A Desire to Serve
Brian Newby has worked in the governor’s office, spent three decades at his law firm, and retired from the Air Force with two stars
Published in 2022 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 20, 2022
Updated on January 23, 2023
Brian Newby has spent 31 years at Cantey Hanger, served 35 years with the Air Force, and logged 20 with the Texas Air National Guard. Most of this was concurrent, of course—he’s not that old—but it’s meant long days.
“I haven’t had much time for anything, outside of maybe [watching] college football,” he says. “Up until three years ago, I was putting in 150-plus days on active duty on top of my 9-to-5 job.”
Newby, who became Cantey Hanger’s first Black managing partner in 2019, did cut back on his military service in 1995 when it began interfering with his hopes of becoming a partner. For him, of course, cutting back meant putting in his military service on weekends instead of weekdays.
The only time Newby, who retired from the Air Force as a two-star general, actually left his day job was the four years he served in Gov. Rick Perry’s administration—first as general counsel and then chief of staff. In the latter role, he oversaw all the Hurricane Ike recovery efforts. Newby was also the one who had to call Perry in 2008 to tell him the governor’s mansion was on fire.
In his third-floor office in downtown Fort Worth, where legal volumes compete with a thicket of flags, scale-model aircraft, rows of military challenge coins and framed photos of Newby and his Air Force colleagues, he says it all comes down to relationships. “For me, it’s about being as involved with your clients as they will let you be,” he says. “If a client wants me to help them with their day-to-day decision-making, I enjoy that. If they have a special project, or a lawsuit, I will handle that. You’re part of a team assisting the client in operating their business successfully.”
“I have marveled with joy as I’ve watched his career progress,” says longtime friend Chris Rodgers, executive director of St. Paul Lutheran Church and School in Fort Worth. “He’s done it with humility and dignity, and he has a desire to serve and a desire to lead. That’s one of the secrets to his success: being others-focused. He helps makes others successful.”
The fourth of five sons in a military family, Newby was born in Ohio but grew up in west Fort Worth, where his family moved when he was 10.
At Western Hills High in suburban Fort Worth, Newby was student body president, track team captain and a drum major in the band. “People said, ‘You ought to be a lawyer,’“ he says. “I was always taking leadership roles, so that’s probably what led to that.”
His older brothers had all gone to the University of North Texas, and while he’d largely traced their footsteps, he decided this time to forge his own path, choosing to attend Texas Tech in Lubbock. Two things drew him there. One was Rodgers, his high-school best friend and fellow track-and-field teammate, who had already decided to attend Tech and asked Newby to be his roommate.
“We made a weekend trip out there as high school seniors,” Rodgers recalls. “Thankfully, there were no dust storms, so I was able to close the sale.”
The other factor was Newby’s father, whose experience as a B-52 navigator in the Air Force inspired similar ambitions in his son. Texas Tech had both a pre-law course of study and an Air Force ROTC program that would allow Newby to attend law school before committing to four years of active duty. “The idea of being in the service, of flying airplanes, was attractive to me. But things just didn’t work out that way.”
Eye exams indicated his sight was subpar at a time when corrective eye surgery was not allowed by Air Force regulations. That’s the only thing, he says, that kept him from flying F-16s or F-35s. Most likely, he says, he would have been a weapons officer—like Goose backing up Maverick in Top Gun. “That was the job I would have done after I graduated from college, had I not gone to law school,” he says.
But Newby believed practicing law would open up a world of opportunities. He majored in history with a minor in economics, then headed to the University of Texas School of Law. After earning his law degree in 1986, and with six months before his Air Force duty started, he went looking for a law firm clerkship.
“One of our attorneys knew Brian and knew he was getting ready to graduate from UT Law School,” recalls Cantey Hanger attorney Allan Howeth, who was managing partner at the time. “I interviewed him, and he was just the kind of person we wanted—he was intelligent, he had a good personality and seemed very sincere.”
Newby also excelled in his first few assignments as a military prosecutor, becoming part of the Air Force’s circuit trial counsel, a lead felony prosecutor serving bases up and down the West Coast. With the bases essentially operating as self-contained cities, each assignment was like working at a city or district attorney’s office, he says. His cases ranged from assault and battery to drug offenses to sexual assaults.
An early one involved a senior colonel charged with sexually abusing a woman with special needs. The abuse had begun when the officer was in college and convinced the victim to engage in sexual acts with him, then took photos that he used to blackmail her into further acts. Eventually, she reported the abuse, and Newby’s team conducted a sting operation at an airport where the colonel had arranged a liaison with the woman during a layover flight with his wife. Using surveillance wire, hidden cameras and undercover agents, Newby’s team collected compromising admissions by the officer, whom Newby successfully prosecuted in a subsequent court-martial.
“A very satisfying outcome,” he says, “as he had abused this woman for over 20 years while leading a double life of a married officer and respected commander.”
Newby joined Cantey Hanger full time in 1991 but continued to prosecute cases with the Air Force Reserve. As he moved from base to base, Newby also served as general counsel to each base commander, whether negotiating utility contracts or dealing with the aftermath of aircraft accidents. He found he had an affinity for serving the legal needs of a single entity or individual. The discovery would influence his entire career.
“I just enjoy that variety, working for one client or a small group of clients but being really intimately involved in what they’re focused on,” Newby says. “It’s that type of relationship that I’ve enjoyed in my practice.”
Rodgers says, “He can relate to just about anybody at their level, and it’s really a gift he used in his own leadership development.”
Then Newby decided to find something he could do on weekends. That’s when he turned to the Texas Air National Guard, assuming a role as chief lawyer in 1995 with the unit at Carswell Field. Eventually he would be assigned national-level duties from the Pentagon, leaving that role in 2003 to serve as chief of staff and deputy commander of the Texas Air National Guard in Austin—again, a role he could fill mostly on weekends. “That’s where I got my first star,” he says, citing his promotion to brigadier general. He earned a second star in 2016.
Newby says Cantey Hanger is the kind of firm where attorneys stick around: Law students visiting its offices in downtown Fort Worth are shown 1970s-era group photographs of young associates, then escorted down the hall to meet several of them still working in the building.
“It’s just the nature of the firm,” says Newby, dapper in signature blue pinstripe, his voice at once authoritative and soothing. “When you start here, we want this to be your career. We’re not here to beat people up and chew them up and spit them out. We hire young lawyers who we want to be old partners with us.”
Newby did take the one major career detour in November 2004, when he was recruited by Gov. Perry. At the time, Newby was a member of the Texas Tech board of regents, a body he’d been asked to vice-chair until January 2005. The high-profile position traditionally called for the Texas governor’s blessing, but when Newby met with Perry to make his case, he says the governor told him, “I’ve got a better idea for you. You’ve been recommended as my general counsel.”
He was still learning the role in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana. A month later, Hurricane Rita pummeled the region again, including parts of southeast Texas, causing $23 billion in damage; Newby was part of the Texas delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C., to make the case for Congressional relief funds.
“We said, ‘Here’s what happened to us as a state—including bringing 450,000 people from Louisiana into the state,’” he says. “It wasn’t just the fiscal cost; it was the toll on our education system, our social services, our hospitals. We were trying to determine if there was a way to capture reimbursement funding for the state, and I think we did fairly well.”
By 2008, Newby had become Perry’s chief of staff, a position he says was not unlike the way it’s often portrayed on TV—the gatekeeper, deciding who did and did not get to see the governor. “He or she is the one who gets the phone call when there are issues that the governor needs to be engaged in,” he says. And that’s how, in June 2008, Newby came to be “the guy on the phone telling him his house was burning down.”
Luckily, the governor’s mansion had been vacated for renovations—“everything from plumbing to electrical,” Newby says—and the furniture and artwork had been placed in storage. The resulting blaze, from a Molotov cocktail thrown by an unknown intruder, caused $24 million worth of damage.
Several months later, Hurricane Ike ravaged the Texas Gulf Coast, causing $29.4 billion in damage. This time, Perry asked Newby to oversee all recovery efforts. “There were a few more issues because Ike hit Houston and Galveston, so it actually hit more populated areas in Texas than Rita did,” Newby says.
In 2009, he returned to Cantey Hanger. Newby lives not far away from his downtown office with wife Sandy, with whom he has two stepchildren and two stepgrandchildren.
“He’s been successful at whatever he’s done,” says Howeth. “You can see his good relationship with clients. He approaches issues calmly—but with determination.”
Even with his military service behind him, Newby remains characteristically industrious as managing partner, a role he’s relished in addition to handling regulatory and commercial litigation and general counsel work. His wife wasn’t surprised when he took on the role after his military retirement. She knew better than to think he would want to be less busy, he says with a laugh.
“She says: ‘You like having two jobs.’”
Commitment to Diversity
Brian Newby knows firsthand how difficult it is to be the only non-white face in a conference room. “The biggest key on the diversity front is walking the walk and talking the talk,” he says. “If you’re going to be for diversity, don’t just talk about it—do something about it.”
Newby leads his firm’s focus on diversity, and he heads the Black Lawyers Forum of Meritas, a global network of independent firms. The forum is a resource for firms looking to improve their hiring practices, better engage Black lawyers as potential employees, and create a more inclusive working atmosphere.
It’s also a support group, offering Black lawyers a place to connect with each other and share experiences.
“If you’re an African American lawyer and you go into an established law firm and no one looks like you, what are the issues you might have to address?” Newby says. “Here [at Cantey Hanger], you could ask the managing partner. … Sometimes there’s just one—or even no one—who looks like you.”
According to the ABA, Black representation in the legal field actually dropped slightly from 4.8% in 2011 to 4.7% last year.
Newby says law firms striving to improve diversity are up against a lot of competition, not only from other firms but other industries with legal departments. One of Cantey Hanger’s strategies is to recruit from the Black Law Students Association at Texas A&M University, which held its annual Christmas party in Cantey Hanger’s conference rooms in 2021. The firm is also a sponsor of the group’s annual banquet.
As always, for Newby it all comes down to making lasting connections. “It’s relationships,” he says. “People opening themselves up and building relationships.”
The Mayor of Downtown Fort Worth
“Major is a 110-pound, 2-year-old Bernese mountain dog who joined our household during COVID,” Newby says. “He is affectionately known to many as ‘the Mayor of Downtown Fort Worth.’ He knows all the security guards and valets in downtown, and he must greet them daily while on his morning walks. No one remembers my name, but they remember Major. … Major has never met a stranger. His name symbolizes my Air Force rank of Major General, but I would not let him outrank me … so he is just a major.”