Life support

James Oury has spent his career in efforts to save the lives of death row prisoners, but he wants to be known for more than just being a life-saver

Over the years, James Oury has been up close and personal with several death row killers – and yet here he is looking scared of little old me. If holding an interviewee’s hand was not entirely inappropriate, then I would have grabbed Oury’s paw tightly, because he is looking like an undergraduate at his first interview.

He repeatedly crosses his arms and legs, then uncrosses them and spends a lot of time shifting his chair backwards towards the door in a seemingly involuntary attempt to escape. Then, when he gets to the door and there is nowhere else to go, he lifts his chair forward a few feet and starts again.

I find myself trying to calm him down with my body language, sitting as still as I can in a posture that I hope is open and reassuring, but probably just comes across as slouching.

Oury is the eponymous founding partner of Oury Clark, a tiny firm specialising in white collar crime. And at its very heart is a commitment to do pro bono work, with 30 per cent of the firm’s turnover being ploughed back into funding free advice.

The firm has recently announced that it will act on behalf of Enron shareholders on both sides of the Atlantic in a class action. This will be done at a reduced rate of £80 an hour rather than on a pro bono basis. Oury explains that this is because the firm tends only to take on cases in which the client’s life or physical wellbeing is in danger on a pro bono basis, and while the Enron shareholders might well face financial disaster, it is not a life or death situation. It follows, then, that most of the pro bono cases are death row appeals or torture cases.

While relating why the firm cannot fight the case pro bono, Oury looks distinctly apologetic, as if any other law firm would have taken on the case for nowt and Oury Clark is being exceptionally mean. But I would bet that when it comes to what he is able to contribute, Oury is a ‘glass half empty’ person. He confesses that he is a workaholic and part of that is clearly his love of the law, but he also seems to be driven to help as many people as possible in the way that others are driven to make money. He wears his heart on his sleeve and does not bother cloaking himself in the type of professional objectivity that lawyers usually choose to adopt.

Oury’s office is littered with cards and presents that I presume are from grateful clients. These include a box of aftershave that looks, from its pine tree illustrations, as if it could double as a car freshener and accompanying it are models of the South Park characters. The latter Oury has interpreted as a comment upon his culinary skills from a client, for whom he once cooked an inedible meal in the early hours. I dare not ask whether the dessicated chrysanthemum on top of his filing cabinet that is still in its plastic wrapping was a gift or not.

Oury’s drive to act pro bono comes, he explains, from a profound belief in the rule of law and due process, as well as a recognition that being a lawyer is a privilege, and so it is a lawyer’s duty to share that privilege. “On one level, I make a living out of the law. Is it as good a living as it could be? No, but what makes me happy and could never be replaced with a bigger house or a faster car is cases like a client facing execution in Jamaica getting a stay of execution,” he explains. That particular case cost the firm around £150,000-£200,000 in lost time opportunities, estimates Oury. Enough for a small fleet of fast cars. But now that client will never be executed and should be freed within two years.

His personal road to Damascus experience came to pass while he was a trainee solicitor at Kingsley Napley and went to hear a barrister speak about death row prisoners. After he qualified, Oury jumped on a plane to Kansas City, where he joined the only organisation in the state that represented death row prisoners. Then, as now, he assisted US-qualified lawyers as Oury himself is not dual-qualified.

Three months in he was asked to take on a case involving a man who was due to be executed in six weeks. There was no one else available to do it, so Oury went outside into the sweltering heat for a cigarette and a think, then decided that he would take it on. That man was one of only three out of the 50 or so capital cases that Oury has worked on who went to the chamber.

Oury’s memories of that case are obviously still quite painful, and it is easy to see why. He claims that he arrived in Kansas City with no fixed opinions on the death penalty, did everything and anything he could for his client, but then could not save him. That experience changed his view. “I felt that it all was just so deeply inhumane,” he says. But the next morning he got up at six, went into the office and asked for the next file, a coping strategy that he has made use of ever since.

“Professionally, during my 20s, I grew up on death row. Now I’m in my late 30s. I used to be an idealist; nowadays I’m a realist,” says Oury. “I still remember the dates when I lost clients and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t say that occasionally there is a bit of sadness. But I find it easier not to be remorseful, but to respect the fact that I had just been a lawyer in this process and so was doing an objective job. That took a long time to understand.”

Another client that Oury lost was the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. His involvement in that case was controversial as McVeigh did not want to fight an appeal.

“That case is still pretty raw,” admits Oury, who looks pained at the memory and fidgets uneasily in his chair while finding the right words. “It’s incredibly difficult to explain the ethical dilemmas of that case.”

While both the American Bar Association and the Law Society require a lawyer to fight vigorously in the interests of his client, what is the ethical situation when the client does not want his lawyers to continue to fight for him?

There is more to the story, however, than a belligerent right winger looking to become a martyr for his cause. Oury pauses and then carefully tells me the following: “I think it’s fair to say that, as I understand it, [McVeigh] had some motivation to assist another death row inmate. I think he recognised that he was dominating the media and he had a friend who was celled very close to him who was facing the same risk of execution. I understand there was some reasoning from [McVeigh] that he wanted to allow his close friend some press oxygen. I can’t say too much more than that.”

Ironically, Oury says he is concerned about being known only for his death row work, although he believes it has aided client retention because the work provides a talking point. So now, as part of step two in the Oury Clark plan – to spread a little happiness – he wants to diversify into corporate governance and responsibility work.

“My plan over the next decade is to really move from a representative role into a more pre-emptive role,” he says. “I want to be able to explain to companies the real risks that face them in the criminal field, whether from a white collar crime point of view or in human rights. On a wider point, to be able to advise them on how they’re going to impact on an indigenous population if they build X in Y country.”

This is an area that he would like to see the large City firms becoming involved in. “They have a huge influence on enormous transactions,” he says. “It would be nice, if a particular company is considering building a pipeline somewhere, if a key adviser should feel able to say to the client that as important as the commercial level of the transaction, is the environmental, social and ethical side.”

Somehow I’m not sure that day is just around the corner.
James Oury
Founding partner
Oury Clark