Van Fleet's Grand Feats
A billion-dollar win? He's got lots of those
Published in 2007 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 14, 2007
Updated on June 11, 2009
It has been nearly 40 years, but Patsy Shook Ellis can still recall the conversation she had with Allan Van Fleet when they were both 16-year-old students at San Marcos High School and, for a short time, teenage sweethearts. “It was just before English class, toward the end of our sophomore year,” Ellis, who is now a medical librarian in Johnson City, Tenn., remembers, “and we talked about what we wanted out of life. I’ll always remember what he said: He wanted ‘to leave behind something of lasting significance.'”
That impulse remains his abiding credo.
Van Fleet, who specializes in antitrust and intellectual property litigation at the Houston office of Greenberg Traurig, where he also heads the litigation unit, has compiled an astonishing résumé. He sped through Rice University in three years, forgoing his senior year (and graduation) to attend a special program in legal studies at Columbia University Law School. There, he wrote for the law review and graduated No. 1 in his class, earning, among other honors, the John Ordronaux Prize for overall scholastic excellence.
Following a clerkship for a federal judge on the appellate court in Manhattan, Van Fleet returned to Texas and commenced a 28-year career at Vinson & Elkins; he departed for Greenberg Traurig last year. Over the years, he has waged legal battles against such corporate goliaths as U.S. Steel, Texaco, Microsoft and Intel, as well as a consortium of the country’s biggest railroads, in high-stakes, billion-dollar antitrust cases. Although he can often be found representing similarly outsized multinational corporations in a legal version of the Battle of the Titans, “about 60 percent of the cases are on the side of the plaintiffs,” he says.
That high-profile litigation has landed him the outward trappings of success: service on the American Bar Association’s antitrust section, a steep income and a sterling reputation in legal circles. “He’s the big gun,” says Roland Garcia, a colleague at Greenberg Traurig. “Allan is a lawyer’s lawyer, someone you’d hire if you needed representation yourself.”
His reputation outstrips not only the state and federal courthouses of Texas, but the U.S. as well, says Don Klawiter, a partner at Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C., and past chair of the ABA’s Section of Antitrust Law. “He’s really an outstanding litigator,” says Klawiter, adding that Van Fleet has played a role in shaping “the development of substantive antitrust law both in the U.S. and internationally, especially as it pertains to Latin America.”
At 54,Van Fleet appears deceptively unremarkable-just another mild-mannered man in a conservative dark suit. But look again. He sports a goatee, wears jauntily resplendent neckties and is usually shod in pointed western boots fashioned from the spiny skin of the poisonous sting ray. “He’s actually quite colorful, sort of a maverick,” says Sean Gorman, a Houston attorney and partner at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae.
Van Fleet’s boots are made for walking. In a recent four-week stretch, his ports of call included Asheville, N.C.; New York; Washington, D.C.; Mexico City; and Tokyo. He commonly leaves behind satisfied clients while snapping up stunning pieces of art and sculpture, such as the sophisticated woodblock prints of Ando Hiroshige, the 19th-century Japanese artist.
He and his wife, Laurie (also a lawyer), live in an affluent neighborhood that is largely African American. And they delight in the company of activists, artists and poets. In return for a donation at a benefit, he won a literary tour of England in the company of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Howard. Joining Van Fleet, his wife and Howard were two couples and the poet’s partner, the artist David Alexander.
But what separates Van Fleet most starkly from most conventionally successful attorneys at white-shoe firms is his unwavering commitment to the practice of pro bono law and his dedication to public service. Even as he labors strenuously to win cases involving monopolistic practices, copyright infringement and breach of contract disputes, he has emerged as a key proponent of public interest law, and a role model and mentor to younger attorneys.
“I know it’s a cliché for a lot of lawyers my age but I wanted to become a lawyer after I read To Kill a Mockingbird,” he says. “I attended segregated public schools in Huntsville and walked past the colored elementary school to get to my school every day. I wanted to be a lawyer like Atticus Finch.”
Ten days after the Aggies of Texas A&M stunned the University of Texas’ highly favored Longhorns 12-7 on the gridiron last November, Fadi Kalaouze found himself being sued by UT for trademark infringement. The owner of Aggieland Outfitters in College Station, Kalaouze-a native of Lebanon who is an A&M alumnus and a U.S. citizen-holds the copyright to a logo depicting a Longhorn with lopped-off horns and the legend “Saw ‘Em Off.” Aggie fans can buy an array of coffee mugs, T-shirts, pennants, towels, caps, car decals and even barbecue mittens bearing the logo. “We’ve been building this brand for 10 years,” he says.
Kalaouze faced financial ruin at the hands of UT. His last chance was hiring a legal team headed by Van Fleet to blunt the plaintiff’s lawsuit. Van Fleet, who says that he has a cabinet full of knock-off Longhorn products in commercial use that UT has failed to object to, contends that Aggieland’s parody is protected speech. He convinced UT: the school and Kalaouze reached a settlement that allowed the continued sale of the “Saw ‘Em Off” logo, although somewhat altered.
“Most lawyers would just tell you what the law is,” he says. “But Allan always has a game plan. It’s like he’s playing chess: you put a pawn here so you can jump it with your horse.”
Plotting out creative strategies two or three steps ahead of opposing counsel is a Van Fleet hallmark. Consider his success at representing Gaia Herbs. After the Brevard, N.C.-based manufacturer of natural products declined to work with Vitacost, an online discount retailer, the distributor alleged unlawful retail price maintenance and sought treble damages.
Van Fleet’s strategy was to remove the case from state to federal court-pawn to King 3-and eventually, because Vitacost lacked standing, outright dismissal. Checkmate. “This is something every antitrust lawyer does,” Van Fleet says, playing it down as garden-variety maneuvering. “State judges are temperamentally more reluctant than federal judges to throw out a case or grant a summary judgment.”
Still, Greg Cumberford, the vice president for strategic initiatives at Gaia, hails Van Fleet’s skill. “The timing of the petition to remove the case to federal court was invaluable,” Cumberford says. “It gave them less time to respond.”
When the Mexican railway company Transportacion Maritima Mexicana backed out of its agreement to sell the remaining 51 percent of ownership to 49 percent minority owner Kansas City Southern Railroad for $500 million in stock and cash, Van Fleet proposed a strategy that promised “not the quickest result but the one with the highest probability of success,” says Jay Nadlman, a former VP and associate general counsel at the railroad.
While the purchase contract provided for arbitration should a dispute arise, there was imminent danger that the Mexican owner might seek a higher bidder. By obtaining a preliminary injunction and a contempt order in the Delaware courts, Nadlman says, “we maintained the assets in one piece.”
Nineteen years ago, Van Fleet won a case for the defunct merchandiser Montgomery Ward and its parent, Mobil Oil (now Exxon Mobil Corp.), when the company was sued by jilted catalog agents after it shut down its stores. Harry Reasoner, former managing partner at Vinson & Elkins and Van Fleet’s longtime mentor, remains impressed. “When you’re defending a major oil company, there’s always enormous sympathy for the local concern,” he recalls. Of Van Fleet, Reasoner adds: “He won by good lawyering.”
There’s more to the story, of course. “For several days before the trial,” Van Fleet says, “I sat around cafés and walked around town and perfected my East Texas accent. It was not like a change of personality,” he adds. “I had spent six years in Huntsville, which was a long time for an Army brat.” His wife and baby daughter also attended the trial. He confesses to being delighted when his little girl, calling out “gaga,” ran down the aisle and leaped into his arms. “It didn’t hurt that the jury saw I was human.”
Whatever the situation, Van Fleet is invariably self-confident, determined and unflappable. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was representing Jindal United Steel, owned by an Indian company, in mediation proceedings arising from a breach-of-contract and antitrust dispute with U.S. Steel, from which the Asian company had purchased fabrication plants outside Houston. As the arbitration got under way, news filtered in that airplanes were crashing at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania. “It was an emotional time,” says Gorman, the LeBoeuf Lamb attorney who was engaged along with Van Fleet and the Vinson & Elkins team. “But Allan never lost his resolve. We got a fantastic result.”
He brings that same indefatigable drive, intensity and attention to detail to his pro bono work. In November 1989, after he saw an article in the Texas Bar Journal requesting attorneys to represent Central American refugees who faced deportation-and certain death in their home countries-he took two weeks of leave, traveling to South Texas with his wife, where the couple helped six refugees win political asylum.
In 1994, acting as trial and appellate counsel for both the University of Texas and the state of Texas, he joined the lawsuit-known as the “Hopwood” case-defending UT law school’s affirmative-action admission policies. The appellate court ruled that no consideration could be made of race, but Van Fleet remains an ardent advocate of diversity, particularly in the legal system. “We can’t have a criminal justice system where all the lawyers and judges are white,” he says, “and all the defendants are black and Hispanic.”
Such beliefs led him, in 1999, to a seat on the board of the Texas Appleseed Foundation, a nonprofit, public interest law organization that, according to its Web site, enlists attorneys in private practice to work for justice “by addressing the root causes of important legal and social issues through research, advocacy, protection of rights and public awareness.”
By all accounts, Van Fleet played a critical role in helping the organization draft and win passage of the Texas Fair Defense Act of 2001, which has been hailed by one top ABA expert as “the most important indigent defense legislation in 25 years,” says Texas Appleseed’s executive director, Rebecca Lightsey.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat who sponsored the legislation, credits Van Fleet’s efforts at working with his staff to hammer out the language in the bill. In addition, Ellis says, Van Fleet marshaled support from the state’s major law firms, presented public testimony, and assiduously wooed both the press and state lawmakers. “I’ve seen him around the Capitol early in the morning and late at night,” says Ellis. “He works longer hours around here than some members of my own staff.” Joking, the senator adds, “He really needs to take a bike ride with me and get a life.”
But Van Fleet doesn’t need anyone to tell him about grabbing onto life. A survivor of prostate cancer, for which he underwent surgery almost three years ago, Van Fleet shows little sign of putting on the brakes. “We only have so many days,” he says, “and I want to live them as fully as I can.”