Rambo Justice

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

Two-day depositions would drag on for two weeks as B&B clients would claim they didn't understand the words "earn," "rely," "where," and "when."

"By the time they got to the deposition, they were reticent robots," says the associate. "Witnesses were told to tell the truth, but we broke down their perception of everyday conversation."

This tactic not only invoked the wrath of several judges, but grabbed the attention of the press, who labeled Bickel and Brewer the Rambo boys, cultivating a mythology around their sharp practices that still lasts to this day: Bill Brewer, getting into a jury box, flirting with a female juror, and causing a mistrial; B&B lawyers coaching their witness to spill coffee on legal documents when things got too heated; Bill Brewer demanding that a deposition be scheduled for 6 a.m., then arriving 30 minutes late. Bickel and Brewer became the poster boys for an aggressive '80s litigation style that was, in truth, sweeping the country as law schools graduated more lawyers than ever before, and the increased competition made the entire profession more cutthroat.

Of course, few in Dallas played it meaner than Bickel & Brewer. Under the ethical battle cry of "zealous advocacy," a Bickel and Brewer lawyer was expected never to ask for an extension or give one, to fight every motion, to turn over every rock. Opposing counsel wants to go on vacation--too bad. He misses a filing deadline--tough luck. Cutting some slack to a brother lawyer--not this firm. Winning was the only option; losing was not only unacceptable, but could destroy the reputation of the firm.

Some lawyers refused to get involved in cases if Bickel & Brewer was on the other side. Others felt they had no choice but to play hardball back. "We went through a couple of years of orchestrated assault on this law firm," says Brewer. "Every time I set a deposition, I got noticed for eight at the same time."

The firm became whipping boys for the kind of cultural backlash that made lawyers the butt of jokes. They were referred to as "Bickel and Skewer," "Bicker and Brew." Even U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer got into the act, taking a shot at the pair when he wrote a skit during Bar None, a 1989 production of the Dallas Bar Association, which contained these lyrics:

When Bickel and Brewer do their thing.
Decent folk catch hell...catch hell
When Bickel and Brewer play lawyer
We all do things that smell.
'Cause the Rambo crap
Is the only thing little minds understand.

Nevertheless, the Rambo boys seemed to bask in the limelight. "The biggest offense would have been if the press had stopped writing about them," says a former B&B associate. "They thrived on it--whether good or bad." Brewer admits he has at different times employed a public relations agency to promote his firm. One of their more flippant self-promotions entailed adopting snakes at the Dallas Zoo as part of its Adopt-a-Pet program. Snakes and lawyers seemed a natural union, particularly with journalists, who pounced on the promotion. The story made the Wall Street Journal and brought new business to the firm. At various times, Motorola, American Petrofina, Prentiss Properties, Trammell Crow, and Budget Rent-a-Car lined up to play hardball.

Yet their mean-streets persona meant nothing if they couldn't deliver the goods. "I liked going in there and kicking people's butts," says former partner Hal Marshall. "But that only happened because we knew the law better, knew the facts better, and had these great strategies going." Rather than take in 100 cases, the firm limited itself to, say, 30, and then worked them to death. Ten lawyers might be assigned to the same case with either Bickel or Brewer vetting each decision.

Brewer was clearly the rainmaker for the firm, bringing in most of the business himself. "He would make commitments to his clients other lawyers don't like to make," says a former lawyer with the firm. "But Bill Brewer is without fear. He will take any risk. He never gave them guarantees, but he came close." When he delivered on his promise, says the lawyer, "it would invigorate his client to go even further."

Brewer was also the big-picture guy, the chess player who could think three to four moves ahead and come up with solutions--whether inside the courtroom or out. In 1991, when Jerry Jones wanted to sell alcohol in Texas Stadium, he turned to Bickel & Brewer, who, if they hadn't negotiated an out-of-court settlement, stood ready to lobby the legislature to pass a law that would allow the sale of liquor in all stadiums across the state.

"[Bill] has the uncanny ability to think outside the box," says another former associate. "He is also a good writer, very creative." The firm's pleadings were known for their storytelling style; dramatic to the point of being hyperbolic, they grabbed the attention of their intended audience--judge, jury, the press--much more so than the archaic legalese that most lawyers still clung to.

But the idea man was, at times, amazingly undisciplined, and needed an implementer to keep him grounded. He found it in John Bickel, a litigator who had the experience of a hundred trials under his belt, and oozed a genuineness in the courtroom that enabled juries to empathize with his side of the case. Brewer, on the other hand, came across as too slick, too cocky, too New York, particularly for Texas juries.

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