Free Speech, Due Process and Trial by Jury
For Aza Musician-turned-lawyer, the Courtroom Is Just a Different Stage
May 27, 2021 | By Bruce Tomaso | The Texas Lawbook
When his Bay Area alt-rock band disbanded after 10 years, Foster C. Johnson was in his late 30s. It was time for a candid assessment of his career choices.
“I was totally unemployable,” said Johnson, whose undergraduate degree from Stanford University was in philosophic and religious studies. “I figured my options were file clerk, McDonald’s, or law school.”
Clients of AZA, the Houston litigation firm where Johnson is now an accomplished trial lawyer, should be glad he chose Door No. 3.
Believe it or not, that choice was far from clear-cut.
Foster Johnson (left) as he appeared on the cover of a Vegas DeMilo disc. Foster Johnson (right) as he now appears on the AZA website.
“Of all the jobs in the world I might possibly do, law definitely would have come in last,” Johnson said. “It was something I was determined never to do.”
That determination came from watching his father when Johnson was growing up in Houston. Dad was a successful corporate partner in a silk-stocking firm who rarely left time for anything but work.
“About the only time I got to spend with him,” Johnson recalled, “was when he’d take me with him to the office on Sunday afternoons.”
When Johnson was a high school freshman, his father died of a stroke. ““He just worked himself to death.”
Resolved not to follow in his father’s footsteps, Johnson lit out for the West, enrolling in Stanford University. He and his brother Alec, also in college on the West Coast, formed a band, Vegas DeMilo, a post-Nirvana alternative rock group they kept going from 1995 through 2004 – no small achievement in the ever-changing, rarely well-paying world of indie music.
Under the pseudonym Foster Calhoun – Calhoun is his middle name – Johnson sang lead vocals and played guitar. Alec played bass and keyboards. As the band’s following grew, it progressed from weeknight gigs at dive bars, pizza parlors, and strip joints to appearances at renowned festivals including South by Southwest in Austin, North by Northwest in Portland, Oregon, and CMJ in New York. The group’s lineup changed over time, but, anchored by the Johnson brothers, Vegas DeMilo recorded three albums, toured extensively, and managed to stay (marginally) profitable for 10 years.
A highlight, Johnson said, was playing the Fillmore in San Francisco in 2000. The storied auditorium was where Sixties rock impresario Bill Graham made his name, promoting a galaxy of stellar acts — the Grateful Dead, the Steve Miller Band, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, B.B. King, the Byrds, Santana, the Mothers of Invention, Cream, and Pink Floyd, to name but a few.
Growing up, Johnson said, his favorite artists included the Who, Bruce Springsteen, and David Bowie. As a musician, he numbers among his influences Oasis, Elvis Costello, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and the Smiths.
Johnson wrote scores of songs – two of the more picaresque titles in his oeuvre are “Teenage Pornstar” and “Sex Toys for Christmas” – many of which have been featured in films and television shows. The occasional royalty checks still arrive, but they represent pennies on the dollar, compared with what the band brought in over its long, if low, trajectory.
A review in Billboard hailed Vegas DeMilo as a band “on the verge of a national breakthrough,” but on that verge it remained. After signing with a small indie label out of Los Angeles, the band waited, in vain, for a contract with a major record company. The Johnson brothers eventually opted for law school. (Alec today is an attorney in the enforcement division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.)
Foster hated his first year in law school, but by his second, he decided the law fit both his intellectual curiosity and his competitive nature.
“I never thought Foster would love law as much as he does,” said his brother.
Johnson’s “I-fell-into-law-school-and-came-out-a-lawyer” spiel reflects an excessive modesty with regard to his scholarly achievements. He graduated from Stanford Law School, where he was on the staff of the Stanford Law & Policy Review and the Stanford Technology Law Review. In addition to his law and bachelor’s degrees, he holds a master’s in humanities from Stanford After law school, he clerked for Judge Priscilla Owen on the Fifth U.S. Court of Appeals, and he was a litigator with Baker Botts before joining AZA (aka, Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing.)
In 2017, he was part of the AZA trial team that won a $41.6 million verdict from a state district court jury in Houston, one of the top 100 verdicts in the United States that year, according to The National Law Journal. AZA represented Prime Natural Resources Inc., a private equity firm, in a breach of contract dispute with underwriters at Lloyd’s of London. The litigation arose from damage to offshore oil facilities during 2005’s Hurricane Rita. At a firm celebration, Johnson performed a song he wrote about the case.
AZA co-founder John Zavitsanos called the former rocker a perfect fit for the law firm.
“Maybe it’s from being onstage, maybe it’s from the creativity of writing music, maybe it’s from the mushrooms consumed while in the band, but he is a legal genius and comes up with the most bizarre, unconventional ideas that have done miracles for our clients,” Zavitsanos said.
“We walk to the beat of a different drummer over here,” he added. “We don’t look for people who play it safe, color inside the lines and are risk-averse. We look for people who are not only brilliant but have overcome major life obstacles and have a bit of a chip on their shoulder.”
When Johnson interviewed with AZA, Zavitsanos said, what first impressed him about Johnson’s background in music was “that this was not some millennial hobby that lasted for a couple of months. He did it for a long time. Being able to manage a band and make a living for a number of years at a level slightly above the poverty line told me that Foster one, does not give up easily and two, understands that success can only be achieved through constant, never-ending effort.”
Johnson said his career change isn’t quite as odd as it may seem (although, at least in the annals of Texas litigators, it’s pretty damned odd).
“It’s confusing to people how somebody who did what I did wound up a trial lawyer,” he said. “But there is a performance aspect in common, especially in front of a jury. The very best trial lawyers communicate and entertain. In its way, it’s not unlike being a musician onstage in front of a lot of people and performing without feeling self-conscious.”
One thing he didn’t need to learn in making the transition was the virtue of hard work.
“Being in a band – and actually making a living at it – is tough,” he said. “Really tough.”
“The biggest difference between working seven days a week as a musician and working seven days a week as a lawyer is the number of zeroes on your paycheck.”
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