Lawyer Limelight: Jack Walker

Some of the best law practices grow not so much from a desire to make money but rather to take on the select cases that can make a difference. A standout example from our Lawdragon 500 guides is Jack Walker, who has developed a unique blend of medical malpractice cases – in a state with damage caps – and what he describes as “one-off” product liability matters that fall outside the mass torts realm. The work has made Tyler, Texas-based Martin Walker a successful firm – and a content one that has performed wonders for the families and communities of East Texas. Clients who turn to advocates Jack Walker and Reid Martin, who co-founded their firm in 2006, know they can count on them to litigate their claims through trial.

Lawdragon: Can you describe the mix of work you do in your practice?

Jack Walker: It’s primarily medical malpractice and products liability. We also do catastrophic injury and trucking accidents. For the most part, that covers it. However, we’re in a small town, so there are other things we do, or maybe I do because I grew up here and know someone who needs help. But those are the areas we primarily work in.

LD: Am I correct in saying that Martin Walker is one of the few firms in the state that still does a lot of medical malpractice work?

JW: Yes.

LD: Why has your firm continued to work in that space when other firms have stopped?

JW: We’re able to do it because of where we live: in a largely medical community. The problem with medical malpractice is that you have to be really careful in screening cases and finding the ones that work, given the damage caps. We see a lot of cases, but we’re very, very careful about the ones we take on. You have to have, in most cases, a large economic component to the case in order to be able to prosecute. So you only take cases you’re willing to try. You don’t take cases to settle.

LD: How is it that you became interested in developing this type of practice? Was it something you were interested in from the very beginning or did it develop over time?

JW: It developed for a couple of reasons. The first is that both [firm co-founder] Reid [Martin] and I grew up in East Texas, in Tyler specifically, which is a large medical community. My dad is actually a physician. And that might make you think that would make me shy away from medical malpractice, but it actually did the opposite, because of the infiltration of corporations into the practice of medicine. For-profit hospitals and large medical systems diluted the quality of medical care in our community and led us to doing this kind of work. We actually consider ourselves both patient advocates and advocates for good medical care and good doctors.

LD: Looking back over the course of your career, is there one matter that you might point to as the most satisfying? What is it that makes you excited about this work?

JW: I tried a trademark lawsuit with a group of lawyers out in West Texas and found that representing the plaintiffs’ side, representing real clients as opposed to the insurance company, was exponentially more satisfying for me. Shortly after that I tried a defense case, where I won but it wasn’t nearly as professionally satisfying or gratifying. It was actually a case that I probably shouldn’t have won. I was just able to out-lawyer the other side. And that led to a phone call on the way home from the case to my partner where I said, “let’s go do plaintiffs’ work, I’m tired of doing defense work.”

For-profit hospitals and large medical systems diluted the quality of medical care in our community and led us to doing this kind of work.

There are also a couple of products cases I took early on. I do “one-off products,” is what I call them. I don’t do mass torts products stuff. I find cases where there’s a defective product, and I go figure out the defect, and then go figure out the safer alternative design, and then go push that case. Those are my favorite cases to do. They’re the most satisfying. They’re not the most economically smart cases to do because they’re very expensive. And usually they’re just one case so really the only way to make money is to go and get more and more of those cases. I’m not really equipped, nor do I really want to do that. But they’re very satisfying to work on. I’ll have a client who was injured – or killed in most cases – by a defective product and I try to effect change in the product. So, those types of cases are probably what led me to where I am right now.

LD: Please talk a little bit about how the pandemic has changed the way you work, if it’s changed it at all.

JW: I think it’s changed it tremendously. And that’s a good thing. Throwing a system like ours into a kind of chaos led to some good efficiencies in our industry. The first is remote work. There’s a place in the trial industry for remote work. Depositions, that sort of thing. There’s no place in our industry for remote trials. That’s a non-starter for me and I think for most trial lawyers.

The other aspect of it is being able to work remotely, not just taking depositions. The ability to take some or certain types of depositions remotely is a game changer for small lawyers like me. It’s a huge cost savings, both economically and in time, to be able to, especially working in deep East Texas, to be able to parse out some of the depositions and say, you know what, I just need to talk to that witness. I can do that from my office. I don’t need to travel down to Houston. I don’t need to travel to the Valley. I don’t have to travel to Dallas. It saves a minimum of probably half a day to a day and in most cases two days, for what is likely a one-to-two-hour deposition. That’s been a huge change.

And the other thing is the realization that you don’t need the traditional law office model to be able to do the work we do. You still need the support staff. But you don’t necessarily need the physical space you thought you needed before.

LD: Since the pandemic started, are there any new trends you’ve seen in your practice in terms of the types of cases keeping you busy?

JW: Not really, because, anecdotally, when the pandemic began, the mindset of everyone was number one, uncertainty. Everywhere. Uncertainty in your career. Uncertainty as to whether this thing was going to take us out. Uncertainty when it was going to end. And uncertainty of how it was going to affect your day-to-day and long-term life. But for us, there was an uncertainty in whether we were going to be able to continue to do medical malpractice cases, which are critical of doctors and nurses, when doctors and nurses were the number one thing keeping society on track, if that makes sense.

So, for instance, we had billboards up, and we immediately pulled them down to show our support for medical caregivers. Because again, in the end, I think we are a watchdog for good doctors. Not a lot of them see it that way. Some of them actually do. But we want to get bad medicine out of the way for good medical care and good doctors and nurses.

LD: You said remote trials are a non-starter for you. What approach do you take whenever you find yourself in front of a judge or jury? Why is it that an in-person trial is so important?

Throwing a system like ours into a kind of chaos led to some good efficiencies in our industry.

JW: Our job as trial lawyers is to tell our clients’ story. And in most of the cases I’m dealing with, the story involves a great deal of emotional impact on my client. I think of it like a tapestry. There’s the liability side of the case, which is the technical side. But the main part of the story I’m telling, their story, is what they went through, how they got there and how it’s affected them. And that requires an in-person connection with the fact-finder, which is the jury.

You have to be able to get your client to connect to them. You have to connect to them. You’ve got to be able to illustrate to them what happened and why it was wrong. And that cannot be done effectively over a camera. It can’t be done because of the limitations of the camera itself. It can’t be done because if you’re not in person, engaged, you’re not going to get the story. And if you’re in front of a camera, there’s going to be other distractions that are going to keep you from being able to adequately do your job as a juror. Which you are under oath, to listen to the evidence, and make a decision based on that evidence. You’re just not going to receive it in the manner that will allow you to do that job effectively.

LD: What was it that convinced you to pursue a career in law in the first place? Was there anything in your undergraduate work that pushed you in that direction?

JW: A couple of things. We’re a medical community, so in high school I worked for a hospital, I worked for a blood bank and I worked for a veterinarian. So, all medical related. And in doing that I realized that’s not what I wanted to do. And going into law school I would not have told you I was going to be a medical malpractice lawyer. If anything, I would have told you I was going to protect those doctors. I wasn’t going to sue them. So, what led me to it is, I like the law. I had one summer working in a law firm and did all kinds of different things that I liked. I felt at home there. I decided then that I was going to go to law school.

LD: You graduated from South Texas College of Law in Houston. Is there a specific reason you chose that school over others?

JW: Because they focus on training their students to be trial lawyers. They have a very good trial and advocacy focus and I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer and be in the courtroom.

LD: In thinking about law school then versus law school now and all the ways it’s changed, what would be your advice for current law school students?

JW: My son’s actually in law school right now, so I have some experience with this. My advice to law school students is to go to law school because you want to be a lawyer. Don’t go to law school just because you feel like you need to stay in school and figure some things out. It’s a job that comes with a good amount of stress. There’s a loss of control of your own schedule because of trials. You need to be aware of these things before you go into it, because it can be a career that comes with golden handcuffs. For some people, once they get in, they can’t get out because of a certain lifestyle. You have family and things like that. I know there are lots of lawyers who get into it and they don’t like it but there’s really no way to get out because of those issues.

LD: You’ve been a part of Martin Walker for a while now and obviously you’re in a management role there. How has firm management changed for you over the past several years? Are there things you notice you’re dealing with more today that you didn’t as much back then?

Our job as trial lawyers is to tell our clients’ story. I think of it like a tapestry.

JW: If anything, the makeup of the actual law office is what’s changing right now. And we’re all trying to figure it out. Remote work has upended the traditional thought of, hey, do I need a big corner office and lots of square footage and a conference room and that sort of thing. So, if anything has changed, it’s the potential makeup of the law office. Actually, I was having a conversation earlier today about our own office, and how we probably need to move to a more collaborative model. Areas where people can work more closely together. A conference room that’s set up for remote proceedings.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that, since the pandemic started, my client contact has gotten so much better. I avoid client phone conferences as much as I can and instead try to do Zoom or FaceTime because that’s a connection with people. You can look them in the eye. You can talk, you can share documents. And that is very efficient as opposed to making them come into the office. Now, we still have face-to-face meetings, and I tell my clients that we’re going to do a few of these Zooms, but it allows me to stay in contact with them and let them know what’s going on in their cases and stay up to date with them on what’s going on in their lives so I can continue to stay up on their issues and their damages.

LD: Looking back over the years, is there a specific case that stands out to you, or maybe looms large in your memory? Maybe a client you were able to help in a specific way.

JW: Yeah, there are a couple. Reid and I tried a case about five years ago for a fellow who was mismanaged in a hospital, and it totally ruined his life. The main aspect in that case was that the defendant told us over and over and over and over that they’d never pay us a dime, that we didn’t have a case. So that was very satisfying. We tried the case and there was a lot of uncertainty in the trial. That was a big one.

I had another case where I represented the family of a firefighter who lost his life because of a defective latch on a bucket truck. He was about six stories up and he was thrown from the bucket and fell to his death. That was a tough one because it was a very, very sweet family. It was another situation where the defendant was trying to blame him. But we were able to get findings of everything we were alleging. That it was a defective product and that they failed to warn, that they were negligent, and that they were grossly negligent.

LD: There are a lot of talented attorneys out there. When you’re talking to some of these families that have experienced tragedy like this, what do you want them to know about your firm?

JW: The firm is based upon the partnership I have with Reid. Our partnership is unique in that it’s a true fifty-fifty partnership. There’s no “eat what you kill” in our arrangement. We work every case that comes through our office as a team. And not just Reid and I. We have a crackerjack lawyer that works with us, Marisa [Allen], who is brilliant and who we really rely on. She’s an excellent writer, she makes really good arguments. She understands how to do it. So, I sell the team concept. Yes, we’re small, and we don’t and can’t take a lot of cases. But when you get us, you get us all. You’re going to get to know me and I’m going to get to know you. I’m going to be in your house. I’m going to get to know your family. We offer a one-to-one connection, so I ask people to check us out.

LD: What do you like doing outside the office?

JW: Spending time with the family. And if I’m not, it’s something like golf. I like to be on the move, so running, cycling. I’m a hunter. If it’s outdoors, I’ll try it. Especially if I can rope my family into doing it with me.

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what do you think you might be doing right now?

JW: If I wasn’t a lawyer, and I realize how cliché this sounds, I would want to buy and sell sports cars. I would be dealing in Porsches and Ferraris, buying them and flipping them. I think I would enjoy that. If I wasn’t doing that, I would probably be in science somewhere. That’s more likely what I’d be doing.

LD: Do you have a favorite piece of law-related media? A book or TV show or movie?

JW: It’s the one everyone points to but it’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s my favorite. It’s time-tested.