Paula Sweeney works (and works and works) for her clients
Published in 2008 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 15, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Paula Fisette Sweeney, a founding partner of the Dallas-based personal injury firm Howie & Sweeney, is legendary for her work ethic.
“When I was starting out, I worked all the time,” says Sweeney. “I always carried a big caseload. I was young and single,” she says with a laugh, “so Saturday night was a great time to work because there was nobody in the office bothering me. Sometimes, I’d also wake up in the middle of the night and go down to the office and work.”
More than 25 years and several multimillion-dollar judgments later, Sweeney has nothing to prove, but she still puts in an associate’s hours.
“I’m very intense about my work,” she says. “I have to be. Malpractice cases are very labor-intensive. I feel like I have to know everything about a case personally in order to do a good job. I’ve never really had a lot of lawyers working on my files for me. I like to do it myself as much as I can.”
The reason behind her hard work? Her clients, whom she describes as “ordinary folks who’ve been injured by big hospitals or big corporations.”
To those who’ve worked with her, the results of Sweeney’s hard work are obvious.
“I’ve had her as my opponent in cases,” says Dallas litigator Charla Aldous, founder of the Aldous Law Firm. “Paula’s tough. She is a crusader. She believes in what she’s doing and you’d just better stay out of her way and let her do her work. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.”
Sweeney has been accused of missing out on a lot of life while she slaves away in her office, but she says she just has her priorities straight.
“My job is all-consuming,” she says, “but it needs to be. I am trying to save people’s lives. I’ve had a lot of clients who are going to lose their health care if I lose their case. That’s a big deal. Say you have a badly injured child. If that child doesn’t get good health care, they are going to die. It’s my responsibility to protect my clients and I take that responsibility seriously.”
The Accidental Jurist
Although Sweeney seems like she was born to be an attorney, she never considered a legal career until 1978, when she was about to finish college with a degree in philosophy at the University of Dallas.
A native Texan who spent her formative years in Paris while her father worked in the aerospace industry, Sweeney explains that she had “never met a lawyer until I went to law school. There were no lawyers in my family and I never really thought about it as a job.”
Still, after some pre-graduation soul searching, she decided to apply to law school. “I’d always been pretty passionate about justice and I knew that one day I wanted to work to prevent or remedy injustice,” Sweeney says. “I could’ve been a doctor, I guess, but things like organic chemistry would’ve thrown me for a complete loop. I’m not a math/science person. I’m more interested in advocacy-type work. I figured if I were an attorney, I could advocate for others.”
Sweeney received her J.D. from Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law when she was just 23. During her time at SMU, she landed a prize clerkship with Wendell Turley, a nationally recognized plaintiff’s attorney.
“I sort of backed into it, actually,” she explains. “I was a poor student without a car, and Wendell’s office was close to campus, so I applied. It was one of those happenstance things. While I was working there I realized that there’s this whole civil side to law where you can help people by representing them as a plaintiff’s lawyer. I began to see the incredible injustices that were taking place in the medical community and in industry, and I realized this was where I wanted to be.”
After graduation, Turley brought Sweeney on full-time. She worked in his office for five years before joining with attorneys Fred Misko and John Howie to form what would eventually become Misko, Howie & Sweeney. In 1995, she and Howie spun off to form Howie & Sweeney, her current firm. In 2002, Howie died of cancer, and Sweeney brought on two new partners, her husband, Frank Sweeney, and Kelly Lovitt Reddell.
This mix of attorneys is working well, Sweeney says, but six years later, she still misses her friend and colleague Howie.
“John was like my big brother,” Sweeney says. “We had such a wonderful practice together. It has been very difficult losing that kind of wonderful relationship, but I keep soldiering on.”
Sweeney sees her side of the legal system as a linchpin of democracy.
“A robust, healthy court system is one of the greatest incentives to a healthy society,” Sweeney says. “My role as a plaintiff’s lawyer is to keep an eye on the big guys, to make sure that the rights of ordinary people don’t get trampled in their rush to profit.”
Aldous is always struck by Sweeney’s fierce commitment to her clients.
“Paula is a true believer in the legal system,” Aldous says. “She’s not cynical. She’s a good person who wants to help others. She’s passionate about what she does, and she does it for all the right reasons.”
While many of Sweeney’s clients have won large compensatory settlements, the cases she’s most proud of are the ones that prompted lasting fixes to a broken system. A mid-1990s case, for example, involved a young woman hospitalized for minor surgery who died after a nurse gave her the wrong kind of IV fluid.
“This young woman was in her early 20s,” Sweeney says. “She was in her apartment emptying the dishwasher when she dropped a glass on her toe and cut a ligament.” The incorrect dosage of IV fluid upset the patient’s electrolyte balance, causing her brain to swell.
“This [syndrome] is actually a common problem in pre-menopausal women and children,” Sweeney says. Her clients—the deceased woman’s family—received a generous cash settlement from the hospital, but Sweeney insists that her biggest victory was the agreement she was able to broker with hospital administrators: “The institution implemented a training program for all nurses so no other family would have to go through this again and no other young woman would needlessly die. Some people think the only thing plaintiff’s lawyers are in it for is the money, but in that instance and some others we’ve been able to implement bigger-picture fixes.”
Leader of the Pack
A little bit less than a third of the members of Sweeney’s graduating class at SMU Law were women, and very few of them chose to pursue careers as plaintiff’s litigators.
Sweeney, who’d always been hard-driving and confident, was comfortable being a trailblazer in her field.
“When I first got out of school, women attorneys were past the freak-show stage, but I was a litigator who was going out to little bitty towns all over Texas,” she says. “There it was still a lot of, ‘They’ve got a girl from Dallas representing us.’ I still had judges calling me ‘honey’ and practically patting me on the head. There were still plenty of redneck good ol’ boys there, too. You had to account for that, no question. But that never bothered me much. Believe it or not, from day one in law school I found being a woman to be a huge asset.”
“Back then, if a case got all the way down to a jury, it was still unusual enough to have a woman arguing,” Sweeney says. “L.A. Law hadn’t come along yet. Ordinary folks hadn’t seen very many women doing what I do, so they were flat-out interested in what I had to say. They listened very, very hard.”
It’s no wonder Sweeney stuck out; during her first years in practice, she was as rare as a dodo bird. “Paula was literally one of the first female plaintiff’s lawyers in all of Texas,” says Aldous. “She was boldly, bravely out in front of the pack, and she took that position seriously. She is absolutely a role model for all female trial lawyers in the state.”
Being a female attorney still has its advantages, she says, but she’s less of an anomaly these days.
“In the past, at most trials it was usually just me at my council table versus six guys in blue suits at the other council table,” she says. “So when I hopped up, the jury was always listening to me. You always want a jury to pay close attention, and so I found that tremendously helpful. I have always had respectful interest from juries. If anything, my gender has been an advantage in jury trials.”
Hamstrung by Tort “Reform”
These days, Sweeney insists any advantage her gender once afforded her is pretty much worthless. Since 2003, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill limiting awards from medical lawsuits, voters then authorized the state legislature to cap awards at $250,000. Now few plaintiff’s personal injury attorneys can afford to take on costly medical malpractice cases.
This means that cases can no longer be argued on a contingency basis, Sweeney explains, and that restriction effectively cuts out anyone who can’t afford to pay his or her own attorney’s fees. When fees on complex cases easily run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the only people who can afford to finance a trial are large corporations.
Getting Sweeney talking about Texas tort reform is like swatting a beehive. “It is a nightmare what this Republican-initiated tort reform has done to working families in Texas,” she says. “It is just a disaster. With these settlement limits, they have locked the courthouse door to the overwhelming majority of malpractice victims. If a doctor or a hospital kills your child, I have to say, ‘I can’t help you.’ I have to say that Republicans have determined that children have no value in Texas. If the best I can get out of a hospital is $250,000, [the Republicans] couldn’t care less.”
Tort reform supporters argue that the Sweeneys of the world are driving up medical costs, forcing doctors to worry more about lawsuits than they do about patients. “It’s appalling to me when tort reform proponents say that personal injury lawyers are ‘making doctors practice defensive medicine,'” Sweeney says. “I don’t know about you, but I want doctors to practice defensive medicine on me and my family. I always thought that a healthy court system was one of the best incentives for providing good health care.”
Sweeney has been working with a number of antitort reform organizations, speaking about the issue and working to help lawmakers and voters “see the folly of their ways.” She’s optimistic about the future. “What’s the alternative?” she asks herself.
“The solutions are you can throw up your hands and say, ‘Screw it,’ or ask, ‘How can I fix this?'” Sweeney says. “I’ve worked on this issue since ’03 and now we’re looking forward to ’09. We’re working on trying to change the judiciary, on trying to roll back some of these evil changes that have been made.”
The Political Is Too Personal
Given her strong political opinions and love for the people of her home state, one might think that Sweeney would pull on a 10-gallon hat and run for office, Ann Richards-style.
“I would love it if Paula would go into politics,” Aldous says. “She’d be a wonderful leader. But she has always steadfastly said she has no interest.”
The pull is clearly there, but Sweeney insists that she’ll never throw her hat in the ring. “I don’t have the temperament to be a politician,” she says. “I’m not particularly diplomatic and also I am a very private person. The last thing I would want is to run for office and have people feel like they can ask a lot of questions about my private life.”
Until then, Sweeney is biding her time, and preparing for the day when life is back to normal in Texas.
“I’m confident that we’ll get the right to trial back,” she says. “The caps are going to be removed one way or another. Texans are finally starting to realize that they got screwed, that they got fed a bunch of lies, and they’re not going to take it anymore. When this craziness is over, I’ll be right there in the middle of the crowd, celebrating with everybody else.”