When it comes to high profile attorneys, John Gomez tops the list. The San Diego native may have a laid back personality, but inside the courtroom it’s always game time. He has been named Trial Lawyer of the Year, both locally and nationally by U.S News and World Report. Judging from his track record, it’s easy to see why. His law firm, Gomez Trial Lawyers, boasts the best in the biz. It is hard work and long hours, but being an attorney seems more like a calling for Gomez, rather than just a job.
“I have a responsibility to honor whatever gifts I have been blessed with,” said Gómez during a one on one sit down interview with La Prensa San Diego. “That responsibility goes way beyond making money.”
Over the past ten years, his accident attorneys have collected over $350 million in verdicts and settlements. His wins are impressive, but the journey has not been easy. “When I was a kid, we moved around a lot,” says Gomez. “My mom was a single parent. She was poor and we would get evicted or we would move.”
Growing up in a broken home led him from one school to the next. From Hilltop High School to Mt. Miguel and El Cajon Valley. He says he was much more interested in sports than studying.
Even though academics wasn’t a priority at first, he transferred to Grossmont Community College. Then to the University of San Diego and eventually to Yale Law School, where he graduated in 1993.
“Once I figured out that there was a path to success that I could control through my efforts, then it was very motivating. It continues to be a motivation.”
That very motivation led him to work for a Fortune 500 company: Latham & Watkins and years later as a federal prosecutor for the U.S Attorneys Office, where he won 20 straight felony cases. But despite the success, he says something felt amiss.
“I did not necessarily identify with a lack of leniency or of flexibility, especially with Mexican defendants who acted out of financial hardships,” says Gomez. “So I decided that I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to work for the little guy, instead of the government or big companies.”
He opened his San Diego law firm in September 2005 which now includes about 22 lawyers. The team is all business in the courtroom, but the atmosphere in his spacious downtown office is surprisingly relaxed. There’s a mock courtroom in the facility, which can be used by lawyers to train for a case or simply to teach kids about the legal process. His firm also has offices in Los Angeles, Solana Beach and Orange County.
Looking back at his successful career, he says one local trial launched his national notoriety. Dubbed the “American Beauty Murder,” Gomez led the case against Kristen Rossum. A young toxicologist from San Diego, who is now serving life in prison for murder. In November 2000, she was convicted of murdering her spouse with a lethal dose of fentanyl. Rossum stole the narcotic from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office where she worked. Gomez won the trial against the defendant, but most importantly against the County for hiring Rossum, a former drug addict. A whopping $106 million were awarded to the victim’s family in punitive damages.
Gomez also led the so called “Runaway Lexus” case, which resulted in the deaths of CHP officer Mark Saylor, his wife, daughter, and brother in law. Toyota Motor agreed to pay $10 million to the victims’ family. The settlement was followed by a massive recall.
But with so much success, also comes responsibility. That includes a conscious effort of staying humble. More than just a ‘feel good’ mantra, Gomez says staying in check, is also a practical tool in the courtroom.
“There is always the possibility or threat of arrogance deceiving trial lawyers because they’re kind of running the show. They might think they’re the big shot, but a good trial lawyer has to be genuinely humble because arrogance can turn off jurors.”
Gomez is obviously good at what he does, but every now and then a bit of superstition creeps in. He has a set of non written rules he always follows when on trial. First, he always gives money to the homeless on his way to the courtroom. He never jay walks because it’s not good to break laws, however minimal they may seem, and he doesn’t wear sunglasses when trying a case. “Sunglasses make you look shady,” he says with a smile.
In addition to being an active member of the Rock Church, giving back to the community is also a main priority of his commitment. His troubled past, he says, makes it ever more important to support underprivileged kids.
Some of John’s charity work includes the Community Youth Athletic Center in National City. The staff in the boxing gym usually works with high risk youths from the South Bay, Barrio Logan and Shelltown. “For parents who don’t have a lot of money and who want to get their kids in a positive environment, this is the place,” says Gomez. “It’s great. It can also help overweight kids who have issues with self esteem and dieting.”
When it comes to low profile cases, Gomez recognizes that reaching out to lawyers is a problem for many undocumented families. The fear of being turned over to immigration authorities, often trumps their desire for justice.
“The law is intended to provide equal protection for everyone. That can only happen if people who suffer harm, discrimination or unjust treatment, find someone who can stick up for them,” he says. “Regardless of who you are, if you are in this country you should not suffer treatment that is illegal or unjust.”
So what’s next for one of the best trial lawyers in San Diego? Gomez says he is not interested in being a judge or running for office. For now, he says it’s all about “my contributions to my church, staying healthy, being a great leader of a law firm and being a great dad.”