Bend ’em Like Beck Can

Clients in trouble—and the Supreme Court—beckon Dave Beck

Published in 2008 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2008

When Harvey Sorensen, a tax and estate planning lawyer in Wichita, Kan., was sued for legal malfeasance in an inheritance case that involved the late Houston billionaire J. Howard Marshall, his law firm wanted the best representation available.

Marshall's disinherited oldest son was suing Sorensen and his firm for conspiracy and fraud, seeking the show-stopping sum of $880 million. Then Anna Nicole Smith joined the legal fray. Smith, who was 26 when she married the 89-year-old Marshall, demanded half the Marshall family fortune, which had been left entirely to the younger son, E. Pierce Marshall. The suits and countersuits touched off a legal battle royale and the tabloids had a field day.

 "When it became apparent that I would be sued by one of the sons of J. Howard Marshall," says Sorensen, a modest, soft-spoken man and partner at prominent Kansas firm Foulston Siefkin, "one of my legal partners decided that David would be the best one for me."

David Beck, still trim at 67, stands about 6 feet tall, runs marathons, raises longhorn cattle on a working ranch in the Texas Hill Country, is popular for his Christmas parties and, as a defense lawyer in legal malpractice cases, has a reputation as "the lawyer other lawyers go to when they're in trouble," as one Texas legal publication put it.

 A past president of the State Bar of Texas and the American College of Trial Lawyers, he is a founding partner at Beck, Redden & Secrest, a Houston boutique litigation firm.

There were other bright and talented lawyers with stellar legal credentials whom, Sorensen says, his Kansas law firm considered. But along with brains, experience and courtroom savvy, Beck brought a measure of brawn that the Kansans insisted upon.

"We wanted a lawyer who wouldn't knuckle under," says Sorensen. "We needed someone who was tenacious and strong. We were under a lot of pressure from a lot of different sides. And it was very important to be completely vindicated.

"For a lawyer," Sorensen adds, "your reputation is all you have. We needed someone who believed in our case, who would not settle, and would fight for the truth."

As author of the article "Legal Malpractice: It's the Lawyer's Time in the Dock," Beck has established himself as the authority on being a lawyer's lawyer. "I got interested in the subject [of legal malpractice] in the 1980s when claims against lawyers really began to increase," Beck says in an interview in his comfortable, tastefully decorated Houston high-rise office.

"I began to read through the cases and saw that many of them involved claims for mistakes in judgment," he adds. "Many lawyers may over-promise results, and when they don't satisfy the clients' expectations, clients may become upset.

"But lawyers should not be immune when they commingle funds, overreach on fees or cheat a client," he asserts. "They should be held accountable."

Along with firmness of purpose, Beck combines meticulous preparation with intellectual curiosity. Ask his fellow lawyers what really distinguishes Beck, however, and they will invariably cite his ability to connect with the men and women in the jury box. "He's a very appealing person, someone able to command the respect of jurors in a very short space of time," says Charles Matthews, general counsel at ExxonMobil, who hires Beck to handle corporate disputes that require a jury trial.

Larry Joe Doherty, a Houston plaintiff's attorney (and currently a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Congress) is one of only a handful of lawyers who exclusively pursue legal malpractice cases. Over the last 20 years he has faced Beck many times in courtrooms-as "opposing counsel but never an adversary," Doherty declares. "When it comes to jury selection," Doherty adds, "I always try to make sure that I go first. Otherwise, it's going to be his jury and the trial is all over."

At Sorensen's trial, which was just part of the massive dispute over the elder Marshall's $1.6 billion estate, 21 lawyers worked over nine months and, he says, they did not always comport themselves admirably. "The jury saw lawyers bickering and squabbling and asking leading questions," Sorensen says. "They saw all the tricks of the trade.

"But David is a very good tactician," Sorensen adds. "He humanized me. He knew just how to approach the jury and not to overwhelm them with data. He did a good job of making me, a lawyer, a likable person. He showed the jury that I was just a normal person with a family who was a lot like them."

While Sorensen was on the witness stand, Beck asked him to point out his wife in the courtroom and to tell the court her occupation. At the time, she was employed as a child psychologist in the Wichita public schools, working with students who had special needs (she has since retired). Beck also asked Sorensen what it would mean if an $880 million judgment were lodged against him.

Overcome with emotion, Sorensen faltered. "He got embarrassed and choked up and said, ‘I'm sorry, David,'" Beck recalls. "You could hear a pin drop. Finally he got it together and said, ‘Ladies and gentleman of the jury, this case is very important to me. And it's not the money. I've spent 24 years of my life as a good and honest lawyer and now they're trying to take it away from me.'"

Beck glanced at the jury box and counted four jurors wiping tears from their eyes. For Sorensen, it was a complete acquittal. Following the trial, as is his custom, Beck interviewed members of the panel. "I had jurors tell me that they would have awarded money to Harvey if we had asked for it," Beck says.

Beck almost became a priest. Growing up in the shadows of drab petrochemical factories in the gritty blue-collar town of Port Arthur, Texas, where his late father was a refinery worker at Gulf Oil—"He got up every morning," Beck says, "and went to work and came home and got up the next morning and did the same thing all over again"-the Catholic church loomed large.

His sister, Lauren Beck, a nun with the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and principal at a Catholic girls' high school in Houston, says: "The church was the hub of family and school life. That was your primary community and there was a real sense of pride in having a son or daughter who became a priest or nun. It's something that would have been encouraged."

At 17, Beck was on the verge of leaving Bishop Byrne High School to do missionary work abroad and enter the seminary. But his mother wanted him to complete high school. She had a parish priest convince young Beck to finish his studies. By senior year, he says, the unmarried life of a priest had lost its luster. "I discovered that I liked girls," he says, laughing.

He was the first person in his family to go to college—and the only one of three boys to graduate (his twin brothers both served in Vietnam and returned home to work in the refineries, rising to managerial positions). He attended Lamar University, a commuter college in nearby Beaumont, finishing in three years. In those days he often hitchhiked back and forth to school. An academic adviser noticed that he had an aptitude for science and engineering, but also for the law, and recommended that Beck major in history and government.

He grew up watching Perry Mason on television, and the romance of the courtroom appealed to him. Good grades propelled him into the University of Texas Law School, of which he is a longtime board trustee and, as chair of the development committee, a key fundraiser. From a paper route to delivering groceries in high school, to caddying at the country club, or as a construction worker and even a janitor at the local union hall, he always had a job.

Today, when hiring new attorneys, Beck is partial to young men and women who have paid their own way through college and law school. "People who come from that background," he says, "know what it takes to succeed. They haven't had everything handed to them."

Beginning at Fulbright & Jaworski in 1966, he did mostly insurance defense work. "It was fairly routine," he says, "rear-end car accidents, slips and falls, workers' compensation." Even so, general litigation became his niche. He relished settling disputes in the open courtroom, outworking the other side and, more often than not, winning jury judgments. "I was trying cases week in and week out, as many as two jury verdicts a week," he says. "I was honing my skills, learning about people. Eventually, I could predict what a jury would do in certain cases."

By the 1980s Beck was put in charge of Fulbright & Jaworski's energy litigation department, handling lawsuits for Houston's biggest oil and gas companies. But as his reputation grew, it became harder to get to the courtroom. "I was on the executive committee and I started spending a lot of time on the crisis of the day, on personnel issues or on the firm's no-smoking policy," he says.

In addition, he was forced to turn down promising cases. An attorney in F&J's offices in Dallas or Washington might have written a will for an opposing litigant, thus making Beck ineligible. At 52, an age when many successful lawyers consider taking early retirement, Beck and four other lawyers from Fulbright & Jaworski struck out on their own.

One of the first clients was Exxon Corp. (now ExxonMobil). "We had a number of cases that David was working on when he started his own shop," recalls Matthews, ExxonMobil's general counsel, "and our philosophy is that the case goes with the lawyer, not the firm."

Today, Beck Redden boasts 40 professionals, including 10 partners, 20 associates and 10 of counsel lawyers. At first, much of the work came from referrals by his old firm. But, he says, "because we don't do any transaction work, a lot of other firms that would not have sent me litigation cases when I was at Fulbright & Jaworski began to refer me."

The result is that his firm often handles high-stakes cases, often for the bluest of blue-chip companies. The firm successfully defended ExxonMobil in a class action suit. Satisfied clients for which Beck Redden has won multimillion-dollar judgments—or defended against them-include Compaq Computer (now part of Hewlett-Packard), 3M Company and Dow Engineering.

Beck holds many honors, including service on the U.S. Supreme Court's Judicial Conference Standing Committee on Rules of Practices and Procedure. But what energizes him most these days is his passionate belief in preserving one's rights to a jury trial. He worries about "the vanishing trial" and the trend toward out-of-court settlements.

"Experienced trial lawyers are a dying breed," Beck says, "because there are fewer trials today. If you don't try lawsuits," he adds, "you don't get experience. And if you don't have experience, you don't have confidence to pursue cases where $100 million might be at stake."

In addition, he says, even when the dollar stakes may not be high, a legal dispute can have far-reaching consequences. "We were called in on a workers' compensation case that could not be settled," he says. "Whether the amount of money was big or small didn't matter. An adverse result would have had a serious impact on Texas workers' compensation law."

Away from the courtroom, he and his wife, Judy, frequently repair to the family's 500-acre ranch, where Beck enjoys riding his bay horse, Silky. Often, their son (a former Marine and current San Antonio lawyer) and two daughters (one lawyer, one businesswoman) join them.

Beck spends so much time on philanthropic and charitable work that he hardly finds time for a round of golf at the UT Golf Club. Whatever the time pressures, though, he says he has at least one more marathon to run.

And, most likely, plenty more jury trials.

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