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Joe Jamail Breaks Another Record

Joe Jamail, ’52, one of the most successful and prominent trial lawyers of his generation, recently honored the School of Law with a record-breaking gift: $10 million, to be used for faculty recruitment and retention. It is the largest single gift in our history.

Photo of Joe Jamail

Joe Jamail

Even with a reputation bigger than his home state of Texas, enough war stories to fill several books, and a solid place on Forbes’ list of the wealthiest Americans, Joe Jamail has more work to do. The thing is, there are still people who need his help. Those seeking justice in court, sure, but also those who must fight tomorrow’s legal battles.

Seeking Justice through Advocacy

“From the beginning of humanity, justice has been the greatest concern of all the people on earth,” Jamail said. Other professions may erect buildings, bridges, or monuments that will eventually rust away, he said, but “lawyers don’t build with steel or stone, they build with sturdier stuff—ideas and principles and ethics.”

Jamail sees himself as an advocate for justice. He has spent his life helping people seek vindication in the courts. “We are the guardians of that. Those who decry that people seek redress in court, they have it all wrong. The people who bring their actions to court are saying they believe in our system.”

Trial lawyers have come under fire from a variety of quarters over the years, but Jamail has little patience for those leveling criticism at the profession. “Attacks on the jury system have been going on since I’ve been a lawyer,” Jamail said. “But we have a government of laws and not men, thanks to lawyers. Two choices remain to our people—the courts or the streets. If we choose the streets, we see what horror that would bring. I don’t say our legal system is perfect, but it’s not a failure. We need to make litigation faster, but without harming advocacy or the jury system.”

He has been a powerful, and successful, advocate for his clients over the years with cases that have made him a legend of the bar, including an $11 billion jury verdict in Pennzoil v. Texaco, still the largest jury award ever. He has been dubbed the “King of Torts.” And while he has represented a wide range of corporate clients, from Apache Oil to the law firm Vinson & Elkins, he cherishes his reputation as “the people’s lawyer.”

“My first love is representing people who have been injured,” Jamail said. “The media wants to make it look easy, but you have to show negligence and then the cause and extent of the injury. None of that is easy. You also have to convince people that they are entitled to compensation. Nowhere else on earth is pain cheaper than in the courtroom.”

He is perhaps most proud of his victories in cases that resulted in product recalls: the Remington Mohawk rifle, the Honda three-wheeler, and the drug Parlodel.

He still fights the good fight out of his Houston office. “Obviously, we can’t take all the cases offered,” he said. “We might take one out of three hundred or three hundred fifty that come in. I take the cases based on the merits and needs of the clients, to at least give them a chance to find justice.”

For someone at the top of the profession, it’s a bit surprising that Jamail didn’t originally set out to become a lawyer. He wanted to be a doctor, and even considered teaching history at one point. Fate, it seems, had other plans.

He was taking classes at the University of Texas at Austin when World War II intervened; he was just sixteen, so he forged his parent’s signatures and enlisted in the Marines. Then, after serving in the Pacific, he returned to the University of Texas, first as an undergrad studying history and English literature, then taking classes at the Law School where he studied under some of the great legal minds of the day: Leon Green, Gus Hodges, Charles McCormick, Clarence Morris, and George Stumberg among others.

“Law school teaches you to think,” Jamail said. “The answer doesn’t matter, what matters is the thought process used in arriving at the conclusion. It is rethinking your thinking. Nobody teaches that as well as UT Law. They also teach you to be an advocate: your client’s rights above all else.”

Jamail’s great success draws on lessons from far outside the Law School as well. In his words: “A trial lawyer uses all the experiences, good and bad, that he has had through life. Family, friends, enemies, the study of English and philosophy, we use it to understand and practice in the courtroom. You have to understand what motivates people, you have to be compassionate, and you have to be prepared. You spend more time preparing than trying a case: success is in the preparation.”

Jamail has learned all these lessons well. He has become one of the great advocates in our nation’s history, with a remarkable and sustained string of successes. “Joe is a hero to the Law School because he is an extraordinarily talented lawyer, who is deeply committed to the rule of law and to using the law and the courts to level the playing field between people and institutions that threaten to overwhelm them,” said Larry Sager, dean of the Law School.

Photo of Joe Jamail
Joe Jamail


With Jamail’s extraordinary success has come considerable wealth: His fees to date top a billion dollars. Much of that wealth has gone to support many worthy causes and institutions, including the University of Texas at Austin and, in particular, the Law School.

Joe’s late wife, Lee, was the guiding star in this turn to philanthropy. “Lee and I were extremely close, and she had great timing,” Jamail said. “We were having drinks one night, talking about life in general, when she looked at me and said, ‘Are we rich enough yet to start giving money away?’ ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘what do you have in mind—a million dollars?’ She said, ‘No, I was thinking more like a hundred million.’ I must have blinked or something, because she went on to say ‘Don’t worry, you’ll make it back in a year.’”

Through the years, the Jamails played a critical role in ensuring that the Law School had the resources necessary to prepare the next generation of lawyers. Their patronage has helped fund more than ten of the school’s academic chairs, including the Jamail Regents Chair, the Harry M. Reasoner Regents Chair, the Charles Alan Wright Chair, and the Morris and Rita Atlas Chair, as well as five professorships and a half dozen student scholarships.

They also generously supported the Tarlton Law Library through the Jamail Library Excellence and Research Fund, as well as other innovative programs such as the Center for Transnational Studies.

“Joe is fierce as an adversary, and even fiercer as a friend,” said Sager. “At the Law School, we have been the beneficiaries of Joe’s counsel, support, and unswerving loyalty. Whenever a serious need has arisen at the Law School, Joe has been there to help.”

Most recently, that help came in the form of a $10 million gift to the Law School. The gift, the largest yet received by the Law School, was part of a $15 million donation that will also benefit the University’s School of Nursing and the Undergraduate Studies advising program. The Law School will use the $10 million to endow a faculty excellence fund aimed at recruiting and retaining a superb faculty.

“The heart of any great law school is a great faculty, and we’re in a period in which the market for faculty is super-heated,” said Sager. “There is a great deal of predatory behavior on all sides, and the competition for marvelous faculty is genuinely intense. Money is not sufficient to attract or hold a wonderful member of the faculty, but it is absolutely necessary.”

Jamail says that giving back to the institution that helped launch his legal career is just the right thing to do. “I talked with Dean Sager and he thought that’s where the need was,” Jamail said. “He knows what is best for the school.”

There is no question that Jamail’s continuing support of the Law School has helped it attract great students, recruit and retain top-notch faculty, and create outstanding academic programs. Jamail demurs. “All I did was give money,” he said. “The honor belongs to those faculty members and administrators who could make a lot more money somewhere else.”

“In the end, students are what this is all about,” said Sager. “Everything Joe has done accrues to the students. He has provided important scholarship money, he has helped make the law library a remarkable institution, and he has enabled the Law School to recruit the best faculty and shape important programs. That is a lot. That touches students’ lives at every moment during their education.”

Becoming a Trial Lawyer

It’s just a bit ironic that one of its most famous alumni was never actually admitted to the Law School. Jamail had already passed the bar exam and was practically out the door after finishing a final required course in taxation when he received a frantic summons to the office of Page Keeton, then dean of the Law School.

“He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ Jamail recalled. I said, ‘you told me to come.’ He said, ‘No, I mean in this Law School? You didn’t take the entrance exam.’ I said, ‘What entrance exam? I didn’t know you had to take a goddamned entrance exam to get into this place.’”

Despite the irregularity Keeton signed his diploma and, just to show there were no hard feelings, he even helped Jamail get his first job, at the law firm now known as Fulbright & Jaworski—where he stayed for about twenty minutes (literally) before striking out on his own.

But, as many will tell you, that’s just Joe Jamail. He’s always done things his own way, which, as it turns out, is better than just about anybody else’s—especially in the courtroom.

And thanks to Jamail’s continuing support and friendship, the Law School is better equipped to prepare tomorrow’s lawyers and citizens. “The way we can most honor Joe will be to graduate a generation of students who understand that law doesn’t define justice, but rather that justice must shape the law…a generation who understand that the rule of law is essential to justice and that they are the guardians of the rule of law.”

Tom Gerrow, photos by Bruce Bennett