Sit down for coffee and conversation with Fred Baron, one of the richest, most successful attorneys in Texas, and before long the talk will move to how to protect the proverbial “little guy” from corporate misdeeds. If you’re lucky enough to have that conversation in Baron’s house — more a palatial estate, really — you might wonder what this guy-in-a-mansion knows about little guys. But Baron’s concern is real. Protecting the little guy has been on his mind for decades, and traces back to a childhood spent in Rock Island, Ill., growing up in a community of little guys.
“It was a steel town and I was in a family of good Jewish liberals. I definitely came away from there with strong values,” he says. That upbringing may also have fostered his predilection for political science and history, subjects he pursued as an undergraduate at the University of Texas. “The Vietnam War was raging and political issues were extremely interesting,” he recalls.
Baron became convinced that a career in law was a way for him to “be useful,” and he entered UT Law School after his college graduation. Among his first classes was a torts course taught by the late professor W. Page Keeton, the co-author of one of the primary torts casebooks in American law schools (and grandfather of former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan). Baron describes the class as “incredibly enlightening on what tort law can do.” In Keeton’s class, Baron recalls, “I understood tort not as a system of worker’s compensation but as a form of deterrence. I saw that filing the right kind of lawsuit could serve to stop bad corporate behavior.”
Keeton’s class planted the seed, and when Baron later happened upon a lecture by Ralph Nader, the young student’s fate was sealed. “That lecture was a seminal experience for me. I was totally proselytized.” For Baron, Nader reinforced the idea that “by creatively using the law — expanding the theory of product liability, for example — we could regulate companies. Because if they did bad things they’d get the crap sued out of them.” Much too inspired to just go home, Baron stayed after the speech to talk with Nader. A lengthy conversation ensued and Baron left the lecture hall with an invitation to work for Nader’s research group in Washington, D.C.
After clearing his plans with UT, Baron headed to the capital for six months to collaborate with the now-legendary group known as “Nader’s Raiders.” Baron was joined by a handful of fellow students from UT, all of them his colleagues from the UT law review.
At the time, Baron was newly married and had recently become a father. Since Nader couldn’t offer any compensation, the law student found a “day job” working as a law clerk for the United States Commission on Civil Rights. At night, he put on a much different hat and worked with the Nader group to investigate the Atomic Energy Commission.
The group found that the Commission was engaged in two functions essentially at odds with each other. “The commission was regulating the nuclear industry, but it was also promoting the use of nuclear energy,” Baron explains, “and you can’t regulate and promote at the same time.” Recommending that the Commission be split into two agencies, the group published a lengthy article in the UT Law Review. Eventually, their efforts were validated with the creation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.
Baron’s impressive law school track record alone and his experience working in Washington, D.C., could have landed him a job almost anywhere. “Much to the chagrin of my then wife,” he says, “I chose to work at the small labor law and civil rights firm of Mullinax, Wells, Mauzy & Collins for $900 a month.” Fighting for the little guy.
In 1973, the firm approached Baron with a request. One of its clients, the Oil, Chemical, & Atomic Workers (OCAWIU) Union, needed assistance with a situation at an asbestos factory in Tyler run by a subsidiary of PPG Industries. “My firm had basically decided it wasn’t interested in the case. Since I was the low guy on the totem pole, they asked me to just go check it out so as to not piss off the clients,” says Baron.
And the rest is toxic tort history. Baron headed off to Tyler and arrived at a factory where raw asbestos was being turned into insulation. “The workers were literally shoveling asbestos off the floor with no respiratory protection whatsoever,” he recalls. While the image is shocking today, at the time Baron didn’t know anything about asbestos. But with many of the factory’s workers plagued by illness, he was eager to find out more. “I went back to Dallas and immediately buried myself in the stacks at the library. I started finding medical articles from back in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s about how dangerous this stuff was.” In addition, he found industrial hygiene material indicating the imperative to wear respirators around asbestos.
Baron notified the union and recommended it contact the then newly formed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). “OSHA investigated the factory and wrote up a report saying it had the worst conditions they had ever seen. Then they fined the company in charge [PPG Industries] $710.” Even after more than 30 years, Baron is still noticeably exasperated by the amount of the fine. “I mean, what a joke. It probably took PPG Industries $710 in administrative time to write the $710 check.”
The Tyler factory had been in operation for less than two decades and had already lost several of its workers to asbestos-related diseases. Baron decided that “a slap on the wrist was just not gonna do.” So the second-year attorney went straight for PPG’s throat, asking for $100 million in damages.
In addition to making a statement monetarily, Baron was eager to expose the corporation’s behavior to the public. “I thought, ‘Let’s turn up the heat [on PPG Industries] and just make their life miserable.’” When a writer from The New York Times traveled to Texas to cover the case, Baron’s hopes were realized. “I was getting calls from people around the country who had seen the article in The New York Times and wanted advice about asbestos disease,” he says.
Inspired by the response to the Tyler case, Baron was ready to jump into others. His firm, however, was not. Unable to obtain the support he needed for his considerable aspirations, Baron left Mullinax in 1975, and started his own practice.
He was determined to continue the fight against wanton corporate behavior he had started at Mullinax. Nevertheless, “those toxic and environmental injury cases were the ones that didn’t pay,” he says. “They were contingent fee and they would take years to resolve.” To cover his family’s expenses, Baron handled many types of cases, including adoption and divorce cases, which paid the way for his pursuit of the cases that fit his more weighty objectives.
There was no shortage of those. Shortly after starting his practice, he called a former contact at the OCAWIU. “I asked if they had any cases for me and he said, ‘I have a great one, but you need to go up to Oklahoma City and meet with a woman there. Her name is Karen Silkwood.’”
Lacking the funds to buy an airplane ticket, Baron drove to Oklahoma City to meet the now legendary Silkwood. Not surprisingly, the outspoken union activist and the determined young environmental attorney had a lot to discuss. “We had a really long talk,” Baron recalls. “She told me her story and we bonded.” And he took her case.
Silkwood’s case — memorialized in the 1983 film Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep — offered an archetypal example of big business fighting against the little guy, and its effects on Baron have been long lasting.
By the late ’70s, Baron had settled a handful of asbestos cases and had “made enough money to finally pay everybody off,” he says. “At that point,” he continues, “I made a judgment that the more I narrowed my practice the more successful I’d be. I would no longer accept car crashes and workers’ compensation. I would just do environmental and toxic injury cases.”
Baron’s decision proved wise, and he continued to work at the forefront of his field. “The remarkable thing was that I was winning these cases,” he says, beaming with the memory of his unexpected success. “My clients started getting awarded a lot of money so I could start building up the law firm, hiring more people and filing more lawsuits.” With Baron and Budd, he says, “we developed a kind of regulatory practice. We started nailing these guys good so that bad behavior became very expensive for them.”
After years of heading up his own firm, Baron has recently shifted his attention to politics. In fact, if you look just above the mantle in Baron’s cozy well-appointed sitting room, you’ll stare straight into the eyes of George Washington. The founding father’s stately portrait occupies a prime spot of real estate inside the Baron household — a visual testimony to Baron’s fondness for American history and politics. While the portrait adds a focal point to the room, its significance increases tenfold when Baron muses on the current state of the U.S. government.
“That guy would be rolling over in his grave if he saw how the executive branch is running this whole place,” he declares as he gestures up toward Washington’s dignified countenance. “We can’t forget that we have three branches of government in this country.”
Baron has begun taking an active role in politics. He headed the finance committee for John Edwards’ presidential run and later became the co-chair of Kerry Victory ’04. He’s working on John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign. He’s also been extremely active in fighting an industry-backed effort to disparage the work of trial lawyers.
“If you gave me $100 million I could make anybody look bad,” he says, referring to the large sums he says have been spent by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and tort reformers in their effort to create a negative image of trial lawyers. “In the late ’70s,” he says, “there were liberal courts and all these new theories of law, the doctrines of products liability changed, and we started winning a lot.” Baron believes this made large companies nervous, and their response was to pour money into altering how people think about trial lawyers. “There was a time,” he says, rolling his eyes, “that you would drive through Texas and see billboards everywhere hyping up the rampant plague of lawsuit abuse and evil trial attorneys.”
Baron says the effects have been devastating. “When we go into the courtroom,” he says, “there’s a lot of people on the juries who feel we are just out to help their clients game the system.” Baron remembers a time when trial attorneys were not subject to this prejudice. “Previously, we were considered to be the white hats. Now we’re considered to be scumbags.”
For someone as deeply committed to the civil justice system as Baron, that shift has been particularly disheartening.
And while he’s now engaged in his work on the new Edwards campaign, his passion for law stays constant. When the topic shifts to jury trials, his tone turns reverent. “If you look at The Federalist Papers and get back into the history of the American Revolution,” he explains, “I think you can say with a straight face that what really tipped the scale and caused the colonial people to want to go to war was the loss of their right to jury trial.”