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Piercing through all of the noise

The $335MM Question – How One Question Made Joe Jamail America’s Richest Trial lawyer

In 1985, famed, Texas trial lawyer, Joe Jamail recorded, what was at the time, the largest verdict in American history; a verdict which included $7.5BN in compensatory damages and another $3BN in punitive damages against Texaco Oil. For his efforts, Jamail’s client, Pennzoil paid him a handsome fee of $335MM.

So how did he do it? The answer is, Jamail was a master of exploiting the power of personal branding.

Following the trail, Jamail was the talk of the town and a highly sought-after speaker. Jamail was routinely asked, “What was the secret to winning the trial and getting such a huge verdict?” Jamail described the turning point in the trial as follows:

Pennzoil had entered into an agreement with Getty Oil to purchase its business. Texaco, upon learning of the deal, made a move to make its own bid for Getty. The problem was Pennzoil and Getty had already reached a verbal agreement. Texaco could have cared less. They thought they could quash little Pennzoil if Pennzoil tried to fight back. Texaco offered Getty more money and the parties entered into a written contract.

Pennzoil hired Jamail to file a tortious interference claim against Texaco since Getty had already agreed in principal to a deal with Pennzoil. Jamail filed the case in Texas. (This is key. You’ll see why as you read below).

During the trial Jamail called Texaco’s CEO to the stand. During his blistering cross examination, Jamail asked Texaco’s CEO a series of questions:

Q: Is it true that Pennzoil and Texaco have had conversations about Pennzoil purchasing Getty?

A: Yes.

Q: And isn’t also true that Pennzoil and Getty entered into a verbal agreement?

A: Yes.

Q: Is it true that Texaco, upon learning of this deal, made a play of its own for Getty?

A:  Yes.

Q: And all the while Texaco knew of the Pennzoil/Getty deal?

A: Yes.

Q: And if I understand the facts correctly, Pennzoil’s deal was verbal while Texaco’s deal was written. Am I correct?

A: Yes.

Q: And Texaco believes that because it had a written contract it’s rights superseded the verbal agreement that Pennzoil struck with Getty.

A: Yes.

Q: So, if I understand you correctly, what your saying is a piece of paper supersedes a person’s word?(Remember, this is Texas. How do you think they feel about a piece of paper being more important than a person’ word?)

A: Silence…. Checkmate. Verdict for Pennzoil, totaling $10.5BN.

Although he may not have characterized it as such at the time, he understood the power of personal branding. I have said this many times, if we don’t brand ourselves, other will do it for us. Jamail knew that his ticket to success was to brand the CEO as an unethical bully. The CEO, on the other hand, did not do a very good job of protecting his personal brand credibility.

Texaco’s CEO could have been the nicest guy in the world. That didn’t matter because Jamail used the CEO’s own words to create the brand he wanted the CEO to have.

Our words have consequences. It doesn’t matter if, “That is not what I meant.”

Here is a good rule of thumb, the meaning of my communication is the response I get. If we are not getting the response we want, it is not because they do not understand us. It is because we are not doing a good job communicating the message we want to convey.

And FYI, in law school Jamail failed civil negligence. He also barely passed the Texas Bar.

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