folio feature

The Hard Rock of Justice

Attorney John Phillips fights the good fight

Posted

If you’ve ever met him, you know John Phillips is eminently personable, perhaps too personable. He is, after all, a lawyer. But if you know him by his works, you know he’s a mensch. The man is currently battling Donald Trump in court (on behalf of Omarosa Manigault Newman, Trump’s boon-companion-turned-bitter-enemy—a disturbingly familiar story). More importantly, Phillips has built a national reputation for helping victims, beginning with the high-profile Jordan Davis case in 2012.

We meet in the Ortega headquarters of Phillips & Hunt, the six-lawyer firm that Phillips founded in 2011. As expected, his office is filled with framed credentials and family photos, but there’s also a surprising volume of Hollywood memorabilia—including a Captain America shield and a Superman cape once worn by Christopher Reeve. Phillips is becoming something of a collector. His favorite movie relics are a pair of incredibly detailed courtroom props from the set of John Grisham’s 1996 legal thriller, A Time to Kill. The fanboy in Phillips had them recently signed by the author, who he introduced at last year’s Amelia Island Book Festival. (He’s keen to score Matthew McConaughey’s John Hancock, too. So, if you’re reading, Matt...)

Clearly, Phillips has a theatrical side, and he just might give it free rein in 2020. As we sit down for the interview, he mentions that he just returned from Downtown Jacksonville, where he’s scouting a new headquarters with enough space to really spread his wings (and show off his memorabilia).

“I want it to be like the Hard Rock [Cafe] of law and justice,” he grins.

Nothing could be more fitting for the media-savvy attorney, who has leveraged social media and network television appearances into a successful practice. In the old days, they chased ambulances; now they follow (and are followed) on Twitter.

 

But let’s start at the very beginning. (I hear it’s a good place to start.) John Phillips wasn’t always a talking head; he didn’t always score multimillion-dollar judgments for victims and families; he didn’t even start out as a plaintiff’s attorney. Phillips learned the ropes on the other side, as an insurance defense lawyer. After graduating from University of Alabama School of Law (“A lot of people don’t know it’s one of the top-rated public law schools in the country.”), the Mobile native decided to diversify his portfolio with credentials in both his home state and neighboring Florida.

“Mobile is kind of like Jacksonville in that it’s a border town,” he observes. “I had taken the Alabama bar exam and passed, then I passed the Florida bar. I figured I could practice in Pensacola.”

Instead, he was flown to Jacksonville to interview with Cole, Stone, Stoudemire, Morgan and Dore. The city made an impression. “I stayed at the Omni and sat at The Landing,” he remembers. “I called my mom and said, ‘I love the river. I love the town. But don’t think I’ll get the job.’ Turns out I did. I moved here on June 23, 2001.”

Phillips would eventually partner with Dennis Dore in a new firm. Then in 2010, with nearly a decade of experience in the insurance defense field, he switched sides and moved to the massive personal injury firm Morgan & Morgan. Still, it wasn’t a perfect fit, and within a year, he would move on.

“I had a Jerry Maguire moment,” he says, “where you realize you’re in this machine that people may not like. I wrote a mass email to the firm about what I learned—that was Tuesday—and on Friday I was told I could resign. It was a model that I’ll admit now I didn’t fit into. When you’re working 500 cases as an individual attorney, you’re settling cases not based on their value, but what someone will take. The best thing about Morgan was—and I don’t love the expression—but it was a trial by fire. It threw me into the world of the largest personal injury plaintiff’s firm in the world for me to sink or swim. Depending on how you viewed it, some would say I sunk; some would say I swam the wrong way; but I learned a lot in that time. I don’t regret it.”

2011 would be a pivotal and emotional year for Phillips. He met his future wife, Angela, early in the year. He lost his job in May, the same month that Angela revealed she was pregnant and that Phillips’ mother disclosed that she was ill—that illness would claim her life six months later.

That summer, he also founded his own firm, and he did so on two foundations: solid law and the value of social and earned media. He got his feet wet on local television, mostly discussing the Casey Anthony case. In November, he flew to New York for his first national network television appearance on the Today Show with Matt Lauer.

Phillips’ first major challenge—and “the case that changed my life”—came in 2012, when the family of Jordan Davis approached him. The 17-year-old high school student was shot and killed at a Jacksonville gas station on November 23. The shooting occurred after the aggressor, Michael David Dunn, provoked an argument with Davis and his friends. His beef: the boys were playing loud music in their vehicle. Phillips says nothing can truly prepare one for taking on such a case, but the experiences of the previous 12 months had expanded his emotional horizons.

“I had never known love or loss before 2011 and ‘12,” he said. “You don’t know love until you’ve held your first child, and you don’t know loss until you you’ve said goodbye to your mother. Still, I didn’t know if I was emotionally or spiritually capable of representing Jordan’s family.”

Dunn’s trial would eventually become national news, and Phillips’ first task was establishing a perimeter against the press who came to hound the victim’s family. “The first time I met them at their house,” Phillips recalls, “all three networks knocked on the door. I gave them a card and said, ‘No, let them bury their child.’”

Phillips and his team would eventually get justice for the family. More than two years after the shooting, after one hung jury and a second trial, Dunn was found guilty of first-degree murder. He is serving a life sentence without parole.

With his clients’ blessing, Phillips had taken the case to cable television, appearing regularly on HLN. That’s how he met The Apprentice’s semi-mononymous Omarosa, who was often featured alongside Phillips and sympathized with Davis’ family. The two became Twitter acquaintances and stayed in touch; in 2018, Phillips would begin representing Omarosa in arbitration against Trump in 2018, after the president had a high-profile falling-out with his former apprentice. The case is still ongoing.

 

With his law firm going strong, Phillips branched out into charity. The jewel in his philanthropic crown is Duuuval House, an events venue situated across the street from TIAA Bank Field. Phillips hosts fundraising tailgate parties in the converted residence throughout the football season. He acquired the property at an auction in 2018, before he had hatched any plans whatsoever.

“I didn’t even know the property at first,” Phillips admits. “I had no idea what I would do with it, but location, location, location. I knew I could flip it, if nothing else. The house was extremely dilapidated. We started gutting and renovating it, and as we worked on it, just sitting out on what is now the deck, seeing how many people walked by, how unique it was, it just became something part museum, part speakeasy.”

Duuuval House wrapped up its second season in December, marking one of the highlights of Phillips’ 2019. Diplomatically, he cites his family life (he and Angela now have three sons) as the real highlight, but his love for the job—and his drive to succeed—are palpable. In the past 12 months, Phillips passed bar exams in New York and Washington D.C. He also scored the largest wrongful-death judgment in his career—indeed, the largest in Jacksonville history: $495 million for the family of Kalil McCoy.

Looking ahead to 2020, Phillips continues to work cases that strike his conscience. “You can’t judge cases by the amount of money you can make from them,” he says. “That’s a huge flaw in the matrix.” Among his most recent are several sexual misconduct cases. In the final week of 2019, he took on a quintessentially 21st-century case, in which an AT&T customer was allegedly sent explicit photos by an employee. It’s unfamiliar territory, so Phillips has been doing a lot of listening, to his colleagues and to his online community.

“Sometimes I post on social media to see how prevalent an issue or experience is,” he says. “And we got a lot of feedback on that one. I was dumbfounded.”

Is John Phillips woke? According to him, he’s just becoming wiser: “Because of my chromosome makeup—white, male, from Alabama—I’ve never really had to think about these things. Now I’m learning.”

No comments on this story | Add your comment
Please log in or register to add your comment