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Sunday, October 12, 2003

The Chronicle's error notwithstanding, Bill White's former law firm is not a "defense firm"

John William's profile in the Houston Chronicle of mayoral candidate Bill White is generally fair and very flattering overall.  However, there was one laugh-out-loud misrepresentation in it:

White joined a young law firm in Houston called Susman Godfrey, a civil litigation and defense firm that became one of the highest-paying in the country.

I am a huge fan of the Susman Godfrey firm and its lawyers — enough so that I seriously considered accepting an offer to work there myself in 1986 — but by no stretch of the imagination would any knowledgeable observer pick the phrase "defense firm" as a short-hand description of it.

With his grades and law review experience from Texas Law School, when Bill White graduated in 1979, any law firm in the country would have been delighted to hire him.  He made a very unconventional choice, however, that took a fair amount of personal courage:   White hooked up with Steve Susman, who'd recently left a partnership at Fulbright & Jaworski to join Mandell & Wright, a much smaller firm barely known outside its traditional admiralty & maritime practice area.  Susman was branching out into representing plaintiffs in contingent fee business litigation, which wasn't at all a good fit for F&J — which was and still is a genuine "defense firm."  Susman and a few other very talented lawyers who'd either left F&J or joined him shortly thereafter had been successful in the so-called "corrugated paper antitrust litigation," and they were taking up another high-profile antitrust case arising out of the award of the Houston cable TV franchises when White joined them.  Relatively soon thereafter in the early 1980s, they left the "marriage of convenience" at Mandell & Wright to start what became "Susman, Godfrey & McGowan"; it morphed into just "Susman Godfrey" when co-founder Gary McGowan left to pursue a mostly-mediation practice sometime in the mid-1980s, if I recall.  The other name partner, Lee Godfrey, had been a top-flight defense lawyer at Austin's blue-chip Graves, Dougherty, Hearon, Moody & Garwood — and in fact, my experience watching and carrying Lee's briefcase during a 1978 summer job at that firm confirmed my own passion to become a trial lawyer.

In addition to White, Susman Godfrey rapidly attracted several other top graduates from Texas and other first-rate law schools, including many lawyers coming out of judicial clerkships.  They pioneered the "business litigation boutique" business model, and they've almost certainly done better at it than any firm in the state.  The basis for the business model is to do enough hourly rate business — which typically is "defense work," usually for corporate clients (including many Fortune 100 and 500 companies) — to ensure that no one goes hungry and the lights and phones stay on.  But a substantial majority of the firm's lawyers' time has been invested in contingent fee cases — usually business litigation rather than personal injury or consumer cases, but sometimes those too — in which the firm can leverage its talent and reputation into mega-payoffs.  The firm has tried a lot of cases, and like all real "trial lawyers" that means they've lost some high profile cases as well.  In the last two decades I've had cases both with and against them, and they are a very formidable bunch.  The firm proudly announces on its website that, "In a little more than a decade, we have achieved for plaintiffs in over 75 lawsuits settlements in excess of $1 million, representing total recoveries of over $2.2 billion."

But they're not what I would ever describe as a "defense firm," and indeed, the mindset and attitudes that lawyers typically think of when they use that specific term are things that the two name partners, and the many exceptional younger lawyers they've attracted to work with them, have consciously left behind them.  Susman Godfrey has made Bill White and its other partners rich, and I don't begrudge them a dime of it.  But it hasn't been hourly rate "defense work" that's done that — it's been the big contingent fee payoffs.

I'm not sure if White and his campaign staff are responsible for the Chronicle's description.  It could well be that they described the firm as one that regularly represents both plaintiffs and defendants, or that does both "plaintiff and defense work," and those descriptions would be true.  And White's no John Edwards — it would be misleading to portray White or his former partners as being "plaintiffs' personal injury lawyers," because while they've handled some of those cases, their deliberate focus has always been on commercial litigation, meaning lawsuits among businesses, or at least arising out of business transactions rather than out of accidents.  Maybe White's trying to avoid that impression, and I could understand why he might:   it doesn't fit the "centrist" role he's trying to grab, and would certainly scare off a lot of potential conservative voters from both political parties.

But the Chronicle is just wrong to call Susman Godfrey a "defense firm."  If absolutely forced to make a binary choice — is it a "plaintiffs' firm" or a "defendants' firm" — any knowledgeable observer, and almost certainly its own lawyers as well, would tell you that it's a "plaintiffs' firm."

Posted by Beldar at 10:23 PM in Mainstream Media, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink

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