Awards and certificates for his achievements during his 52-year career line the walls and shelves at attorney Theodore Babbitt’s West Palm Beach office.
There’s one for his membership in the Inner Circle of Advocates, an invitation-only organization reserved for the top 100 plaintiff lawyers in the United States. He vividly remembers the honor of becoming the youngest attorney ever to join in 1975. Having just celebrated his 42nd anniversary, he says he’s now the longest serving member in the organization.
There’s another for his membership in the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, open to just 500 of the world’s preeminent lawyers. And, there is his membership in the American College of Trial Lawyers, limited to two percent of lawyers in any geographic area.
“There are few lawyers in the United States who are a member of all three of those organizations, so I’m pretty proud of that,” said Babbitt.
What is not obvious from the recognitions adorning his office at Babbitt & Johnson, P.A. is the 180-degree turn Babbitt made as a teen, changing the direction of his life and leading to his status today as one of America’s top personal injury lawyers.
To help explain how he has achieved such success over five decades, Babbitt who has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey and Montel Williams shows as well as CBS, NBC and PBS, points to one of his favorite books —“Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell.
“Part of it is luck ―being in the right place at the right time,’’ Babbitt said, citing the book that explores what makes high achievers different. “Part of it is skill, and a lot of it is practice.”
The second of four children born in New York to working-class parents who later moved to Miami, Babbitt acknowledges that he has been lucky along the way, but he has received and tried many cases because of his litigation skills.
After a rocky four years at North Miami High School, where he earned all D’s his senior year before graduating in 1959, Babbitt joined the Marine Corps at 17 years old. He had few choices. Hanging out with the wrong crowd, he had gotten into some trouble for petty theft and went before a juvenile judge who gave him an ultimatum— the Marine Corps or juvenile detention.
“I was bad. In the Marine Corps I turned myself around, and I did really well,’’ he said, noting that he served six months of active duty and five and a half years as a reservist.
After his active duty, he moved in with his older brother, who was in Palm Beach County attending Palm Beach Junior College, and he decided to go to college as well.
“There was no junior college in Miami. I couldn’t have gotten into a four-year college because of my grades,’’ Babbitt said. “I had horrible grades in high school. I had never taken any advanced math. I had to take [remedial] English and [remedial] math. If it hadn’t been for junior college, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been a lawyer. My goal in high school was to work at a gas station. I probably would have ended up working in a gas station.”
Babbitt, 75, a widower who remarried two years ago, met his first wife of 50 years at PBJC. He attended PBJC for three semesters before earning enough credits to transfer to the University of Florida.
He said he was inspired by such PBJC professors as Watson B. Duncan III, who taught English literature, and Josh Crane, who taught speech and debate and encouraged him to become a lawyer. “They changed and formed my life,’’ he said. “I am forever indebted to them and the College.”
Getting married at age 20, he was more focused on finishing school quickly. He completed his bachelor’s degree in three semesters at the University of Florida, then graduated from UF’s law school two years later in 1965. “I was in a hurry,’’ he said. “I was married, and I wanted to get out and start making money.”
After passing the bar exam, he worked at the Farish and Farish law practice before going to work as an associate and then partner for nine years with the late Sam D. Phillips. He worked with other attorneys before founding the personal injury law firm Babbitt, Johnson, Osborne and LeClainche in 1976, which is now Babbitt & Johnson.
“When I started practicing law you got a lot more trials than you do now. Lawyers are lucky if they try three or four cases in a year. More cases are settled because insurance companies don’t want to go to trial and neither do plaintiff’s lawyers,’’ Babbitt said.
Babbitt, referencing Gladwell’s book, paralleled his success to other industry giants. “To be good at anything, you’ve got to practice at least 10,000 hours before you get your big success. People like Bill Gates and The Beatles — they had the opportunity to practice for 10,000 hours,’’ he said.
“I had 50 jury trials in two years. It took me about two years to get my first malpractice verdict. That was after about 10,000 hours of trial,’’ Babbitt continued, noting his $120,000 verdict in 1967 against Good Samaritan Hospital. He had filed the case on behalf of client Ruby Ellington, who went into respiratory distress and suffered brain damage after getting her tonsils removed. “Back then $120,000 wasn’t even heard of; the hospital only had $100,000 worth of insurance.”
That verdict was the first of many for Babbitt. He won his first $1 million verdict in Palm Beach County in 1975. In that case, Babbitt represented a dentist who became a quadriplegic after a physician’s erroneous diagnosis and surgery. The case was appealed, but he says the $1.685 million verdict was not overturned.
“A million dollar verdict was unheard of in 1975. My client along with others who got million dollar verdicts (in other cases) were on the cover of Time magazine,’’ he said.
In addition to success winning lawsuits, Babbitt has written more than 100 articles that have appeared in national and local publications, given lectures to other attorneys, chaired nearly a dozen professional committees and been listed for more than 20 years in the Best Lawyers peer review publication.
The father of two adult children from his first wife, he also is a commercial pilot and flight instructor with ratings in single and multi-engine as well as glider. He has been flying since 1969. He has flown volunteer flights as an “Angel” to help sick people get needed treatment, and he is signed up for “Pilots and Paws” to help injured animals get the care they need.
As luck, skill and practice would have it, he has accomplished much since his days at PBJC.
“I had a lot of firsts in my career, and I’m proud of the representation that I’ve given to my clients. The results that I’ve obtained in many instances have changed people’s lives for the better, and that makes me feel quite good,’’ he said.