AZA trial lawyer Foster Johnson knows the thrill of hearing his band’s song on the radio for the first time as he drove across the Golden Gate bridge with his brother, a fellow band member.
He also knows what it’s like to have a video and three rock ’n’ roll albums made, to play a crowd of 3,000, and to be on a stage where Hendrix, Joplin and the Stones once played.
And he knows what it’s like to end the rock star dream and use his initially sizable royalty payments from the songs he wrote to pay for Stanford Law School.
“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,” AZA co-founder John Zavitsanos said of Johnson.
Zavitsanos said the firm had a case worth about $1.5 million against Lloyd’s of London. That was until Johnson came up with a unique theory and the six-week trial that ended in a $41.6 million jury verdict for AZA’s client. The case was one of the top 100 verdicts in the nation for 2017, according to The National Law Journal. At the verdict celebration, Johnson performed a song he wrote about the case.
The Houston native started playing guitar as a 10-year-old kid. He played air guitar ferociously along with The Who as a teen. And after he went to Stanford as an undergrad to get a philosophy degree, he started playing guitar and singing in bands with names like Mood Swing and Liquid Wrench before starting his own band – Vegas Demilo.
“Every band’s story is the same. You start out playing Tuesday night in the smallest club in town,” said Johnson, whose rock nom de guerre was Foster Calhoun. But every band doesn’t headline The Fillmore or the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
Vegas Demilo was a Bay Area alternative rock band post-Nirvana that played from 1995-2004. Band members changed regularly over that time, but Johnson and his brother, Alec, now an SEC lawyer, were the mainstays. They started out getting paid in dinner coupons and alcohol, playing dive bars, pizza parlors and strip joints. Eventually that led to bigger things, including shows at festivals like South by Southwest, North by Northwest and the CMJ festival in New York. Though they made records too, they rarely made money until late in their career.
Johnson wrote hundreds of songs, including Teen Age Porn Star, Whatever Happened to Jane, My Brilliant Career, and the Christmas single Sex Toys for Christmas. His royalty checks still come, as his songs are used in film and TV. But what was tens of thousands of dollars back when the band folded is now more like a few cents when someone in a random place like Denmark streams a song.
“Foster was the leader, the guy with a plan, the smartest one in the band,” said former band member Scotti Fraser. Johnson’s brother Alec said Foster was a talented musician with a unique vision that made the band worth all those years surviving on Top Ramen while trying to make it to the top.
After signing to a small-indie label out of Los Angeles (Pinch Hit Records), the band waited in vain for big label offers that never came. Johnson and his brother both eventually abandoned the stage for law school.
Johnson hated his first year but by the second year, he had figured out the law fit both his intellect and his competitive nature. So, he cut his hair, took off the earring, hid his tattoos, and wound up with terrific mentors, clerking with 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Priscilla Owen and then working with Stephen Tipps at Baker Botts.
“I never thought Foster would love law as much as he does,” said his brother.
“It’s confusing to people how somebody who did what I did wound up a trial lawyer. But there is a performance aspect in common, especially in front of a jury. The very best trial lawyers communicate and entertain,” said Johnson.
After having things go wrong on stage in front of hundreds of people, talking to a jury came easy. Johnson had written a lot of stories in lyrics, so writing briefs came easy.
Johnson knew he liked trying cases, maybe because of the performance, but also because he liked a profession with winners and losers. AZA was a natural fit. “I’ve been drinking from the fire hose every day since I got here. It’s challenging work, and I love it,” Johnson said. “The law is like being in high-stakes chess games where you do best if you can think multiple moves out.”
In the last decade, Johnson has represented clients in a variety of cases, including contract disputes, intellectual property litigation and employment class actions. He’s handled appeals and mandamus proceedings in state and federal courts around the country. But what he’s really known for is his genius ideas, even in seemingly-routine kinds of cases where hundreds of lawyers have gone before him, according to Zavitsanos.
Zavitsanos said Johnson is a “magician” who produces brilliant off-the-wall solutions. “He’s one of the smartest lawyers in the city, and he’s totally unassuming. I say if your case is hopeless and you want a creative way out, hire the rocker.”
FINDING VEGAS DEMILO
Stream Vegas Demilo’s albums on Spotify here
Buy Vegas Demilo albums on Amazon here
Watch the Vegas Demilo video Fall is here
See Vegas Demilo live at the Fillmore on Youtube here
Read list of band songs here