Hoffman's Houston
nice one, counselor

Ken Hoffman recalls his comical showdown with Houston legal giant John M. O’Quinn

Hoffman recalls his showdown with Houston legal giant John O’Quinn

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John M. O’Quinn had an offer Hoffman couldn't refuse. Photo by Fulton Davenport

The University of Houston announced that it had received a “significant gift” from the John M. O’Quinn Foundation that will go towards a new $90 million facility for the UH Law Center. In honor of the donation, they’ll name the structure the John M. O’Quinn Law Building. Construction will start next summer.

It’s not the first time the O’Quinn Foundation has given money to UH. There’s the O’Quinn Law Library, the John M. O’Quinn Field at TDECU Stadium, and the O’Quinn Great Hall at the UH Alumni Center. The foundation also sent $3.5 million seed money for UH’s new College of Medicine.

O’Quinn graduated from the UH Law Center in 1967. You could say he was a pretty nifty lawyer. Legal lore says he won more than $21 billion for his clients, including a $17.3 billion settlement on behalf of Texas against Big Tobacco. (Good for him.)

He did all right for himself, too. His car collection alone was worth more than $100 million. It was known in courtrooms across the America, you didn’t mess with John O’Quinn because, more often than not, you’re going to pay through your nose. He died in a one-car crash on Allen Parkway in 2009.

I knew John O’Quinn. That is, if being scared to death by him one afternoon qualifies as I knew him.

About 10 years ago, I received a phone call from O’Quinn’s secretary. “Mr. O’Quinn would like to talk to you. Would you mind coming to his office today?”

I thought, that’s not good. I started doing swim laps around my brain, what could I have written that’s getting me sued? I’m not exactly a hard-hitting investigative reporter unearthing corruption in City Hall.

Did one of my weekly homeless dogs get offended when I said he was a terrible dancer because he had two left feet?

Was Burger King unhappy with my critical review of its Halloween Whopper?

Did Channel 2 meteorologist Frank Billingsley finally have enough of my stupid weatherman cracks?

When I arrived at O’Quinn’s office — practically the entire floor of a downtown building — his secretary waved me into his private office. There was O’Quinn, sitting behind a desk bigger than my dining room table, with all the extensions added for Thanksgiving. He was an intimidating sight.

O’Quinn was perched in a chair that would have made Louis the 14th jealous. “Sit down,” he said. I asked if I could stand. “I don’t want to get your chair wet.” (People say weird stuff when they’re frightened.)

O’Quinn: “Ken, we’ve never met.”
Me (in my head): How about we just keep it that way?

O’Quinn: “But I think you’re funny.”
Me: Glad to hear that, can I leave now?

O’Quinn: “I’m not funny. That’s why I need your help.”
Me: Great, who are we suing and what’s my cut?

O’Quinn: “They’re doing one of those roasts next week for Racehorse Haynes, and they want me to speak. I’m terrible at those things. I never know what to say. Could you write me some material? I’ll pay you.”
Me (out loud): “Could you repeat that last part?”

I knew a few lawyer jokes, but most of them were too dirty for a big-deal roast involving high-power attorneys like Racehorse Haynes and John O’Quinn. So I took a relatively harmless joke, that I probably read it in a Milton Berle joke book when I was a kid, and twisted a few words around to fit the occasion.

O’Quinn liked it. He didn't strike me as a guy who grew up memorizing joke books. Here goes:

“There’s something about Racehorse that we haven’t discussed tonight, and that’s his integrity. I know that he personally handles the background check of every lawyer that works for him. And I can tell every graduating law student here tonight that there is no room for a dishonest lawyer in Racehorse’s firm. Do you hear me? No room!

“They’re all full. You have to wait till next year to apply.”