A GC’s Battle With Parkinson’s Gives Hope to Others
Stephanie Forshee, Corporate Counsel
October 19, 2016
John Baumann worked in-house for 22 years at Exxon, Tosco and Steel Technologies. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he was forced to quit his dream job. Now he’s a motivational speaker and author, but he still misses his days as an attorney.
John Baumann loved being a lawyer. He was sure he’d be one his entire life.
“I always thought I’d be one of those lawyers who worked until I had a heart attack at my desk,” he says.
One thing got in his way and forced him to quit his general counsel job at Steel Technologies in 2008: Parkinson’s disease. He’d been diagnosed in 2002 but continued to work as long as he possibly could.
“I had to quit,” he says. “Maybe it was premature but I didn’t want to continue to work and commit malpractice.”
After a 22-year career in-house with Exxon, Tosco and Steel Technologies, Baumann couldn’t believe he was going to have to retire at the age of 48. But he had been feeling constantly fatigued and was “freezing up” when he had to multitask. His handwriting had become illegible and eventually his right arm wouldn’t swing when he walked. His doctor recommended a specialist, and within minutes of visiting the neurologist, he was told: “You have all the signs of Parkinson’s.”
Naturally, he was in shock and started to think about all of the things that would change. One being the dream he’d had since he was in high school, watching Perry Mason on TV and imagining himself in the courtroom questioning a witness and making a dramatic closing argument.
After graduating from University of Massachusetts Amherst with a business degree, Baumann took a year off to save up money by working as a paralegal. He studied around the clock for the LSAT and was rewarded with a spot at Cornell Law School.
During Baumann’s final year of law school, he interviewed with Exxon Corp., which came on campus to recruit. Baumann made an impression and landed a job.
He worked as one of more than 300 attorneys for the oil and gas giant and in his first nine months found himself able to work on his first trial. The company had been accused of flooding the land of a tenant adjacent to one of Exxon’s properties. So for Baumann’s first trial in federal court in Galveston, Texas, he prepared a 17-page closing argument that he’s still proud of today.
Ultimately, he and his colleagues measured all four corners of the Exxon plant’s land, and determined it was naturally higher than the neighboring tenant’s so it couldn’t have avoided the flooding. Exxon also undermined the plaintiff’s credibility by getting him to acknowledge that he hadn’t filed federal income taxes for several years. “That was it. We won,” Baumann says.
That was one of the first victories Baumann had during his seven-year tenure at Exxon. There, in addition to being a litigator, he resolved employment disputes and advised on environmental issues—experiences that rounded him out and made him a desirable GC. He moved a few times with the company—working from Houston, New Orleans and New Jersey.
In 1992, a company called Tosco, which later became part of ConocoPhillips, acquired Exxon’s Bayway refinery in Linden, New Jersey, and Baumann stayed put to become the assistant general counsel of Tosco. He worked in that role for three years before being offered the role of general counsel with Steel Technologies in Louisville, Kentucky.
Six years into his role as GC of Steel, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Although doctors told him he wouldn’t see debilitating symptoms for five years or so, he informed his employer right away. “I told them, ‘I’m going to fight this thing and be transparent. When I’m not able to work anymore, I’ll let you know,'” he recalls.
And six years later, he told them it was becoming too much and he would no longer be able to fulfill his legal responsibilities. The company hired a lawyer to help Baumann and fill in for him after he retired.
After leaving Steel, Baumann decided to handle one more trial that was supposed to last two days and wound up lasting four. And the trials that had once been so easy for Baumann, like his very first with Exxon, quickly turned into an unbearable task. Those 18-hour work days—between being in court and conducting additional research afterward—put him over the edge. “I was in bed for two weeks after that. I was so tired,” he says. “I recognized again that I couldn’t be a trial lawyer.”
Now, he is a motivational speaker and gives speeches to people affected by Parkinson’s as well as doctors and nurses at hospitals. His 2016 schedule has taken him to places like Florida, Kansas, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Saskatchewan.
Sometimes it’s a small crowd and other times he has spoken for an audience of 1,100 people. In a recent speech in New Jersey, he recognized a few faces.
“I saw five people from the refinery that I haven’t talked to in years. They came to my talk just to say hello. That made me feel so good,” he says.
Although he’s frequently traveling, he doesn’t overextend himself. On his website, he offers workplace consultations of up to 15 hours per week. When he’s not on the road, he lives with his wife in Florida. And he’s proud that his son is in his final year of law school and hopes to become an in-house lawyer.
Just as he tells people in his speeches, he says, “I have good days and I have bad days, but you have to make the best of it.”
For Baumann, he’s proud of all the encouragement he’s been able to share with others in the past decade—whether they’ve been diagnosed with Parkinson’s or have a friend or family member who has. But there’s no denying he misses his days of working in-house.
“I loved being a lawyer. It’s a shame I can’t do it anymore,” he says. “I was a really good lawyer and I was one of the good guys.”