Legal Eagle

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Following in the footsteps of Wendell Gauthier, attorney John Houghtaling makes his mark
How did one of the most prominent law firms in the city–the Gauthier firm, which received national attention for its landmark $350 billion class-action settlement with Big Tobacco–become owned and managed by a 33-year-old who’s not even a decade out of law school? Now in his late thirties, attorney John Houghtaling’s path to managing partner began by taking a job at the firm moving boxes for $8 an hour.
Houghtaling can’t recall when he first wanted to become a lawyer. “It’s something that’s been with me ever since I was a young child,” he says.
“Perhaps it came from seeing To Kill a Mockingbird and episodes of Perry Mason. I liked the drama of the courtroom. I’ve also always been impressed how lawyers have the power to stand up to injustices.”

Coming from a background of modest means, Houghtaling and his family moved around quite a bit during his childhood and settled in Kenner for his high school years. After graduating, he went to Emory University in Atlanta and envisioned becoming a member of the legal elite, which to Houghtaling meant getting into an Ivy League law school and being recruited by a flashy, big-city firm.
When he wasn’t accepted by any Ivy League school, Houghtaling worked a bit and did some traveling around Europe and later was accepted into Loyola University’s College of Law. “The Gauthier firm put me in a position to be far more successful than if I’d gone to Harvard and worked for a fancy law office,” he says.

Foreshadowing this point, while Houghtaling was at Emory his mother sent him a front-page Times-Picayune profile of Wendell Gauthier, who was in the thick of the Big Tobacco case. That was the first Houghtaling had heard of him. The name came up again when he was a law student at Loyola and a colleague bragged that he’d be working for the legendary firm over the summer. After being pressed for details, the friend sheepishly admitted that he wouldn’t be working in any legal capacity but would be doing manual labor.
Nevertheless, Houghtaling wanted a foot in the door, too, and was able to join his friend at the firm moving boxes. Houghtaling showed
up the first day in a suit and tie and brought his laptop. A senior lawyer laughed, told him he looked “silly” and instructed him to come the next day dressed in jeans. But Houghtaling persisted with the suit, tie and laptop. One day, Gauthier was looking for a lawyer to write a letter but no one was around to do it. Houghtaling offered his services.
After he got hired on as an attorney, he worked nonstop to bring in clients with a focus on the firm’s specialty of class-action lawsuits. “I was here at 6 a.m. every morning and was the last to leave every night,” Houghtaling says. “I was passionate about what I was doing. Because the firm was well known, we only had to take causes we believed in.”
The firm and Houghtaling suffered a huge blow when Wendell Gauthier died of cancer in 2001. Over the next several years, four partners quibbled over leadership and control, and the practice began to stagnate. All the while, Houghtaling kept working and bringing in clients. He tapped another talented young attorney, James Williams, and formed a partnership—a firm within a firm so to speak. Each time the parent organization had to let valuable personnel go, Houghtaling hired them on himself. In 2005, Houghtaling had the funding, the clients, the staff, and the blessing of the Gauthier family to buy the firm himself.
“I jumped from being the person at the bottom of the letterhead to the person at the top,” he recalls. A few months later, Hurricane Katrina hit. “It’s strange how in life you can reach a high point and then suddenly drop down to a low point.”
Like many businesses in the New Orleans area, however, Gauthier, Houghtaling & Williams not only recovered from the disaster but actually grew. In fact, under Houghtaling’s leadership, the firm has expanded to Houston and now boasts more than 40 employees. It has also been named one of the Best Places to Work by CityBusiness, as Houghtaling has created a workplace where his attorneys are given an outlet in which to achieve financially for their clients and for themselves.
In the wake of Katrina, many victims of the hurricane retained the firm, and it has been instrumental in bringing post-Katrina legal action against insurance companies on their behalf. Houghtaling even filed a suit against the industry as a whole on behalf of the state’s attorney general. To date, Gauthier, Houghtaling & Williams has collected close to $100 million involving 900 properties. However, it didn’t go the class-action route, which entails many plaintiffs suing as a single entity. Individual suits were filed in every case instead. Almost always, the insurance companies settled. For one case, which went to trial, the jury tripled the damages the plaintiff’s had asked for.
“We represented everyone from the wealthy to struggling homeowners from the Ninth Ward and found common themes to use,” he says. “Basically, insurance companies did not look at Hurricane Katrina as opportunity to do the duty they’re paid to do. Adjusters would misrepresent what happened to a property, trick people into signing away their rights and just play all sorts of games.”
Wendell Gauthier pioneered the use of class-action lawsuits, but because corporations have become much better at blocking them, Houghtaling cannot pursue this legal strategy as often as his predecessor did. Still, Gauthier’s legacy lives on at Gauthier, Houghtaling & Williams. For example, Gauthier also pioneered the use of mock trials to determine what a real jury might decide, and the mock trial room–a replica of an actual courtroom–remains in active use. Houghtaling and his colleagues use it to test out their cases with paid jurors, actors as defendants and a retired judge presiding. “It’s one thing to know the laws and the facts of a case,” says Houghtaling. “But what makes a good lawyer isn’t mathematical. It’s personal. In mock trials, we learn how to communicate the emotions of a case to a jury.” Gauthier’s legacy lives on in the New Orleans legal community as well. The Gauthier Family Foundation, along with Houghtaling’s firm, donated funding for a four story wing at the Loyola College of Law that opened in 2007, a gift of gratitude to the alma mater of both Houghtaling and his mentor.