A year can change a man, even nearly four decades into his life.
John Phillips knows this.
From November 2011 to November 2012, he lost his mother, became a father and changed his heart.
Phillips is a personal injury attorney, with a public persona that’s a mix of swagger and confidence common in the practice. He’s comfortable in front of news cameras and is a prolific social media user.
But for much of his life, he was a mama’s boy. And that will get a boy picked on, especially when he goes to a different school every few years because of his father’s job as a nuclear power plant engineer.
“I was called a lot of names,” Phillips recalled.
But he cherished his relationship with his mother.
On a Wednesday in November 2011, Phillips visited her in Alabama while she was getting dialysis for renal failure. He showed her an ultrasound picture of his unborn son.
“It was a pretty cool moment,” he said.
That Saturday, Phillips was in Tuscaloosa for a University of Alabama-Louisiana State University football game.
His mother was sent home from the facility that same day, but died when she got home.
Three months later, Phillips’ first son was born. His first name, Bennett, means little blessed one. His middle name, Busby, is the maiden name of the grandmother who never met him but so enjoyed seeing his photo that November day.
Before Phillips’ mom passed, he and his wife, Angela, had not planned for their son to carry his mother’s family’s name. “But we thought that would be a wonderful tribute,” he said.
Over the next nine months, Phillips was busy being a father and building the law office he opened in July 2011. Before then, he had worked at other law firms, including Morgan & Morgan, the monolithic personal injury firm.
And then came Nov. 23, 2012.
Seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis was shot and killed by Michael Dunn during an altercation that started over loud music. Davis’ parents were quickly overwhelmed by the constant barrage of news reporters trying to contact them.
Phillips was asked by Nikki Kimbleton, a Jacksonville television news reporter (and Bennett’s godmother) to meet with Ron Davis. “They’re just trying to bury their son,” Phillips said Kimbleton told him. “They need a wall and I choose you.”
The first conversation with Ron Davis was, Phillips said, “the most emotional meeting I’ve ever been to for obvious reasons.”
During that hour, three news crews knocked on the door to talk to the family.
Phillips went from family spokesman to friend of the family to the attorney who represented them in the civil case to sitting with them during the criminal trial.
“Seeing a parent lose a child having just gone through the loss of a parent and a birth of a child, it all hit home,” he said.
That stretch from one November to the next was “an apocalypse in my life for the better,” he said.
He’s more compassionate and better understands life’s fragility, he said. And he went from a guy who rarely prayed to praying for somebody every night.
“It’s like love. It’s hard to put into words what ... has changed inside of me,” he said. “But it’s everything.”
Phillips knows the overall reputation of personal injury attorneys is often low. In fact, he said, it’s “terrible.”
He also knows his involvement in high-profile cases, like the Jordan Davis shooting, puts him in the crosshairs for criticism of pandering.
“I’ve had a lot more peers pat me on the back and say, ‘Good job. That’s good work,’” he said of his involvement in the Davis case.
But at the same time, they’ll say, “I saw you on TV again.”
Phillips acknowledges some will say he’s “craving the limelight.” He counters that he’s promoting his clients, not himself.
Living in the public eye can take a toll, though. “It’s been an adjustment as a family,” he said. The family will add another son, Weston, who is due Sept. 30.
How difficult that transition has been is among the issues being explored in a documentary being produced on families and guns in America.
Abby Disney, the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, who co-founded The Walt Disney Co., with his brother, Walt Disney, and Kathy Hughes, who’s worked with “Frontline” and other PBS shows, are producing the film, he said.
Whatever his outgoing, confident public persona may be, that disappeared when he was asked a simple question: Would your mom be proud of you?
His eyes instantly filled with tears and he looked down at the table. “I think so,” he says, almost in a whisper. “I hope so.”