A Conversation With Albert Watkins
Photograph by Wesley Law
When a kid from St. Louis, Jimmy Winkelmann, took on iconic maker of outdoor-adventure apparel The North Face with his parody company, The South Butt (for people who never get off their couch), North Face filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. The kid’s attorney, Albert S. Watkins, wrote an answer (PDF) worthy of The Onion’s news satire, then donated South Butt gear to every patient at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and challenged North Face to do the same. When the giant refused to respond, Watkins shot out a press release: “North Face Turns the Other Cheek.”
If you were representing North Face, how would you respond to a 19-year-old’s “charity challenge”?
I would recommend that the challenge be embraced, that Jimmy be embraced, and that the public know that The North Face was having as much fun with this matter as The South Butt. As it stands, The North Face is shaking like a small dog passing razor blades. All the admen on Madison Avenue are snickering so hard their martinis are coming out of their noses.
In your answer to North Face’s complaint, you call South Butt’s 19-year-old founder a “cherubic teenager,” refer to his “youthful exuberance,” and characterize the topic as fit only for “local fish-fry banter.” There’s some carefully persuasive verbal craft behind the humor.
Usually it involves a bottle of extremely high-quality Burgundy. I say this with the highest degree of candor: There has never been a lawsuit so ripe for the incorporation of parodic text. My intro is in itself a parody of the intro to the complaint, a fact that’s been lost on most of the media.
Item 6 of Section II simply states, “Defendants recognized this bizarre phenomenon.” What phenomenon?
That the raging majority of these people [who purchase North Face products] are no more capable of climbing a mountain than they are of flapping their arms and flying to the moon.
How have North Face’s lawyers responded to your sallies?
The attorney in Philadelphia who issued the cease-and-desist order did not embrace my sense of humor—or my refusal to genuflect upon receipt of his multinamed letterhead. But I understand the introduction to the complaint was actually drafted by Michael [Kahn, a St. Louis lawyer], and I do expect that in the future, when this is all settled, we will sit down together and he will be able to retroactively blow milk through his nose.
Do you ever worry about being too creative?
Oh sure. You run the risk, any time you employ tongue-in-cheek references within the context of legal proceedings, of being misinterpreted as disrespectful to the court.
Whatever prompted you to go to law school in the first place?
I got rear-ended. At the time I owned a car which constituted 100 percent of my net worth, which was approximately $1,100. The car was totaled, and the other guy’s insurance company said, “We are not going to pay your claim.” I realized as the little guy I wasn’t going to get any money back unless I hired a lawyer. And of course, if I had to pay a lawyer, I wouldn’t get my money back either.
So now you’re the one charging those exorbitant fees…
Yes, but I make painstaking efforts to make sure clients are aware of the costs associated with big brass balls. I tell my clients all the time, “I’m doing you no service if I charge you $600,000 to get that toaster oven.”
Where were you headed after law school?
I’d had a hot dog–cart business, and that was fun, but I anticipated going into the world of banking. I never expected to practice law. But a buddy asked me to fill in for him, working with his father, while he took his bar exam. He’d gone to Israel, converted to orthodoxy, and missed the bar exam, while I, being a good fallen Catholic, had elected to stay and take it. The next thing I knew, I was hanging out in courthouse hallways screaming out the names of clients I’d never met.
I learned how to practice law by learning how not to practice law. Just one of many examples: He maintained his filing system in alphabetical order—using his clients’ first names.
What were the clients like?
I’m going to try to be soft and gentle here. They were the functional equivalent of the lumps in the kitty-litter box.
Yet today you speak of “the beauty of the legal profession.” Meaning—?
That on any given day, you will pick up your phone, and having thought you’ve heard it all, hear yet another thing you’ve never heard before. That, and the great joy of occasionally knowing that you have been able to further the tenets of justice.
You sued the St. Louis Public Schools because they wouldn't give city kids—like your third-grader—preference over county kids in the magnet-school lottery. What happened?
We moved out of the Central West End and into the Ladue School District. It was a whole series of coincidences. My wife, who's a competitive swimmer of Olympic caliber, found this house in Huntleigh with an Olympic-sized swimming pool. I was diagnosed with cancer and had to go through surgery, chemo, and radiation. And as soon as we relocated, the city sent me a letter saying, "Look, your daughter has immediately gone to the top of the list!"
Whatever happened in the Earthly Mineral Solutions case, in which you represented victims of a mineral-rights scam?
Ah yes, the two woebegone cowboys of thievery. Both pleaded guilty. But for every con artist that is caught, there are scores who are not. The most recent example of a scam gone south is the gold-and silver-coin debacle of Don C. Weir Jr., who treated the residents of Town & Country like a drywall Fort Knox. His exploitation was done in the shroud of Christian brotherhood, and it induces nausea.
In another case, Biron Valier was convicted of stealing art, which Kodner Gallery then bought and sold. The gallery sued for its losses, and Valier's response was that your client, Jonathan Kodner, should have done more research and was therefore a participant in the crime.
Yeah. You think by the time you reach your late forties, your testicles have finally dropped, and then you hear someone who is so bold and brazen to assert that he, as a thief, has been victimized. It makes for a biological wonder, because the third and fourth testicles drop.
You also represented a cop who was falsely accused of having sex and using drugs at Johnny Gitto's, where he worked off-duty as a guard.
As far as we are aware, it is the first time in the United States of America that a law-enforcement officer was able to successfully pursue and procure a judgment, in this case $100,000, against an individual who registered a false complaint about that officer with internal affairs.
And you defended a building owner whose tenant, Royal Waterbeds, sued because the roof had leaked continuously throughout its 5-year lease. Your quip to the press was that if that was true, you were amazed they stayed. How often does the obvious get obscured?
Virtually all the time. There are so many distracting factors that after having worked diligently on a piece of complex litigation for years and years, you can truly not have any idea about the obvious facts of the case.
Back when you were in law school, you brought the colorful, larger-than-life Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko to Saint Louis University for a literary award, and he returned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of your law firm. Explain that friendship.
It's something that has now endured for more than 22 years. I met him on an Ozark Air Lines flight. We've hooked up in New York, in Moscow. I like to tell him he enjoys our friendship because I'm one of the few individuals on the face of this earth who will call him an asshole when he's an asshole.
He's also, if I can trust Google, Russia's most famous living poet; he hung out with Federico Fellini, John Steinbeck, and Louis Armstrong; he's dined with seven U.S. presidents ...
He's an amazing man. He was blacklisted by Nikita Krushchev, and he told Picasso he didn't want his art. Ply him with the proper amount of alcohol, and you will find bits and pieces of history that no one else in the world knows.
You served three terms on the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform?
Yes, and toward the end, one of my clients went in for elective back surgery and was killed by an egregious act of malpractice. It happened in Virginia, which was one of the first states where we were able to pass a significant cap on such lawsuits. So when I issued a demand letter on behalf of his family, the response was, "Why would we pay you a million bucks when we could drag this thing out for four years, and the most we'd have to pay you is a million bucks?" It neutralized my zealous pursuit of tort reform.
What's an odd way a client has come to you?
I recall being asked a rather complicated securities question while waiting in line to urinate at the football stadium during a Rams game. But I was not astute enough to get the gentleman's address so I could bill him.
What's your biggest win or triumph?
One case stands out: James Strughold. He was a former principal who'd been accused of multiple felony counts of sex abuse. We won on appeal, and then it got reversed and remanded for a second trial, and we won a full acquittal.
And you don't believe he did it?
I know he did not. I'm working to pursue an investigation, now that these kids have become adults, to confirm what I know happened. It was a blistering disservice not only, of course, to James Strughold, but to these kids. They were every bit the victims—but not of him.
What about outrageous losses?
You can't have any big wins without big losses. Some of my better cases have been losses in terms of trial work. There are often factors out of your control.
I have an uncanny knack for giving rise to feelings of either "I want to embrace Al" or "Get me a gun, I need to shoot this guy immediately."