by Alex Farr
“The greatest challenge any trial lawyer faces, and for many the greatest source of internal strife, is the day you come to realize that, as a hired gun, when you “fire” someone is likely to get hurt—a successful trial lawyer is one who never fails to lose sight of that fact and who can take measured actions while still zealously representing his client.” Throughout his more than 40 years of practice, Randy Johnston, the 2016 Dallas Bar Association’s Trial Lawyer of the Year, has embraced a moral code and an approach to life both inside and outside of the courtroom that he developed as a young boy in his hometown of Pampa in the Texas Panhandle where he frequented the local cinema to watch the likes of Roy Rodgers, Gene Autry and others stand up for the defenseless in the latest Westerns. “When I decided to become a lawyer, I wanted to make sure to always be one of the good guys, seeking justice and equity for my clients,” said Johnston.
Johnston attended Brigham Young University on a track scholarship where he was an English major. Although he was drawn to the creativity of being a writer, and even considered a potential career in education administration, he recognized that many of the same skills could be utilized in a legal career. Johnston began attending law school at the University of Texas School of Law in 1971. “When I got to Austin, I thought I had died and gone to heaven—it is a wonderful city.”
During the first five years of Johnston’s career he practiced labor and employment discrimination law at Baker Botts, but in 1979, returning to his primary passion discovered during his first year of law school, he decided to transition to a trial practice and joined the firm of Hewitt, Johnson, Swanson & Barbee in Dallas where he truly began to make his mark.
“He was the embodiment of cool, with his iconic pony tail, independence, and anti-establishment approach to practice—every young lawyer wanted to be him or work with him, and clients flocked to him because of his devotion to putting their interests first,” said long-time friend and colleague, Tom Melsheimer. “He was one of the first lawyers in town who took to suing other lawyers and did not care about what other people thought of him as long as he was pursuing justice for his clients—while that usually does not earn you many friends in the legal community, Randy did it with such grace and integrity that he ended up making even more friends!”
“Randy Johnston is as fine a trial lawyer as I have seen, in practice or from the bench,” said the Honorable Marty Lowy (Fmr.). “His loyalty to his friends is fierce and unconditional. If I had to stand trial for my life, I would want Randy to be my lawyer. If I had to walk down a dark alley in the worst part of town, I know Randy would have my back.”
Johnston credits Mike McKool, with whom he practiced during his time at Hewitt, Johnson, with reigning him in and teaching him to be more detail oriented, a skill Johnston admits he did not possess naturally. Johnston was also influenced by colleague Mark Davenport, a lawyer whom he shared office space with for a period of his career and who Johnston described as “the kind of guy that would take you out for a drink after defeating you in a lawsuit.” When he needs to bounce an idea of someone, Johnston periodically calls on fellow practitioners Rod Phelan and Frank Branson, as well as the Honorable Craig Smith of the 192nd Judicial District Court, who describes Johnston as not only a great trial lawyer, but also “A poet, musician, author, athlete, husband, and father—a true Renaissance Man!”
Johnston also intensely relies on fellow partners, Robert Tobey and Chad Baruch, who “tend to restrain their enthusiasm with logic more so than I do,” he explained. . Johnston also has the rare privilege of practicing alongside his son, Coyt Johnston—“it is the joy of my life that my son shares my passion and is willing to work alongside me.”
Johnston says that life as a trial lawyer is one of conflict, and can be a very stressful—how one handles that stress “determines how you are as a lawyer and a human being—the skills used in a court room do not translate well into home life, so being able to separate the two is critical.” One of Johnston’s most memorable cases was when he sued Upjohn Co. in connection with the side effects of prolonged use of one of its sleeping pills on a former undercover officer convicted of killing his best friend. Johnston successfully proved that the pills caused the officer to have an altered state of mind that lead to the killing and the resulting $3.2 million jury verdict became national news and even landed Johnston an interview with Dan Rather. “Although we lost the damages awarded to the man’s family on appeal to the Dallas Court of Appeals on a technical error in the jury charge, I still view the case as a victory because we proved to the family that there was an explanation behind their loved one’s actions.”
When asked what changes he sees coming for the profession, Johnston notes a disturbing trend toward the system gradually removing the influence a trial lawyer can have on the outcome of a case—i.e., forced arbitration where only cold hard facts are considered and no arguments are able to be advanced. “Although there is a defensible position for this shift, and people are less prejudiced by the quality of their representation, the elimination of things like voir dire, opening and closing arguments, and cross-examination really limits the impact a trial lawyer can have on the outcome,” said Johnston. He also sees the increasingly strict requirements imposed on getting a shot at trial as making public access to courts less for the common man and, if unchecked, could cause the court system to be relegated to a “playground for the wealthy.”
His advice for young lawyers: “there is no such thing as a “forgivable error” for a young lawyer; you must strive to be as perfect as possible because your opponent can view even a misplaced comma or spelling mistake as undermining your entire position—make sure to carefully review every work product that goes out with fresh eyes.”
To date Johnston has earned many accolades, including his 2012 receipt of the “Texas Trial Legends Award” from Dallas Bar Association’s Tort & Insurance Practice Section. He has been featured in the Texas Lawyer’s “Go To Guide” for Legal Malpractice in Texas, in D Magazine as among the “Best Lawyers in Dallas,” and in Texas Monthly as one of “Texas’ Super Lawyers.” In addition, Johnston is also receiving a “Champion of Justice” award from the Women’s Advocacy Group this year.
Alex Farr is an associate at Vinson & Elkins LLP and is Co-Vice-Chair of the DBA Publications Committee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.