Why is Matthew Scott, a 39-year-old Dallas attorney, so often described as “a go-to guy”?
Just ask Greg Supan, a former law partner and colleague at the Dallas firm of Bell Nunnally & Martin. Not long ago, Supan got a last-minute, out-of-the-blue telephone call: An old fraternity brother from the University of Texas was relocating his oral surgery practice from Houston to Dallas. He urgently needed help in structuring an employment agreement between him and his new dentistry group.
Unfortunately, the attorney who assured Supan he could handle the assignment called back three days later and announced he was going on vacation. “He told me that I didn’t tell him it was time-sensitive,” Supan recalls, exasperation creeping into his voice.
So he turned to Scott, all 6 feet 6 inches of him. The former basketball player at the University of Iowa has, over the last decade, become an avid Texan—so much so that he won election to the city council in the bedroom community of Rockwall.
“At that point we had 24 hours to get the assignment done,” Supan says, “and Matt, an expert in employment law, dropped everything to help out. He ended up doing a great job on what was actually
a very complicated partnership. The client was thrilled.” Supan adds: “When you’re down by two, you
pass the ball to him. He’s a real buzzer-beater.”
Amid the book-lined suite of offices at Bell Nunnally one hears similar stories, not just about Scott’s dependability but also about his work ethic. Sherri Alexander, who heads the litigation section at the firm, says, “At our business-development meetings, where the partners get together to talk about work, and about which new clients have been contacted recently, Matt’s always willing to participate.” Praising his sense of timing, she adds, “Not too much—but not too little either.”
“And when I have to go out of town on business,” she says, “I can always trust him to deal directly with a client and handle things well in my absence.”
The bottom line? “He has his own docket,” she says, “plus the city council. But if somebody needs help, he always goes the extra mile.”
The only son of a union printer and his Iowa farm wife, Scott grew up in Des Moines, where his childhood had its rough patches. He was bused to schools across town, an experience that put him in contact with a tough crowd. The experience helped teach him how to get along with people from different backgrounds, an ability that he inherited from his mother, who set an example of unpretentiousness.
Scott attributes his work ethic to his father, a veteran of World War II who saw plenty of action—and bloodshed—in the Pacific. He describes his father (both of his parents are deceased) as someone who insisted on order and neatness, took pride in his work, seldom missed a day on the job in 44 years and was always straight with people. “Dad was the most honest person I’ve ever known,” he says. “And loyal, too.”
Those loyalties extended to his employer, his co-workers and his labor union. But there was never any question that his son would have a different kind of life. His father often lamented the fact that he had not taken advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the GI Bill, Scott says, “and it was always very clear that I was going to college.”
He majored in psychology and played basketball as a walk-on shooting guard. He didn’t get a lot of playing time; yet his coach, Tom Davis, hails him as an important asset to a team that sent several players to the NBA.
“I remember Matt Scott as a motivated and aggressive athlete, a good team player who fit in well,” says Davis, now the head coach at Drake University in Des Moines—where Scott graduated from law school. “And he was also coachable, someone who could accept criticism and was willing to make changes that would help the team.
“Maybe he was the 10th man on the team when we could only play five,” the coach adds. “But I recall what a good teammate Matt was. He was somebody people liked to be with, and practice with, and travel with—and he had a great work ethic.”
Some 40 minutes east of Dallas, such comments are echoed by colleagues in the chambers at the spanking-new city hall in Rockwall, seat of Rockwall County, the fastest-growing county in Texas. Scott, who describes himself as a staunch Republican, nonetheless works well with all members of the seven-person council, including dyed-in-the-wool Democrat Margo Nielsen.
“He’s brash and he’s smart and he’s passionate about the issues,” says Nielsen, ex-director of Rockwall County Helping Hands, a nonprofit social services agency. “And as a lawyer,” she adds, “he’s trained to think holistically and broadly.”
Nielsen sings Scott’s praises for his efforts to bring city services to Lake Rockwall Estates. Despite its impressive name, the “estates” is actually a dilapidated mobile-home park that had long been ignored by the city. But, thanks largely to Scott’s efforts, Nielsen says, the city is in the process of annexing the unincorporated area and will soon provide, among other things, water and sewer services, trash pickup and improved roads.
“It’s not the kind of issue that most city leaders look for,” Nielsen says. “There are no political rewards. But under Matt’s leadership, it’s getting done.”
Although he is still in his first term on the council, Scott has also won the confidence of Rockwall’s mayor, Bill Cecil, a retired contract-director with the Department of Defense. “He’s my mayor pro tem,” Cecil says, bragging about Scott the way the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy might say: “That’s my sidekick, ‘The Sundance Kid.’”
Together, Scott and Cecil share a keen interest in economic development, typified by $20 million in public spending that the city is lavishing on a new harbor at nearby Lake Ray Hubbard. Replete with fountains, pools, a waterfall and even a “mini-riverwalk,” the public works project is luring private-sector financing for lakeside condominiums, retail stores and office space. On a tour of the Mediterranean-style construction that is under way, both men are buoyant. “This will be a big economic engine for the city,” says Scott.
In junior high school, Scott says, he visited Texas during a winter break and played tennis in shorts and a T-shirt while several inches of snow blanketed the ground back in Des Moines. He vowed that he would someday make balmy Texas his home—a pledge that he kept soon after he completed law school. Staying on a friend’s sofa in Dallas, he studied for—and passed—the Lone Star State bar exam.
Newly married and with his ticket punched for practicing law, Scott and his wife pulled up stakes and set out for Texas. Arriving in Dallas, neither had a job lined up. “We had two cars, the stuff in our apartment, and a couple of thousand dollars in wedding money,” he says. “That was it.”
After honeymooning in Cancun, the couple job-hunted in earnest. His wife found work as a legal secretary and Scott worked as a contract attorney. Ever the walk-on, he landed a job at Cooper, Aldous & Scully in the same way that he made the team at Iowa: by being aggressive.
He was met one of the partners, Dallas lawyer Charla Aldous, during a deposition. “I asked her if she was hiring,” he recalls, “and she said ‘maybe’ and I pulled out a résumé and then I got an interview.”
He got hired and moved to Bell Nunnally in June 1999.
At Bell Nunnally, Scott has been making a name for himself handling the full panoply of employment law, including discrimination, workers’ compensation and sexual harassment cases. His expertise was ratified when District Judge Martin Feldman in Louisiana selected him to chair the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ draft of the pattern jury charges for employment law. It took more than three years of effort getting the seven-member committee to find common ground.
His skill at being a team player came in handy there as well. One of his law partners, Thomas Case, lauds Scott for his ability to build bridges between the plaintiff and defense attorneys who were evenly represented—and divided—on the committee. “The way he ran [the committee] was by trying to reach consensus,” Case says. “When they couldn’t reach agreement, they put their differences in the footnotes.” (That makes it “subject to further development by the district courts,” Case adds.)
Case—who is 20 years Scott’s senior and is something of a mentor to him—says that employment law cases are often “emotionally charged.” He says people become so attached to their jobs—and so identified by what they do—that “trying employment cases is an awful lot like dealing with death or divorce.”
Although Texas is an “employment at will” state—which means that, in the absence of a contract or labor-union agreement, termination does not require cause—juries may nonetheless feel sympathy for a plaintiff who has lost his or her job. But one of Scott’s strongest suits is that “he has a good appreciation for what will or won’t play with a jury,” Case says. “Jurors have all been employees, and it’s likely that a few of them have had an adverse experience with an employer.”
One of the hardest parts of Scott’s job can be convincing a client that what seems like an obvious argument for an employee’s dismissal will not only leave a jury unmoved but could be inadmissible. Scott recalls a recent case in which the owner of an apartment complex fired a maintenance worker who was not only doing sub-par work but had a criminal record.
But the employer was miffed when she learned that Scott was not willing to introduce the ex-employee’s criminal record. “She was British and frustrated that someone could file a lawsuit against her but she couldn’t bring up the person’s criminal record,” Scott says. “She wasn’t familiar with the U.S. judicial system.”
Despite his best efforts at negotiating a compromise, Scott says that he had to remove himself from the case. “The sticking point was what I told her I would—and wouldn’t—do,” he says. “She thought we could use [the plaintiff ’s criminal record] to make the lawsuit just go away,” he adds. “Smaller clients get frustrated and don’t understand that the process takes time.”
In a state known for its flamboyant trial attorneys, Scott’s colleagues cite his straightforwardness and plain speaking as a key asset in the courtroom. “He does a good job at presenting his position and of being himself,” Case says. “Young lawyers don’t realize that what works best is just being who they are. Juries appreciate someone like Matt who comes across as solid and sincere and prepared. Juries have a knack at seeing through an act.”
Now the father of three young children, Scott has ambitions for higher office when he is finally term-limited after six years on the Rockwall City Council. “Anyone who runs for public office and says he doesn’t have higher political ambitions is a liar,” he says. “Sure, I have higher political ambitions. I already ran for the state House [in Iowa] when I was in law school.
“So, yes, I’d like to hold other offices. But the Texas Legislature is out because it is a part-time job that would destroy my full-time job. So I’d have to look at something that either allowed me to continue practicing law, as the city council does, or something that would be a full-time, paying job that replaces my legal practice.
“So right now I have no idea what my ambitions are,” he says. “But, yes, I do have them.”