Mimi Swartz: Meet Earle Lilly, one of the toughest and most enduring divorce lawyers in Houston, going strong since the sixties. He and his longtime business partner Robert Piro recently split, so now Lilly has a new firm.
Earle Lilly: I’ve got half the city’s socialites as clients. Sometimes, before a divorce is pending, I’m talking to the husband at a party and I’ve already been retained by the wife.
MS: Lilly got his big break representing multimillionaire oilman J. Collier Hurley, who was married and divorced multiple times over a period of thirty to forty years.
John Doe: “No lawyer can handle my case for a $5,000 retainer fee. It will cost at least $25,000.”
MS: Hurley was easily tired by his wives and often gave assets away just to get free, but sometimes it wasn’t so easy to come up with a fair settlement.
EL: “With his third wife, I believed the best thing we could do was to turn the assets into cash by way of an auction at their mansion on River Oaks boulevard, which you’re not supposed to do. The authorities filed suit against me. I took the position that this was nothing more than a garage sale. I charged admission—$20. J. Collier authorized the admission costs.”
MS: In the sixties and seventies couples still needed grounds of cruelty or adultery to get divorced, and it fell to Lilly to come up with ways to make the grounds stick so his clients could get out of their unhappy marriages.
EL: Back then a third-party stranger could abuse you, and it was called intentional infliction of emotional abuse. But until the eighties, it had never been used in the context of a divorce case. I thought, ‘If a stranger can’t abuse you, why should your husband be able to do it?’
EL: “The husband in one of my cases was a drug user and sometimes would come home with prostitutes who were demanding payment. At a trial I played a tape where the wife begged…”
Jane Doe: ‘Please, you’re tramping dog (poo) all over the bed!’
EL: “The husband’s lawyer looked at him and said, ‘If the jury doesn’t start laughing real quick, we’re in trouble.’ And they didn’t. Within an hour we’d won half a million.”
EL: “That case was the first time in the history of this country that a woman received an award for being emotionally distressed.”
EL: But the Texas Supreme Court rejected it, and Texas became one of the last states in the country to incorporate that tort. The rejection cost me and my client, with interest, a million dollars.
EL: Soon, charging intentional infliction of emotional abuse became the norm. Now it’s not only the way it is, but men, knowing that it can result in emotional-abuse claims, think twice before they pull that (poo) on their wives.
MS: In the eighties and nineties—from the former Harold Farbs to the former Fayez Sarofims—Piro & Lilly became experts at making and breaking prenups.
EL: “I call them divorce agreements. Sometimes people go into a prenup not to protect property but to pre-litigate their divorce.”
MS: Nowadays, divorce can get even more complicated!
EL: “Frozen embryos are a very recent concept. In one of my cases, the husband was the donor, but the parties did not have a clear agreement in writing to tell how to dispose of the embryos if there was a divorce. The case was never settled by the courts. A case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court will decide if frozen embryos are property when there is a written agreement.”
EL: I still very much believe in traditional marriage. I’m not jaded by the 50 percent-plus divorce rate. I’d like to see mandatory premarital counseling for couples.
EL: Think before you freeze the embryos what the future might hold! Those embryos might become children!
MS: You might not want to see some of the things Lilly’s seen. In fact, he thinks we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. The problems go back thirty years…
EL: “There’s no question that in the seventies the deterioration of morality began. Womanizing was rampant. People were doing three-ways, two-ways, switching…In the eighties and nineties there were marital vows, but there was very little value in the vows. You don’t even hear ‘Till death do you part’ anymore.”
MS: In one unhappy case, Lilly urged a settlement, because the wife of his client was a good mother and a nice person, but the husband wouldn’t go for it.
EL: “My back was against the wall. It was me, the custody king. Did I want to be demoted to prince? I don’t think so.”
EL: “So the father—who was my client and also was a wonderful father—gets custody, and now there’s tears in my eyes. my client is hugging me and says, ‘You’re such a sensitive lawyer!’”
EL: I didn’t want to tell him, ‘I’m not crying for you, stupid… I just took two kids away from a wonderful mother.’