Empires of Paper

Three of the nation's largest law firms are in Houston. They have kept their awesome power, their pervasive influence, and their closed societies out of the public eye. Until now.

THREE OF THE TEN BIGGEST LAW firms in the United States are located in Houston. Two of them rank as #3 and #4. In the past few months they have overtaken several Manhattan giants that were doyens of American law for decades before the men who lead the Texas firms were even born; their phenomenal growth shows no signs of slowing down. They are the talk of the legal profession.

These are the Big Three of Houston law:

*Vinson, Elkins, Searls, Connally & Smith (186 lawyers).

*Fulbright, Crooker & Jaworski (185 lawyers).

*Baker & Botts (160 lawyers).

Roughly two-fifths of the lawyers in each firm are partners, meaning they are senior men who own the institution and share its profits. The rest are associates,” younger men who work as salaried employees pending promotion to partnership status. There are currently 68 partners at Vinson Elkins, 69 at Fulbright Crooker, and 66 at Baker & Botts. The only firms in the country that remain larger than the two biggest Houston mammoths are the Wall Street firms of Shearman & Sterling with 226 lawyers; and Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood with 197. No one outside New York is any longer even close: there is nothing in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, or Washington to match them.

Nor is there anything in Texas either. Dallas has five firms over 30, but none over 45. San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Austin trail far behind. Houston lawyers speak of an “amoeba complex” that regularly causes Dallas firms to split into separate factions just as they approach the 50 mark. It doesn’t happen in Houston.

Their elaborate structure of specialized departments and sections is a far cry from the days of the country lawyer who hung out his shingle on the courthouse square. Though the labels differ from firm to firm, each of the Big Three offers specialists in corporate finance, banking, patent law, utilities, real estate, labor, admiralty, bankruptcy, tax, wills, trusts, and public law. They also have a separate breed of trial lawyers, men who would not think of trading the rough-and-tumble of the courtroom for any sort of office practice.

Houston’s Big Three have a national reputation for top-quality legal work. Local lawyers may sometimes joke about the big firms’ peculiarities, but no one underestimates their skill at handling the law. A successful small-firm trial lawyer in Houston who opposes big firms in courtrooms all across the country says flatly, “The lawyers I face from the big firms here in Houston are the best anywhere. They’re better than Wall Street, far in excess of O’Melveny & Myers [the top Los Angeles firm]. By and large, they’ve got the finest talent in the country.” Even discounted for a little Texas brag, the statement is not far wrong, judging from the opinions of their colleagues in bar associations nationwide.

The Big Six: A Floor Plan of Houston Law

THERE ARE THOSE WHO WILL argue that Houston law is dominated not by the Big Three but by the Big Five—or, as some would have it, the Big Six. The massive bulk of the giants does tend to obscure the fact that several other firms do a similar sort of legal practice with enough lawyers to make them giants in their own right if they were located in San Antonio, Dallas, or almost any other American city.

The oldest and most aristocratic of these middle-sized firms is Andrews, Kurth, Campbell & Jones, an exclusive group of 65 lawyers with many of the attributes of a social club. Very ingrown, they seldom fraternize with other members of the Houston bar. “It’s like a closed fraternal order,” says a successful solo practitioner who spent several years in another of the big firms. “They go to retreats together, that sort of thing. They judge your looks and your wife before they hire you—they take only handsome lawyers. They come to work late, and they quit early.”

They are also more paternal than others: once accepted into the fold, a young lawyer is virtually assured of lifetime security without the desperate competition that characterizes the ladder of success elsewhere. Andrews Kurth once shared the cream of the Houston practice with Baker & Botts, but after the death of its driving force, Col. Frank Andrews, in 1936, it threatened to wither on the vine.

In the past 15 years, however, it has come back strongly and is now generally regarded as having one of the finest collections of legal ability in the city. It is also considered suffocatingly conservative, even by conservatives. Political involvement is strenuously discouraged, with a conspicuous exception for Hall Timanus, the one-time chairman of the Wallace-for-President forces in Texas. For years the firm’s biggest client has been Howard Hughes’ Hughes Tool Company. Among their other major clients is the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The dominant figures in the firm today are Mickey West and Harry Jones.

Although the firm of Butler, Binion, Rice, Cook & Knapp comprises 85 lawyers, it has been described as “a small firm that happens to have a lot of people in it.” Formed in the 1940’s, it has never gone in for representation of large corporate clients whose work requires concentrated teamwork, and therefore has developed into a collection of feudal fiefdoms instead of a monolithic empire. Each lawyer reputedly has his own set of articles of incorporation, for example.

One consequence of this informality, individualism, and lack of tradition has been a certain unevenness in the quality of the legal talent there. The firm has some very able lawyers at the top, and others who are not so able. “They’ve got 50 per cent good lawyers and 50 per cent bad lawyers, and they don’t know which are which,” is the harsh judgment of a lawyer in the Big Three. Their attrition rate is admittedly high; good lawyers like Bob Singleton, Bill Wright, and Percy Williams have departed for greener pastures. On the other hand, no major Houston firm has a more distinguished record of elevating its partners to the bench. James Noel, a federal district judge

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week