(originally published in Texas Super Lawyers Magazine 2014)
by Michael Corcoran
Tony Buzbee was a 22-year-old lieutenant just out of the ROTC at Texas A&M when he faced his Marine squad for the first time during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. If his men had any thoughts of testing the new “kid” commander in Kuwait, they were soon erased.
“There’s nothing you can beat me at,” Buzbee said to the group. “Not at boxing, or in one-on-one basketball, or in cards or a footrace. I’m stronger than you and I’m smarter than you. So don’t try me.” Any questions?
“That’s how you lead in the Marines,” Buzbee says two decades later in his large and sparse office that looks over downtown Houston from the 73rd floor. “You’ve gotta be fearless.”
Buzbee brings the same refuse-to-lose swagger to the law firm that bears his name—and he’s been able to back it up. “Prepare, prepare, prepare,” Buzbee says when asked how he uses his military experience in the legal field. “Then execute.”
Juries eat up the Tony Buzbee Show, a mix of homespun charm and vitriolic turns when he spars with a hostile witness or opposing counsel.
His epic battles against British Petroleum, which, Buzbee estimates, yielded more than $300 million in personal injury judgments for his clients in Texas and Louisiana, landed the Houston attorney on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 2010. He may be the closest the Southwest legal field has to an action hero, and there’s even been talk of making a movie based on his fights with BP. Asked who he sees in the lead role, Buzbee smiles. He’s thought of that before. “Gerard Butler,” he says. Butler, the handsome Scottish actor (“300”) who drank his way out of the legal profession and onto the big screen, would have to work on the slight East Texas accent that Buzbee turns up in court when it’s to his advantage.
Competitive? Michael Jordan is competitive. Tony Buzbee is a psycho. He’s obsessed with winning. And with his landmark victories including the $75 million he earned for offshore drilling workers in a wage fixing suit, Buzbee’s not only earned respect, but in his 14-year career, he’s pocketed as much money in the courtroom via jury awards as Jordan made on the court.
“Tony Buzbee is the biggest, baddest, meanest dog in the yard—that’s a fact,” says Houston attorney Chad Pinkerton, who worked at the Buzbee Law Firm from 2005 until starting his own office in 2007. “But he’s also generous and he cares a lot about his people and his clients. He taught me everything I know about practicing law.”
A fashionably-coiffed Buzbee, looking ready for cocktail hour with his trademark ice-blue handkerchief peaking out of the pocket of a tailored suit, says, “I’m not the lawyer people hire because I have a cool website or a nice ad placement in the Yellow Pages. They hire me to beat the other guy… They get so (angry) that they say, ‘I’m gonna call Tony Buzbee!’ If that doesn’t send shivers up the spine of some pompous corporate lawyer,” he says with a big smile, “well, it should.”
Buzbee hates losing so much that he hasn’t been present to hear a jury’s verdict read since 2001. “It’s just too nerve-wracking. Thank God it’s rare that I lose, because when it does happen, I just want to roll up in a ball like a baby. The next day it feels like I’ve been beaten by sticks. My feeling is that if you can handle losing, you’re a loser.”
Buzbee shrugs off his big victories and dwells on the few setbacks, including a political defeat when he ran for Texas State Representative in 2001. (“My last foray into politics.”) Winning is profitable, but you always learn more when you lose. “The first case I lost was a young girl who’d been burned at Walmart,” he recalls, putting the year in the late ‘90s, soon after he expanded from his first office in Galveston to downtown Houston. “Oh, I gave the best arguments,” he says. “My opening statement? You could’ve put it in a book. Cross-examination? Brilliant. Closing argument? Of the eight jurors, there were seven crying.” Buzbee’s excited cadence is reminiscent of a Southern preacher. “In each of the discreet elements of the case, I shoulda won. But I got poured out. The jury note came back: “Can we give this little girl money and still find Wal-mart not liable?” Buzbee knew he’d lost the case.
“I hate to lose, but what I won’t say is that the jury sucked,” Buzbee says. “What I won’t say is that the judge screwed me. It all comes down to the architecture of the lawsuit. That’s what I drill into all our young attorneys. The case has been decided before you get into the courtroom.” Preparation and putting yourself in a place to win: the Marine instincts have only become deeper ingrained. “It still all boils down to this: Have you presented a story that the jury buys into?”
Houston attorney Frank Spagnoletti, who has worked on cases with Buzbee and against him, has known the younger lawyer since he was a clerk just out of law school. “Tony Buzbee is a different cat,” says Spagnoletti. “But he’s leading the next generation of top lawyers in Texas. I’ve known Joe Jamail and John O’Quinn and Tony is a throwback to that era. He has the legal abilities, the financial abilities and, most importantly, the huevos that most other lawyers don’t have.”
At age 45, with four children and his wife Zoe, whom he met at A&M, Buzbee says he’s looking for balance in his life. Where does it come from, the unbridled tenacity, the hardcore competitive streak? Buzbee asked himself that a few years ago and went in search of the answers on ancestry.com. Then he visited the towns in Alabama where his people settled. “I found that I come from a long line of Buzbees with chips on their shoulders,” he says, “and it continues to this day.” He traced his lineage back to his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Reeves Buzbee, who was in jail in Coosa County, Ala., in 1860 at age 70 for murder. Tony Buzbee visited the jail and stood in one of the tiny cells for a long time, thinking.
Actually, he didn’t have to go back too far to find evidence of the Buzbee flame. “My dad is a true character,” he says of butcher Glenn Buzbee, who now tends the cattle ranch his son bought outside Atlanta, Texas, where Tony Buzbee grew up. During courtroom breaks, Buzbee loves to tell stories about his old man, like the time he wrestled a bear to settle a barroom bet. “He would not only fight at the drop of a hat, he’d drop the hat himself.” Tony Buzbee recalls one altercation that started when his father called the parents of a boy who had thrown some of Tony’s things out the window of a moving school bus. “The kid’s mother answered and my dad gave her a good cussin’,” Buzbee recalls. When the boy’s father heard about that, he called Glenn Buzbee back and threatened to whup him next time he saw him. “Come over RIGHT NOW!” Glenn yelled into the phone. “We waited and waited, and the guy never showed up, so we went to bed,” Buzbee says. About midnight, the man rolled up to the Buzbees’ and got out of his car. “He’d had a few beers for courage, I guess.” Glenn Buzbee jumped out of bed, charged outside in his underwear and clocked the guy on the side of the head. But he slipped on the dew and fell down, which gave the other father an opportunity to jump in his car and hightail it on out of there. Buzbee laughs as he recalls the sight of his father “chasing the guy for six blocks in his tighty whities.”
Buzbee was just an average student in high school, but he desperately wanted out of his small town in the upper right corner of Texas. “Going to A&M was really the turning point in my life,” he says. “Being from a podunk town, I wasn’t sure I could be as good as everyone else.” He took hard to the Corps of Cadets and earned the rank of commander of Battalion K2. “Our motto was ‘The best in every way,’ and A&M gave me the confidence to believe it.” Buzbee was recently appointed to the Texas A&M Board of Regentsl; he donated the money to build the Buzbee Leadership Learning Center for cadets on campus.
Buzbee went straight into the Marines out of college, a newlywed deployed to the Middle East. “It was tough on my wife,” he says. “In four years, I was home four months. But she’s a strong person and we made it work.”
Buzbee says he “ate, slept, breathed the Corps. Except for the fact that you couldn’t make any money, I’d still be in the Marines.” He would have liked to stay in long enough to break Chesty Puller’s record as the most-decorated Marine in history.
After his military bid was up, Buzbee attended University of Houston Law Center and graduated in 1997, the same day his first child was born. While at law school, Buzbee’s hero was UH alum John O’Quinn, best known for winning a $1 billion verdict against Wyeth Laboratory for its diet pill fen-phen. Quinn was also known for a fleet of cars—more than 600 luxury and vintage models—that would make Jay Leno drool.
When Buzbee started winning million-dollar judgments for his clients (taking 40% as his fee), he also started accumulating expensive cars. Then, O’Quinn died in a single-car accident in 2009 and Buzbee had a shift in priorities. “John O’Quinn didn’t leave behind any children. He didn’t have a wife. He just had all those cars,” Buzbee says. “I was thinking that if John O’Quinn could come back to pass on one last bit of wisdom, he would say, ‘Cars are just a bunch of metal.’”
Around the same time, Buzbee was starting to worry that he and his family were being defined more by what they had than what they did: “My kids would ask me what car I was driving that day because that’s what the kids at school wanted to know.”
Buzbee decided to donate all his cars to be auctioned off for charity, raising $2 million for Jesse’s Tree, which helps homeless people turn their lives around. “I kept only one car,” he says, with a twinkle that cues a punch line. “But it was a Maybach,” List price: $550,000.
Buzbee is rich beyond his dreams. But in his heart he’s still the son of a butcher from East Texas. “You remember those notes you used to pass around in school to girls? It would say, ‘Do you like so and so, check yes or no.’ When I was in sixth grade there was this girl I liked a lot, and when I got the paper back, under ‘Do you like Tony Buzbee?’ she had checked no. I was crushed.”
“It feels the same way when you lose a case. It’s the ultimate rejection.”
As Buzbee excuses himself to polish an opening statement he’s been working on for three weeks, the attorney he’ll be facing might wish that little girl from Atlanta, Tex. had just checked yes.
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