“I can’t imagine being anything other than a trial lawyer.”
John Vaught isn’t just saying that because he’s the new President of the Denver Bar Association. He’s the real deal. And he truly believes in the legal profession.
Vaught has always taken the law seriously, but his calling as a lawyer wasn’t so crystal clear. After serving as student body president and graduating from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas with a degree in Business and Economics, Vaught joined the U.S. Navy. Following his military training, he went to Vietnam for a year, and then was stationed in Naples, Italy. He served in the Navy for nearly six years before leaving active duty to attend law school.
He returned to Texas to study at St. Mary’s University School of Law. As an older student, Vaught says he “approached law school like a job.” He believes this is a critical component to excelling in advanced studies. In fact, he would give anyone considering going to law school the same advice he gave his three kids: “I told them not to go to law school unless they’re ready to be number one in their class. If you’re not committed to that, don’t go.”
As it turns out, none of Vaught’s children are lawyers. All three attended the University of Colorado for undergrad. One son did follow in his military footsteps, however, and is now a Naval Aviator.
Another son is a financial analyst, and his daughter is raising three beautiful girls.
And for all who did decide to go to law school, Vaught has plenty of wisdom to offer about how to succeed in the legal world. He believes there are five traits to a good lawyer:
- Good judgment and the self-confidence to act on that judgment. This requires knowledge, experience and mentors to help your professional development.
- A commitment to relative perfection. You can’t put out a product every day with flaws or defects and expect to do well.
- A commitment to hard work, while still maintaining balance in your life.
- The ability to inspire confidence in others. You have to practice this daily on your colleagues and clients.
- A focus on maintaining the highest level of ethics, civility and professionalism—this requires a mentor as well!
A mentor is critical in the development of many of those characteristics. Vaught says that when he meets someone who doesn’t demonstrate a commitment to ethics, civility and professionalism, he thinks to himself: “Now there’s someone who didn’t have a mentor.”
Vaught emphasizes the importance of guidance in the legal profession because he was fortunate to have amazing mentors along his journey. The late Judge Robert H. McWilliams Jr., for whom he clerked after law school, was one of the most influential men in his life. He also cites Bill McClearn and Charles Cantu as vital to his professional growth.
An Impressive Professional Path
After graduating summa cum laude from law school and clerking for McWilliams, Vaught became an associate at Holland & Hart. He made partner there after six years, and stayed with them for nearly 18 years before leaving to join Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Currently, he is a partner at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell.
“I had the opportunity to try a substantial case with John, and he is just a terrific trial lawyer,” says Michael O’Donnell, a partner and chairman at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell. “He’s very strategic and a thoughtful, wise counselor to his clients.”
With so many professional experiences behind him, Vaught has a hard time narrowing down his favorite memories. He says that he has represented many amazing clients—both individual and corporate. He is currently National Counsel to USAA.
Some of the legal fields Vaught practices include: anti-trust law, securities fraud, class action law suits and insurance. He appreciates the variety of his clients and their industries because it allows him to continue learning every day.
“The wonderful thing about this profession for me is that every day is different,” Vaught says. “I get to know my clients’ business in a way I never could otherwise, whether it’s medical wiring or the super computer.”
As a Vietnam veteran, Vaught’s military past has also driven his professional path. He was very involved with the development of Colorado Lawyers for Colorado Veterans (CLCV), along with Mark Fogg, former Chief Justice Michael Bender and Ben Currier. Created in 2011, CLCV is part of the CBA Military & Veterans Affairs Section, and is focused on setting up clinics around the state where CBA volunteer lawyers meet with veterans who need legal assistance but cannot afford it.
“I have always felt this incredible empathy for veterans,” Vaught explains. “This was really born out of the experience I had after Vietnam, where we weren’t exactly welcomed back to the U.S. with open arms.”
He strives to use his legal tools and knowledge to help veterans today, who, he says, we ask too much of. “When you send someone to war for three, four, five tours of duty—you’re asking too much. No wonder our returning veterans have issues.”
Outside the Office
Although Vaught wasn’t a pilot in the Navy, flying was always on his to-do list. So, a few years ago, he became a private pilot. The only problem now is finding time to fly!
“I have more interests than I have time,” Vaught laughs. “Luckily, many of them coincide with what Colorado has to offer.”
When Vaught was deciding where he wanted to build his career after law school, he only knew that he wanted to experience living somewhere other than Texas. He narrowed his prospective new home options to Denver or Seattle. His love of the mountains and outdoors led him to spend the summer between his second and third year of law school in Denver, which cemented his choice.
His hobbies include reading, golfing, fishing, hunting, and sailing. He also loves photography and travel. Italy, Egypt and France are among his favorite travel destinations, but if he could hop on a plane tomorrow and go anywhere, he’d pick Turkey.
Between all of Vaught’s outdoor activities, he still finds time to heat up the kitchen. He enjoys cooking and entertaining, especially when it comes to Italian food. Living in Italy while in the military led him to cultivate an appreciation for meal presentation. And if you ever run into him at the airport, you’re likely to catch him reading a culinary magazine over The Docket (gasp!).
Vaught didn’t mention fashion as one of his personal interests, but colleague and friend Michael O’Donnell let it slip that Vaught just might be the “best dressed lawyer in Denver—or at least at our firm!”
The Future of the DBA
During his term as President, Vaught wants to emphasize the value that Bar Associations bring to the practice of law—namely, the personal relationships and networking opportunities that cannot be matched by phone or computer. He wants to focus on a return to personal interaction over technological communication.
“Ultimately, success as a lawyer is about personal relationships as well as legal skills,” Vaught says.
He believes the best place to start with this initiative is the future of our Bar: young lawyers. He aims to increase membership in the DBA Young Lawyers Division 15% in 2015. To do so, he wants to meet law students while they’re studying to become lawyers, renew the annual YLD meeting to help facilitate relationships and become more involved with cutting-edge legal issues and events.
Along with encouraging increased engagement among members and growing the DBA YLD, Vaught would like to continue expanding the veterans program and clinics, and promote the importance of mentoring alongside John Baker, Director of the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program.
“The future of our profession depends on the perpetuation of professionalism, ethics and civility,” he says. “That can only be passed down on a person-to-person basis.”
Hugh Gottschalk, partner and President at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell reiterated Vaught’s compassion for the legal profession: “He is deeply committed to maintaining and enhancing professionalism within the practice of law, and the Denver Bar Association is the perfect vehicle to do that. He is the perfect president to achieve this—to make professionalism more relevant and important to more people.”
If Vaught’s hard-work ethic and intense professional drive are any indication of the impact he will make as President, the Denver legal community is lucky to have him as a leader!
By Courtney Gibb