To meet with the new leader of Hawkins Parnell Thackston & Young, visitors may need to start booking a trip to the Lone Star State.
Texas-based Robert Thackston, the defense litigation firm’s new chairman, is also its first leader from outside its Atlanta headquarters.
“That my partners were willing to elect someone outside of Atlanta shows we realize we have a national practice now,” said Thackston, whose office is in Dallas.
Thackston was initially elected managing partner, taking over the role from Ron Polly in Atlanta, on July 16. One of his first actions was to change the management structure, creating a six-member executive committee with himself as a chairman, instead of a managing partner and a policy committee.
It’s a more corporate structure that is better suited to managing a firm with 10 offices across the country, Thackston said. He added that other partners, along with the firm’s professional administrators, are in charge of specific functions, such as IT or revenue.
“I am by no means an administrator type,” he explained. “I don’t want to be a manager—I don’t have time to be a manager. I’m not going to give up one morsel of my law practice to do this.”
“I’m very involved in determining the direction of the firm and our position in the marketplace,” he added. “It is a big team effort.”
Thackston started the Dallas office when he joined Hawkins Parnell 2003, leaving Jenkins & Gilchrist, where he’d headed the toxic tort practice, and bringing along the eight other lawyers in the group.
The firm’s name became Hawkins Parnell & Thackston at that point, later expanding to include name partner H. Lane Young II in Atlanta.
Paul Hawkins died in 2008, and Al Parnell has retired, but Thackston, 55, said he and Young, who is 65, have no intention of retiring anytime soon. “Lane is the guy in charge of operations,” he said.
When Thackston joined the firm, founded in 1963, it had only a small outpost in Charleston, West Virginia. Now, of its 160 lawyers, which includes 60 partners, only about one-third are in its Atlanta hometown.
The firm added Los Angeles almost a decade ago, then St. Louis, Austin, San Francisco and, in 2013, New York. It also has a niche practice in employee benefits law, led by David Johanson in Napa, California, who joined two years ago with a team from Jackson Lewis.
Hawkins Parnell added its most recent office in Chicago in March when Catherine Goldhaber and three other litigators joined from Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney. “It was not part of a long-term strategic plan,” Thackston said. “A great lawyer in Chicago called us … and it made a lot of sense.”
Thackston said he’s happy with the firm’s current footprint. “I think it’s perfect, in terms of the geography, the number and mix of lawyers. We’ve got the critical mass to do what we want to do,” Thackston said.
Hawkins Parnell has expanded beyond its insurance defense roots, representing companies directly, as well as insurers, and handling commercial litigation in addition to products liability and professional malpractice matters.
“Ironically, in the insurance defense world, our rates are probably high; and, in the direct corporate world, our rates are probably lower,” Thackston said.
He said his firm’s lawyers have the trial experience that a lot of big firms don’t. “We often get hired late in the process, so we get many cases when they’re close to trial. … We prefer they ask us before they pick a jury.”
They can compete on quality, he added. For instance, Dallas partner Rob Gilbreath and his appellate team “allows us to produce briefs on a par with the best—but at a lower cost since we’re not supporting offices all over the world.”
He said it’s a “sweet spot” in the legal market: “You’re offering better quality than the lowest cost firms—and you’re on par with the biggest firms at better value.”
He said there is a lot of pressure to deliver, though. “The ones paying a little extra have to be confident they are getting something for that—and, if they use big firms, they have to be confident that they’re getting the same level of service and quality.”
Thackston moved all the way to Texas to join a firm from Atlanta. He grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and then went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for college and law school. He started out at big firms, clerking for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in North Carolina and King & Spalding in Atlanta. He decided Atlanta was too big and joined McGuireWoods in Richmond. Even so, he worked on products liability cases nationally.
Thackson said he’d always been fascinated by Texas and finally moved there in 1993.
He switched from Jenkins & Gilchrist to Hawkins Parnell because he didn’t want to give up his trial practice to handle commercial litigation.
“They were interested in westward expansion, and I didn’t want all the overhead of the big firm,” Thackston said—or the higher rates.
Thackston has a national practice. He’s licensed in six states and said he’s probably tried more cases in Los Angeles than anywhere else. He added that his business card for the last five years hasn’t had an address on it—just his name, contact information and the firm’s offices. “I can be wherever my clients need me to be,” he said.
Thackston’s toxic tort practice includes a lot of asbestos defense for companies ranging from Fiat Chrysler Automotive and Alcoa to John Crane Inc. and American International Industries.
The firm is also starting to defend cases over claims that talc in cosmetics and other products cause cancer, he said.
“Plaintiffs lawyers have decided that talc is the new asbestos,” Thackston said. “We’ve gotten very involved in that.”
In one notable 2014 case in Los Angeles federal court, Thackston won a unanimous defense verdict for John Crane against the widow of a pipe fitter with asbestos-related mesothelioma who’d sought $13 million. John Crane, a maker of seals for industrial equipment, has been the target of numerous plaintiffs suits over asbestos.
Thackston added that a big part of his practice—and the firm’s—is trying to fend off litigation before it starts. “I try and strike a balance—get in a courtroom a few times a year and spend time with clients figuring out how to avoid [lawsuits]. No one wants to be trying cases as a corporate strategy.”
He has also taken a few plaintiffs cases and doesn’t rule them out for the firm. He won a $6.5 million jury verdict for FCA in 2005 against Bill Davis Racing for divulging trade secret information to Toyota to help enter the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
Even though the firm is national, Thackston thinks it retains a Southern sensibility. Thackston owns a farm in east Texas that sleeps about 50 people, and the firm uses it for retreats.
“It’s dramatically different than going to a hotel somewhere,” he said. “It’s hard to be a jerk sitting in a rocking chair, looking out at the beautiful countryside.”