When he answers the door of his mansion—and, let’s face it, there’s no other way to describe a 9,742-square-foot palazzo in the swanky River Oaks section of Houston—the state’s best-known, least-loved, and most-feared plaintiffs lawyer greets me warmly. He extends a hand, ushers me inside, and after offering me a cold drink, pours his long, lean frame into a comfy chair. We make polite chitchat as if we’ve known each other for years, and I begin to wonder if I’ve come to the right place. For weeks, in preparation for my visit, I’ve been reading all the negative stories about him, and I’ve steeled myself for a showdown with a drawling pit bull—a cross between Atticus Finch and Attila the Hun. Instead, sitting before me is Mr. Congeniality.
Of course, few have gotten rich, and many have gotten poor, underestimating John O’Quinn, whose career has seen its share of high points. He won record-breaking multimillion-dollar jury awards against corporate giants Tenneco and Amoco in 1988 and 1993, respectively, and in recent years has extracted multimillion-dollar settlements from the breast-implant, tobacco, and diet-pill industries. But there have also been lows: for instance, the State Bar of Texas’ attempt—unsuccessful, it turned out—to disbar him over charges that he improperly solicited clients in South Carolina following an airplane crash, leading the Wall Street Journal to publish an undeniably mean-spirited series of articles questioning his ethics, his character, and everything else short of his right to take a breath. He has also been sued by former clients and former employees who say he cheated them out of money they were owed (he denies it). Then there are the stories about his personal life—the two stints in alcohol rehab, the drunken driving charge that went nowhere, his much-gossiped-about split last year from his wife.
When the tape recorder rolls and we get down to business, stories of the bad old days take second chair to the good times—the passion he feels as the champion of the little guy and the energetic broadsides he levels at his many enemies, to whom he gives no ground over the course of the morning and into the early afternoon. “They feel they can weaken my resolve if they demean me,” he says. “Maybe they can weaken my passion if they torment me and dishearten me. They want to make me say, ‘I don’t need this aggravation. Why don’t I just quit?’” Five minutes with the guy