Tom Girardi: From Perry Mason to Erin Brockovich & Beyond

Tom Girardi
2024 Feature Nominations

Tom Girardi is a name recognized worldwide as being a brutally tough lawyer as well as straight-forward and calm. From the famed Erin Brockovich case to the solid victories against Vioxx, Merck and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Girardi has long possessed a David vs. Goliath fight that has always served his clients well. For 50 years, this veteran attorney has been litigating cases and wowing fellow attorneys and the general public every step of the way.

The Early Power of Persuasion and Memory Lane

There are so many reasons a person might get into the field of law but for Girardi, a largely influential factor came into his home every Saturday evening. Actor Raymond Burr as Perry Mason was a reserved TV attorney who always won the case by the end of the evening – all without raising his voice, being disrespectful or losing his cool. The power of cool persuasion was a skill that resonated with a young Girardi.

“We learn how to persuade very early in life,” Girardi says. “We persuaded our mom at age 5 to stay up late. We persuaded our dad at age 16 to give us the keys to the big car. Sometime after that I persuaded Julie at the drive-in theater. … Then when you become a lawyer, you forget how you persuaded. Do you think any of this would have happened if you would have said, ‘Hey, mother, I’m staying up until 9 o’clock tonight. Hey, old man, give me the keys to the car. Hey, Julie, take off that bra.’ It wouldn’t have happened, right?”

Growing up in Westchester in a predominantly blue-collar area also made its mark on Girardi. In high school, he began rubbing elbows with the children from Hancock Park. There he became friends with some of these kids from wealthy backgrounds. “I was exposed to these people growing up and to the way they lived. This didn’t make me money hungry. But it did make me wonder, ‘Well, gee whiz. It would be great to work really hard and have some of the nice things that these people have in Hancock Park.’”

Inspired by the “Work Hard, Live Large” atmosphere that surrounded him, Girardi started a Popsicle stand. “Every summer we would sell Popsicles to people that would drive by,” says Girardi. “I had to know how much to charge for the Popsicles after knowing how much I paid for them. It was really great and I got my first taste of business that way.”

The Right Business Decision

Girardi graduated from Loyola Law School in 1964 and then enrolled in a master’s program at NYU. “The main reason I wanted to get my master’s is because of the Vietnam War,” Girardi says. At that time, as a law degree was a bachelor’s degree, the draft board ruled that a law degree wasn’t an advanced degree. Shortly thereafter, came the time of the Juris Doctor.

“I went to NYU for a year and it was just great,” Girardi says. “They had a trial program and all the giants of the New York legal profession would give talks at night. It was very inspirational.” He soon returned to California with a renewed gumption, ready to take on the world and immediately started his own practice.

“Initially I relied on friends who were a couple of years ahead of me who would send me cases,” Girardi says. “Every once in a while criminal defense attorney, Bob Courtney, would get a dog bite or slip-and-fall case and would send those to me. George Lowrey was a big divorce lawyer down there and every once in a while he’d come across an auto accident case and send it to me. This is how I built my early practice.”

A Few Great Mentors

There were many people along the way who inspired Girardi and encouraged him to be everything he could be. Plaintiff’s trial lawyer, Elmer Low, permitted Girardi to attend a couple of his trials.

“I would sit there and see how he did it. Perhaps my biggest influence, however, was David Harney who was a giant of the plaintiff’s bar and mostly did medical malpractice cases,” says Girardi. “I would go down to the courthouse constantly when he had a final argument. Obviously, I didn’t have too much to do at the office at that time as I didn’t have too many cases. I would watch him and learn.”

Girardi also became good friends with Ryan Knapp, and together they represented State Farm. He also became close with John Costanzo, Bob McGurl and Phil Bradish, the giants of the defense industry.

“They were known to have a glass of wine or two at a bar called Vince and Pauls in downtown. I would go over and just listen to their stories. Things like, ‘This court clerk, you have to be careful because this clerk is doing this,’ and ‘this judge, let me tell you how you can get on the wrong side of this guy.’”

After the young attorney picked his jaw up off the floor a few times, Girardi gained valuable insight into the L.A. legal scene at the professional and human level.

“When I think back on my entire legal career, I truly ‘won’ only one case and that was a case against John Costanzo in Torrance,” explains Girardi. “He offered my client $30,000 and the jury came back for $1.4 million. Costanzo passed me a note after the jury read its verdict that said, ‘Now will you take the $30,000?’ Here was the greatest trial lawyer of all time and I had gotten this verdict.”

This client victory early in his career was sweet and just one of many legal wins and memorable moments for Girardi.

Erin Brockovich and the Clinton Incident

The 2000 film “Erin Brockovich” not only scored actress Julia Roberts an Academy Award, it brought the public’s attention to the case in which the unlikely crusader took the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California down to its knees. Girardi was the trial lawyer who waged that important war and set the gold legal standard for similar cases that have come along since the landmark 1993 case.

“Peter Coyote played me,” explains Girardi who also served as an adviser on the film. “I was on the set every day and it was a true story. The thing that was good about it was that it did bring up a subject that nobody really gave any thought to before that time and obviously to see Julia Roberts five days a week wasn’t too bad either.”

He relays another story from just a few years ago when he ran in to Julia Roberts while he was out at dinner.

“I was having dinner with President Clinton – just the two of us at Giorgio Baldi’s. You would have known everyone there but me. Tom Hanks was there, Steven Spielberg was there. It’s a real hangout. So I’m having dinner with Clinton and in walked Julia Roberts. I stood up and she said, ‘Tom!’ and I gave her a hug.”

The two caught up briefly and then Roberts departed to her table. Girardi quickly scurried after her.

“I said, ‘Julia! I’m with President Clinton!’ She said she hadn’t seen him and she came back to chat with Clinton for a minute and then went back to her table. I looked over at Clinton and said, ‘You know, this happens to me all the time.’”

“That particular case revolutionized people’s thinking about all the toxic things they are exposed to,” says Girardi. “Before that, nobody really gave a hoot or even realized there was any issue whatsoever with chemicals in the water or in the air. Then all of a sudden, people started to understand it and that’s had far-reaching effects clear up through today.”

He believes that the Brockovich case went a long way to ultimately do a lot of good for a lot of people and bring awareness to a growing problem.

A Memorable Case

In addition to the Erin Brockovich case, Girardi has had many other memorable cases that have meant a lot to him personally, even if they weren’t high profile, high dollar cases.

“My favorite case didn’t turn out so well,” Girardi says. “Back when I was a kid lawyer, I represented Mr. and Mrs. Esperanza who had gone camping. In the middle of the night their Coleman lantern started dripping white hot gas right on Mrs. Esperanza’s face. We sued Coleman and I got the opportunity to try the case and worked for months to get it all ready. I went to court and at that time Mrs. Esperanza was seven months pregnant and had some pretty terrible scars on her face. During the course of the trial, the lawyers from Coleman pretty much proved that it wasn’t a defective lantern. It was the way Mr. Esperanza messed up in trying to extinguish the fire.

“Six or seven of the jurors were crying when they came in with a defense verdict,” Girardi continues. “Obviously, I was massively crushed. Then about three months later I got a picture of a baby and it was from Mrs. Esperanza. The note said, ‘Tom, we wanted him to have the same heart that you have, so we’ve named him Girard.’ As if I didn’t feel bad enough to start with!”

Five years ago, Girardi did get an update about that boy who is now an adult, is married and has two children of his own.

Other notable cases Girardi has had include a case against pharmaceutical juggernaut Merck in which he obtained a settlement of $4.85 billion for personal injuries to consumers of the drug Vioxx and a $45.5 million verdict against Ford Motor Company for a defective seat belt which caused a 6-year-old child to become paralyzed.

Girardi also represented Giants’ baseball fan and paramedic Bryan Stow who was left brain damaged and disabled after two men beat and nearly killed him in a parking lot after a game. The attackers are now in prison and the case forced increased security at Dodgers’ games.

The Girardi Keese Lawyers Dynamic

With 50 years of practice under his legal belt, Girardi now has a short list of criteria that he considers for potential cases.

“First, I look for people who’ve been harmed by bad conduct of another – be that the way the automobile is designed or toxic chemicals people were exposed to. Then, I look at cases, even if they’re not too big, that have a good moral aspect to them. Finally, I take in some cases that aren’t huge, but I want the young lawyers of this law firm to try good cases.”

“To get into the American Board of Trial Advocates, you have to try 20 jury trials,” Girardi continues. “Our little law firm of 28 people has more members of the American Board of Trial Advocates than any other law firm, including those law firms that have 2,000 lawyers. The only way you can learn how to try a case is to try it. The thing that really matters is that you’re up there trying it and making mistakes.”

At Girardi and Keese Lawyers, it is important to Girardi to have the right type of attorneys. The firm doesn’t even bother with résumés. “They are all law clerks. Basically, everybody here was a law clerk before they were asked to join us,” explains Girardi. “Bob Keese was my law clerk 48 years ago, hence Girardi Keese. We have a chance to see these law clerks from various schools over the years. We get to see their integrity, work ethic, imagination. … That’s a really terrific guide post to show us who we want at the firm.”

Using this method gives the team a chance to know potential incoming attorneys and hand-pick those who make the best addition to the Girardi Keese team.

Just last month, The Daily Journal, gave Girardi Keese some great news. Girardi explains, “The Daily Journal came out with the list of the Top 25 plaintiff lawyers in the state of California. I’m on the list, my partner David Lira is on the list and my partner Amy Solomon is on the list. To think that three of the top 25 in the state are in one firm is terrific!”

Because of the way new attorneys are brought into the fold, the staff at Girardi Keese is long term.

“I think we primarily treat people nicely here. I’ve basically had two assistants in 50 years of practice,” notes Girardi. “Michelle Alway was my secretary for a long time and she got sick. Shirleen Fujimoto has been with me now for 30 years.”

Other employees have been with the firm since they were 17 and 18 years old and are still here, midcareer.

“Lynne Lapore has answered the phones for 44 years. Grace Fujioka has been here for 44 years and everybody at Girardi Keese is the same. It’s a life sentence to come work here,” Girardi laughs. “In part, and maybe more importantly, I think our employees believe in what we’re doing. If we were defending a corporation that did a bunch of bad stuff or if we were representing some insurance company that insured people that did bad things, I don’t think their intensity level would be the same.”

Girardi recounts a current story, “Three weeks ago, Super Lawyers came out with results after polling 38,000 lawyers in California. They asked, Who is the best lawyer? I got the most votes and I was deemed to be No. 1 – and there are a lot of lawyers.”

As a firm, Girardi Keese has a variety of philanthropic endeavors that they pursue together and individually.

“We’re on the board of many of these philanthropic organizations dealing with public justice, Public Law Center and Inner City Law Center among them,” says Girardi. “We get asked to do many other things, mostly of a financial nature for a lot of other worthwhile organizations that we support. It seems to me that if you’re a member of the community and you’re doing well, that you have to give back and we do.”

For Love of the Game

Although, Girardi played baseball and was even drafted by The White Sox, he now likes hitting the greens. He loves to hit the ball around at the Bel-Air Country Club, Lakeside Country Club, Wilshire Country Club, Ballybunion Golf Club in Ireland and a handful of courses in Palm Springs. “That is the greatest sport that everybody should play. It’s the sport you can play up until the day you die,” notes Girardi.

“With golf you can continue to play with the handicap system and be competitive and it’s really cool. To walk those courses, it’s perfect. I definitely love to do that on Sunday mornings and there are always huge amounts of gambling going on—$10 a hole or something like that,” Girardi says.

The Future

Where does Girardi see himself in his career five years from now? “I hope they don’t throw me out!” Girardi exclaims. “I think I’m just getting started. I’ve learned so much in the last two years that I don’t know how I tried a case before. I love what I’m doing, I work hard at it and I want to continue to work hard at it. So many nice things have happened to me; it’s been an honor to become the president of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers as well as the president of the American Board of Trial Advocates and to receive these wonderful accolades from terrific lawyers.”

In his personal life, his wife Erika Jayne is the light of his life and he couldn’t be more proud of her. “Erika is awesome,” Girardi says. “We’ve been together now 16 years. She’s a dancer and a singer and she’s had eight No.1 hits on the Billboard charts – the last one just a few weeks ago, called ‘Crazy,’ She’s a hoot. When I won that case against the Dodgers in connection with the fan who was left disabled, I was very happy about it. At 3 a.m., she woke me up. She said, ‘Let me tell you something pal. Anybody can win a trial. … Singing a song – that’s much harder!’ And then she turned over and went back to sleep.”

In an illustrious career that has encompassed so many industry-defining cases, Girardi’s approach is now one that includes much more than that early injection of persuasion. It includes a wealth of one-of-a-kind legal experiences that serve his clients and his colleagues at Girardi Keese. He has much more legal fight in him that he will continue to use for personal injury and wrongful death victims and for the underdogs who continue to fight for what is right.

Lynette Carrington

Lynette Carrington is a freelance writer who has worked with Attorney at Law Magazine for more than seven years to bring readers the stories of stand out lawyers and law firms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts