Rambo Justice

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

The way Bill Brewer networked his way to John Bickel has become law-firm legend. Recently fired and at a party prior to the annual heart ball fundraiser, Brewer met a woman who was proudly sporting a large tennis trophy and "mouthing off," he says, about her tennis prowess. "I took up the challenge for all men and said I could beat her left-handed." Some verbal sparring ensued, and she told Brewer that he reminded her of another "egomaniacal red-headed" lawyer, John Bickel, who was forming his own firm and enlisting new attorneys.

Slightly older than Brewer and married, Bickel seemed more of a by-the-book lawyer. A West Point graduate and decorated army officer, he exuded a credibility that Brewer admits he sometimes lacks. Bickel's credibility "is not rooted in ego and flash and persona...in a trial lawyer, that's a gift," Brewer says. Bickel had been a litigator with an old-guard Dallas law firm, Thompson & Knight, but was driven to start his own practice by a somewhat irreverent entrepreneurial streak that he could no longer deny. "When I was at West Point, I had a couple of unauthorized money-making endeavors," Bickel remembers fondly. "I sold women's panties with 'Beat Navy' on the back. It went over like gangbusters."

They seemed the perfect complement to each other: Brewer, the outspoken dreamer with enough hubris to take on the world; Bickel, the plainspoken pragmatist with enough gumption to take on Brewer. From their first lunch together, they hit it off and became each other's most ardent fans. Some say Bickel was mesmerized by Brewer, a Rasputin who turned the head of a stand-up guy. But others found them uncannily similar. "John had a grand plan, but Bill had bigger dreams," says former law partner Hal Marshall. "John just bought into Bill's dreams."

At first, the pair were part of a larger start-up firm, but after a few months, they broke away, wanting to build the firm at a faster pace than the other partners. In March 1984, they formed Bickel & Brewer--not a full-service law firm with corporate planners and real estate lawyers, but a litigation boutique, the first of its kind in the city--run by a couple of Young Turks who stood ready to make some money and raise some hell.

Bickel and Brewer hit the ground running, leasing an entire floor at the Trammell Crow Center--two lawyers renting 25,000 square feet with little more than a fistful of moxie. A line of credit from Texas Commerce Bank helped some, but building a law firm overnight was no easy task. In the hunt for the big case, they declared themselves the "baddest" lawyers in town, brazenly telling any corporate bigwig who would listen that they were not going to do things the old way--their aggressive approach would be different from the white-gloves civility of the "good ol' boy" downtown legal establishment. "New York firms did not respect their cousins in the Dallas bar," says Brewer. "They thought they were lazy; they thought they were slothful; they thought they were stupid."

Not surprisingly, their approach didn't endear them to the big downtown firms, who, Brewer claims, blacklisted them for not playing ball, erasing any chance of referrals. "The reputation they are developing, whether deserved or not, is that they're behaving in a fashion that is not the Dallas way," Chip Babcock of the local firm of Jackson, Walker told the American Bar Association Journal in 1989. "Dallas lawyers are gentlemen to each other. These two act like New York lawyers."

High praise, thought Brewer, whose marketing pitch included selling Bickel & Brewer as one of the few "New York-quality" firms in Texas. That meant B&B would stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That meant it would search nationally for its new recruits, ensuring quality by enticing blue-chip law students with salaries that were the highest of any law firm in the country. It also meant adopting a hardboiled, take-no-prisoners litigation style that was antithetical to the way Dallas practiced law.

Brewer, who claims he has always been lucky, found himself in the right place in the late '80s as the S&L crisis turned the city into a hotbed of "big ticket litigation." With real estate prices plummeting, developers turned to litigation to save themselves--or at least buy enough time until the market turned around.

B&B drew fierce criticism for its delaying tactics in these cases--piling on paperwork, wallet-whipping the other side, being obnoxious to opposing counsel, bogging down a case in procedure so it would rarely get heard on the merits. The firm was accused of dumbing down its clients for depositions: In preparation, clients were told to repeat each question to themselves, says one former associate, taking their time before answering. During these pauses, they were to run through a list of preferred responses: yes, no, I don't know, I don't recall. Clients were also told that they had the right to be asked a proper question--nothing vague or ambiguous. B&B lawyers would show them a dictionary, pointing to all the different meanings, for example, that could be attached to the word "do."

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