The Busiest Septuagenarian in Texas
By day, a few million-dollar cases; by night, Wayne Fisher smokes six briskets at once
Published in 2009 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 14, 2009
Updated on September 16, 2009
About 10 miles from his boyhood home in nearby Cameron—a small white house without power or plumbing—and just a little farther down the road from the two-room schoolhouse where he began his education, Houston lawyer Wayne Fisher has created a pristine, 3,000-acre working ranch that he calls the Alligator Creek.
Driving onto the property in Milam County in Central Texas, visitors cruise down a paved oak-lined road. To the left, horses, looking like an Old West painting, pose in a wide-open field; and on the right, several dozen head of Beefmaster cattle float on rolling waves of green.
The house is perched at the end of the driveway. Unlike Fisher’s boyhood home, this house has modern luxuries, including a library that holds stacks of history books, a gourmet kitchen, a patio bordered by barbecue pits and an industrial freezer where he keeps dozens of pounds of brisket.
Fisher, of Houston’s Fisher, Boyd, Brown and Huguenard, likes to smoke six briskets at one time. It saves a lot of time, he says, and that’s the one commodity he’s perennially short of. He may be the busiest septuagenarian practicing law in Texas.
Fisher, 72, says he could never have predicted the reputation he’s built among his peers. There was, after all, no way he could know that he would be the lawyer who represented the Howard Hughes estate. But one thing was clear from an early age: he would be an attorney.
“I made a decision, probably before I was in the seventh grade, that that was my life’s work. I was going to be a trial lawyer, a courtroom lawyer,” he says from his ranch, where he generally spends three days a week.
A couple of factors came into play early in the young Fisher’s life that helped him along.
First, Ada Margaret Smith, his high school teacher, encouraged him in debate. She’d ride with him around the state in her 1950s Hudson to various competitions and insisted he attend debate camp at Baylor University.
“I had a lot of opportunities and developed a high level of self-confidence, which any trial lawyer has to have,” he says. “I didn’t feel like ‘I’m getting in over my head.’”
The second thing that pushed Fisher toward the law was the absence of anything to do in rural Milam County, where he met his future wife, Patsy Mullinax, at age 10. If a television existed somewhere in town, he didn’t know about it.
“Back in those days a trial—a murder trial, a civil trial—was not only information, it was entertainment,” he says. “I grew up going to court proceedings.”
He still remembers the scenes, the smells and the people at those trials. He would watch and learn from E.A. Camp, “a legendary lawyer,” he says, who would elegantly argue cases in rooms filled with cigar smoke and spittoons. He was moved, he says, by “the excitement, the professionalism and the respect that lawyers had in those days.”
Astros owner Drayton McLane grew up with Fisher and remembers him as a keen debater. He also recalls his visiting the courthouse for trials. “I think that inspired him to be a lawyer,” he says. “He loved to go and watch the good lawyers.”
Fisher was awarded a competitive, full four-year academic scholarship to Baylor University out of about 75 statewide applicants, where he earned the Best Freshman Debater award and graduated first in his class. He finished in three years, which meant he could apply one year of his four-year scholarship to Baylor’s law school.
After completing law school in 1961, Fulbright, Crocker, Freeman, Bates and Jaworski (later, Fulbright & Jaworski) hired him. He says the firm gave him, and other young lawyers, each about 180 cases at a time. Back then, cases were more likely to go to trial because there was no formal mediation. He represented defendants in a lot of car accident and workers’ compensation cases. He was involved in 58 jury verdicts in five years while at Fulbright (and he won 57 of them). “It was a great experience,” he says.
But there was a limit to the amount of defense work he could handle. He talks about how he often used to hear about the “home office” when he represented large insurance companies. The people on the claims staffs would rotate out regularly, but each crew always talked about the home office needing to give its approval for just about everything.
“I never laid eyes on the home office,” he says. “And I just decided that I would rather be representing individuals that I could see, feel and touch and vice versa, and establish a personal relationship with people. And I wanted to do plaintiff’s work.”
During his time at Fulbright, he says he learned some valuable lessons.
At a McLennan County Courthouse in Waco, he picked up hints and strategies from watching some of the great attorneys, like John Hill, Joe Jamail, George Pletcher and Henry Giessel, whom Fisher calls a “great orator and a brilliant man.” Fisher still keeps the notes he took about how Giessel talked to juries.
“You quickly learn that you can’t copy someone else,” he says. “You have to develop your own way of communicating.
“I’m very thorough, and I would call it somewhat of an oratorical style. But I have learned though the years how to talk directly to people and develop a personal rapport with them,” he says. “And I learned that making the best speech doesn’t necessarily mean you win. You have to have the facts, and when you have the facts, you have communicated in a way that you touch the emotions of the people and the reasoning process of the people who make these decisions.”
In 1966, Fisher took his skills and started his own firm in Houston. Today, it has eight lawyers—it had 25 before a split—and is devoted to civil trial practice.
Shortly after hanging his own shingle, an opportunity arose that would help make him one of the state’s most well-known lawyers. His former bosses recommended Fisher to work on cases involving the Howard Hughes Jr. estate. He was hired to represent the stepchildren of Rupert Hughes, Howard Hughes Jr.’s uncle.
Fisher’s challenge was to have the state’s highest civil court uphold a Houston probate jury decision, which said that although his clients were never formally adopted by the billionaire’s uncle, they should share in the estate because they were given the promise of adoption, being given the Hughes name and being cared for by Rupert Hughes.
Ultimately, in January 1984, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Fisher’s clients when it said that they, along with three of Rupert Hughes’ granddaughters, were the paternal heirs. As a result of the ruling, the five paternal heirs inherited 27 percent of the Hughes estate—estimated at about $2 billion. Fisher’s clients, The Associated Press reported, shared 10 percent of the estate.
There would be nearly a dozen other cases related to the estate, including a case involving a fraudulent will. A small group in California forged a will with a period typewriter on dated Beverly Hills Hotel stationery. Fisher says he knew that one of the parties had a history of lying in at least one other deposition.
And within 10 minutes, Fisher had one of the parties admitting in his deposition that he had lied under oath. “I made him say so into the video camera and apologize to the judge and jury,” Fisher says.
The case was resolved in summary judgment in Fisher’s client’s favor, and criminal indictments were filed against all parties who fabricated the will.
“It stayed under the radar,” he says. “There was never really any extensive publicity.”
Still, Fisher doesn’t want Howard Hughes to be his legacy.
“Various products liability cases define my career,” he says. “My career is bonded on all sides by products liability and major personal injury litigation.”
Fisher has favorably resolved more than 100 million-dollar cases. They include workers’ compensation, car accidents, railroad-crossing crashes, construction accidents, pipeline explosions, maritime cases and injuries related to electrical lines.
But, he says, much of his most meaningful work has dealt with products liability.
“A lot of the cases that stick out in my mind are cases that substantially contributed to the redesigning of products in America,” he says. “I was one of the first lawyers in the country to aggressively pursue the concept that there should be rollover protection on agricultural tractors and forklifts.”
He also takes some credit for making sure tractor manufacturers put seat belts in their equipment. Over his five-decade career, he’s been responsible for having reflective tape put on the back of tractor-trailers, moving gas tanks forward in cars, and making it harder to serve flaming cocktails in restaurants. (He says they can blow up like Molotov cocktails.)
Fisher also gets some credit for having shoulder belts placed in the backseats of automobiles. That case involved a group of Katy High School students who were in a vehicle that rear-ended a stalled truck at about 30 miles per hour. The two students in the front were fine, but the two boys in the backseat, who wore lap belts, were paralyzed because of a lack of shoulder belts, Fisher says.
His sights are currently set on mobile cranes, which are often used in construction. He says there should be warning devices on cranes that set off alarms when a crane gets close to high-voltage wires.
“I’m still working on this problem,” he says.
When asked about retirement, Fisher is adamant. “I’m not slowing down,” he says. “I’m not ready to retire.”
He’s been a president of the State Bar of Texas; a former president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association; a former president of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers; a former president of the Houston Trial Lawyers Association; and a regent with the American College of Trial Lawyers from 1992 to 1996.
Beyond the law (and the ranching business), he sits on the board of Scott & White Healthcare, has worked with the Houston Symphony, is now the chairman of the Texas Cultural Trust and is a fellow of the Inner Circle of Advocates. He also co-owns two car dealerships around the Houston area: Clear Lake Infiniti and Southwest Infiniti. And he’s a minority owner of Cytex Plastics Inc.
“I love all of those. As long as my mind is active, and physically if I have energy, which I do, I don’t see any reason to pull down the shades and sit in a chair,” he says. “I learn something new every day of my life. That’s one of the beauties of being a trial lawyer. You always have something new, some problem to resolve, to figure out.”