Bridge Across the Rio Grande

Schooled in London,Mexico City and Austin, Adolfo Campero is multiculturalism incarnate

Published in 2006 Texas Rising Stars — March 2006

Adolfo Campero is mingling with a small clutch of lawyers at a political fundraiser at Monte Carlo, a popular Laredo restaurant and banquet hall. The tables are festooned with balloons and bunting. As the crowd swells, he bumps into Julio Garcia, a friend since elementary school.
 
The two men, who are in their mid-30s now, joke about how frequently their paths have crossed over the last quarter-century. Both men left town to attend college and law school — Campero to the University of Texas at Austin for both degrees, Garcia to the University of Houston for his law degree — and both eventually returned home to hang a shingle.
 
But while they went to separate law schools, they once found themselves sitting in classes together in Mexico City at a special program on international law. It was a total coincidence. Now, 10 years later, Garcia can’t resist joshing Campero about his bookish habits during the program.
 
“All you did was work the whole time,” says Garcia.
 
He adds, “We were in the second-largest city in the world and most of us wanted to take advantage of it — go sightseeing and go out for drinks. But Adolfo just wanted to do preparation for the next day’s work. He wasn’t a stiff, but he was very much the studious bug. He was definitely very serious about being there.”
 
That is the kind of story that people tell about the 37-year-old Campero, who is both a specialist on international trade law and a general legal practitioner in Laredo, a border city of 225,000 that bills itself as U.S.’s “Gateway City” to Mexico and Latin America. Among his colleagues and staff and, increasingly, in the larger legal community, Campero’s long hours are legendary.
 
“He’s like a machine — only he eats,” says legal assistant Gerardo Ramos. “I’ve overheard him on the phone telling clients that he’ll do whatever it takes on a case, even if it means staying up all night,” Ramos adds. “And I remember thinking, ‘What are you getting me into now?’”
 
Silverio Martinez, a 29-year-old attorney and an associate with Campero, says, “The big joke around here is that he’s obsessive-compulsive. From the way that he handles every case — from the procedural steps when you file a cause of action and make sure affidavits are attached, to the legal issues, to the evidentiary issues — he’s very methodical. He’s a perfectionist.”
 
State District Judge Oscar Hale Jr. recalls that, before he was admitted to the bench, he was an attorney in a protracted trial opposite of Campero. It was a commercial litigation case, the jurist says, one that began as a landlord-tenant disagreement but morphed into a contract dispute, with several million dollars’ worth of property at stake.
 
“It was a pretty unique case,” says Hale. “It began in a justice-of-the-peace court in Laredo, went to district court and then was transferred to San Antonio. We were arguing motions for hours at a time in San Antonio, even looking up case law from the 1800s. This went on with court appearances at least once a month for a year. Our side was working late hours and we knew he would be too.”
 
The result? “Ultimately both sides settled.” Asked to describe Campero, Hale says, “I would use the word ‘tenacious.’”
 
But if Campero is like a dog with a bone, it sometimes seems he has a taste for the most deeply buried, hard-to-find bones. Along with his fastidious attention to detail and assiduous efforts preparing for trial, Campero thrives on cases that appear all but impossible. Where others are likely to shun cases like Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the interminable and intractable case in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Campero embraces them.
 
“It’s in my nature to be a workaholic,” Campero says. As to why he leaps at the chance to take on cases that others would regard as surpassingly daunting, he says, “I like the challenge … I really like solving the puzzle.”
 
Consider the case of Riverdrive Mall. Situated on the U.S. banks of the Rio Grande, it was developed in the early 1970s by a prominent group of Laredo businesspeople, including the husband of the local state senator, and once boasted national retailers, including JCPenney and Beall’s.
 
But a series of shocks to the Mexican peso and a lawsuit faulting the mall for failing to conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other commercial blunders, dealt it punishing blows. By the end of the millennium, it was almost tenantless and in a state of decrepitude. The real estate had been pledged as collateral, but there was no lawyer in town willing to handle the case for the note holders.
 
Enter Campero. He had just returned to Laredo after several years at a high-powered Houston law firm. Campero thrived on the challenges and demands of a big-time Houston law firm, but working interminable hours and taking frequent road trips began to take its toll, especially as his family got larger. “We needed to have a support system,” he says. “We did have a situation where my wife was sick and no one could bring her medicine. So we decided to move back to Laredo.
 
“At first it was less prestigious, less sophisticated,” Campero says. “But being here makes better use of my bicultural skills and my knowledge of international treaties. In Laredo I get to act as a bridge for clients between the U.S. and Mexican legal systems.”
 
So Campero dived into the Riverdrive Mall case. It was 2000 and he was working out of makeshift offices in space lent by a family friend. “Nobody wanted to touch the case because it had such a complicated history and because of the powerful people involved,” he says. “I was new in town — and I was young and naïve and brimming with youthful enthusiasm.”
 
He spent two weeks sifting through six boxes that contained documents detailing a blizzard of transactions: refinancing transactions, multiple bank notes transferred from party to party — many of whom were now deceased or from companies that had gone out of existence or changed their names. Making the task even more Herculean, at trial, was the fact that “you have to prove that every document and every endorsement is valid,” he says.
 
It took two years, but Campero and his clients ultimately won a “fairly favorable” settlement that included title to the property, worth about $4 million. “Adolfo is creative,” says his law partner, Jose Angel Becerra. “I’ve seen him finish up cases that had gone for months because no one had looked at it from a particular angle.”
 
 
Born in the United States, Campero spent his first five years on the Mexican side of the border. He was the second child and oldest son of four children born to Adolfo and Zulema Campero. He grew up bilingual. Neither parent had a college education — his father never went to high school — but both worked hard. Adolfo Sr. operated a family shipping and freight-forwarding company while Zulema Campero worked for many years at Laredo’s International Bank of Commerce, rising to become senior vice president.
 
Campero describes his mother as “strong, intelligent, disciplined” and even “militaristic” — someone who would work all day long and come home to supervise the housekeeper. “She was limited by our Mexican culture,” Campero says. “If she had been born a male, she would have been president or CEO of a large bank. Nevertheless, she broke new ground for women in Laredo.”
 
He claims traits from his father as well. A gregarious man with “good people skills,” Campero says, he learned from his father how to be comfortable in the company of people from all backgrounds, whether bluecollar workers or members of the business and professional elite.
 
A top student in high school and athletically built — Campero works out at the gym several evenings a week — he never played sports; most of his after-school days were spent working. He majored in accounting at the University of Texas at Austin, returning home to work for his father.
 
But it wasn’t long before Campero saw that legal questions permeated nearly every transaction at the freight-forwarding company: Most shipments involved permits, multilateral treaties, quota restrictions and harmonized tariff schedules. And he was uniquely situated to deal with problems on both sides of the border. Soon he was back in Austin, attending UT Law School, taking every class available in international business transactions and comparative law. He earned the highest grade in a class on international trade. “I had an affinity for the law,” he says. “I was able to see cases from many different points of view.”
 
Campero spent a term studying law abroad at the University of London — characteristically seeing less of Europe than his American classmates, preferring instead to concentrate on his studies. Still he was not a complete grind. He made friends easily with European students. One evening in a London pub, a festive group of Irish students stood him drinks. “You’re Mexican — sing us a song,” he recalls them demanding. And he complied with “La Cucaracha.”
 
After law school he was hired by Liddell Sapp Zivley & Hill, where he found himself the only Mexican American among 150 lawyers in the Houston office. Almost immediately, the firm began using both his legal and Spanish-language skills.
 
One case involved the Cetto family, Mexican grape growers who had been selling to the giant Swiss food company Nestlé through a U.S. middleman, Americana. In forging a settlement, Campero got Americana to agree to arbitration. Campero moved seamlessly through the Mexican, Swiss and American representatives in the case.
 
After Campero returned to Laredo, the Cettos were hauled into court again. This time Americana sued Nestlé for breach of contract, seeking $330 million in damages. Over the objections of the presiding judge — an appellate court overruled her twice — Campero was able to insist that Americana’s claims against Nestlé were also governed by arbitration.
 
Nestlé’s attorney, Laurence Berman of Berman, Mausner & Resser in Los Angeles, says, “That was the most protracted case of my legal career. Adolfo did an unbelievable job. He was good at the paper — he’s a very good writer — as well as the technical stuff. And he had terrific people skills.”
 
Former Judge Leticia Hinojosa, who left the bench to run unsuccessfully for Congress, said that she had seldom had her rulings overturned. “I am very proud of my appellate record,” she says. After stepping down from the bench, Hinojosa says, she has referred a client to Campero, recommending him as “a good lawyer who is very competent and very prepared.”
 
 
What’s ahead for Campero? He is determined to build up his law practice and expand internationally. He recently passed the test to become a licensed customs broker — an examination with only a 4 percent passing rate — helping add Mexican business clients to his roster. And he mixes the high-profile, high-dollar cases with the quotidian work required of a country lawyer, handling everything from divorces to collecting bad debts. “You have to be a generalist in a town this size,” he says.
 
Campero, who worked at the Texas Legislature while in law school, enjoys using his abilities in the public arena. As an aide to several House members, he became passionately involved in battling against a state lottery. Campero sees it as bad public policy, a means of raising state revenues that is largely regressive and hurts the poor.
 
Three years ago, in 2002, he ran for the office of state representative, making it into a Democratic primary run-off before losing. Yet he remains committed to improving the lives of people in his community and region, largely as a strong advocate of public education, which he sees as an engine of both personal growth and economic development.
 
He is not throwing his hat in the ring again anytime soon. But Becerra, his law partner, marvels at Campero’s resilience. “He’s someone who really cares,” says Becerra. “After he lost, he said, ‘I gave it my best shot, let’s get back to work.’ But he learns from it. I tell you — if he runs again — he’ll take those lessons into account.”

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