You know any story that involves a Pontiac and the Cadillac Bar is going to be a good one.

And here’s the thing about Hicks Thomas’ John Thomas. His ascent to the elite ranks of Texas trial lawyers from a Midwest childhood combines a lot of grit, a dose of luck and a sense of self that goes more than a little way to explaining his remarkable success representing plaintiffs and defendants in cases worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and often life and death.

You wouldn’t know it from talking to him, though. His standout firm is one of Texas’ best, built over 30 years to offer top-level advocacy in a wide range of cases, while providing a training ground and home to a next generation of top trial lawyers.

A native of Pontiac, Mich., Thomas grew up in the shadow of the Pontiac motor foundry, where many of his family worked. While wrestling in Division 1 at Western Michigan University, he grew interested in the law as a potential career following the guidance of a resident advisor majoring in pre-law.

As a law student at the University of Michigan, he dreamt of becoming a Manhattan attorney.  A tax rotation at a Wall Street law firm disabused him of that notion.

In a corporate law rotation, he joined a team working on large deals, but he and the other young lawyers were largely relegated to marking up documents or performing due diligence. It was, he says, “the second level of awful.”

He found his home in litigation, however.  He lit up when he attended his first deposition – watching the interaction between attorney and witness. A piece of advice from a fellow athlete – a supervising partner who had played football – proved pivotal.

“He said to me, ‘Litigation and trial work is the closest you will come to a physical competition like a football game or a wrestling match. It’s the closest you will come,’” Thomas explains. “That was energizing.”


Lawdragon: Fascinating advice. And it's true, right? It's been very true for you.

John Thomas: For sure. The first time that I really felt that rush of adrenaline was when I was an associate in the middle of a trial with Taylor Hicks. The general counsel was in the courtroom watching, and there was an expert witness on the stand.  Mr. Hicks looked at me and said, “Do you want to take him?” I looked at him and said, “What?” But I knew the material very well. He slid me over his outline, I got up and I did it, and it was exuberating.

LD:  That's incredible. That was your first courtroom examination?

JT: It was my first courtroom examination of an expert.  It was a thrill, a rush. At that point, I was hooked.

LD: Right. How did you first meet Taylor Hicks?

JT: I was in New York interviewing at all these Wall Street firms and planning to split my summer between New York and Houston because I had some friends after college who came to Houston.  One of my buddies from high school was here teaching and coaching at St. Thomas High School, and we had a fraternity of high school wrestling captains where we all stayed. I thought, "I've never seen a lot of the country. I'm just going to go down to Houston."

I took a flight from LaGuardia after an interview, and an associate picked me up at the airport in Houston, and we drove to the Cadillac Bar. Standing at the bar, in cowboy boots and no jacket on, tie loosened and sleeves rolled up, with a longneck beer, was Taylor Hicks. He said, "John, welcome to Houston." He stuck out his hand. That was my welcome to Houston. 

Mr. Hicks got me introduced to Edith Jones, who had also worked at Andrews Kurth [where he was a partner]. She had just been confirmed as the newest 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge during my summer clerkship. I got an interview with her, and she hired me as part of her first set of clerks out of law school.

That summer, I drove the Pontiac car that I got on family discount - which I bought on graduation from law school - to Houston, and I went to work for Edith Jones.

LD:  What an amazing introduction to Houston! Edith Jones became legendary. What was it like clerking with her when she was just starting out?

JT: I have to tell you, first of all, I am so fond of her. She was a wonderful mentor. What a great way to start your real legal career. I really was able to hone my writing skills working for her that year. I also learned to be careful what you say in and around a courthouse or courtroom, which is kind of a funny story.

We were in this beautiful courtroom in the old New Orleans 5th Circuit courthouse, and a lawyer got up to start his argument and Judge Jones just pounced with a question. The gallery was full of lawyers, and one of them leaned over and said, “That’s Edith Jones. That’s the barracuda I was telling you about.” Right in front of one of her clerks!

LD: Unbelievable.

JT: It was. She roared laughing when I told her about it. She got a huge kick out of that. She wasn’t offended at all; she just thought it was really funny.

LD: Then you joined Andrews Kurth?

JT: Yes. After I clerked, I went to Andrews Kurth. I decided I didn't want to go back to Wall Street. New York felt like you were just a number. LA was a little too spread out. But I felt right at home in Texas. I had grown up in the Midwest; I’m a Midwestern guy, and it just felt very comfortable here. I had felt out of place in Manhattan. I’m not an East Coast guy, and that just wasn’t my thing. I just ended up here and have had, I think, a fun, interesting career since starting.

LD: Tell me about some of your early trials and the cases that launched you. You represent so many huge, interesting clients.

JT: Early on, we were hired at Andrews Kurth to try a companion case to a big arbitration in which the client had already won a $100 million arbitration award. I tried it with Taylor Hicks, and we put enough concern in the case that after the evidence was closed - and for closing arguments - the CEO and some senior executives for this very big company showed up in the courtroom to watch. I was an associate and I did half the closing with Mr. Hicks, and I was really irritated that the guys out there hadn’t shown up during the trial.  Afterward, a really famous lawyer in Texas, Tom Alexander, came up to me. He had this real crusty old Texas lawyer voice. He said, "John, that was a darn good jury speech you gave. Darn good jury speech. Good job."

LD: I love that. That must have felt good.

JT: Definitely. It was a real ego boost to a young lawyer. Another case was in south Texas, representing Maria Garcia and her family. She had been an elementary school secretary for about 50 years, and her husband was a used-car salesman at the local Ford dealership, so they knew everybody in town. She was terminally ill with liver failure, and just before the trial, the defendants hired a legislator to be on the trial team. What they were trying to do was scrap the trial date, because you can’t force a sitting-in-session legislator to trial.

We challenged their motion for continuance and put on evidence from the doctors and the family in a hearing. It was really emotional, and a lot of the people from the community were watching the case. At the end of the hearing, the judge said he would take it under advisement; the lawyers for the other side said, “Judge, we’re set for trial next week. What do we do?” He said, “I suggest that, depending upon my ruling, you be prepared to pick a jury next week.” At the end of the day, they really didn’t want that case to go to trial. They settled over the weekend.

LD: Interesting. Tell me about some of your philosophies, your keys to success in the courtroom.

JT: At the end of the day, you have to be yourself. You can't be somebody that you're not. You can watch people and try and see what they do that you like, but at the end of the day you can't be anybody else but yourself. Jurors can see right through an act. Then the second thing is that you’d better be honest and not try to pull the wool over somebody's eyes, because they'll hurt you.

LD: People do not like somebody who’s not straight with them.

JT: You can't just adopt what other lawyers are doing if it doesn’t feel right in your gut. Your gut's going to tell you a lot. Follow your instincts.

LD: Does your wrestling experience inform your courtroom approach?

JT: Well, I can’t stand sitting still in a courtroom. You are wrestling with a witness. Sometimes you get ones that are going to say whatever they want, regardless of what the evidence is or where they think you’re going with things. You just have to stay loose and not get flustered and communicate, regardless of what the witness is doing.

LD: Tell me a little about your firm. When did you start it, and what was your motivation?

JT:  We started in 1997, so we’re entering our third decade. One of the reasons for starting was to be entrepreneurial, not only in the financial sense, with contingency fees, but with career satisfaction and handling a diversity of cases as well. I don’t think I could have sued some of the companies we have, on behalf of some of the plaintiffs we have, at a large firm.

We sued Hilton Hotels and the hotel management company on behalf of the Houston family of a man electrocuted in the swimming pool at a Hilton hotel, for instance. Big firms aren’t going to be doing those kinds of things. One thing about this practice is that I’ve done things from representing oil producers, mid-stream pipelines, to representing Mattress Firm, one of the biggest retailers in the country. Running a firm is, of course, a lot of work, and a lot of responsibility, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

LD: It must be a tremendous experience.

JT: There are two things about it. First, we've got this wealth of trial experience across the board here, with lawyers that we really like and enjoy being with.

Secondarily, there's an opportunity for mentorship to the next generation of lawyers. You read a lot about the dying art of the jury trial, how they’ve become fewer and farther between, and the question of who’s going to step up and provide new experience for younger lawyers. I think it’s important to give them opportunities, give them the chance to be active and engaged. Let them get their show. We really have this great group here. You appreciate it even more during Covid, when you spend so much time with the colleagues you work with. They’re like your second family.

LD: And during a trial, they’re like your first family.

JT: Absolutely. Some of our team has been in the military, and I've never been in a foxhole for real, but going to trial with somebody is a bonding experience like no other.  You've been to battle together. It’s a little like playing on the same football team. You play in the Super Bowl together.