Rambo Justice

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

Bickel & Brewer built on its early successes, opening small satellite offices in New York, Chicago, and Washington, trying to create the appearance of a national law firm almost overnight. But created as well was a corporate culture that was almost as notorious as their litigation tactics. The firm gained a reputation as a sweatshop, working lawyers and secretaries until after midnight for weeks at a stretch. "It was expected that you worked nights and weekends," says one former paralegal. "The pay was great, but since you didn't have a life, there was no time to spend it."

Not surprisingly, turnover was incredibly high, particularly during those early years. "The firm was built for attrition," says one legal headhunter. "It is difficult to make partner, and since Bickel and Brewer kept all the clients for themselves, they don't let you build your own practice."

"I used to walk in and say, 'Who quit today?' and someone would throw out a name," says another ex-paralegal. "At least one lawyer a month would leave." Of course if you pay $97,000 for a first-year associate, as the firm did just last year, any one lawyer becomes easily replaceable.

Because of the intensity of the work, the long hours, the addiction to winning, an esprit de corps developed among those who remained. With Brewer being such a preppy, he organized a Bickel & Brewer rowing team and a Bickel & Brewer jogging team. Yet other firm members were just biding their time until their student loans were paid off, or saving their money in what was referred to as their "fuck you fund."

Still, with partner meetings in the Hamptons, firm meetings in Boca Raton, limos waiting at La Guardia to drive associates to the firm's Manhattan apartment, it was a heady affair, working at B&B. Money flowed in from the staggering legal fees that were charged. Bickel and Brewer were among the top-grossing lawyers in the state.

As the pair's wealth accumulated, their relationship grew almost pathological in its symbiosis: They bought matching white Porsches. They dressed alike in the office: suspenders, tie, no jacket, and out of the office, polo shirt, raised collar, khakis. They seemed to prefer their own company, isolating themselves after they moved in 1990 to their posh Bank One offices in an area secretaries referred to as "the kingdom."

Despite being the firm you love to hate, Bickel & Brewer were masters at cultivating relationships, particularly among the local judiciary. Just last year, the firm was accused of cultivating state District Judge John Marshall a little too closely. In a story first reported in the Dallas Observer, Judge Marshall faced accusations that he had shown partiality toward a B&B client by granting nearly a $1 million summary judgment in its favor. While the case was pending, Marshall was alleged to have accepted a limo ride to B&B's luxury suite at a Cowboys game, and his court clerk received an expensive watch as a graduation present from a B&B paralegal--admitting as much under oath. Eyebrows were also raised when that same paralegal, Suzanna Proctor, purchased the judge's sailboat (which had been on the market for a year) and allegedly had some private meetings with Marshall about the pending case.

Bickel declares that charges of influence-peddling were "much ado about nothing," that they were motivated by a vindictive lawyer, out to get Bickel over an old "fee dispute." And yet Judge Marshall found it necessary to recuse himself, and a visiting judge vacated the summary judgment. B&B is currently appealing that decision.

Although they never took on political cases of the magnitude of, say, a Matthew Harden, throughout their history, they remained politically active in Republican circles. (They were, however, big boosters of Democrat Ann Richards in her unsuccessful race against George W. Bush.) Bickel and Brewer would personally interview candidates, actively supporting several with $5,000 to $10,000 contributions, playing the role of kingmaker with considerable aplomb. One judge whom they opposed was Adolph Canales, who, in 1994, ran for re-election against ex-B&B partner Hal Marshall. Not only was Canales unpopular with the local bar, he had also ruled against B&B in an important case, and many believed the pair had fielded Hal Marshall in retaliation. "There was a perception out there that I was the Bickel & Brewer candidate," says Marshall. "But it was always my intention to disqualify myself from ruling on their cases." Marshall, however, never got the chance. He lost despite a $20,000 contribution from his old firm.

As the firm grew in power and prestige, it began to rethink its outsider image. Although it was too irreverent to become part of the establishment, there was a noticeable lessening of irascibility. Perhaps it was the enactment of bar association civility creeds that pledged lawyers to refrain from the kinds of bulldog practices that were blamed on attorneys like Bickel and Brewer. Perhaps it was corporate America putting a pencil to hardball litigation and figuring it just wasn't worth it.

Or perhaps it was indicative of a more mature Bill Brewer, who had himself become the target of a hardball divorce that has dragged on for more than two and a half years. Although Brewer refuses to comment about it, court records speak volumes--seven to be exact--each file bulging with documents that chart a divorce so acrimonious that no family court judge wanted to hear it. Several bailed out, possibly worried that an unfavorable ruling against Brewer could land them an opponent come election time. Brewer's estranged wife, April, is represented by pit bull Chris Weil, an obstreperous cuss whose legal pontifications can go on for hours at a blast. Brewer himself has retained four lawyers, the most notorious of whom is Frank Finn, the aging warrior of Thompson & Knight's litigation team, whose own senior partners pay him deference by referring to him as "Mr. Finn."

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