Rambo Justice

Are bad-boy lawyers Bill Brewer and John Bickel building a bridge to Dallas' minority communities, or trying to sell them one?

This is where the plot was hatched--or so the story goes. Not in some smoke-filled room at City Hall where politicos broker deals that placate rather than please, not on the top floor of some downtown bank building where law firms send buttoned-down lawyers to fight for the status quo, not at some breakfast club where "business leaders" peddle influence like smoked fish at a deli.

The first legal salvos of the Revolution on Ross--the coup d'etat that toppled a school district superintendent, some of her cabinet, and a school trustee president, that pitted blacks against browns in dueling conspiracy theories, that scandalized a school district in a manner never thought possible, even for DISD--were fired from a shabby South Dallas legal clinic.

The law office looks drab, sitting as it does in a strip center at the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Atlanta, neighboring Black Jack Pizza, the Four Torch Club, and Graham's Barber Shop No. 6, INC. A brown corrugated metal awning, dented in spots, frames what is little more than a concrete and brick slab otherwise known as "The Storefront."

Inside its glass doors, the furniture is sparse: general issue receptionist desk, office chairs, and sofa--hand-me-downs all. The phone rings occasionally, not much activity really, just a pleasant woman named Natalie fielding calls for lawyers who have yet to arrive. Her litany is the same: We don't do criminal cases, family law cases, no traffic tickets either. The civil cases that we do take are handled on a pro bono basis, according to the client's ability to pay. Accepted for representation are evictions, employment discrimination, the kinds of petty business disputes minorities must often forgo because the money is gone, no attorney wants to handle it, or the case is a dog.

At first blush, there is no hint to the power of this place, no suggestion that this is anything but a cluster of poverty lawyers dispensing social justice to the black community at bargain prices. But carefully arrayed on a narrow wooden coffee table are a handful of marketing brochures instructing would-be clients about the lawyers with whom they are dealing: Bickel & Brewer Storefront, PLLC is the newest innovation of Bickel & Brewer, the most aggressive high-powered litigation firm in the world.

This is the same Bickel and Brewer who were once branded the bad boys of the Dallas Bar--high-priced, high-profile Rambo lawyers whose scorched-earth litigation style is credited by some as forever changing the way the Dallas legal establishment practices law. Driven by the boundless energy and raw chutzpah of its co-founder Bill Brewer, the "litigation boutique" became a pariah within the local legal community, accused of pushing the ethical envelope, running up the costs of litigation, and destroying the gentility of the Dallas Bar. But among the Fortune 500 clients they sought to woo, the firm built a solid reputation as a passionate advocate that would zealously represent their rights--willing to "leave no stone unturned," as they claimed, and do whatever it took to win--and win big.

So in 1995, when Bickel & Brewer decided to open up its storefront operation, catering to the city's disenfranchised, many--including the city's disenfranchised--were skeptical. Were their motives as altruistic as they claimed? Was this a noble attempt to try to make a difference, acknowledging the law's obligation to guarantee justice for all? Had the callous Rambo boys, notorious for charging huge fees for big-ticket corporate clients, suddenly grown a heart?

Even their harshest critics were willing to give Bickel and Brewer the benefit of the doubt, allowing their good work in this African-American community to speak for itself. But in August 1997, when the Storefront began to represent Matthew Harden, DISD's chief financial officer, against then-Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, in one of the most incendiary cases of political intrigue this city has ever witnessed, their motives as well as their tactics were called into question.

Why would the Bickel & Brewer Storefront take on Matthew Harden for free--a man who earned more than $117,000 a year? Was the Storefront more a front for the political ambitions of Bill Brewer and John Bickel than it was a public service catering to the needs of the poor? Did the firm's Rambo approach to representing Harden help fuel a vicious racial conflict between blacks and Latinos? Was the threat of hardball litigation against Yvonne Gonzalez, Kathleen Leos, and others merely a ruse to obfuscate the truth about who was really to blame for DISD's financial debacle? Or were Bickel and Brewer just doing what they had always done, practicing law and life on the edge, zealously representing their client, fighting the good fight the only way they knew how: to the death?

It doesn't matter who you are--there's a seduction that goes on with Bill Brewer. He draws you in, pumps you up, convinces you with a confidence beyond certainty that together, you can destroy the enemy. That is, if he ever shows up. It's a passive-aggressive dance he does, making appointments, canceling them, apologizing through weary secretaries that he had to fly to New York on business or that he's at the mercy of a visitation schedule from hell. He clearly gives you the feeling that his time is more valuable than yours, particularly after he tells you that he bills out at $500 an hour, one of the highest rates of any lawyer in the city.

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