November 2018

Meet the Flamboyant, Fame-Seeking Heavyweight Champ of Texas Personal-Injury Law

Is Thomas J. Henry an unrepentant huckster, or is he a righteous warrior for the little guy? Can he be both?

Thomas J. Henry is rich. He makes no secret of this fact.

In the field of Texas personal-injury law, which has long been populated with big spenders prone to displays of pharaonic excess, Henry is the current heavyweight champion. He is the driver of the fanciest cars, the thrower of the most lavish parties, the bestower of the most conspicuous gifts. When Henry wanted to advertise his namesake firm during the 2014 Super Bowl, he ran a commercial that showed him deplaning a Learjet and ducking into a silver Rolls-Royce. When Henry’s daughter Maya turned fifteen, he threw her a quinceañera that cost $6 million, complete with performances by the rapper Pitbull and the former boy-bander Nick Jonas. When Henry moved to San Antonio from his longtime home of Corpus Christi, he kicked off his residency by donating $1.2 million to the insurgent district attorney campaign of Nico LaHood (LaHood won). When Henry gave away 10,000 frozen turkeys last Thanksgiving in the South Texas towns of Alice, San Diego, Freer, and Corpus Christi, he traveled between locations in a helicopter, touching down amid the crowds so he could shake hands, pose for pictures, and distribute a few birds himself.

I first met Henry on a muggy Sunday in mid-May, shortly after he’d stepped out of a bright yellow Ferrari, one of “ten to twelve” such Italian sports cars that he owns. (Who can count?) Henry had driven from his Hill Country home to San Antonio’s sole Ferrari dealership to participate in an event for the Ferrari Kid, a charity that offers “over-the-top celebrity day experiences” to children with cancer and other serious illnesses. That morning, the Ferrari kids would be paired with local Ferrari owners, who would drive them around in their cars for fifteen minutes, then escort them through the high-end Shops at La Cantera outdoor mall, where a red-carpet arrival, an Italian lunch, and a salon session awaited.

Henry posing with Serenity Blue Suarez at the Ferrari Kid event.

Courtesy of Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys

Henry hadn’t come alone. Pulling into the dealership behind him in other Henry-owned Ferraris were Henry’s wife, Azteca, and their two children, seventeen-year-old Maya and eighteen-year-old Thomas Jr. (Henry has five older children by two previous marriages.) The Henrys looked fabulous. Azteca was wearing a pink Balenciaga hat. Maya opted for Dolce & Gabbana sneakers and a Chanel backpack. Thomas Jr. wore Gucci socks and limited-edition Nikes. Henry, who at five feet, six inches tall is four inches shorter than his daughter, looked more understated than the rest of his brood. He wore a gray V-neck T-shirt, black slacks, and dark sneakers (“Adidas for Porsche,” he’d later tell me). As soon as the four family members had gotten out of their cars, a film crew swarmed around them to get them mic’ed up for that day’s shooting of Hangin’ With Los Henrys, an internet reality-show series that Henry finances and produces himself.

The Henrys were then seven episodes into the second season of the show, which they bill as the story of a “blended Mexican-American family.” (Azteca is Mexican American. Henry is a gringo.) The first season, which debuted in December 2017, tracked the Henrys as they planned Thomas Jr.’s $4 million eighteenth birthday party (a central drama was the headache of booking the rap group Migos). The second season features Henry’s own $4.5 million fifty-sixth birthday party in Miami, at which hip-hop artists Cardi B and DJ Khaled performed. Hangin’ With Los Henrys isn’t yet threatening the Kardashians’ reality-TV empire, but every episode in the first season had racked up over a million views on YouTube, and the second season was drawing big numbers as well.

That day, the Hangin’ With Los Henrys cameras would follow the family members as they chaperoned the Ferrari kids through San Antonio. Henry had been paired with Serenity Blue Suarez, a nine-year-old with alopecia universalis, an autoimmune disease that causes full-body hair loss, and he approached her with a grin and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He bent down to Blue’s eye level to welcome her, insisted that she get behind the wheel while the car was parked, and made sure she knew that they’d be driving really fast.

But Blue was a veteran of the Ferrari Kid circuit, and by the time she and Henry arrived at the Shops at La Cantera for their lunch, the girl’s attention had begun to wander. Soon she scampered off to play with a friend who’d joined her there, leaving Henry to pick at his salad until a series of far more deferential adults stopped by the table to seize a moment with him.

Henry boasts that his personal-injury firm is the largest in Texas. He employs 130 lawyers, wins big jury verdicts, and plans to expand his reach far beyond the South Texas market, where he’s been active for the past three decades. His TV ads are omnipresent on local television, and his ostentatious spending has made him the subject of national headlines—a rich guy who’s famous mostly for being rich. But when Henry looks at himself, he sees a self-made man, an up-from-the-bootstraps striver who is not so far removed from his early life as a Kansas farm boy who hauled five-gallon buckets of slop a quarter mile every morning to feed the pigs. And as Henry held court at the Shops at La Cantera, he wanted to make sure everyone stopping by knew just what kind of grit he valued.

“If I need a trainer, then I’m mentally weak,” Henry growled, when Manny Diotte, the founder and CEO of the Ferrari Kid, made some innocuous chitchat about exercise.

“The way society has developed, [young lawyers] have been coached to have a work-life balance,” he told another visitor. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t expect to be at the apex of your profession.”

An hour later, he was back in his Ferrari, roaring toward his house near Boerne, still talking about the value of hard work. His father, Frank, had been a tough taskmaster, a Korea and Vietnam veteran who expected a lot from his son. Frank had settled his wife and six kids near Abilene, Kansas, toward the end of his military career, looking for a simpler life. And from second grade until high school, Henry’s days had been consumed by chores around the farm, where the family raised cattle, pigs, and chickens and bred German shepherds and Saint Bernards. When the family moved to Corpus in 1976, Frank made it clear that Henry would be paying for his own things. “My car, my clothes, everything,” Henry recalled. He got stock-room jobs at Kroger and Albertsons.

“My dad’s favorite line to me is ‘It’s not how much money you have, it’s what you save,’’ Henry said. He grinned and swung his $400,000 sports car up toward his hilltop mansion.

Henry presenting a check to nonprofit Elf Louise to purchase Christmas gifts for the needy.

Courtesy of Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys

Henry delivering a turkey at his annual giveaway.

Courtesy of Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys

Left:

Henry presenting a check to nonprofit Elf Louise to purchase Christmas gifts for the needy.

Courtesy of Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys

Right:

Henry delivering a turkey at his annual giveaway.

Courtesy of Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys

Thomas J. Henry is a brand. And Henry the man has built Henry the brand by saturating the airwaves. He is not, however, a “Jerry Springer type,” he is quick to point out. He doesn’t scream into a camera about how he’s going to Fight! For! You! He has never had a nickname like “the Texas Hammer” (Houston personal-injury lawyer Jim Adler) or “the Texas Law Hawk” (Fort Worth criminal defender Bryan E. Wilson). In sophisticated legal circles, such bluster is greeted with a combination of chuckles and eye rolls, and Henry says that he pretty much agrees with this assessment. He thinks that personal-injury lawyers who promote themselves in that manner are “comical,” “trashy,” and “embarrassing to the legal profession.”

Henry’s branding has a different tone—cooler, steelier, fancier. Sure, Henry has a nationwide toll-free number you can call, and a baritone-voiced narrator on his ads makes sure you’re aware that “attorneys are available 24/7, nights and weekends.” But Henry’s most high-profile TV spots strive for the cinematic. His face is bathed in dramatic lighting. Large numerals representing multimillion-dollar jury verdicts flash on-screen. Sometimes Henry will be striding across a stage telling the story of a former client. Other times, he will be captured staring purposefully into the middle distance. He is always impeccably dressed. Henry wants the ads to convey seriousness of purpose.

“He’s really a marketing guru,” Bob Hilliard, a prominent Corpus Christi trial attorney who has collaborated with Henry on several cases, told me.

“You see some lawyers’ commercials on TV that make you just cringe because they’re so cheesy. But Tom does it well.”

When Henry started his own firm, in Corpus Christi in 1993, he was 31 years old, basically unknown, and faced the question that all new lawyers face: How do you get clients? Personal-injury lawyers make most of their money by suing (or threatening to sue) corporations on behalf of individuals, and acquiring such clients can be tricky.

Corporate lawyers who help structure mergers and acquisitions can drum up business by belonging to the same country clubs and nonprofit boards as their potential clients. Personal-injury lawyers like Henry don’t always have the benefit of those networks. While anyone can be an accident victim, the demographics skew to the less affluent. If you can’t afford the safest new car or you have a long commute to your job or you work in a dangerous occupation, then your chances of ending up as the client of a personal-injury firm are higher. (As one Houston personal-injury attorney colorfully put it, “How many wealthy white people do you know who’ve lost a leg at their job?”) What’s more, accident victims usually haven’t thought about legal representation before their accidents, and they often need to find someone to take their cases quickly.

South Texas was one of the best places in the country to practice personal-injury law. It was also awash in illegal ambulance chasing.

South Texas in the early nineties was one of the best places in the country to practice personal-injury law. Juries in the area were famous for awarding huge verdicts to plaintiffs, and the American Tort Reform Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, would later dub the region a “judicial hellhole” and “one of the toughest places in America for corporate defendants to receive a fair trial.” But South Texas was also a highly competitive market, and it was awash in illegal ambulance chasing, where opportunistic nonlawyers, known as case runners, would show up in the hospital rooms of accident victims, sign them up as clients, and then sell the cases to real lawyers.

Henry didn’t relish the idea of “swimming upstream against illegal people all day long,” but he wasn’t going to take referrals from case runners either. He also wasn’t going to be satisfied with a modest practice and a modest life.

“Tom realized that there are a lot of good lawyers out there whose names will never be known,” Mike Henry, one of Henry’s older brothers, who worked with him for two decades, told me. The surest way Henry would avoid that fate was to embrace advertising, which he began to do his first week in business. He started with billboards. Then he bought ads on a public-access TV station that had hours of dead airtime. Then he purchased spots on the local ABC newscast.

At the time, “it was still kind of an exotic, strange thing to see lawyers advertise,” said Mikal Watts, a San Antonio lawyer and major Democratic donor who has known Henry since the late nineties. For most of the twentieth century, in fact, no lawyers in the United States advertised. In 1908, the American Bar Association condemned soliciting clients through advertising as “unprofessional,” and for the next seven decades, the rule remained unchallenged. Then, in 1977, the Supreme Court, by a 5–4 margin, declared lawyer advertisements to be constitutionally protected. The court decided in favor of two Phoenix attorneys who’d been suspended from practicing by the local bar after running an ad in the newspaper that read, “Do you need a lawyer?” Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the majority, argued that advertising would help potential clients obtain competent counsel and that the idea that lawyers were somehow above other trades in society was an “anachronism.” “Bankers and engineers advertise, and yet these professions are not regarded as undignified,” Blackmun wrote.

Many in the legal profession did not accept Blackmun’s arguments. Lawyers who advertised were considered the profession’s “low men” in the eyes of the establishment, or a bunch of “huckster-shysters” in the memorable coinage of Chief Justice Warren Burger, who had dissented bitterly in the decision. Burger went on, after his retirement, to decry the fact that legal services were now marketed like “other commodities, from mustard, cosmetics, and laxatives to used cars.”

Henry didn’t care. In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, he was busy blanketing the city of Corpus Christi with his name. He placed an ad on the cover of the Corpus phone book. He put up a sign for his business at his own personal address. In 2002, his television commercials ran for five-and-a-half minutes during the Corpus-area Super Bowl broadcast. (There was a total of eight-and-a-half minutes available to local advertisers.) By that point, he was a hometown household name. People became familiar with the sight of the brash attorney buying rounds of drinks at the Tom Foolery bar.

Henry had developed a knack for getting his name in the papers. In 2002, with a political battle over medical-malpractice reform beginning to rage in the state, Henry had a large sign placed outside his office, directly across the street from Corpus Christi’s Driscoll Children’s Hospital that read, “Loving parents always protect their children and justice demands that children be protected.” It listed Henry’s specialties in cases involving cerebral palsy, brain injury, product liability, and amputation. Doctors revolted, blaming Henry for encouraging a litigious culture that made it impossible for them to work. But the flap over the sign got Henry gallons of ink. In June of that year, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times ran a story about Henry’s “windfall” of free publicity, noting that the paper itself had already dedicated four front-page articles to Henry’s sign.

Henry knew that his business came down to a simple formula: the more he advertised, the more cases he’d get, and the more cases he’d get, the more lawyers he’d need. Every year, he spent more on marketing than he did the previous year. In the late nineties, there were only three lawyers working at the firm. By the time Henry moved to San Antonio in 2014, he employed more than 40 staff attorneys—a number that he has since tripled.

Since arriving in the Alamo City, Henry has rarely wasted an opportunity to make, or draft off of, the news. He employs a public relations firm that sends out press releases about his family birthday parties and invites paparazzi to them. Last year, little more than a week after the Sutherland Springs shootings, Henry called a press conference on the steps of the Bexar County courthouse to express his sympathy for the victims’ families and announce only that his firm had “received some inquiries.”

But television remains the place where most Texans learn about Henry. For the first half of 2018, law firms nationwide spent $472 million on TV commercials, according to Kantar Media, and Henry’s firm alone spent $4.8 million on 46,594 commercial airings, ranking it tenth in the nation. Hilliard, the Corpus attorney and sometimes-colleague of Henry’s, marvels at the scale of the marketing effort and how famous it’s made Henry in South Texas. “There’s a whole generation of folks in this area where he’s the default guy to call if they don’t know a lawyer.”

Henry filming a 2018 Super Bowl commercial.

Courtesy of Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys

Thomas J. Henry says he’s ready to fight for you. Even though most of his cases settle at some point, he argues that his willingness to go to trial is what makes his practice work. “If you think everything’s going to settle, then you become a doormat lawyer,” Henry told me. “Lawyers that prepare to settle, they’re really just shitty lawyers, if you ask me. You don’t want to be that lawyer, because insurance companies know it. They smell it. You want to be the kind of lawyer that prepares for trial all the time.”

Henry was sitting at his glass desk in a low-rise building in an office park in northwest San Antonio. The Ferragamo loafers he wore were a nod to his Learjets-and-Rolls-Royces image, but the office itself, with its drop ceiling, gray industrial carpet, and whiteboard in the corner, looked underfurnished, almost spartan (Henry called it “minimalist modern”). There were no towering shelves of legal books or photographs of Henry with dignitaries. Henry had been in the office for three years, but it looked like he’d been too busy to fully settle in.

Henry told me that he moved to San Antonio because he and Azteca wanted to give Maya and Thomas Jr. “an opportunity to live in a bigger city and see what that was like.” But there’s no mistaking that the family’s move to San Antonio—a far larger market than Corpus Christi—coincided with a restructuring of Henry’s business that allowed it to handle a higher and higher volume of cases.

Henry still takes big-dollar lawsuits to trial himself, but as his firm has ballooned in size he also spends his time at the helm of a massive law machine, directing his team of attorneys. The junior lawyers with whom I saw him interact all addressed him as “sir.”

When a young lawyer named Claire Partin entered Henry’s office to discuss a car-wreck case that she was preparing for trial, she knew she’d be getting a grilling. Henry, peering at the case details on his iPad, wanted Partin to walk him through her battle plan. Partin’s client had been hit by a drunk driver, and the injured woman was slated to go into surgery. Henry quizzed Partin on just how she would be presenting the details of the operation to the jury.

He employs a public relations firm that sends out press releases about his family birthday parties and invites paparazzi.

“What kind of surgery is this?” Henry asked a little too casually.

Partin fidgeted. “A lumbar . . . decompression . . . and laminectomy,” she answered, as if sensing a trick question.

“No,” Henry replied. “She’s having spine surgery. The word is ‘spine.’ It’s not disc surgery, and it’s not back surgery, it’s spine surgery.” He paused. “What did the disc push up against?”

Partin was ready. “Her spinal cord.”

“What do they use to—in the surgery room—to get down to the spinal cord?

Do you know what they use?”

“A drill,” Partin said.

Henry nodded. “You need to go over the informed-consent terms so the jury understands that this is an invasive spinal surgery that takes hours and hours. You can be paralyzed. You can be killed. You can get bad blood. I mean, there are lots of risks, and obviously most [procedures] go very, very well, but if you read that informed consent, it’s like, whoa.”

Partin is what Henry terms a “G3” lawyer, in the firm’s quasi-military parlance. When potential clients call the firm, their cases quickly get triaged. The smallest cases go to the most junior lawyers, known as G1s, who will then try to seek a settlement. If the G1s can’t resolve the case through negotiation, it will advance to the G2s and the G3s, mid-level lawyers who will then put the case on the path to a trial. At the top of the pyramid are the G4s, Henry’s “rock star road warriors,” the senior litigators who jet around the country taking depositions and filing restraining orders for evidence in the cases that have the most potential value.

Where a case first lands in that hierarchy doesn’t necessarily have to do with its severity. “Say this person in this car over here hits you real bad, and that person makes minimum wage and has $30,000 in insurance—big injury, small case,” Henry explained. That might be one for the G1s. An accident victim who suffers a much less severe injury after being rear-ended by an eighteen-wheeler owned by a large corporation—that’s a G4 case, a potential multimillion-dollar suit.

Henry readily admits that the setup isn’t fair; he just accepts it as harsh economic truth. “The reality of life is that people have to have resources if they’re going to compensate you when they make mistakes. Do you know how many people are killed and maimed by people who have nothing, no insurance? It’s horrible.”

Henry works most closely with the G4s, and one of their most important traits is the ability to stare down the defense. When Henry talks to attorneys about joining him in the G4 division, he tells them, “You need to be able to reject the $1 million, $2 million, $5 million, $10 million, $20 million, $30 million, $40 million offer. You say no and you don’t blink.”

When it works, the jury verdicts can be astonishingly large. There was the $24 million verdict in favor of a woman who was struck by a Coca-Cola truck driver who was using her cellphone. The $45.3 million verdict for a woman who was rear-ended by an SUV driven by an oil-field services worker who had been talking on a hands-free cellphone. The $67 million verdict for a man who was paralyzed when the company vehicle in which he was riding made an ill-considered U-turn into fast-moving traffic.

Those numbers make good advertising copy—and Henry likes to use them in his commercials—but the reality is that in Texas, the big dollar amounts tend not to stick. This is largely a consequence of tort reform laws passed in the Legislature in 1995 and 2003 that severely restrict medical malpractice payouts, place a hard cap on punitive damages, and, through a doctrine known as proportionate liability, shield corporations and their insurance companies from taking on full responsibility for an accident. Juries award damages without being given full knowledge of such limitations, and judges reviewing big-dollar verdicts routinely shave off millions in damages simply to put them into compliance with Texas law. The judge in the case where Henry’s firm won the $45.3 million verdict, for instance, quickly slashed the punitive damages by nearly $25 million. And that’s all before the cases resurface in the Texas appeals courts, which are famously business friendly.

A still from Henry’s 2018 Super Bowl commercial.

Courtesy of Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys

“There’s a saying in Texas, by attorneys that do fairly well and get good verdicts, that once you get to the Texas Supreme Court, there’s a nine out of ten chance they’ll take [the verdict] from you,” Henry told me. Still, getting big verdicts matters. Even most of Henry’s cases that make it through a jury trial will ultimately close with a settlement at some point during the process, and the original verdict serves as a starting point for those negotiations. Henry’s $67 million verdict ended up paying out $9 million, which was considered a big enough success that Texas Lawyer, a trade publication, named Henry and his co-counsel its litigators of the week.

As Henry’s reputation has grown with his verdicts, so has his ambition. When he came to San Antonio, he “made it a point to swallow this market.” He has recently opened offices in Austin and El Paso, and he wants to swallow those markets too. Ultimately, he says, his “biggest goal is to have an organization of one thousand lawyers.” At that point, he imagines, his firm might well have swallowed Dallas and Houston too.

Thomas J. Henry is enjoying the view. “This is why I came here,” he said one day on the stone patio of his “Euro-Texan” mansion. A zero-edge pool dissolved into an unblemished stretch of Hill Country scenery sprawling west to the horizon.

Henry’s favorite dog, a mutt named Daisy, scampered around, nuzzling any living thing that crossed her path. Maya and Azteca were inside the house with the Hangin’ With Los Henrys crew filming interviews for the second season. And Henry, free of reality-show obligations, returned again to the subject of his hardscrabble upbringing and how it has informed his work. “When you’re growing up banging on doors to collect a check for throwing papers, you know what it’s like to be poor, and you know what it’s like to have people treat you like you’re inferior,” he said. The Henry family hadn’t been destitute. Frank was an officer and then had a pension. But they also had six mouths to feed. “We certainly didn’t have two pairs of tennis shoes,” Mike told me. Sometimes Henry would show up to school with pig feces smeared on his jeans, and the kids from fancier homes would laugh at him.

“So when you represent people that have been working their whole lives, and maybe they don’t have an education, and not only did they not do anything wrong, but then they’re being treated like shit? Yeah. That torques me off like there’s no tomorrow,” Henry said. “And I can do something about it.”

Henry sees himself as battling the snobs on behalf of the little guy. Corporate defense attorneys are often the product of top law schools, judicial clerkships, and white-shoe firms. Plaintiffs’ lawyers tend to be more rough-hewn. Henry got bad grades at Richard King High School, went to the University of Texas at El Paso , and earned his law degree at St. Mary’s University, in San Antonio. He never clerked for a judge and never worked at a white-shoe firm.

He hates when lawyers “go out of their way to use language that is over the top by virtue of their education. I just think that it’s almost kind of rude to do that.” He relishes “waking up every day to insurance companies and lawyers telling me to screw myself.” He tells his attorneys that they need to understand that they work for their clients. “I don’t care if they have no education,” he says. “You need to show them that you care for them.”

Some plaintiffs’ attorneys refer to their vocation, with a touch of irony, as doing the Lord’s work. Henry does not use those terms. But, he told me, “If I’m guilty of one thing, I’m guilty of helping a lot of people.” Humanitarians don’t triage their cases by their potential economic value, of course, but Henry’s peers don’t doubt the sincerity of his intent.

“On our side of the docket, I think we all look at ourselves in that regard,” Bill Edwards, the widely respected dean of the Corpus Christi plaintiffs’ bar, told me. After all, Henry makes money only if he gets money for his clients, and his most high-value clients are working-class people who have suffered a calamity that’s at least partly the fault of an unfeeling corporation. And Henry can sound like Ralph Nader when he talks about how plaintiffs’ lawyers can not only hold companies accountable but force them to adopt safer practices.

Still, it can be jarring to hear Henry talk like this when he’s sitting just yards away from a garage full of Ferraris. Do populist heroes give themselves $4.5 million birthday parties? Do they broadcast that lavish spending at every opportunity? Lots of rich people throw expensive private parties, but Henry makes his expensive parties into public marketing opportunities. His PR firm pays for celebrities to attend, invites photographers and reporters to capture the proceedings, and makes sure that items about who came and which artists played get placed in gossip outlets like the New York Post’s “Page Six” and London’s Daily Mail.

Hangin’ With Los Henrys is the ultimate expression of all of that excess. In one episode during the first season, Thomas Jr. received a Ferrari 488 Spider and an IWC Portugieser Tourbillon watch for his birthday. As San Antonio Express-News columnist Brian Chasnoff observed, the Ferrari alone was “worth more than five times the average San Antonio salary.” And yet, Henry makes no apologies and stresses that Hangin’ With Los Henrys presents him exactly as he wants to be seen. “Azteca and I, we’re never going to let some production company create an image,” he told me. (The series is currently unavailable on YouTube as the family negotiates with another distribution channel.) When I asked him about his Learjet-and-Rolls-Royce Super Bowl commercial, he told me that it implied, “I’m not a poor boy handling your case against the biggest corporations and insurance companies.” He said that it was “kind of a subliminal message, and I think it hits pretty clearly.”

The subliminal message of Henry’s public life isn’t just that he’s “not a poor boy” but that he’s a particularly un-snooty kind of rich. When Henry throws parties, he hires hip-hop stars and serves Jell-O shots. When Henry produces his reality show, he plays up the San Antonio location and his wife’s Mexican American heritage. He doesn’t have a wine cellar (though he does own a Picasso). His idea of charitable giving is dispensing thousands of frozen turkeys directly to South Texas families, not getting his name etched above the entrance of a library.

But a $6 million quinceañera? Really? As Henry and I sat on his patio, I was still wondering about the sheer audacity of his spending. Surely, there were better uses for that money. You could buy a lot of frozen turkeys with $6 million.

Henry felt no need to apologize. “You know, you could throw a $50,000 quinceañera or you could throw a $200 quinceañera,” he said. “But I wanted to do something that was phenomenal for her, because my daughter is a really good girl. I know a lot of us parents say that about our children. I know they do . . .  But I was going to give my daughter a big quinceañera, and I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks.”

“Thomas J. Henry is the man tonight! He’s the man!” shouted the comedian George Lopez, dressed in all black, as he stood onstage at the Hemisfair Ballroom, inside the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in downtown San Antonio.

Azteca and Thomas J. Henry, their son Thomas Jr., daughter Maya, and Azteca’s mother, Teresa.

Photograph by Matt Rainwaters

Lopez had been hired to emcee the Thomas J. Henry law firm’s twenty-fifth anniversary party on a Saturday night in mid-August, Henry’s biggest and most expensive party to date ($10 million, he said). Enrique Iglesias and Maroon 5 were set to perform. No detail had been overlooked. As guests stepped in from East Market Street, the scene inside the convention center looked like an Oscars after-party. First came a red carpet lined on either side with stone-faced men in tuxedos. Then there was a second red carpet, lined with hundreds of candles and neat rows of birch trees. Then, finally, there was the ballroom, which included a giant ice sculpture topped with the carved letters “TJH,” a bar where guests could pick up liquid nitrogen–chilled margarita shots in plastic beakers, and a sushi station at which an entire loin of bluefin tuna was exhibited for all to see.

Henry’s earlier parties had topped out at 200 guests. This one, with every employee and friend of his firm invited, swelled to a crowd of 1,200, and Henry’s staff was full of praise for their boss. A young attorney wearing a paisley tuxedo jacket said that Henry is a “serious dude. He doesn’t need to crack the whip. His reputation precedes him.” A Corpus Christi office manager in a multicolored sequined dress told me that Henry “does so much for his firm and his people.”

Henry’s driver, Greg Ahlas, a hulking Gulf War veteran and former security contractor who told me that he was “part of the hunt for Bin Laden,” said that he’d worked with General David Petraeus, yet Henry was the best boss that he’d ever had. “I was prepared to hate him,” Ahlas said. “But he’s awesome. He’s badass. He would have made a great general.”

Henry himself spent much of his time shaking hands, posing for pictures, and smiling broadly, decked out in a midnight blue tuxedo jacket with an embroidered Dolce & Gabbana emblem on his chest. “I know them, Dolce and Gabbana!” he told me. “They made this for my short, round body!”

Soon Henry was in the VIP section, swaying to the music, and after Enrique Iglesias left the stage following an exuberant greatest-hits set, Lopez called
for Henry himself to take his bow.

“Every time I say ‘Thomas J. Henry,’ everyone is going to yell ‘el más chingón,’ ” Lopez commanded.

“Thomas J. Henry!”

¡El más chingón!” the crowd called out. 

“Thomas J. Henry!”

¡El más chingón!

By the time Henry took the stage, Lopez had gotten “el más chingón” chants going for Azteca and “that pinche loquito” Thomas Jr. and declared his intention to marry Azteca’s mom, Teresa. At what was ostensibly a work party, almost no employees of Henry’s firm were mentioned from stage by name. Henry was the unquestioned star.

“Let me tell you,” Henry began, “this is the biggest party I have ever thrown because you’re the biggest family I know.” He called for Azteca to come onstage to stand beside him. “Really, this is about all the folks that have, in one form or another, gotten us to twenty-five years. My law firm is warriors. We don’t take no for an answer—and we don’t take losses!” He looked out at the crowd, basking in the moment. “Get drunk!” he bellowed. “I will not remember tomorrow what the hell you did. Have a great night!”

For a while, Henry stood off in the wings, shimmying with Azteca as Maroon 5’s Adam Levine danced across the stage in brown velour pants. But when the rapper Lil Jon appeared after midnight, Henry could no longer remain on the sidelines. First he walked out onstage, standing next to Lil Jon as he worked the turntables. Then Henry and Lil Jon climbed on top of the DJ table, standing side by side. The tuxedo-clad personal-injury attorney was bobbing up and down like a shadowboxing prizefighter. The ground was shaking. The Hangin’ With Los Henrys camera crew darted through the crowd.

“Put your fucking hands up,” Lil Jon yelled, as the electric snare of his biggest hit, “Turn Down for What,” crashed through the hall. Lil Jon, lithe and limber, swayed gracefully. Henry, beside him, looked exhilarated. His bow tie was now undone, hanging from his collar. His shirt was unbuttoned to mid-chest. Sweat glistened on his brow. Henry circled his arms and jogged his legs in his shadow-boxing shimmy. Lopez, standing off to the side, filmed everything on his phone. It was 1:20 a.m., and the party seemed as if it might never end. At that moment, if you listened hard enough, you could hear Chief Justice Warren Burger rolling in his grave. But it didn’t matter. As the song ended, all of Henry’s employees erupted in a cheer.

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Thomas J. Henry! ¡El Más Chingón!”. Subscribe today.

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Tags: Society, george lopez, lil jon, thomas j. henry

Comments

  • Dan on the River

    (He thinks that personal-injury lawyers who promote
    themselves in that manner are “comical,” “trashy,” and “embarrassing to
    the legal profession.”)
    Really?? He is a paragon of good taste.

  • Jana Mae

    It’s amazing what feeding pigs and being treated as an inferior human will do to motivate a person. Good for him.

  • Henry

    How can you present the huckster vs. warrior question without identifying where all his money comes from? I am sure he takes 1/3 to 1/2 of every clients recovery, plus legal costs. He pays his G1s to G4s a salary and probably generous bonuses but keeps a large portion of everything they kill on his behalf. Personal injury work is like a snowball running downhill. The more fame or notoriety you achieve by advertising or results, the more potential plaintiffs line up at your door. The triage process allows him to pick the best claims with the highest potential payoffs. It sounds like the G4s actually try the cases. Before I buy the notion that he is not afraid to take every case to trial I would have liked to have heard about the big cases where he recovered a jury verdict and held onto it on appeal. Otherwise, this is all just fluff and Texas Monthly has been conned into free advertising.

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