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.

O'Quinn told the Press the first two are untrue; he declined, however, to directly respond to the third, except to say he had been "resting and relaxing" while away.

That O'Quinn's absence could spark so much speculation is evidence of the attention he draws, not to mention the power he's purported to have in the legal profession. Several people contracted by the Press for this story -- including some employees of O'Quinn's and lawyers who do business with him -- said they were too frightened of O'Quinn to talk. A doctor who claims O'Quinn owes him money said he won't press to collect the debt because O'Quinn is too powerful. Others reported that O'Quinn associates have threatened them with ruin if they cross O'Quinn. "Never underestimate his ability to fix something," says one lawyer.

O'Quinn dismisses the talk of his supposed powers and intrigues.
"Name one person I've ruined," he counters.
Still, some myths are not so easy to dispel. A lawyer representing a client in a lawsuit against O'Quinn went so far as to request that a Press fax cover sheet be immediately faxed to him before he would comment, to ensure he wasn't talking to someone posing as a reporter for O'Quinn. And an assistant prosecutor cited this reason for his refusal to discuss O'Quinn: The lawyer, he says, hires police officers for security duties and "has ears everywhere."

O'Quinn's firm is primarily situated on the 23rd and 24th floors of the Lyric Centre at 440 Louisiana, which is also known as "plaintiffs' tower." The building sits at the edge of the Theater District, in the shadow of taller buildings that house banks and energy concerns and blue-chip law firms.

O'Quinn does not own the building -- he says he passed on an offer to buy it -- but it is his in other ways. Musslewhite and his son both have offices in the Lyric Centre, as do at least a dozen other plaintiffs' lawyers who regularly refer cases to, or work on cases with, O'Quinn's firm. One lawyer calls the offices on floors beneath O'Quinn's "wings of the O'Quinn firm."

It is a common and permissible practice for lawyers to sign up clients and then refer the cases to other lawyers with greater resources and expertise, in return collecting a percentage of a settlement or judgment for very little work. O'Quinn acknowledges that many other plaintiffs' lawyers feed off his work.

"Everybody," he says, "wants us to help them on their cases."
Because of that, argues Laminack, John O'Quinn simply doesn't need to improperly solicit cases. They come to him anyway.

Most attorneys interviewed for this story agreed that in-person solicitations are bad, both for potential clients and the legal profession. A few, however, questioned whether the rules make sense.

"It is a bit arrogant and audacious that we think we need to protect the public in the first place," says William Fred Hagens, another former partner of O'Quinn's who remains on good terms with him. "These rules also keep good lawyers from contacting people. Why protect clients from good lawyers?"

As Hagens notes, "Within hours of an explosion, the company involved assigns someone to build rapport with the victims. Why should we piously get on a high horse and say we need to keep people from being contacted by good lawyers like Ron Krist, John O'Quinn or Joe Jamail?"

To legal malpractice specialist Larry Doherty, the answer is clear: The rules not only protect victims at a vulnerable time, but their flagrant violation has lowered standards among lawyers, who because of their fiduciary duties and powers of the court should be held to a higher standard than other professionals and business operators.

Doherty is one of those who blames the State Bar itself for the rampant spread of case running.

"John so effectively beat the rap [in 1989] that after that the gates were open," Doherty says, claiming that the Bar basically sent a signal to Texas lawyers that case solicitation would go unpunished.

Doherty, however, finds it interesting that the Bar would go after plaintiffs' lawyers while generally ignoring "what the big firm lawyers do with their tuxedos on at cocktail parties."

Hagens says the State Bar should think hard about what will happen if O'Quinn is disbarred or has his license suspended.

"Is that really a public service?" he asks. "Does that really protect clients? As long as John represents his clients, I think there needs to be some cool assessment about what is really happening here."

Before being employed briefly at the Houston Press, Mary Flood practiced law at a firm that represents clients in breast implant litigation and is housed in the same office building as John O'Quinn's firm. Flood now works at the Wall Street Journal.

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