It would have been fun. I’ve never seen you try a case, Mr. Jamail.”

Now, back in state court, Jamail had to perform, and the defense’s last, best chance was that he wouldn’t be up to it. When jury selection finally got under way, he gave them hope. For one brief moment, Jamail seemed like an 88-year-old man. As 48 potential jurors took their seats, he shuffled slowly to a lectern in the center of the room, his pants cuffs clinging to the tops of his low-rise, zip-up boots. He smoothed out his hair, then spoke haltingly. He fumbled the Leggios’ introduction, calling two of the kids by their dead parents’ names. They looked at one another with deep concern. He referred to the trucking company as “C. R. Edwards.” The courtroom fell awkwardly quiet.

And then something clicked. Jamail says he can tell in a glance if he’s connecting with people. All he needs is eye contact. Looking at the panel, he started to feel it. He’d reviewed their questionnaires and knew who sat where, which panelist was the second-grade teacher, the refinery safety inspector, the hospital chaplain, and the surgical tech. He fed on their attention. He asked who remembered the pileup. Every one of them did. He asked if any had been in it. One woman raised her hand. She asked him, “What do I do if the evidence doesn’t match what I saw?” Another lawyer might have made her promise to set aside her impressions and moved on; Jamail started making his case.

“Was the fog dense?” he asked.

“My husband couldn’t see beyond our truck.”

“Was it so bad that anyone in it should have stopped or slowed down?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll do,” he said, prompting a big laugh.

For the next hour he lightly peppered them with questions, all without notes. He dropped in key facts about the case, always with assurances that he’d prove them at trial. And then he asked the defense attorneys to stand so he could introduce them. The two lawyers, Darrell Barger and Scott Edwards, seemed caught by surprise. Through pretrial hearings they’d presented a tight showhorse-and-workhorse routine. Barger was the salesman, with windblown gray hair and a bright-white toothpaste-ad smile. Edwards was larger, with short brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses, tightly bunched features, and a law-library tan. 

They stood up hurriedly and nodded when Jamail called their names, both with slight grimaces. As they sat back down, everyone knew the courtroom belonged to Jamail.

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