Oral History Interview of Howard L. Nations
Interview conducted by Jennifer Bramlett
Texas Bar Foundation
March 29, 2017
Jennifer Bramlett: Thank you for meeting with me today. I’m honored to spend the afternoon learning more about you. In general, the format of my questions will begin with childhood and progress through undergrad and law school, the beginning of your legal career, Bar service, hobbies outside your work, your family, and recognitions and then we’ll leave with the Texas Bar Foundation discussion and advice for future lawyers.
This oral history is about you and it’s our way of paying tribute to you as one of the five recipients of the Outstanding 50-Year Lawyer Award. Please feel free to share as much or as little as you wish.
Today is Wednesday, March 29, 2017, and this is the oral history of Howard Nations.
I’d like to start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Howard L. Nations: I grew up in Dalton, Georgia, 90 miles north of Atlanta. I lived there for the first nine years and then moved to Atlanta until I was 12 and we moved to Jacksonville, Florida. I graduated from high school in Jacksonville and then went into the Army.
JB: Tell me about your parents.
HN: I have no siblings, but my mother raised me, along with my grandparents. I grew up during World War II when the men were all away at war. My grandfather was the man of the house and he was an excellent role model and any good qualities I possess today began with my grandfather and my mother. I won the lottery in the gene pool on both counts. It was a great environment to grow up in small-town America during World War II; it was a classic religion-centered Southern town where everything was done in the context of the church and the flag. Religion and patriotism were the standards and guiding lights of our lives. At age 10, I moved into the bigger cities of Atlanta and Jacksonville, so I was exposed to both small-town and big-city life during my first 18 years.
JB: Prior to college what was your educational experience like? Did you enjoy school?
HN: Yes, I did. In high school I found that I was pretty bored with the classes, but I had a lot of extracurricular activities and I never became a serious student until I went into the Army. In the military I went to the Army Language School and that was probably the best thing I did because it forced me to become a good student. Unlike college, when you’re attending school in the Army, there is no sleeping late, no being late for classes, no skipping classes, no failure to have your homework. There’s no copying off other people’s papers. There are very rigid rules and you’re in school every day, on time, prepared, and ready to answer questions. This strict military regimen turned me into an excellent student. Additionally, the Russian language was very challenging and the students, mostly college graduates, were highly competitive. So that served me very well and by the time I returned to college, I continued those same study habits, which helped me considerably. My successful college career was based on the background I got from the Army Language School.
JB: Did you always know that you wanted to be a lawyer?
HN: Yes, since age nine. I never faltered on becoming a lawyer since I was influenced by an event that occurred when I was nine years old. It was, I suppose, an interesting story. When I was nine there was a photographer who had two little Shetland ponies with whom he would travel from town-to-town taking pictures of kids with a little cowboy outfit on horseback. I always loved horses so I would help him take care of the ponies and he would let me ride and groom them. During the summer of 1947, he was called away for 90 days of military reserve duty and he was offering $1.00 per day for someone to take care of his ponies. I convinced him that I could care for the ponies and he agreed to pay me $1.00 per day. So he left and I set about grooming, riding and caring for the ponies. Having read Tom Sawyer, I showed my friends how much fun it was to clean, walk, groom and ride the ponies and they happily shared the workload. The photographer returned after 93 days and seeing the excellent condition of his ponies, he said, “Thanks a lot, kid.” I said “What about my 93 dollars?” And he replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Well, fortunately I had gotten it verified with the auctioneer who ran the stables and so I went to my grandfather who took me to a lawyer and I got a quick study of justice in small-town Georgia in 1947. I told the lawyer that the photographer had promised me a dollar a day for 93 days. I did the work and now he wouldn’t pay me. So the lawyer listened to me for a while and then he wrote some things out by hand and we walked across the street to the Courthouse. I then found myself sitting in the Judge’s office telling him my story. After I finished, the Judge called the Sheriff and told him to bring the photographer into Court that afternoon for a trial. The Sheriff brought the photographer to Court and he and I testified in trial that afternoon. I also told the Judge that the Auctioneer had witnessed the agreement.
JB: Things were so much quicker back then.
HN: Oh, yeah. And then the Judge calls the auctioneer and questioned him on the telephone and the auctioneer verified every detail of my first trial story. So the judge awarded me $93, and directed the auctioneer that if I am not paid by Saturday that he was to sell the horses and the equipment and give $93 to me. But what impressed me even more was that he awarded me $93 and he awarded my lawyer $250. I expressed to my grandfather my puzzlement that I worked 93 days for $93 while my lawyer first heard about this a few hours earlier and he was to get $250.
My grandfather always kidded me that as we were walking back across the street from the courthouse, I asked the lawyer, Ernest McDonald, “So what do you have to do to be a lawyer?” I caught on fast that it was better to be a lawyer than it was to be a caretaker for horses. But actually I was more impressed by the power of the Judge. I was impressed by the aura, the drama, the setting of the courtroom, but I was very impressed that the Judge could just resolve this whole thing. I mean in a matter of hours we went from me losing $93 for a whole summer of work to me being paid $93 the next day. I was very impressed that the lawyer could do that, and the Judge could do that and that made an impression on me that lasted, and still lasts today.
JB: Do you remember what you did with that $93?
HN: I certainly do, I saved that $93. I spent three dollars of it and started a savings account with it, which I kept growing for quite some time.
JB: Very good. How did you decide to attend Florida State University?
HN: Well, I was either going to go to the University of Florida where I had a scholarship offer in journalism or I could go to Florida State. I chose Florida State because they gave me 15 semester hours of credit in Russian language for the time that I had at the Army Language School. Well, that’s a whole semester of credit, so I went to Florida State year round and took the 15 hours of credit and graduated in three years and then I went to law school.
JB: Very impressive. What decided your major?
HN: Well, it was pre-law. I’d talked to various lawyers that I knew and asked for recommendations as to what I should take in law school and the best advice I got was to take psychology. And later, the great Percy Foreman told me wisely, “You know, I don’t practice law, I practice human nature.” Well, fortunately before I went to law school, another wise lawyer told me, “The practice of law is very much about psychology. You need to understand psychology because you’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with people’s problems, you’re dealing with judges, and you’re dealing with juries. So it’s really about psychology.” So, I majored in political science with a minor in psychology.
JB: Well, that explains it. I watched your tutorial on “The Basic Principles for Persuading Generation X and Millennials,” on YouTube. You talked a lot about philosophy and understanding. So, understanding it served you well.
HN: Yeah. If I’d had time I really would have gotten a PhD in psychology before going to law school. I realized at the time that this is what I should do but I was in a hurry to complete my education because I had served three years in the military and I was 22 before I started college. I felt that I was running behind, of course. If I’d had time and money to afford it I would have gotten a PhD in psychology and then gone to law school, which would have served me very well. But I have struggled through okay without the PhD.
JB: Did you have any favorite classes or professors?
HN: Yeah, I really enjoyed philosophy and symbolic logic. I had an excellent professor in philosophy who inspired me a lot. And I had a professor in political science who was head of our Political Science Department, and she was the one who told me I should go to Yale. She recommended me to Yale Law School because she had a PhD from Yale. She inspired me to broaden my horizons and apply to Yale and several of the better law schools rather than automatically going to the University of Florida. She told me: “I got my PhD from Yale and the people from here can do just as well at Yale as everybody else can, so trust me, you can do well at Yale Law School.” I applied and was accepted at Yale but my Southern roots made me decide to stay in the South and go to Vanderbilt Law School instead. It was a good decision.
JB: Tell me about your experience at Vanderbilt University School of Law.
HN: Vanderbilt is a great school. I taught law school as an adjunct professor for 25 years after I graduated and looking back on Vanderbilt from the perspective of having taught school and having practiced for 50 years, there’s not much I would have changed about my legal education. I think that Dean John Wade and the excellent faculty at Vanderbilt really had it figured out and they did an excellent job. Vanderbilt had superior professors, but it was more the fact that it’s a smaller school, smaller classes, and a lot of individual attention to each law student. Professors’ doors were open and you could walk in and get advice any time. And I got a lot of great advice and it made a big difference. I loved law school, the study of law and learning from brilliant minds, which included a lot of my fellow students.
JB: Good advice makes a difference doesn’t it?
HN: Yes, there’s not much I would have changed about my legal education. I think Vanderbilt is a tremendous law school and I’m eternally grateful to them for the education I got and the fact that they awarded me an academic scholarship. They didn’t really “give” me a scholarship; they gave me the opportunity to earn the scholarship by maintaining a very high grade point average to keep it. In the end, the scholarship opportunity afforded me an excellent education that I could have never afforded in the absence of the scholarship.
JB: What was your favorite and least favorite thing about law school?
HN: Well, my favorite thing in law school was, surprisingly, not what most law students would say. My favorite thing about law school was the challenge of the discussions in class, being called upon in class, and having an open discussion in class with the professors. I loved that and I was pretty good at it, which is why I loved it. The least favorite thing was the time pressure because while I was in law school I was also working full-time. Working full-time and going to school full-time created time pressures that were almost unbearable. The good news was that these pressures forced me to develop time management skills that have been crucial to my success in the practice of law.
JB: Do you feel that law school adequately prepared you for a career as a lawyer or do you think the real world experience was more beneficial?
HN: Well, while I was in law school I worked fulltime at a local law firm for a trial lawyer who was very successful. He had a plaintiff’s practice, a defense practice, a criminal law practice, and a domestic relations practice. At work, I got an education in the practice of law because I got to experience divorce cases, criminal cases, plaintiff personal injury litigation and representation of insurance companies. It was a great opportunity because among others we were involved in the Jimmy Hoffa defense. We represented one of Jimmy Hoffa’s co-defendants in the Hoffa criminal trial and that was an education in itself. After the first year of law school when I got the fundamental education in torts and contracts and procedure, I learned as much of value in the law office as I did from my second and third years of law school.
JB: You served in the Army in Military Intelligence as a Russian linguist. Tell me a little bit about that experience.
HN: Yes, after basic training, I started in the Army Security Agency and after initial testing, I was assigned to The Army Language School in Monterrey, California to be trained as a Russian linguist for further assignment to either Army Security or Military Intelligence. As military service goes, Monterrey is a nice place to serve. I had a considerable change of pace after that because we went from Monterrey to Korea. I was raised in Florida and Georgia, and Korea was so incredibly cold, I swore if I ever got back to Florida I’d never cross the state line again. But aside from the cold and the horrible living conditions in Korea, military service provided three of the most important years of my life.
I went into the Army as a punk kid; I came out a man. I went in as an inattentive high school student and I came out as a very serious college student. As a result of the standards that I studied and worked under in the military, when I returned to college, I would not accept anything less than an “A” grade. That was the standard in the Army Language School where I not only realized the importance of education but also the techniques of how to be a good student, how to study and how to do the work timely and accurately. In Military Intelligence, I developed extremely good study and work habits. This paid off in college and turned me into a very good student which led to the academic scholarships in both college and law school. So I owe a lot to those three years in the military. It was a life-changing experience at a time when my life would have been considerably different if I had never served.
JB: Tell me about your job search after law school.
HN: In October of my senior year I interviewed with nine firms in Atlanta because I planned to return to Atlanta to practice. I accepted a job at King-Spalding in Atlanta and when I returned to school, Dean Wade called me in and advised that the big firms from Houston, Texas were interviewing at Vanderbilt while I was in Atlanta. He requested that I go to Houston to interview since he was trying to build good relations between the big Houston firms and Vanderbilt. I said, “Well, as long as they know that I’ve already accepted a job.” Dean Wade called and the lawyers in Houston firms said, “That’s okay, come on down and interview”. So I came to Houston where I interviewed with Baker-Botts, Vinson-Elkins, Fulbright-Crooker and Butler-Binion, and as they say, Butler-Binion made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They gave me literally everything I wanted and so I changed my mind and came to Houston instead of going to Atlanta.
JB: How did the Atlanta firm feel about that?
HN: It was King-Spalding, they survived very nicely without me. They’re the post-Civil War firm; they’ve been there since 1865, and actually King-Spalding is now in Texas, too.
JB: Who was your mentor as a young lawyer?
HN: Well, I had the extreme good fortune to work with Jack McConn who was the reason I came to Houston. When I came here to interview, I met with Jack because he was the one that was looking for an associate. We had dinner together. We talked for hours and there was just a tremendous rapport and he needed exactly what I wanted to do and so he offered me the exact job I wanted. It was a great experience for me. Jack was my mentor and the skills, the habits, the methodologies that I’ve used in my practice, started with him. Jack McConn is an excellent lawyer and a paradigm of ethics and integrity and I was extremely fortunate to work with and be trained by him for my first five years of practice.
JB: What are the most notable or interesting cases you were involved in that you would like to discuss?
HN: Well, there have been a lot of those. The Jimmy Hoffa jury tampering trial when I was in law school was an education all by itself. We represented one of Hoffa’s co-defendants, so I was in the courtroom every day during the summer and sitting in on the strategy sessions with some of America’s finest criminal defense lawyers. And very early in my career I got involved in the Candace Mossler case involving the murder of Jacques Mossler. Candace Mossler, his wife, had been tried along with Melvin Lane Powers, her nephew, for the murder of Jacques Mossler. After the great Percy Foreman got an acquittal for Melvin Lane Powers, the Saturday Evening Post ran a two-part article alleging that Candace Mossler and her nephew Melvin Lane Powers were lovers. And so Candace sued the Saturday Evening Post for 83 million dollars for damage to her otherwise spotless reputation. Jack McConn was retained to represent the Saturday Evening Post in that libel case, so I got the opportunity to spend an immense amount of time investigating that entire murder trial, talking to all the witnesses and lawyers and the Judge. I spent three weeks in Miami and New Orleans investigating Candace Mossler’s background. Then we also got involved in the Mossler will contest. Well, the involvement with the Mossler case was so fascinating that I couldn’t leave without finishing it. And at the end of the day her case was dismissed but it was a great experience for me.
But there have been lots of very fascinating cases, many proving that truth is stranger than fiction. One of my best results was that I tried a case against AstroWorld for the design of the roller coaster at AstroWorld, and as a result of my lawsuit, the seats in roller coasters were redesigned and set a new standard of safety in the industry. This resulted in every other roller coaster manufacturer complying with the new safe seat standard. And in that case, we introduced into evidence a computer-generated animation of the roller coaster, and a computer-generated animation of the injury to the young man, my client, and it was the first case anywhere in history that animations had ever been introduced into evidence. And so that opened the door for animation evidence in litigation, which has come a long way since then.
JB: Well, I believe that’s why you’ve been called the pioneer in courtroom technology.
JB: Very good. Your journal on the various statutes of limitations relating to Texas causes of action has been referred to by many as a desk resource for numerous lawyers around Texas. Please tell me more.
HN: Well, when I was an adjunct professor at South Texas College of Law I wrote several articles. I was practicing full-time and teaching part-time, but I tackled quite a few subjects. I did a survey issue in the Law Journal on damages where we reviewed damages and wrote separate articles on every aspect of damages. I also edited the three-volume work on Worker’s Compensation for Matthew-Bender. And when the Internet emerged, I created my website, HowardNations.com, where we set up a resource that was available to the entire Bar. We gathered all the links we could find of every type of practice, not just trial work but every aspect of law. We maintained literally thousands of links on my website so that HowardNations.com received a five-star award as the outstanding law website on the Web. We maintained that for several years and we experienced millions of hits from law firms around the world using the site.
JB: That’s amazing.
HN: When we first created the site, lawyers were just starting to learn about the internet and so we offered easy accessibility to the web, and we immediately got millions of hits on the site. It became a very valuable resource available to everybody in the Bar. That contributed to the idea that I was leader in law and technology.
JB: Well, I’ve seen your website, you still uphold all of that. I mean, it’s just a great source for new lawyers, for all lawyers that need help or need to re-confirm things. That’s amazing.
HN: Well, the key to it was that we were not advertising for Howard Nations or The Nations Law Firm or self-promoting. It was simply a useful resource tool for lawyers.
JB: That’s great. Tell me about your family. Your daughter, your grandchildren and a cousin, they all work at your firm?
HN: My oldest daughter, Cindy is the managing partner in my firm now and she went to the University of Texas, both for her undergraduate degree and law school. My younger daughter has her Master’s Degree and she probably would have gone to law school but she has three wonderful children to raise first. I’ve got five grandchildren and then my cousin who’s also from Dalton, Georgia, runs my Atlanta office. Yeah, it’s all in the family.
JB: Very good. Does that always work out? Do you have any controversy?
HN: Not really, no, it’s no problem at all. Cindy taking over managing the law firm has just been a real blessing to me. We have 150 employees in the firm and my office administrator, Joanna Meinecke, who has been with me for more than thirty years, runs all of the administration of the firm, and Cindy administers the law practice. This leaves me free to pick and choose my cases and devote my time to the full time practice of law. We have eight excellent people with the firm who have been with me for more than twenty-five years, so I don’t worry about all those things that you have to worry about as managing partner of a firm.
JB: What do you enjoy most about being a father and a grandfather?
HN: Well, watching the kids mature and reveling in their accomplishments and seeing how well they do and how smart they are as they meet their challenges is fun. Watching them discover the world is fun. Watching them do better than I did is fun and rewarding. I enjoy watching them grow and mature and learn and get smarter than me and better than me in everything they do. So it’s all good. You want the next generation to be better than you are.
JB: Do you have any other hobbies? Do you have time for any other hobbies?
HN: Well, I’ve traveled the world, literally. And I’ve done a lot of fishing. I’ve fished all over the world and I’ve hunted all over the world. And I used to play golf until I started my own law firm. I played golf a lot. And then I played racquetball competitively for years, and I have always been a gym rat and a runner. I’ve been doing that forever and still do. Traveling the world has provided a lifetime of pleasure although many places that I ventured to for years are no longer safe. My trips to Africa have been replaced with safer trips to South and Central America. I made a seven-week trip around the world that I could not even begin to duplicate in today’s political climate.
JB: You have served in leadership roles in numerous associations for trial lawyers including the National Trial Lawyers, the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and the Association of Trial Lawyers in America. Why is it important to you to serve in these leadership roles?
HN: Well, what lawyers do is very important. The work we do as individual lawyers is life-changing for our clients and often for society but the importance of the work that we do jointly as associations should never be ignored or underestimated. The work done by AAJ, The American Association for Justice, in lobbying to protect the rights of individual citizens in this country, is unbelievably important. In the absence of AAJ, Linda Lipsen and all of the people we have in Washington and in the state associations lobbying on behalf of the rights of individuals, the tort system would have been abolished by now. It’s important for lawyers to give back. One important way to give back to the profession is by associating with other trial lawyers in organizations such as the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, Southern Trial Lawyers Association, American Trial Lawyers, and the National Trial Lawyers who are doing the extremely important work to protect the civil justice system in this country. An equally important way to give back is to support organizations such as the Texas Bar Foundation which is doing great work while reflect greatly on our profession.
JB: You are the recipient of many awards, some of which the Smiley Lighthouse Award, Heavy Lifting Award, the Mel Award, the Clarence Darrow Award, the Warhorse Award, Great American Eagle Award, the Gene Cavin Award. You’ve been recognized by the legal community many times for your accomplishments including being inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame in 2012. Does one of these honors stand out more than the others to you?
HN: Well, these awards are important in that they come from the members of the legal community. It’s great to be recognized by your fellow lawyers. That’s what’s important. And so yes, each of the awards is important to me. Some of the awards are for my work in legal education; some are acknowledgements of my work in associations, while others are acknowledgements of my success as a trial lawyer. The Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame is quite an honor and it was a surprise to me when I was inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame because I’d never thought about it. But when I was notified that I was being inducted and went through the actual induction ceremony, it was very impressive. The greatest honor is to look at the other members of the Trial Lawyer’s Hall of Fame, and realize that these great lawyers voted me into their group. It is humbling. Equally, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for Justice is very meaningful to me. That is AAJ’s highest award and that has significant meaning to me. It’s nice to be recognized by your peers and that’s what it’s really about.
JB: Well, I have some quotes I’d like to share with you from your peers.
This first one: “Howard has been involved in numerous major pieces of litigation and he has always conducted himself as a true professional. Indeed Howard is the epitome of what we want lawyers to be. He takes great pride in our profession and he teaches younger lawyers to prepare and practice our craft with that same pride and professionalism.”
And I have another one: “He is without doubt one of the most professional, prepared, courteous, diligent, and caring lawyers I have ever known. He continues after 50 years of successful practice to learn and develop new ways to argue cases and persuade juries. On top of it all Howard has always been a man of integrity and above all else, a complete gentleman. His highest allegiance has always been to his clients and to the ethical practice of law.”
And I want to end with this one. It’s my favorite: “At the end of my life when someone asks me who made a real difference in my law career the first person I will name is Howard Nations. Anyone that has ever met Howard knows they have been in the presence of greatness.”
How do you feel about being described so honorably with such sincerity?
HN: Well, it’s always great to be acknowledged by your peers. And it’s very humbling actually. I’ve had the important opportunity to influence people’s lives through teaching for 25 years. I taught a total of about 7,800 students in law school over those years and I’ve also lectured to lawyers in all 50 states. I didn’t realize how much influence I had on my students until people began approaching me years later and thanking me for teaching them; “You don’t remember me but you taught me in law school 30 years ago and what you taught me has been helpful to me.” So professors have a tremendous opportunity to influence their students because they’re at that age where they can be influenced. I know that my professors were highly influential in my development as a lawyer. So, having a record of having taught 7,800 impressionable law students, I hope there are a few out there that think that I was a favorable influence on them.
JB: I’m sure there are. You’ve had a significant impact on the Foundation. You became a Fellow in 1986 and a Life Fellow in 1998. And you’re currently a Sustaining Life Fellow. Do you remember who recruited you to join?
HN: For some reason I think it may have been David Beck.
JB: Yes, that’s who it was.
HN: David Beck certainly influenced me to join, yes. You talk about a great role model; David is the consummate trial lawyer.
JB: Yes. What was the Texas Bar Foundation like when you joined compared to now?
HN: Well, as the Texas Bar grows so does the Bar Foundation and of course, I’ve watched lawyers from my generation as they have gained influence in the Bar Foundation. I am very proud of them and their stellar work. The Foundation does great work and it has always set the standard for integrity in our profession, and for the devotion of the membership. The Foundation sets high goals and always meets or exceeds them thanks to the selfless devotion of the members. There is no organization held in higher esteem and prominence than the Texas Bar Foundation, both for the quality of its grant contributions and the prominence of its members.
JB: We are very excited. Last year we gave one million dollars in grants across the state of Texas.
JB: We’re going to do a little over one million dollars this year and as a Sustaining Life Fellow one hundred percent of your money goes straight to the Grant Program.
JB: So we thank you for that.
HN: The Texas Bar Foundation reflects very well on the profession. And it also accurately reflects the Bar Association; it reflects what lawyers are really about. If you want to see what the profession is about, you look at the Texas Bar Foundation, you look at the integrity of the State Bar of Texas, and you look at the integrity of the organizations that are made up of our finest lawyers and you will see what our profession is really about.
JB: I like to say we’re the heart of the Bar. Because all of our Fellows giving back, having a statewide impact is incredible.
JB: You are now a mentor to countless individuals. Do you now, after 50 years in practice, have a mentor?
HN: Well, my mentors were, as I said, Jack McConn who was the first lawyer I worked directly with as a lawyer. But then also my role model and mentor was Percy Foreman. He was maybe the greatest courtroom lawyer that ever lived. Percy was always my mentor and he gave me great advice. Jack Binion who was founding partner of Butler-Binion was also a mentor of mine. But I still have other people whose opinions that I respect greatly and with whom I share ideas. The longer you’re in this profession the more you realize how much there is to know and how it’s constantly changing and how you’re not the one changing it by yourself. There are other people out there doing a lot of things that are innovative as well and so you need to be sharing ideas.
So, there are people with opinions and skills that I have always respected such as Jim Perdue, and Frank Branson in Dallas, with whom I have shared ideas about how to improve things, and how to do a better job for our clients. And then there are people that we talk to about how to improve the image of the profession. Broadus Spivey, a classic example of a tremendous lawyer who reflects very greatly on our profession. Fortunately, there is no shortage of great lawyers in Texas who have always been generous in sharing ideas and helping others. I think of my friends, Scotty Baldwin, Bob Gibbins and Joe Tonahill when I think of greatness and generosity in assisting fellow lawyers. Lawyers such as these, I have had the pleasure of knowing and sharing ideas with for decades. So yes, I have my own mentors, my own friends and my own heroes in my own generation.
JB: What do you see for the future of the legal community?
HN: It’s not as bright as it used to be because there is a pervasive and largely successful attack on the judicial system in this country. There is also a sustained attack on the civil justice system in this country. There is a withering attack on the criminal justice system, which is in real trouble. There is an attack on constitutional principles and the attacks are being made by people with huge fortunes, with lots of money and also access to the media and the opportunity to diminish the perception of the Bar, and the perception of the legal profession in the minds of jurors and in the minds of the public. These people willingly sacrifice our democratic principles on the altar of profit and self-protection from being called to tasks for their wrongdoings.
I’m concerned that the jury trials are on the way out. If it were not for the Seventh Amendment we would have lost jury trials a long time ago. We would have gone the way of England quite some time ago. The attack by the United Tortfeasors of America and their legislative lap dogs on the right to trial by jury proceeds apace. They offer as a substitute for jury trials, their mandatory arbitration clauses and now we’re to the point where the tort reformers have had such huge success, especially in Texas, they have wiped out a lot of the rights that our citizens had to pursue redress of grievances in a Court with a level playing field. In addition to slamming the courthouse door in the faces of a lot of injured citizens, I’m concerned that tort reform has eliminated the lawsuits to train our young lawyers. It’s hard to train a young trial lawyer these days.
When I first started practicing law we had 10 to 15 cases set for trial every Monday morning. We had docket call on Friday morning in Harris County to determine where you stood on the docket for the following week and every single week we had 10 to 15 cases set for trial. And unless you had a preferential setting, you were never quite sure which case you were going to try. And we’ve had weeks where you’d try two cases in a week.
That’s the way it used to be and we just tried case after case and you can’t do that anymore. The system is under attack by very powerful forces who want to do away with jury trials and they’re having a lot of success and they’ve had tremendous success in Texas. The number of jury trials in Texas has diminished so severely that I don’t even try cases in Texas any more. I currently have more than 40 thousand clients and the number of cases I have on file in Texas is zero just because this is not the place to be if you’re on the plaintiff’s side.
It’s kinda interesting; my docket used to be 35 cases. I would carry a docket of about 35 cases and they were mostly large catastrophic injury cases or big business cases. My personal docket would be three cases, I’d take the top three cases in the firm, whatever was coming up next for trial and as we’d finish one I’d take the next one and so the tort reformers decided they were going to put us out of business. In May of 2003 they managed to do it. And so instead of 35 cases I now have 40 thousand. So they haven’t done a very good job of putting me out of business. But it’s interesting, I’ve been practicing law 50 years and I have more cases today than I’ve ever had in my career, just not in Texas.
JB: Do you ever see the tide changing? Do you see that there are things that we can do to bring back the trial by jury to make it stronger to make, you know, people believe in it again?
HN: Not in Texas. No. I always said that once the Republicans had the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, the House and Senate, the rights of injured Texans would be dead in the water. Unfortunately, I was right. As soon as they got the Governorship, the Lieutenant Governorship, the House and the Senate, they’ve passed every tort reform act they wanted and that’s what happened to trial practice in Texas. The reason it won’t go back is because they also passed a Constitutional Amendment and the citizens just don’t realize that they’re voting against their own self-interest because they were sold a bill of goods by the tort reformers. They were sold a major bill of goods and they bought into it and so now you would have to amend the Constitution to bring things back the way they were and that’s not going to happen. I have offices in Atlanta, New York and the District of Columbia and I practice all over the country. I haven’t been to court in Houston in a very long time and don’t foresee going to court in Houston anytime soon.
JB: I’d like to close with your advice to future lawyers.
HN: In our profession, if you always put your clients first and you always do the right thing on behalf of your clients and you conduct yourself within the ethical rules and within the Rules that control both our profession and our judicial system, the rewards will be there. The personal rewards will be there. There’s a saying that those who do good do well. And the worst thing you can do, I think, is to focus on how to make money and how much money you can make. That’s a tendency when you graduate from college and law school because you have so much debt that you immediately start thinking about how to pay all this off and how can I make the most money the fastest way. But if you focus on doing the best job you can with every single thing that’s in front of you, with every individual case, and treat every client, every case as your most important client and your most important case, and do it within the bounds of ethics and within the Rules of the judicial system, you’ll do fine. If you do good, you’ll do well.
One final note of advice: the attorney for the opponent is not your enemy who is to be mistreated and abused at every turn. He is a worthy advocate who deserves your respect and your commitment to play by the rules and treat him as you would have him treat you and your client. Fight hard; take advantage of every rule, every nuance and every opportunity that will help you help your client but always do it in the context of a fair fight that reflects well upon the dignity of our judicial system and our profession.
JB: Well, sitting with you and learning more about your life has been a pleasure. You’re truly a delight and I can sense your passion for your work. Congratulations on your award and on behalf of the Texas Bar Foundation I want to thank you for your outstanding service and acceptance of the award. We look forward to honoring you at our Annual Dinner in June.
HN: Okay. Thanks very much.
Transcribed by Shannon Irion Morris