What Did He Do To Deserve This?

Attorney John O'quinn says his big-business enemies are out to do him in. But the real source of his troubles may be closer to home.

The conventional thing, according to Cokinos, is for potential contributors to wait from six to 12 months -- not a mere ten days -- before responding to her requests. The manager of O'Quinn's own foundation had called Cokinos to ask how much it would take to get O'Quinn's name on the new building. Her answer was $1.5 million.

Cokinos says she believes O'Quinn made such a sizable gift for two reasons: because he cares about kids, though he has none of his own, and because he wanted his donation to be the largest the Children's Assessment Center received.

In that appraisal lies the paradox of John O'Quinn, a man driven by the sometimes clashing imperatives of ego and benevolence.

"I think the only person I know who doesn't believe John O'Quinn is as good or as great as he is ... is John O'Quinn," says lawyer Larry Doherty, a legal malpractice specialist who was on the State Bar grievance committee that first considered the case-running allegations against O'Quinn in the late eighties.

The son of an auto mechanic, O'Quinn grew up in West University Place, in the days when the town wasn't the prestigious address it is today. He put himself through the University of Houston law school, graduating at the top of his class in 1967.

O'Quinn maniacally worked his way through two law firms -- Baker & Botts and Abraham & Watkins -- before starting his own. He's since become a very wealthy man, although he maintains an outwardly modest lifestyle. Forbes magazine pegged his 1994 income at $40 million, ranking him as the second-highest-earning attorney in the nation behind Houston's Joe Jamail. O'Quinn disputes the magazine's one-year estimate but claims to have made about $100 million alone from breast-implant litigation.

While O'Quinn has made powerful enemies in America's corporate boardrooms, he has plenty of admirers elsewhere -- especially among those who've benefited from his legal talents or largess.

"He's one of the finest trial lawyers in the nation," says Mayor Bob Lanier, who tapped O'Quinn to represent the city and county in the legal maneuvers to keep the Oilers in town, and whose wife hired O'Quinn to represent her in a breast implant case. "I talk to John O'Quinn for the same reason I'd talk to Cooley or DeBakey about a heart problem or to Carl Lewis if I wanted to learn how to run fast."

Even his detractors acknowledge O'Quinn's devotion to his clients and his courtroom skills.

"Some of the things John O'Quinn has done you just want to stand up and cheer about, like taking on the IRS for some poor guy they hounded," says attorney Tom Alexander, referring to the $20 million judgment O'Quinn won for a 74-year-old man who sued the agency for improperly revealing information from his tax returns in a news release.

But Alexander, who headed up the State Bar investigation of O'Quinn in the late eighties, suggests that O'Quinn is driven by more than the pursuit of justice for his clients.

"He seems to be under some compulsion to accumulate more money than any other lawyer ever has, regardless of how he has to do it," says Alexander. "Instead of seeking accolades from the bar and the bench, he seeks to set a record. He lives in a cloud of envy of Joe Jamail. It's not greed, it's keeping score."

When O'Quinn threw his customarily lavish Christmas party at the Museum of Fine Arts last month, the dripping ice sculpture of an "O" and an "L" symbolized the new streamlined designation of O'Quinn's firm: What had been known only a few weeks before as O'Quinn Kerensky McAninch & Laminack had been abbreviated to simply O'Quinn & Laminack.

But no matter the number of names after O'Quinn's, his firm has never been a conventional partnership. Former partners describe varying fiscal relationships with him, most never put on paper.

"What's John's is John's. What's yours is John's," says Ed McAninch, trying to describe his own financial arrangement with O'Quinn. McAninch, who was listed as a name "partner" in O'Quinn's firm until November, still practices out of O'Quinn's office. He's happy there, and making money.

"My name is off because it pleased John, and it has turned out pleasing me," he says.

Laminack, now the sole named partner of O'Quinn, professes to have never had a written contract with O'Quinn. He says he gets an annual salary, and that at the end of each year O'Quinn gives him a chunk of the money the firm brought in.

"He's always fair -- it's a bonus type thing," says Laminack.
Others describe their deals with O'Quinn in equally vague terms.
"I was never a true partner in any sense of the word -- it's his law firm," says Mike Kerensky, who split from O'Quinn after 15 years but left on good terms. "His relationships are all different. He has a lot of joint ventures. Lawyers recognize John has great trial skill and find a way to make it work."

The shortening of the firm's name came soon after O'Quinn returned from what was, at least in some legal circles, a mysterious and much-talked-about out-of-town stay. The talk picked up currency in October, when O'Quinn didn't show up for a court hearing that involved Candace Caminati, a former paralegal for O'Quinn's firm who has spoken with State Bar investigators. Rumors swirled about O'Quinn: He was being treated at the Mayo Clinic, he was chasing his wife about the country, he had checked himself into an out-of-town rehab facility.

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