Lawton native Clay Zelbst became interested in practicing law while watching his father try a murder case when Zelbst was pursuing a philosophy degree from Southern Methodist University.
“For a long time, I wanted to be a professor,” said the 32-year-old attorney and partner at Zelbst, Holmes & Butler. “But I came home one summer during my sophomore or junior year and my dad (John Zelbst) was representing a client in a murder case. Dad had a neurosurgeon, a birth injury expert from Chicago and a radiologist all testify. After watching the case – which got an acquittal – I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do.’”
Through critical thinking and writing, Zelbst believes the philosophy degree benefitted his career. After graduating from SMU, he applied and was accepted to the University of Tulsa College of Law. “I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “I became more focused on getting my law degree and passing the Bar.”
Growing up on a cattle ranch in Meers, Zelbst attended Cache schools before transferring to Lawton to be close to his lifelong friends. “My dad always likes to tell this story: going to Cameron preschool, there were four of us: Dylan Erwin, Spencer Campbell, Bryan Means and myself,” said Zelbst. “Of that group, Bryan, Dylan and I are all lawyers, and Spencer’s a doctor.”
While Zelbst, Holmes & Butler handles some select criminal cases, the firm mostly deals in civil damages lawsuits, such as personal injury, car wrecks, truck wrecks, traumatic brain injury, medical malpractice, and wrongful death, said Zelbst. “We as the plaintiff have the burden of proving every aspect of our case. In order to do that, we sometimes have to hire experts to assist proving the case to a jury.”
Through the years, the firm has had many successful verdicts and settlements on behalf of clients, solidifying the firm’s position as one of the Best Law Firms by U.S. News and World Report. Zelbst, Homes & Butler is also listed with the Best Lawyers in America and is one of the Top 100 Trial Lawyers by the National Trial Lawyers, an invitation-only organization, and is a member of Oklahoma Super Lawyers.
“Civil damages cases are contingency-based, meaning we front all the expense and take a fee only if there is a verdict or settlement. We represent a lot of people who are not wealthy. The law allows this, because we want justice for the poor just as much as we want for the rich. If someone who was wrongfully injured had to pay an hourly fee in addition to the other costs associated with a lawsuit, few could afford it, so before we take a case, we have to determine whether the recovery is likely to exceed the expense we have to put into it. “It is unfortunate that the business of practicing law sometimes gets in the way of taking an otherwise just case.”
“At the end of the day, if there’s nothing I as a lawyer can do to help you, I don’t want to take a fee on the case,” he said. “We’re here to help people the best we can. And if we can’t, we probably cannot take the case.”
While Zelbst may have followed in the same career path as his dad, he has a deep admiration for his mother as well. “My dad and I both have strong personalities, and Mom (Cindy Zelbst) has always supported me – even when it was something totally inane.” Zelbst recalls his mother loved to read to him and even helped him learn to play Pokémon, he said.
Zelbst is involved with the Criminal Justice Act panel for Western District of Oklahoma, representing those individuals accused of federal crimes who are financially unable to retain counsel.
In the community, he serves on the boards of directors for Lawton Public School Foundation, Great Plains Technology Center Foundation, Comanche County Memorial Hospital Foundation and the Museum of the Great Plains, and is incoming president of the Comanche County Bar Association. He is a member of the Oklahoma Association for Justice’s Young Lawyers Council and has taught professional development seminars through an organization founded by Gerry Spence.
In 2015, Zelbst tried a case with his friend and mentor, John Sloan, a lawyer in Longview, Texas, and that trial was named one of the Top 100 Verdicts in Texas.
Zelbst and his wife Victoria, a fifth-grade schoolteacher at Freedom Elementary, have been married six months.
“Recently, her class had some of the highest reading scores in the state,” the newlywed bragged. “She wants to help all her students succeed and does her best day after day.
“I couldn’t imagine a better life partner for me,” he said. “She and I really complement each other. She’s very witty and smart and has this vibe about her.”
Looking ahead, Zelbst stated, with all the issues he’s seen in the court system, he’d like to see criminal justice reform, particularly cases of drug addiction. Oklahoma voters rejected State Question 805 in the November 3 election. The measure would have disallowed courts to use subsequent nonviolent offenses to enhance criminal penalties.
“I was kind of sad that State Question 805 didn’t pass,” he said. “Because you get, too, in a situation where somebody who’s not a violent offender might have a drug problem... You get more drug convictions, the worse off the punishment’s going to get, and you can’t ever convince me ever that somebody who’s got a drug problem, and is not violent, deserves to go to prison.”