Homefryin' with Fred Baron

Dallas' largest plaintiff's firm, Baron & Budd, cultivates friends, punishes enemies and beats allegations it prompts clients to lie and win

After the hearing, within earshot of reporters, Baron called Marshall a "fruitcake." He told Skepnek, one of the lawyers pressing the case against the firm, "You've got a bull's eye on your back."

Marshall, a lifelong Republican who drew no opponents when he ran in 1992 and 1996, found himself the next year in the fight of his life, with Baron leading the charge. Before the 2000 primary, Baron urged a Dallas trial lawyers group to target the judge with campaign money, enlisting the firm's lawyers in his cause. Campaign records show Baron & Budd was an early donor to Marshall's opponent, Mary Murphy, who said Baron was one of the first to urge her to run.

Marshall lost, and he makes no secret that he views his defeat as a result of his rulings and criticism of Baron & Budd. The firm has political money and, hence, power, he says. "You are talking enormous sums of money, and there are only a handful of people in the world who can't be bought," Marshall says. "You see the articles about his big fund raising [for the Democrats]. You put that kind of money in the pocket of a president and that's intimidating to some people."

Fred Baron, founder of the 70-lawyer firm that bears his name, made his fortune suing asbestos makers. He protects the firm with a combination of no-holds-barred lawyering and political savvy.
Mark Graham
Fred Baron, founder of the 70-lawyer firm that bears his name, made his fortune suing asbestos makers. He protects the firm with a combination of no-holds-barred lawyering and political savvy.

Several lawyers interviewed for this story said Marshall's defeat sent a signal that it's hazardous to threaten Baron & Budd. "If I liked my comfortable seat on the bench, I'd think twice about ruling against them on these things," says one attorney, who declined to be named. Says another who was close to the memo case, "No judge in Dallas will cross Baron & Budd after what happened in that election. They are scared to death."

Marshall isn't the only one complaining he was run over once he took his shot. Consider the case of Skepnek, a career plaintiff's lawyer from Lawrence, Kansas, who pushed to have Baron & Budd removed from its cases because, he argued, it suborned perjury.

In the fall of 1997, Skepnek, Pfifer and Robert Thackston, an attorney with Jenkens & Gilchrist, were out front leading the memo attack. Skepnek represented Raymark Corp; Pfifer was outside counsel for Borg-Warner Corp., and Thackston handled asbestos defense for W.R. Grace and Co.

After the three lawyers took the offensive, Baron & Budd stepped up asbestos litigation against clients, Pfifer says. Grace and Borg-Warner soon negotiated settlements that took them out of the fray.

That left Raymark Corp., which had hired Skepnek because of his success in bringing a malpractice suit against a wealthy and influential Houston plaintiff's firm. He represented 46 workers who said their lawyers sold them short in a multimillion-dollar case in a chemical plant explosion. Skepnek's nerve was obvious. The state Bar had cleared the workers' lawyers. No lawyer in Houston would take the case.

In April 1998, though, Raymark filed for bankruptcy and Skepnek lost his client. There was no one left to press forward on the memo or the pending appeals. No one ever deposed the paralegal, her immediate supervisors or the clients who supposedly were prepared with the memo to testify.

And within months, Baron & Budd turned the tables on Skepnek. It filed contempt motions against him in 165 courts across Texas alleging he had knowingly produced a perjured affidavit by a Raymark official about the extent of its business in Texas. Skepnek, left to hire his own lawyer, was eventually fined $150,000 but has whittled that down to $30,000 after appeals. He narrowly escaped the firm's effort in a Dallas court to put him in jail.

"I'm not very willing to jump out there again," Skepnek says, declining to comment extensively for this story. "I never believed Baron could have done what he did."

As part of its counterattack, the firm tied up Skepnek's legal fees from Raymark in a contentious bankruptcy fight that itself has spawned a crop of lawsuits. In the latest, filed in November in Connecticut, former Raymark executive Craig Smith sued Baron for libel for calling him "a low-down dirty crook" last June in The New York Times. Smith, who is now running a business in Wales, is seeking $400,000 in damages.

Skepnek took nearly as much offense--although he has not filed suit--at how he was portrayed by Charles Silver, a University of Texas Law School legal-ethics professor, in a law review article published in late 1999.

The article defended the Baron & Budd's script memo as merely "poorly written," and turned to a lengthy discussion of Skepnek's affidavits, taking issue with him by name.

Silver concluded that the media's interest in Baron & Budd, rather than Skepnek, was the outgrowth of a "propaganda war" financed by "well-organized, well-funded, smart and highly motivated" opponents of trial lawyers.

The professor's piece, however, failed to mention that Baron & Budd hired him to write an affidavit used in its coaching-memo defense. In it he argued that the firm "did more than duty required" when it stopped using the script document, which he called "awkward or clumsy rather than an effort to perpetrate a fraud."

Silver, who testified recently in California in favor of multimillion-dollar trial lawyers' fees, was one of the two ethics experts Baron says he retained to school his firm in ethics in 1998. He did not return several calls for comment.

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