Hall of Fame: Randy Johnston

Heroes don’t always see themselves for what they are.

Although Randy Johnston had built his own law firm and made a name for himself as a litigator specializing in professional misconduct cases, he often found himself ruminating on the dreams of his youth, writing novels and playing the blues guitar.

The founder of Dallas-based Johnston Tobey Baruch vividly recalls the mental jolt he got when he described his frustrations to his late friend Mark Pollock, a guitarist who toured with Eric Clapton, Freddie King and Muddy Waters, after resolving an insurance claim over a high-priced amplifier for him.

Waxing eloquent on the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan, with whom Pollock had also played and whom Johnston viewed as a near god, he wound himself up to a fever pitch.

Finally, he turned to Pollock and said, “God, I don’t want to die having been nothing but an asshole lawyer.”

For a few minutes, the statement hung in the air, neither man uttering a word.

Then, Pollock turned to Johnston and said, “Well, I’m kind of glad you are an asshole lawyer.”

The universe, perhaps, wasn’t quite sure Johnston got the message.

Years later, he and his son Coyt ­– now a partner in Johnston Tobey Baruch – were talking with former Navy SEAL Mark Owen, whom Johnston was representing in a legal malpractice case involving the U.S. government taking the proceeds of his book, “No Easy Day.”

The U.S. Department of Justice had accused Owen – a member of SEAL Team Six, the special ops group that carried out the raid in which terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was killed – of failing to obtain required clearances before the book’s September 2012 publication.

The volume offers a firsthand account of the May 2011 raid, which occurred nearly 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks in which the al-Qaida leader masterminded the hijacking of commercial airliners that were flown into the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon.

Johnston ultimately negotiated a settlement with the lawyer and law firm who advised Owen not to submit the book to a prepublication review.

The ex-SEAL “is one of my heroes,” Johnston recalls telling his son in front of Owen. He remembers Owen’s response vividly.

“Do you guys not realize that you were my SEAL Team Six?” the former chief special warfare operator responded.

“It shocked me when he said it, but I realized that many of us – and certainly many lawyers – undervalue what we do for other people,” Johnston said. “So I have been trying to acknowledge more the role I have in other people’s lives and not just beat myself up because I can’t play the guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughan.”

Which isn’t to say that Johnston can’t play. He and Pollock went on to form the band Blue Collar Crime. Although it later broke up as people moved away, Johnston remains a passionate guitarist, and in 2022, he even wrote and recorded a song about his career.

Do you guys not realize that you were my SEAL Team Six?

He has also authored a book, “Robbed at Pen Point,” about bringing malpractice claims against professionals from doctors to lawyers, stockbrokers and accountants.

Lawdragon: So which came first, the lawyer or the musician? Were you involved with music as a child?

Randy Johnston: I grew up living with my grandparents in Shamrock, Texas, a little town of 3,300 on Route 66. They owned a radio and television repair shop and also managed a string of jukeboxes on three different routes, one of which served a variety of bluesy juke joints. My grandmother read Billboard magazine to see which songs were popular and would play, and every two weeks, we would get in the car after they closed up the shop at 5 or 6 p.m. and go out to service one of the three routes. We would trade out the records, and my grandmother and I would count the nickels, dimes and quarters and roll them up and then split it with the owner. My granddad changed out the records and the labels inside the jukebox and fixed anything that had been broken in the last month.

So from the time I was 7 through the age of 12, I was listening to music. Now, in the country western honky-tonks on their routes, I was just in the way and I was ignored. But in the Black-owned establishments, the owners would come over and bring me a Dr. Pepper and a red pickled sausage, and I felt like royalty. I just fell in love with the music coming out of the jukeboxes in those establishments.

LD: And you eventually decided you wanted a guitar. Did you save up your money to buy one?

RJ: It happened like this. In my granddad’s shop, it wasn’t uncommon for people to bring in a radio or television to be fixed and then not be able to pick it up because they couldn’t afford the repairs. He used to have a sign that said, “Repairs left over 60 days will be sold.” One day, a man came in wanting to trade a guitar for his radio, which had been in the shop for a month or two. My granddad asked me if I wanted it, which I did, and he made the trade. I got this blonde archtop Stella guitar, and I knew nothing about it. I didn't know how to tune it, didn't know how to play it. I had a rope that I tied to it for a guitar strap so I could hold it on my shoulder. It was more a prop for me to pretend I was Elvis Presley, shaking my hips.

LD: But you eventually learned to play. Did you stick with music from then on?

RJ: Not exactly. By the age of 12, I had grown interested in sports. I was a good athlete and so I pretty much ignored music until I got into high school. Then I saw immediately how cool it was to be a musician, so I started trying to get back into it. By the time I was in college, I had moved from the blues into folk music. I loved The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary and all of that kind of music. I got an athletic scholarship to college and played guitar in a couple of folk groups.

Now, everyone who learns to play the guitar comes to a point where they're around people who are a lot better, and they don't seem to be making any progress. It started to look like I was never going to be good enough to satisfy myself. And then I got married and went to law school and I had to concentrate on other things. The guitar just went under the bed. I can say with complete accuracy – and a slight exaggeration of importance – that my marriage to my first wife and my relationship with the Mormon Church both ended when I took my guitar out from under the bed. I started playing again and by then, I could afford to buy any guitar I wanted. I bought the Martin acoustic I had always wanted. By then, I was totally in love with James Taylor and I started playing and performing that kind of music. It was like I rediscovered a brother I had been separated from along the way who gave me comfort every day.

LD: When did you and Mark Pollock start Blue Collar Blues? I know the two of you were friends even before that. Did you know him growing up?

RJ: No, I met him here in Dallas. He owned a Charley's Guitar Shop, and I used to introduce him as the guy who pierced Stevie Ray Vaughan's ear.

LD: Is that true?

I knew I had to tell the firm that it was a mistake, which would mean my career was over before it even started.

RJ: It is. I asked him one day, "Do you know anyone that would be willing to play lead guitar if I put together a band? I don't think I'm ever going to get better if I'm not playing with other people who demand the precision of being on the beat." He says, "Well, hell, I'll do it." And I went, "Are you kidding me?"

LD: You're like, "You're hired."

RJ: Absolutely. I was talking with a friend about that recently, and he said, "On your tombstone, they're going to write that you brought Mark Pollock out of retirement."

Randy Johnston on stage at Law Jam. Foreground: His son, Coyt, and his granddaughter, Porter. 

LD: You’re clearly passionate about music. How did you end up practicing law?

RJ: When I went to college at Brigham Young University people would ask, "What are you going to be? Why are you here?" The answers my classmates gave most often were doctor, lawyer or engineer. I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, and I’d had too much trouble in Algebra II to be an engineer so I always replied, “lawyer.” Of course, the only thing I knew about lawyers was that my mother hired them five times for her five divorces. I eventually majored in English and decided I wanted to become a writer, but at the start of my senior year, I took the LSAT anyway. When I got my results back, I was in the 98th percentile of the nation.

LD: That would change things.

RJ: It did. Three law schools immediately sent me acceptance notices. I don’t think I had even applied to them and so I thought, "Maybe I'm good at this. Maybe I should be a lawyer." One of the law schools that accepted me was the University of Texas. I still didn't know what I wanted to do, but that closed the fewest doors. The first year, maybe even the first half-year of law school, for the first time in my life, I had a revelation. I knew exactly what I wanted to do for a living: I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I felt that all of the secrets of the kingdom were suddenly being exposed to me and I understood how the system worked: how to hold bullies accountable and make the world fairer, the way I thought it should be.

Whenever I’m asked who my childhood heroes were, I talk about walking down Main Street in Shamrock, Texas, with a quarter to get into the Texan Theater to watch westerns. I didn't have a father around, so I learned how to be a man from Audie Murphy and Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and Randolph Scott in all of those westerns.

They, by golly, stood up for the little guy and had principles and moral standards. That's where I learned what life was about. When I went to law school, it was like, "Aha, this is a way to do what they did."

LD: Did you always know you wanted to have your own firm?

RJ: Not at all. When I got out of law school, I landed a job with what I still consider one of the best law firms in the world, Baker Botts in Houston. When I interviewed, they had a public utilities department that basically represented a natural gas production company in rate cases in Washington, D.C. It was the dullest work I could imagine. But when I'd interviewed, I made the mistake of saying something like, “Oh, that sounds like really interesting work,” trying to be polite.

After I was hired, I learned I had been assigned to that department and I thought, “Oh my God.” I knew I had to tell the firm that it was a mistake, which would mean my career was over before it even started. I met with the managing partner and explained that regulatory law wasn’t where my career was going; I wanted to be a trial lawyer. He was royally irritated. He said, “We have all the trial lawyers we need, but we'll put you in the Labor Department. They're trying lawsuits." So I became a labor lawyer handling employment discrimination cases for all of the major petrochemical companies up and down Houston Ship Channel.

They, by golly, stood up for the little guy and had principles and moral standards. That's where I learned what life was about.

After about four years, I moved to Dallas and joined a young firm where I stayed about two and a half years. Ultimately, I came to the very reluctant realization I didn’t fit in at these silk-stocking firms ­– and that the firms weren’t to blame. So I went out on my own. Now, everyone says, "Oh, wow, that was such a statement of independence,” but it wasn’t like that at all. I felt like an utter failure that I could not fit their mold.

LD: Right. Because you had succeeded in everything in law school. You were golden. And the profession teaches that big firms are the pathway to success. If you can't do it and you're out there with your own shingle, you think, “What did I do wrong?”

RJ: Exactly. I have this speech that I give from time to time called 10 Things Every Young Lawyer Should Know That They Don't Teach in Law School. And one of the 10 things is that lawyers don't need partners. You're taught in law school that your goal is to be a partner at a big firm. And the more partners you have, the better the lawyer you are. But I'm telling you, you don't need partners, you need clients. And if you have clients, you can have all the partners you want.

LD: So how did opening your own firm go? In the beginning.

RJ: Basically, I was handling what little business came with me and waiting for the phone to ring. One day, it did. My old firm called and said, "This prominent divorce law firm here in town has jumped their lease." This was in the 1980s, when Dallas was undergoing a real estate boom – new buildings were going up all over town. They used to say that the state bird of Texas was the construction crane. There wasn’t that much need for new buildings, however, and the only way the developers could fill them was by luring tenants from old buildings. They were offering three years of free rent on a five-year lease just to get businesses to move, and the law firm in question surrendered its moral compass, took one of those offers and moved out in the middle of the night. The previous landlord had a 10-year lease and wanted to sue. So I told my old firm that I’d be happy to handle it, and the real estate partner at my old firm said, “Thank God, Randy. I'm so grateful. I haven't been able to get another lawyer who's even interested in suing another law firm."

All of the pride I felt about my old law firm referring business to me went right out of the window at that point. I’d been thinking, “They’re going to send all their business to me.” But no, they tried everybody else before me.

I couldn't believe that the lawyers my firm had contacted before me had that level of hypocrisy. It had always frustrated me, and still does, when cops won't give another cop a ticket and will lie for them; and when doctors won't testify against another doctor, even if they know it's negligence. And here I was, in my own profession, facing that same hypocrisy: lawyers who wouldn’t sue other lawyers. So I said, “I'll do it.” I sued and got a judgment. I didn't even have to do any marketing, any advertising afterward. Overnight, I became known as the lawyer who sued other lawyers. It was just business disputes at first, but I eventually expanded into malpractice.

I figured as a lawyer, you can't really be surprised that you're being held to the same standards as everyone else, but the lawyers I sued in these cases were. It turns out that lawyers virtually never admit that they made a mistake. And with some rare exceptions, they never forgive the fact that you have sued them. I realized that to succeed, I would have to do what I thought was right without worrying whether people would some day forgive me.

Lawyers virtually never admit that they made a mistake.... I realized that to succeed, I would have to do what I thought was right without worrying whether people would some day forgive me.

LD: And that was the practice area that eventually led you to the Navy SEAL case.

RJ: It was. Mark Owen had been the team leader on the helicopter that crashed in the courtyard of bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, and he was the second one through the door of the room that bin Laden was in. He’d been in the SEALs for about 13 years and was at the end of his operating days. In all likelihood, he was going to be moved into an instructor’s role and that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to write. He saw that former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was writing a book and he had sent SEALs and CIA operatives to help with production of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.” So Owen decided to write his own book, focusing on the SEALs.

He knew because of the confidentiality contracts he had signed over the years that he had to have the book cleared for security purposes. He hired a former JAG Corps officer with special operations teams experience who had helped another former military officer and author get a couple of books cleared. The lawyer told him that because he was no longer an active-duty SEAL, he didn’t need to submit the book for pre-publication review, though he would still have to ensure he didn’t disclose confidential information or expose any government secrets. The lawyer agreed to review the book for Owen and remove anything that shouldn’t be included. And then, as soon as the book hit, Owen received a letter from the Department of Justice notifying him that he had violated a contractual commitment to submit the book for pre-publication review and that he might have violated the Espionage Act.

LD: What happened then?

RJ: The government sued him and threatened him with multiple criminal prosecutions, all of which were ultimately dropped. And I sued the lawyer who gave him that advice. The case went on for four years, but in the end, after his law firm spent a million dollars of insurance defending the claim, they gave us all of the rest of the insurance money to reimburse Owen. He used most of it to reimburse the government for the balance of what he owed. But one of the conditions of settlement was that the firm had to admit what they had been denying for four years, that they were the ones who advised him not to file for a pre-publication review, and that they were wrong, and that everything he went through was their fault. They did, in the end, because I was going to get a larger award than their insurance covered if they didn't.

LD: That’s powerful.

RJ: There are two cases that I will remember and talk about on my deathbed, and that's one of them. The value for Mark wasn’t the money, although that got him out of debt with the government. The value was that statement in the dismissal papers where the law firm admitted that it was their fault. His children will have that forever.

LD: That situation sounds a bit like some of the cases you describe in your book in which people were injured by professionals they trusted. “Robbed at Pen Point” also covers malpractice cases and scams, right?

RJ: Right. The book came out in 2008, so the specific things that I cautioned against are out of date now, but the underlying behavior continues. Every time I’m interviewed, the interviewer asks, “What’s the next big scam going to be?" And my answer is, "Who knows?" Whatever it is, you don't know it or it wouldn't be a scam. No one predicted Bernie Madoff’s billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, and at the time he was sent to prison. Who envisioned the accusations that Sam Bankman-Fried ripped off billions of dollars through cryptocurrency? One thing is certain though, new scams are coming.