The legal storm gathering around Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, with more than a dozen women now accusing him of conduct ranging from inappropriate touching to sexual assault, features two prominent Texas attorneys who could hardly be more different in their approaches.
Tony Buzbee, the attorney for the plaintiffs, has been making headlines daily on social media and has held a news conference on the lawsuits, while defense attorney Rusty Hardin has said almost nothing. Chris Tritico, a Houston attorney who has represented Moses Malone, Gary Sheffield and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, said the contrast will carry over to trial if Watson’s cases ever see a courtroom.
“There’s no question about that,” Tritico said, predicting a matchup of “the flamboyant, in-your-face, up-and-loud [Buzbee] against the more methodical and Southern gentleman, friendlier style [of Hardin] and it would be a true juxtaposition between the two, no question.”
Here’s a look at the lawyers who are out front in this high-profile case:
For the plaintiffs: Tony Buzbee
Buzbee grew up in East Texas and attended Texas A&M, where he was in the school’s famed Corps of Cadets. After graduation he joined the Marine Corps, serving in Somalia and the first Persian Gulf War. He then went to law school at the University of Houston Law Center. While there, he became the managing editor of the Houston Law Review and graduated summa cum laude in 1997. Buzbee was a briefing attorney for a federal judge and a Houston law firm before starting The Buzbee Law Firm in 1999.
He has since shown a penchant for big cases against powerful opponents. Notable cases include several against British Petroleum after accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009. He won a $100 million award, but it was later reduced on appeal. Buzbee represented former Texas Gov. Rick Perry against abuse-of-power charges in 2014 — the first time Buzbee had defended a criminal case. He won a case for Jimmy Buffett when it was alleged someone was using the singer’s trademark illegally.
After Hurricane Ike in 2008, Buzbee helped earn a $189 million settlement against the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association for relief from damages. “I like being a change agent. A disrupter,” Buzbee said in a 2019 Houston Chronicle interview. “I like helping someone who hasn’t been dealt a fair hand and trying to rectify that. That’s what I enjoy the most. So usually, if I don’t feel like we are in that position, I won’t take the case. If I believe a client has been wronged, I’ll take a case to square that. I think everybody wants to believe that there is still justice; I want to believe that too.”
Buzbee’s style is brash and bold. The door handles at his law firm, located on the 73rd Floor of the JP Morgan Chase Tower, the tallest building in Texas, are shaped like sharks. He has a shark tattoo on his right forearm and a shark on the tail of his jet. And Buzbee lives a public life. He slept on the Houston streets for a night in February to draw attention to homelessness and ran to be Houston’s mayor in 2019. One of his promises was to give his mayoral salary to a random voter every year. He ended up losing a runoff election to Sylvester Taylor. In 2013, he became a Texas A&M regent, and the following year he bought a billboard imploring the Texans to draft quarterback Johnny Manziel (they didn’t, instead taking Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick). He also called for the school to fire football coach Kevin Sumlin in 2017.
He once bought a World War II-era Sherman tank — named Cheyenne — and initially parked it on the street in front of his Houston mansion before moving it to his ranch and eventually donating it to his alma mater in 2018. The tank was parked in the same River Oaks neighborhood where the McNair family — the owners of the Texans — lived. Buzbee said Friday even though the McNairs live nearby, he doesn’t know Cal McNair and is not a Texans fan.
Buzbee’s approach in one particular case was similar to his actions so far regarding the lawsuits against Watson. Stanley Marsh 3 was part of an oil tycoon family and an eclectic arts patron best known for underwriting the Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo. In 2012, Buzbee sued Marsh on behalf of teenage boys who said they’d been sexually abused, compiling 10 cases to present to court.
Buzbee made a big splash, according to a 2013 Texas Monthly story, taking out full-page ads in the Amarillo Globe-News that read “our firm represents multiple young men who were allegedly sexually assaulted by Stanley Marsh 3. If you have information about these allegations, or any similar conduct by Mr. Marsh no matter when it occurred, we want to speak to you immediately.”
Marsh 3 settled the 10 suits brought by Buzbee for an undisclosed sum.
“I live for fighting on behalf of the weak against the powerful,” Buzbee told Texas Monthly at the time. “I enjoy getting my clients a bunch of money and putting the fear of God in those who are unfortunate enough to oppose me.”
Despite the bombast, Buzbee knows what he’s doing in the courtroom, Tritico said.
“Good litigation skill comes because you have that within you to begin with,” Tritico said. “You can learn how to ask questions but you have to have that ability inside to stand up in a courtroom in front of a bunch of people looking at you and have the skill and the ability to overcome the fear of public speaking that everyone is born with and have that ability to control a witness and he has that.”
Buzbee will be joined on his legal team by Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey, Brittany Ifejika and Crystal Del Toro. Brandfield-Harvey is a Houston native who worked in the Harris County Attorney’s Office targeting strip clubs and illegal massage parlors that dealt in prostitution and human trafficking. Del Toro has worked for Buzbee since 2014 and handles civil litigation, including sexual abuse. Ifejika, who received her law degree at the University of Texas, had a fellowship with the Texas Advocacy Project prior to being hired by Buzbee. While there, she worked with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
For Watson: Rusty Hardin
The 79-year-old Hardin is known for high-profile cases involving celebrity clients. On his firm’s website, it is listed as one of his areas of practice. He has worked on both sides of litigation, both in the prosecutor’s office and as a civil and criminal defense attorney.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, serving in Vietnam and then returning to attend and graduate from Southern Methodist University’s law school in 1975, Hardin worked as an assistant district attorney in Harris County for 15 years. A profile of Hardin by Texas Monthly in 2002 said he never lost a case as a prosecutor in over 100 trials. In 1991, he went into private practice as a partner in Hardin, Beers, Hagstette & Davidson. In 1994, he was a trial counselor during the Whitewater investigation under Robert Fiske and Ken Starr. Two years later, he opened his own firm, Rusty Hardin & Associates, dealing with civil and criminal defense work.
In many ways, he has become an attorney to the stars, particularly professional athletes. His best-known client was Roger Clemens, whom he represented in litigation surrounding the Mitchell report about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Hardin’s firm also represented Clemens in a perjury case after the Justice Department accused him of lying to Congress. Clemens was acquitted. Hardin represented former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich in a DWI case (dismissed); Wade Boggs in a lawsuit brought by a flight attendant against Boggs alleging verbal assault (verdict in favor of Boggs); and Warren Moon on charges of assaulting his wife (acquitted). He also represented Adrian Peterson after his arrest for spanking his 4-year-old son with a switch (no-contest plea, no jail time).
Hardin’s most famous case, though, was when he represented the son of billionaire J. Howard Marshall against former Playboy centerfold Anna Nicole Smith, who had married Marshall 14 months before his death.
The inheritance became both a legal case and tabloid sideshow, especially when Hardin cross-examined Smith. At one point he asked her, “Mrs. Marshall, have you been taking new acting lessons?”
Smith’s response, after grabbing a tissue: “Screw you, Rusty.”
In multiple interviews, Hardin has said the line followed him everywhere. But he told the “20/20”: “It never did offend me.” Hardin won that case, too, playing “You Light Up My Life,” during closing arguments because there had been reference earlier in the trial to Smith being the light of Marshall’s life.
“I said I had something I thought might capture the spirit of the trial,” Hardin told The New York Times in 2001. “Then Debby Boone’s voice started singing and the jury cracked up.”
Even in cases he has lost — he was the attorney for Arthur Andersen LLP in an obstruction of justice trial — he makes an impression. He turned what many believed to be an easy win for the government into 10 days of jury deliberation.
“He kept us focused,” a juror on the case, Jack Gallo, told the Wall Street Journal in 2002. “You never know what is going to come out of his mouth.” Tritico said he shares Hardin’s deceptively laid-back style.
“I’m not saying that Tony is rude, but our style is not aggressive,” Tritico said. “Our style is slow, methodical, getting what we need and smiling at them while we’re slowly poking them with knives.”