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.

"My sense is that he's extremely frustrated right now. Things seem to be out of his control. It is hard to control what somebody writes about you."

-- Lawyer Ed McAninch on former partner John O'Quinn

Around 6:50 on the evening of November 19, HPD officers Jeffrey Anderson and Kirk Beck pulled over a black Chevrolet Impala they had seen headed west out of downtown at 80 mph. According to the police report on the incident, the driver ran two red lights and briefly managed to elude a siren-blaring patrol car before bringing his car to a stop in the 2400 block of Memorial Drive.

As the driver reached to retrieve his proof of insurance, the police report states, the officers noticed a near-empty bottle of Absolut vodka in the glove compartment. The driver's pants, the officers also reported, were flecked with a small bit of vomit, and they were unzipped.

After refusing to blow a Breathalyzer and failing a field sobriety test, the driver was detained on a DWI charge, and sometime during the evening he apparently had a question for the Houston Police Department:

"What the fuck," the police report quotes John O'Quinn as asking, "did I do to you to deserve this?"

Although O'Quinn later denied making the statement, it's a question he might well have put to his other accusers of late. While the police report captures him in an embarrassing light, the DWI was the least of the problems publicly besetting O'Quinn, the personal-injury lawyer who's been vilified by corporate interests as the national poster child for tort reform and hailed as a hero by clients for whom he's reaped millions.

Of more pressing concern is an 89-paragraph grievance by the State Bar of Texas accusing O'Quinn of using associates to improperly solicit clients after a North Carolina airplane crash. Ultimately, the State Bar maneuver could end in O'Quinn's disbarment -- or in no action at all. Then there's the seemingly unending investigation by the South Carolina attorney general of the same allegations. That investigation, which is supposed to be presented to a grand jury sometime next month, could result in criminal charges against O'Quinn associates and possibly the lawyer himself -- if the state can obtain corroborating evidence against him.

The DWI charge was quietly resolved two weeks ago, after O'Quinn, who had retained Richard "Racehorse" Haynes to defend him, entered a no-contest plea and was found guilty by County Court At-Law Judge Mark Atkinson. The judge fined O'Quinn $2,000, ordered him to pay another $2,000 to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and sentenced him to four days in jail (which he didn't have to serve, since his booking into jail equaled "good time" for the sentence).

In an interview with the Press prior to his plea, O'Quinn acknowledged that his driving was "erratic" on November 19, but he denied that he was drunk and claimed that some details in the police report -- that he tried to elude police, that his pants were unzipped and had vomit on them -- were untrue.

That report also mentions that Carl Shaw, a 34-year-old attorney who works for O'Quinn and figures prominently in the State Bar allegations against his boss, arrived on the scene shortly after O'Quinn was stopped. An ex-court bailiff who put himself through night school at South Texas College of Law, Shaw, according to the report, identified himself as a peace officer and informed the HPD patrolmen that O'Quinn had been drinking because of problems at home.

Shaw -- who is a reserve constable's deputy -- asserted to the Press that the police report was false, that he in fact told the officers that O'Quinn was sick, not drunk, and that he never stated O'Quinn was having domestic difficulties.

Richard Laminack, the O'Quinn partner and friend who answered many of the questions on O'Quinn's behalf for this story, said his colleague was not drinking before he left the office that evening, but had fallen ill and had been sleeping on an office couch before departing for a function at the River Oaks Country Club.

Laminack and several others who know the 55-year-old O'Quinn well said it is unlike him to drink too much, except on infrequent celebratory occasions. But they did acknowledge that O'Quinn doesn't always obey the rules of the road: He's been known to speed and run red lights, and even head the wrong way down a one-way street when leaving his office -- been known, in other words, to follow the direction he wants to follow, whatever consequences may ensue.

Lawyers -- or people working for them -- are forbidden to directly recruit clients in person or by telephone. Legally, the practice is called solicitation; colloquially, it's known as case running. Critics of the legal profession and those pushing reforms of the tort system have another, even less flattering term for it: ambulance chasing. It's a violation of the ethical rules of the State Bar of Texas, the quasi-governmental agency that polices lawyers, and it is also against the law in Texas and South Carolina.

But in the legal profession in Texas, it is common knowledge that case running is epidemic. In refusing to find the State Bar's rules against solicitation unconstitutional, the Texas Supreme Court in 1988 cited reports of lawyers' "runners" pursuing clients in hospital wards and funeral homes, impersonating clergymen and law officers, offering "signing bonuses" of thousands of dollars and showing up at the homes of potential clients with chauffeured limousines to whisk them to an attorney's office.

The glut of lawyers, stingier jury verdicts, the tort reform movement and the State Bar's ineffectuality in enforcing its rules have contributed to the spread of case running. And not unlike most drivers who run red lights or break the speed limit, most lawyers who run cases go unpunished.

In the late eighties, the State Bar accused O'Quinn of using runners to sign up dozens of clients, an action that concluded with what critics of the Bar claim amounted to a slap on the wrist for O'Quinn: He agreed to be publicly reprimanded, placed on two years probation, fined $38,000 and to perform 100 hours of community service.

Today, O'Quinn says he admitted to accepting cases that he knew others had wrongly solicited, but that he did not improperly solicit cases himself. And he sees a distinction between the two actions -- even though he says he did neither following the 1994 USAir disaster in North Carolina.

"I am a damn good trial lawyer," he says. "If you had a serious legal problem, you would want me to represent you. If somebody comes to me to represent them in a serious legal problem and I represent them and do them a great job -- which I am going to do -- the system worked. The person got a great lawyer. The person got justice. Are they better off to stay with some shopping center lawyer who is not going to give them a good result? No."

O'Quinn has aggressively contested the latest grievance by filing a lawsuit against the State Bar, arguing that it violated its own rules by forming a panel to investigate him, leaking confidential information about that investigation to the media and subpoenaing witnesses without informing him.

"I don't know how much of a charmed life John can continue to lead," says Pat Maloney Sr., a noted San Antonio lawyer who nominated O'Quinn for induction into the Inner Circle of Advocates, an elite organization from which O'Quinn resigned last year after the South Carolina allegations were first raised. But O'Quinn, adds Maloney, "certainly won't lack for an abundance of due process."

Indeed, O'Quinn is being defended by some pricey legal talent in his current battle with the State Bar, just as he was in the late eighties, when seven big-name attorneys he dubbed "The Magnificent Seven" rode to his defense. This time, O'Quinn's team includes Tom McDade and Gerald Treece of Houston and Luke Soules of San Antonio. The special blue-ribbon panel appointed by the State Bar to investigate and prosecute O'Quinn -- which Laminack derides as the "Star Chamber" -- is also composed of respected lawyers, including former Harris County assistant prosecutors Rusty Hardin and Cathy Herasimchuk.

The legal community in Texas is primed for a bloodletting. In some quarters, it is believed that the State Bar feels pressured to "get" O'Quinn after letting him get off with a relatively mild punishment in 1989; other conjecture holds that Bar leaders were embarrassed that the latest allegations against O'Quinn and his associates were developed elsewhere -- in South Carolina and on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal -- and they feel they have no choice but to pursue them.

USAir Flight 1016, en route from Columbia, South Carolina, to Charlotte, North Carolina, crashed on July 2, 1994, while trying to land in a violent thunderstorm at the Charlotte airport. Thirty-seven of the 57 people onboard were killed.

Rescuers were still pulling bodies from the wreckage when attorneys from across the country began touting their expertise in aviation litigation to reporters. Newspaper accounts of attorneys scrambling for clients in South Carolina, where most of the victims had lived, refer to lawyers from Chicago, Cleveland, Washington and Atlanta mailing promotional brochures to victims' families and otherwise seeking publicity.

Among the people who showed up in South Carolina after the crash were O'Quinn minion Carl Shaw; Charles Musslewhite, another lawyer whose father, Benton Musslewhite, has long been associated with O'Quinn; and Betty Edward, one of the plaintiffs represented by Benton Musslewhite in a lawsuit against Liberty Waste Company, operator of a toxic-waste dump in east Harris County.

In its grievance, the State Bar alleges that Benton Musslewhite worked with Edward, Shaw, Charles Musslewhite and others, who were deployed to a South Carolina hotel to systematically recruit survivors and victims' families as O'Quinn clients. They allegedly conducted early morning meetings in which they would divvy up assignments for contacting potential clients. Shaw is accused of offering to pay fees in a child custody case to induce one family member to sign on with O'Quinn -- an allegation Shaw denies. (O'Quinn says that accusation will turn out to be a false, born of a feud between an O'Quinn client, grandparents of a child whose parents both died in the crash and the child's other grandparents, who hired a different lawyer.)

O'Quinn came to represent four clients from the crash, and he has obtained affidavits or statements from all of them that they were not improperly solicited. The first client he signed up was Floyd Doucette, who, oddly enough, is another of the plaintiffs represented by Benton Musslewhite in the Liberty Waste lawsuit. Doucette's son Dorian was one of several young military men heading home for the July Fourth holiday on the USAir flight and was badly burned in the crash. Under State Bar rules, it would not have been improper for Musslewhite to contact an existing client about the crash.

Curiously, neither the investigation by the South Carolina attorney general nor the probe by the State Bar of Texas was launched until about 18 months after the crash, after Betty Edward told her story to South Carolina authorities and to Max Boot, the 27-year-old deputy features editor of the Wall Street Journal's rabidly right-wing editorial page. A writer with a pronounced ideological bent, Boot has made a cottage industry out of pillorying O'Quinn as one of the nation's "most notorious legal buccaneers." Over the past year, Boot has devoted seven columns to O'Quinn alone -- including one in January 1996 in which he first recounted Betty Edward's tale.

Edward is said to have tape recordings, notes and receipts to back her allegations of soliciting clients for O'Quinn. She claims that before she went public with her story, O'Quinn tried to pay her off to keep her quiet. O'Quinn, in turn, claims Edward actually tried to extort money from him.

John McIntosh, an assistant attorney general in South Carolina, says Edward has been granted immunity from prosecution in the ongoing criminal investigation, which is likely to culminate in a presentation by investigators to a grand jury late in February. McIntosh says there may be two sets of indictments coming out of the probe -- indicating that prosecutors hope to obtain indictments, then cut a deal with those defendants to provide evidence for other indictments.

O'Quinn has protested that he's an "innocent man being smeared," and behind the multipronged offensive by Boot, the State Bar of Texas and the state of South Carolina he sees the dark hand of such corporations as Philip Morris and Dow Chemical. As the lead counsel nationally on breast implant suits, O'Quinn is the only lawyer to persuade a jury to find against Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of silicone used in implants and one of the parent companies of Dow Corning, a major breast implant manufacturer that claims it was forced into bankruptcy by the litigation. He's also on the team of plaintiffs' lawyers formed by Texas Attorney General Dan Morales to recover millions in cigarette-related health costs from the tobacco industry.

"Boot," says O'Quinn, "is a huckster for Dow and other companies. His editorials are written like a PR company would write ads.

"I win big. My average jury verdict in a breast implant case -- I've tried five of them -- is $15 million. They hate me. They cannot beat me in the courtroom, so they try outside of the courtroom. They try to beat me in the court of public opinion."

Boot declined to respond to O'Quinn, saying his articles speak for themselves.

Knowledgeable sources say Edward was directed to Boot and to South Carolina authorities by a shadowy figure named Bob Loving, a private investigator who worked for Benton Musslewhite and was seen at O'Quinn's office around the same time the allegations of improper solicitations arose against the lawyers in the late eighties.

"[Loving] and Betty Edward cooked up this allegation in South Carolina," contends O'Quinn, who professes not to know why Loving would be pursuing a vendetta against him.

Loving, who was last known to be living in the Houston area, could not be located for comment.

In defending O'Quinn against the State Bar allegations, McDade has enlisted the help of private detective Clyde Wilson, who, ironically, worked as an investigator for the State Bar and its special prosecutor, Houston lawyer Tom Alexander, when it first pursued case-running allegations against O'Quinn in the eighties.

Wilson has been collecting affidavits in support of O'Quinn, one of which was given by lawyer Wayne Walker, who along with Benton Musslewhite is accused in a State Bar solicitation sting growing out of the 1996 crash of a ValuJet flight in Florida. Walker claims Loving asked him for help in extorting money from O'Quinn, and that Loving even mentioned wanting to kill O'Quinn.

While O'Quinn believes Edward and Loving are responsible for his troubles, it may be longtime associate Benton Musslewhite who poses the most serious threat to him.

A charming and somewhat roguish eccentric, the white-haired, 64-year-old Musslewhite dabbles in promoting one-worldism through his One World Now Foundation -- a cause that O'Quinn, to Musslewhite's chagrin, has never adopted. He is also a man with serious financial troubles, judging by the bankruptcy petition he filed last October listing debts of more than $500,000 to the IRS, $90,000 to American Express, $40,000 to the Allen Park Inn and about $5,000 each to Neiman-Marcus and Bergdorf-Goodman -- not to mention $3.3 million owed to O'Quinn.

As one colleague jokes, Musslewhite has been accused of running cases so many times that he should endorse Nikes. He has repeatedly had his law license suspended for case running -- in the same late eighties State Bar action that resulted in a reprimand of O'Quinn, Musslewhite accepted a 90-day suspension of his law license and was placed on three years probation for soliciting cases. While on probation, he was suspended from practicing law for three years for contacting victims of a North Sea rig disaster in 1988.

In addition to the accusations that he and Walker improperly solicited cases after last year's ValuJet crash, Musslewhite, along with his attorney son, is accused of solicitation in the State Bar grievance arising from the North Carolina crash.

According to O'Quinn partner Laminack, Musslewhite's long relationship with O'Quinn was cemented in the mid-eighties when Musslewhite recruited O'Quinn to help pursue the mass claims of veterans injured by the Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam.

O'Quinn says Musslewhite appealed to his softer side -- that he's always thought of Musslewhite as sort of an errant old-er brother.

Others in the legal profession suggest that O'Quinn has kept Musslewhite around because he was making money for O'Quinn -- even though Musslewhite also was deeply in debt to O'Quinn.

To Musslewhite, O'Quinn is a man who plays by his own rules.
"It's hard to tell him -- he just won't listen to you when you tell him there might be a different set of rules," says Musslewhite. "He's got this thing going where he uses somebody else to pay or do things, and he thinks that protects him. It doesn't."

That's a judgment seconded by Gary Riebschlager, a former partner in O'Quinn's firm who is now suing O'Quinn for substantial fees he claims he's owed.

"He feels he's earned his place in legal land and can do things and get away with it," says Riebschlager "He's very arrogant, very self-confident and very self-righteous about it. It's like -- how dare you question him?"

Ominously for O'Quinn, Musslewhite contends he took the fall for O'Quinn in the late eighties but vows he won't do it again.

"I'm not going to be the scapegoat to John O'Quinn's sacred cow this time," says Musslewhite. "We sink or swim together this time."

Musslewhite readily admits that he helped pursue cases for O'Quinn in South Carolina, but he is adamant that there was nothing wrong with what he did. What Musslewhite says he did is use funds supplied by O'Quinn to hire Edward and others to go to South Carolina and contact victims' families to see if they had received O'Quinn's mailings and had any questions about them. Musslewhite believes that is permissible contact with a potential client; the State Bar of Texas does not.

The way Musslewhite views himself, he's just taking full advantage of his First Amendment rights in trying to get the best legal help to people in need. The U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows lawyers to advertise, Musslewhite argues, also allows them to contact potential clients when following up on promotional mailings.

O'Quinn acknowledges that he gave Musslewhite $100,000, as alleged in the State Bar grievance, but says it was a personal loan to Musslewhite and his wife. Musslewhite confirms that O'Quinn did indeed loan him that sum, but he says O'Quinn also separately provided him thousands of dollars to bankroll the South Carolina venture. O'Quinn, he says, promised Edward that he would pay her $1,000 a day and other compensation, but reneged on that promise.

O'Quinn, for his part, says that any broken promises originated with Musslewhite.

"When Benton owes somebody money and can't pay it, he tells them, 'I could pay you if John O'Quinn would give me the money,' " O'Quinn says. "They start thinking John O'Quinn is the one that owes them the money."

O'Quinn says he has, for all intents and purposes, ended his association with Musslewhite.

"[His] bankruptcy is our financial divorce," says O'Quinn, who has agreed to pay more than $1 million to bail out Musslewhite with his creditors. In return, O'Quinn will keep the rights to any future fees generated by cases Musslewhite brought to him.

Each man says the other owes him more than their deal provides -- either from past debt or anticipated future fees -- but each is nonetheless willing to proceed with the arrangement.

"If John had paid all his bills, this would not have happened," Musslewhite says of the South Carolina and Texas investigations. "John cannot help it: He has a psychological obsession about money. It comes from being not well-to-do. He's a self-made man, and he suspects that the world is out to screw him."

Ellen Cokinos is executive director of the Children's Assessment Center, a program to help abused children, and one day last spring she went to O'Quinn's office to solicit a major donation from the lawyer. She was summoned back ten days later and informed by O'Quinn that he'd be making a $1.5 million contribution.

It was the largest gift ever to the Children's Assessment Center, and it provided the seed money Cokinos needed to raise the rest of the $10 million for construction of a new building in Rice Village. When the building opens later this year, it will be named after John O'Quinn.

As you might expect, Cokinos is an O'Quinn fan.
"This guy, there is something going on inside him that makes him understand victims and kids, that makes him angry if someone or some kid is being victimized," Cokinos says.

"I told him about how kids were hurting. He got it. He's a guy from the other side of the tracks. His story is that he was really the sort of kid who is brilliant but doesn't come from the major blue-blood money of Houston, but he's in that league now. It's new to him, so he doesn't do the conventional thing."

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.

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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