Mikal Watts has represented thousands of clients and won hundreds of millions of dollars. But late last summer, he represented himself and scored perhaps the most important victory of his life. After a five-week trial before a federal jury, he represented himself won an acquittal—beating federal prosecutors’ charges that he intentionally submitted phony names to recover damages from the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
He was pro se but not underfinanced. He spent millions of the money he has made as a mass tort plaintiffs lawyer, installing 20 people each night of the proceedings in a war room to go through documents to prepare for the next day, and he had 20 others helping him in the courtroom during the day.
But the Herculean task of staying focused on the complicated case and arguing on his own behalf before a jury—all the while facing the risk of jail time—both took a toll on Watts and inspired him to do more. This year, he has thrown himself back into his work, investing in and helping guide an affiliated law practice that will have offices in multiple cities in Texas. By Sept. 7, he expects to have lawyers working at affiliated offices in Dallas, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and Brownsville. He has even carved out a new policymaking ambition—directly related to his experience as a criminal defendant. He wants to help inspire legislators to reform the federal criminal justice system to make it fairer to defendants.
“I am embarrassed that I spent 25 years as a lawyer, but not on the criminal justice,” Watts told Texas Lawyer after the verdict.
Since experiencing his own ordeal battling prosecutors in what was a five-year legal battle, he recognized inequities.
“It is my new goal in life to use every resource available to me to reform a broken justice system,” he said. The justice system’s inequities give prosecutors an unfair edge and leave at a disadvantage anyone accused of a crime who doesn’t have the financial resources he has assembled as successful mass tort plaintiffs’ lawyer, Watts said.
“It terrifies me what Mikal Watts can do [in defending himself against criminal charges], but what the average defendants must do without,” Watts said.
Although the election of Donald Trump, and the appointment of former U.S. Senator Jeff Session, an opponent of such reforms, as Attorney General, has set back a bipartisan efforts to enact them, Watts still holds out hope. He plans on helping release later this year a documentary about his own experience to help underscore the need for reforms.
“I wish I had known what I know now, when I was 22 years old, not 49,” Watts told Texas Lawyer.
When prosecutors pursue a criminal case and then lose, as they did against him, the government should be required to pay the victorious defendants the money spent fighting the charges, Watts said.
“There have got to be some consequences for allowing the system of justice go so far off the rails,” he said.