Dallas Maverick

Gayla Crain wanted to work at a new kind of law firm, so she went and helped build it

Published in 2010 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2010

Gayla Crain likes to laugh.

She laughs when she remembers herself 20-some years ago, strolling around her son’s soccer field while talking to clients on a cell phone the size of a toaster.

She laughs about that time she got a call from a prestigious New York firm that asked her to head up a new branch in Texas as managing partner … at a time when women just didn’t do that.

She even laughs when confessing that she’s slowed down a bit since 2004, out of necessity—“I had a heart attack,” she explains. And that’s funny? “Hey,” she says, pointedly. “I can laugh. I survived it.”

Those survival instincts served her well. You might say they helped the employment lawyer laugh her way to the top.

 

At Baylor University in 1972, Crain, an education major, noticed something about her male classmates. “All they kept talking about were their goals, and all those goals started with law school,” she remembers. “The more I heard, the more I thought that this was something I was always interested in but didn’t really know it.” Only one problem: girls didn’t go to law school.

“My parents expected me to finish my undergraduate degree, become a teacher, and move on—valid expectations of the time,” Crain says. But with their blessing, she took the LSAT, scored well, and earned a desk at Baylor Law School. There, she met her sisters in law—the three other women that made up the female population in her class.

“Some of the professors were not happy,” she says. “They didn’t really express it, but they thought [the four of us] weren’t going to survive law school. We were expected to do better than the guys, we were called on every day, we had to always be prepared, even if the guys were not. … We really banded together.”

Since clerkships weren’t an option for women, Crain went straight through school. “We could have gotten jobs in small firms, but the four of us made a collective decision to keep going.”

She knew two things when she graduated in 1974: she wanted to be a trial lawyer, and no one was going to hire her. “I had courtesy interviews,” she says, “but I became painfully aware that I was not going to get a job with a big firm.”

Instead, Crain found a positive environment in-house. “I got a great job at Trailways Corporation, a bus company in Dallas,” she says. “They mentored me, and it was one of the best experiences a young lawyer could have. They weren’t put off by the fact that I was a woman. They knew I was smart, motivated and driven.”

She got in the courtroom, too. “I got to try baggage-damage claims,” she says. “Those were little trials, but they were trials.” She stayed there for four years, the only woman in the legal department.

When she got married, her husband, Howard, took a job that relocated them to the East Coast, where she went in-house again, this time with Schering-Plough (now Merck) as employment counsel in 1981. “Trailways had lots of unions, so I had exposure to union negotiation, agreement and arbitration,” she says.

They moved again for her husband’s job, this time to England, and Schering put her to work there, too. When they returned to Texas, Crain’s husband told her it was time for her to get the big job.

Then she got an interesting phone call.

What do you do when a group of powerful folks at EpsteinBeckerGreen calls from the Big Apple to ask if you have any interest in opening up a new branch of the firm, right there in Dallas?

 If you’re Crain, you ignore a few minor details, like the fact that you have zero clients in your Rolodex and you’ve never set one pump inside a traditional law firm.

“The fact that they were calling a woman told me something—the profession was obviously changing,” says Crain.

 Ron Green (“The Green in EpsteinBeckerGreen,” Crain refers to him) was in her corner. “I had known Gayla for many years and was confident that she had judgment and skill to lead the firm’s effort in Texas,” he says. “Gayla demonstrated time and time again that she had skills to solve the challenges that come to a law firm of our size.”

Solving law challenges was one thing; overcoming the ones that came with wearing a pearl necklace in the courtroom instead of a tie was another.

“The Good Ol’ Boys,” she says with a laugh. “I remember one of my first times in the courtroom with an older male judge. He assumed I was a secretary, and asked me to … let him know when the lawyer from my firm showed up. I politely told him that I was the lawyer and that I was ready. He then asked to see my state bar card. The courtroom was quieter than church, and I assume that everyone was waiting for me to blow up. But my better judgment took over because I was there for my client. And I remembered my practice court professor’s—Matt ‘Mad Dog’ Dawson—advice: ‘Just kill them with kindness until the opportunity to show them what you are made of arises.’ So I took the high road and said nothing about the mistake. Of course, he didn’t apologize.”

She began in litigation by taking employment cases before financial services bodies like FINRA and NASDAQ. “Then clients began to say, ‘OK. She can handle our cases in the courtroom.’ I’ll tell you what I got most of the time—sexual harassment, because of a few factors: namely, that the claims were rampant in the ’80s and ’90s, and because I was female. And I knew that. And I’m OK with it. If [clients] thought walking in that courtroom with a female trial attorney was going to help their case, that’s fine by me.”

Epstein’s Texas office closed in 2008. “I was devastated,” she says. But those survival instincts kicked in. “At the end of the day, you pick yourself up. What else could I do?”

Crain was heavily recruited by many firms, but it was Jennifer Spencer, of Fulbright & Jaworski, that really got her attention.

“I wanted to open a women-owned firm,” says Spencer. “I researched majority woman-owned firms and, based on that research, I believed that the firm I wanted to build didn’t exist … or if it did, there sure weren’t many.”

Tops on her short list? Crain. “I wanted someone with an entrepreneurial spirit. To give up paychecks at large firms, one has to have a real desire to build something that hasn’t existed before,” she says. “Gayla has done pretty much everything there is to do in law. When you’re looking for female partners with 20-plus years of experience at large firms who want to take a big risk on a new firm, to say the pool is small would be an understatement. As one of my partners puts it, we’re as rare as a white buffalo. Gayla was willing to take such a risk and had the enthusiasm to build this thing.”

The business model involved bench strength—“most women-owned firms are small,” Spencer says—and brand recognition. “These corporations often like ‘name brand’ firms so that they have the comfort that their lawyers are well-trained and can put out work at the level they expect from the big firms. Even though few people have heard of Spencer Crain, they have heard of the firms with which we were partners or shareholders—Fulbright & Jaworski, Greenberg Traurig, Locke Lord, Epstein Becker.”

The question of clients was answered easily—if you build it, they will come. “We moved into high gear and put this firm together in six weeks,” Crain says. “We spoke to our clients, and they came with us.”

Even the big fish, like JCPenney, followed Crain. On the day Spencer Crain Cubbage Healy & McNamara opened its doors in 2008, the retailer’s vice president and associate general counsel of litigation, Celeste Flippen, pledged her allegiance in a public endorsement: “The department is delighted to learn that Gayla has co-founded a women-owned firm. Our department is committed to diversity and expects its outside counsel to be as well. We look forward to continuing to work with Gayla in the future.” Other clients include Eli Lilly and Co., and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Crain spent more than 20 years with Epstein, and saw lots of changes within employment law. “When we went to jury trials for discrimination cases, the liability became much bigger,” she says. “And punitive damages were added. The cap was removed for retirement, so now there’s no forced retirement. I’ve also been very impressed because under [President George W.] Bush and now [President Barack] Obama, there have been major changes to disabilities law, which has opened up a lot of room for disabled people in the workplace.”

Today, Crain represents employers only in discrimination claims, wage and hour and noncompete agreements, although she will sometimes represent individuals who are accused of violating a noncompete agreement.

Crain can say she hasn’t been beat in court in the last five years—partly because she just doesn’t end up in court much anymore. “When the economy took the downturn, my clients did not want to spend the money to fight lawsuits in the employment arena. In December of 2008, I settled more cases than I have in a very long time.”           

The firm has grown, despite the economic recession. “We opened our doors at a good time; we were able to establish good relationships with banks for lines of credit,” she says. “We’re at 16 lawyers, and we started at nine.”

The core philosophy has remained: an open floor for everyone to speak, and a place for women and minorities to flourish.

Crain is proud of the firm’s NAMWOLF (National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms) certification. “I want to continue to see women and minorities do well. … I think there’s still a glass ceiling,” Crain says. “Let’s see less women and minorities heading up diversity committees and more of them as managing partners. Still the myth exists that a woman who marries, who has children, might slow down her partnership track. That drives me nuts.”

She pauses, and thinks back to her foursome at Baylor. “We all went on to be successful in the law,” she says. “One was a judge until a few years ago. One still sits on the bench over in East Texas. And one practiced for quite some time.”

Did they ever imagine, heads bent over books, that one of them would one day be at the helm of a firm owned by women?

“Not even close,” she says. And she laughs.

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