There is no dearth of stories to tell about Joe Jamail, the Lebanese Texan and self-described "sore-back lawyer" who this morning will defend in state appeals court here the astounding $10.5 billion verdict that marks the zenith of his mind-bending, muckraking career.
There's the story about his first big case, where his client was driving drunk one night, jumped a curb and hit a tree -- and Jamail sued the city for putting the tree in his way, and won.
And there's the story about how Jamail chose his profession. It has to do with a certain "well-endowed bar lady" Jamail fell in love with some years back at the Buckhorn Bar in Lafayette, La., and how, while he was busy mooning over her, a half-drunk attorney named Kaliste Saloon (honest) managed over a dozen whiskeys to convince him that the practice of law "was a pretty good racket."
Of more recent vintage, there's the tale about how on the night before opening arguments in Pennzoil v. Texaco -- the case that led to the unprecedented $10.5 billion award last fall and to today's appeal arguments -- Jamail was holed up in his immense house, writing, when Lone Star legends Willie Nelson and Darrell Royal, ex-football coach at the University of Texas, happened by in a white stretch limousine. After a few moments of mad pounding on the door, Jamail let them in.
"They kept me up all bleeping night long drinking," Jamail says. "An' I go over there the next morning to court bleary. Now that's how you get ready to argue a case."
Which brings us to story behind the Willie Nelson record hanging on Jamail's office wall. One night after Nelson had finished recording it, he played it for Jamail and Jamail told him, "Willie, this bleep will never sell." After "Stardust" sold millions, Nelson framed his platinum album and sent it to Jamail with a note that read, "You're right, Lawyer."
There are these stories, and many more. String them all together and what you have is a book, or maybe a movie starring Dustin Hoffman. sw,-2 sk,1 Which reminds Jamail of another story.
"Denise!" he shouts to his secretary. "Who was that writer for Dustin Hoffman? Well, anyway, he spent about 10 days with me and I told him, 'Look, I don't want to be in the movies. I don't want to do any of that bleep, please.' Bleep that, man, I got to try lawsuits. I enjoy tryin' lawsuits, and I want to keep doing that.
"And then the owner of Random House called me -- what's his name? -- offered me a million dollars to write this book on Pennzoil. I just thanked him a lot. I don't want to do that bleep. You know, that's bleep. First, what I really told him, I said, 'Now listen, I'm not a writer. If I wrote a book nobody would buy it. My mother's dead so you will not have a sale.' He was going to send this team of ghostwriters down here and knock the bleep out in about a week.
Jamail leans forward in his brass rocking chair.
"You're gonna have to edit me," Joe Jamail announces first thing in the morning, and the shame of it is, he's right.
The problem is not merely that Jamail rarely utters a sentence fit for publication in a family newspaper. Nor is it simply that the stories he likes to tell about himself and his compatriots in the plaintiffs' bar tend to stray into impolite subject matter.
The real trouble is that Joe Jamail has spent a lifetime calculating the effect of his outrageous words on ordinary people -- the sort of people who sit in jury boxes and pass judgment on his clients. And thus he has developed an acute self-consciousness about his own charisma. He is that rare person who understands the source of his power over others.
This is not to imply that Jamail is phony. No man could feign the life he has led -- raw, fervent, uninhibited. Jamail's favorite word for all things offkilter is "goofy," and it is an apt description of himself. It has the right tone: effervescent, buoyant, crazed but redeemable.
And yet there are deceptive contradictions about him. Most obviously, there is something cold and steely and lethal lurking beneath Jamail's glowing fac,ade. "Cute lawyers have never had much success with me," he says, "because I can get deadly serious." In trial, it will happen during cross-examination, when Jamail senses nervousness or fear in a witness and bores in until, as one of his colleagues puts it, "there is blood on the floor." Away from trial, his ebullience yields instantly to gravity if offense is given.
For example: It's early on a weekday afternoon, and Jamail has wandered over to the federal court building a few blocks from his corner office amid downtown Houston's clot of steel and glass towers. A friend and fellow personal injury trial lawyer has asked Jamail to give expert testimony as to the appropriateness of a $500,000 fee the friend is seeking in a bankruptcy case. Without compensation, Jamail has agreed to testify that half a million dollars is a fair price for his friend's services.
But the hearing is a fiasco. The judge is 45 minutes late, and when she finally arrives neither she nor the lawyers seem prepared to dispense with the day's business. At first, Jamail sits happily in the back row of the courtroom, regaling an audience of young attorneys with jokes and stories about the hemlines of certain cocktail waitresses and stewardesses he has known. Later, after the hearing drags on far longer than Jamail has anticipated, he mutters sourly, "This is what happens when lawyers get paid by the hour."
Finally, after nearly an hour of testimony and before Jamail can be called to testify, the judge shuts down the hearing and orders the whole matter postponed until next month (the lawyers have failed to notify all the parties about the hearing, she says). The lawyers storm into the hallway, furious -- and also embarrassed that they have wasted Jamail's valuable time. They vent their wrath on the judge in a series of angry one-liners until one of them finally bursts out, joking wildly, "For $500 you could have her blown away!"
Jamail has been strangely silent amid the others' laughter. Now his words cut sharply through the hallway: "Don't even joke about that. It's a felony." His anger is awkward but intense, and he excuses himself to visit with a friend down the hall. Later, he explains that the judge is a friend, and he was uncomfortable with the spirited criticism of her competence.
The incident passes quickly; within a few minutes, Jamail is grinning mischievously again. He has fetched his black 1986 Jaguar from the garage and is cruising the downtown streets, headed for his afternoon session of two-fisted drinking at the Four Seasons Hotel bar. He used to have a chauffeur, he says, but the man rarely got a chance to drive. He points to his speedometer and explains why he likes his new sports car: When the gauge reads 150 mph, you can lay your foot down on the accelerator and watch it creep to 160.
Age and alcohol, the perennial foes of a trial lawyer, have taken little toll on Jamail, who at 61 displays more stamina and energy than many attorneys half his age. He eats carefully and tries to hold his smoking to a few cigarettes a day. And he talks as if his life will never end. Explaining that in his youth he almost made a career of teaching history, Jamail says matter-of-factly, "I had enough hours to get my master's. All I lacked was writing my thesis. I'll go back and do that some day."
When and whether Joe Jamail teaches children history depends at least in part on the final outcome of Pennzoil v. Texaco, the case that has rocked the American financial community and last fall brought one of the country's largest corporations to the brink of a bankruptcy filing.
The lawsuit arose from a protracted and deeply contentious takeover battle that began about three years ago among Pennzoil Co., Texaco Inc. and Getty Oil Co. A series of internal disputes between Getty Oil management and Gordon Getty, son of the late tycoon J. Paul Getty and the company's largest stockholder, put Getty Oil "into play," as Wall Street describes a company ripe for acquisition. Pennzoil, led by CEO J. Hugh Liedtke -- a longtime Jamail friend -- allied itself with Gordon Getty and made a bid for control. After an extraordinary 25-hour Getty Oil board of directors meeting, Pennzoil thought it had a deal. But a few days later, Texaco stepped in at Getty Oil management's invitation and bought the whole company.
Liedtke, the rejected suitor, was devastated. Ever since his early days as George Bush's partner in the Texas oil patch, he had been trying to build a major oil company, and Getty Oil would have put him over the top.
"I have never seen him as hurt," Jamail says. "He doesn't feign to me. Just one on one, there wasn't anybody taking pictures or anything. And he let it out . . . He couldn't make himself come to grips with the fact that somebody in the oil business running a large oil company was going to do things like this. Now this may sound corny to you, but I'm telling you how it came across. It's the only reason I got in the case -- or, one of the important reasons."
After a series of legal maneuvers and preliminary successes, Pennzoil brought its case against Texaco (it sued for "tortious interference with a contract") to Houston, where it could be tried before a jury, and where Jamail, known locally as the King of Torts, would be in his element. On a fishing trip with Liedtke in Arkansas, just a few weeks after the case had been moved to Houston, Jamail was finally persuaded to take it on.
"Do you still want to do this?" he asked Liedtke one day on their boat.
"I'll do it. Let's go get a drink."
The trial was wild and angry. Jamail decided that the way to win was to "keep it simple," so he tried at every turn to transform what might have been a muddled, boring contract case into a sweeping morality play -- an indictment of takeover practices on Wall Street generally and of New York lawyers and investment bankers in particular.
The turning point, many of the jurors said afterward, was Jamail's cross-examination of Martin Lipton, a name partner in the prominent New York law firm of Wachtel Lipton Rosen & Katz, and perhaps the best known takeover lawyer in the country. In the Getty takeover deal, Lipton represented the J. Paul Getty Museum, which controlled a crucial swing block of Getty Oil shares. Jamail relentlessly attacked Lipton's personal credibility, and he soon had the well-spoken lawyer tongue-tied.
The question-and-answer the jurors remembered most vividly, the one they could recite verbatim when the four-month trial was finished, was an exchange that drove to the heart of the case as Jamail presented it:
"Mr. Lipton," Jamail asked after his adversary had been on the stand for hours, "are you saying that you have some distinction between just us ordinary people making contracts with each other and whether or not it's a $10 billion deal? It's a different standard in your mind?"
"Yes, indeed," Lipton answered.
One of the jurors, a Houston city employe named Jim Shannon, smiles broadly when he recalls the exchange. "And of course," Shannon comments wryly, "Jamail is about as ordinary as Croesus . . . "
"I could smell it. I could smell it," Jamail says, eager to relive the scene. "I'm not saying he was frightened. He was nervous . . . See, early in the case I had said, 'They'll bring Marty Lipton in here.' And Jim Kronzer a friend of Jamail's who worked on the case with him bet me $500 they wouldn't bring him.
"When they brought him and put him on the stand, I just turned to Jim and said, 'Now. Pay. Right now.' I thought once I established with him that he was not going to be able to flimflam me with words, that he was not going to be able to make his speeches, which lawyers would like to do . . . I had him."
Says Lipton, who vigorously defends his role in the takeover but is reluctant to discuss publicly the specifics of his testimony: "Joe Jamail was clearly the dominant personality in that courtroom."
Richard Miller, the veteran Houston attorney who tried the case for Texaco against Jamail, says now that he did not want to call Lipton to the stand at all, but that he was forced to do so by his client.
"He was a potentially dangerous witness because the other side had targeted him," Miller says. "I knew that . . . They set us up. If Lipton hadn't come, it might have changed the lawyers' approach to the case."
Still, Jamail insists, "I don't think Marty Lipton lost that case. I just think that the facts beat them."
Whatever it was, Texaco was not just beaten, it was routed. The gargantuan judgment returned by the jury last November -- more than five times as great as any other civil verdict in American history, and roughly equal to Texaco's net worth -- sent Texaco reeling and launched Jamail on a romp of celebration that seems to have slowed only a little. The appeal process has a long way to go, but Jamail is unconcerned.
"Hugh Liedtke absolutely got a property stolen from him . . . I don't have to prove this but once. And I've done that."
Of the many outrages Texaco claims were perpetrated against it at the Pennzoil trial, the one most prominently reported has been the $10,000 Joe Jamail contributed to the election campaign of Anthony Farris, the first of two state court judges to preside over the case.
Jamail made the contribution months before the trial, and before Farris was randomly assigned to handle the case (six weeks before the trial's end, Farris stepped down for health reasons and was replaced by another judge). And yet the influence of Jamail's campaign contribution on perceptions of the case will never be eradicated. "The Texas Common Law Massacre," one East Coast newspaper called it.
Texaco and its lawyers, of course, claim that Farris was biased against them from the start because of his relationship with Jamail. Before the trial began, they tried to have Farris disqualified, and failed; now the issue of Farris' partiality is on appeal. Whatever the merits of Texaco's allegations, however, a larger point about Jamail's political connections has been missed in all the hoopla about his $10,000 offering.
"Joe is a very capable trial lawyer, especially in personal injury cases," says his rival Richard Miller. "But his great talent is his sense for human frailty. He's probably the most politically adept trial lawyer in the state."
What Miller implies by "politically adept" is that like J.R. Ewing, Joe Jamail has some kind of relationship with nearly everyone who matters in Texas jurisprudence. The point, then, is not that Farris is a special friend of Jamail's; the point is that Farris is unexceptional in that regard. Nearly everyone in Houston is a friend of Joe Jamail's. One can see something sinister in that, or one can view it as the natural result of a rich man's long and successful life in a politically loose Texas boom town.
Either way, Jamail's connections are undeniable. During a morning meeting with a visitor in his office, he takes a call from Roy Cullen of the locally renowned and immensely rich Cullen oil family. Jamail tries to persuade Cullen to help a friend land a job as president of the University of Houston. A few minutes later, Jamail evades a call from Houston City Councilman Ben Reyes.
"See what he wants," he tells his secretary. "I know he wants some money or something. Tell him I'm not in today or tomorrow, we'll get to him later. Good man," Jamail adds knowingly of Reyes.
His connections are rooted in time as well as politics, money and friendship -- his family's ties to the city of Houston are now multigenerational. His father, a member of the same family as Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, came to Texas from Lebanon at age 12, started with a produce stand in the old downtown farmers' market, married another Lebanese immigrant -- a strong woman, Jamail says, who influenced him greatly -- and a few decades later had built a chain of 28 grocery stores, which he eventually sold to a national food company.
Jamail says his own effusiveness was not paternally inherited. "My father was a very stern man, self-disciplined till you cannot believe, but kind, warm, a good daddy. He'd knock the bleep out of you if you needed it, but he'd love you, too. We never wanted for anything. He was successful. He never really spoiled us rotten with material goods because he had a sense of values."
One thing his father did not have, however, was an appreciation for the practice of law. Even after Jamail had become hugely successful (his father died only a year ago, after reaching his nineties), Jamail the elder remained blase' about his son's profession.
"I was 'boy' to him until he died," Jamail says, smiling. "When I was 50, I was 'boy.' And he loved me. And he really was proud of me. He never got in awe of this bleep at all. He really didn't like this bleep I was doing, you know, suing businesses, being a sore-back lawyer legal slang for a personal injury lawyer , and he was oriented the other way. So was my mother.
"He came to see me try one lawsuit one time over in the federal court. That was the only time. Walked away and I went home to have dinner with him that night. And Lee Jamail's wife of more than 35 years -- about whom, he says, Willie Nelson wrote "Good-Hearted Woman" met me there. And my father looked at me, and he says, 'I thought there was something to this law practice.'
"I said, 'What are you talking about?'
"And he said, 'I watched you in there. Maybe it's because I'm so close to you, but you didn't impress me all that much.'
"Bleep -- I did the jury. Anyway, that's the way it kind of went with him."
Not so with Jamail's own sons. One of his three boys is already a member of his small firm, and a second son will be joining soon. The third has an office next door, where he oversees the family's expansive property and investment holdings. Like their father, the two lawyer sons are interested in personal injury and other plaintiffs' trial work.
A new generation of muckraking Jamails is about to be unleashed. Even if they never live up to their father's $10 billion reputation, they'll be sure to raise some bleep. You can see it in Dhar, the oldest, who wanders through his father's office in tattered corduroys and a plaid work shirt.
Joe Jamail wouldn't have it any other way. Despite his leading role in the corporate drama of the Pennzoil case, he remains in deed and spirit an old-fashioned plaintiff's populist, ready to right wrongs and bring the greedy to their knees -- for one-third of the booty, of course.
"I like to help people," he says emphatically. "Listen, I could hire out tomorrow to the business world. They come in here every day. Every day. Banks. Every bank in town has tried to get me. But why do that? I'm not into that. And I don't need any more money. I think people are by and large getting the shaft . . . And what they need is good lawyers like me."