Everyone Likes Ike

Rumors of his client's death have been greatly exaggerated

Published in 2004 Texas Super Lawyers Magazine — October 2004

The case that really put Ike Vanden Eykel on the map, ironically, involved erasing his client from it.

It was 1987, and even by the standards of nasty, contentious high-stakes Texas divorces, this one was a doozy. Robert Edelman, a Dallas real-estate developer, had hired a hit man to murder his wife, Linda, after she had asked him for a divorce.

Edelman hired a hit man not so much because he wanted the kids, but so that Linda wouldn’t get them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough evidence to arrest, much less convict Edelman, so Vanden Eykel had to be creative. He set up a sting in which he “disappeared” Linda — faking her death — so that not even her sister or her own children knew she was alive. Edelman, thinking the job was completed, paid the hit man, who had unwittingly contracted the job out — to an undercover agent. The feds promptly arrested both men. Complications ensued, but in the end, that’s pretty much what went down. The case was so bizarre that it was made into both a book — My Husband Is Trying to Kill Me — and a TV movie, with the melodramatic title Dead Before Dawn.

But that’s not the only case that put Vanden Eykel on the radar screen.

There was, for instance, the adamant client who kept telling Vanden Eykel around the time of the first Gulf War, “We’ll go to Baghdad to win this case.” He was so enthralled with his divorce outcome, that he gave Vanden Eykel a $137,000 “tip” in the form of a Mercedes 600 SL convertible. Vanden Eykel placed a license plate on it that read, “Bagdad.”

Then there was the “Cowboy Mafia” case in the 1980s, in which Vanden Eykel successfully represented the wife of Rex Cauble, a millionaire rancher and convicted drug dealer. That one resulted in his collecting, on a bet with another attorney, 61 cases of Molson ale, one case for every million dollars of the award handed down.

It’s not a surprise, then, to learn that Vanden Eykel has a reputation as “The Hired Gun” or that the $525-an-hour attorney has a sign hanging in his office that reads, “Gunfighters don’t charge by the bullet.”

But it is somewhat unexpected to find that in person, the 55-year-old, 6-foot-2-inch, silver-haired attorney comes across as soft-spoken, polite, gentlemanly and even a little impish. Moreover, this demeanor carries over into the courtroom, even when he’s involved in cantankerous negotiations.

Vanden Eykel literally wrote the book on civil Texas divorces in 1999, titled Successful Lone Star Divorce: How to Cope With a Family Breakup in Texas.

Larry Upshaw published the book. Upshaw’s like the guy in the commercial some years back who “liked the product so much, I bought the company.” In 1985 Upshaw was involved in his own divorce proceedings, battling for custody of his son. In those days, fathers won custody cases only very rarely. It was so rare, in fact, that just 10 years prior, when Vanden Eykel was handling his first custody case in which he defended the father, during the jury deliberations (Texas is the only state that allows a jury trial in a custody case) the judge asked him, “Have you thought about how much child support your client will pay?” Vanden Eykel replied, “Judge, there is a theoretical possibility my client will win.” He did win that case, and he also won Upshaw’s, which the latter attributes mostly to the fact that “the jury liked Ike more than they liked the other lawyer.”

So impressed was Upshaw that when he started publishing books, he asked Vanden Eykel to pen the one on Texas divorce. Some of Vanden Eykel’s chief principles for a “successful divorce” include: 

  • Look for resolution, not revenge.
  • Hire the best family law attorney you can afford and who matches your personality.
  • Maintain decorum that lets both parties maintain their respect.
  • Decide with your spouse who gets which assets. Don’t let the judge or jury decide.
  • Don’t confuse what’s best for the children with what satisfies your vengeful side.
  • Mediate in good faith.
  • Don’t be too greedy

This nonconfrontational approach may partially be attributed to the fact that until he was 13, Vanden Eykel planned to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and become a minister. That, and lawyering, he says, “Are the only two things I ever planned on doing.”

When he graduated from law school in 1973, he worked at Stroud & Smith, got married briefly, divorced, got married a second time, to his current wife, Cathy, and then joined what became Seeligson, Douglass, Falconer & Vanden Eykel before joining what’s now Koons, Fuller, Vanden Eykel & Robertson in 1990 and taking it over in 1992.

In his early 30s, Vanden Eykel had a formative experience in the guise of a mysterious debilitating disease. “I could barely pick up my 6-month-old baby,” he says. He estimates he was about two days from being confined to a wheelchair when a doctor injected him with steroids, and he recovered.

“That changed my priorities. I bought a lake house with my wife, and spent weekends with her and my three children.”

Further altering his priorities, Vanden Eykel was diagnosed in 1996 with prostate cancer. When he went under the knife, the doctors couldn’t tell him if he’d survive. 

“I look upon it now as a gift,” he says. “I feel like I had a bullshit filter installed during the surgery. My approach now is, “Let’s cut the crap and get down to what’s important.”

Vanden Eykel is keen on a relatively new approach — alternative dispute resolution (ADR) — in which both parties agree that they will never go to court and that they will share all relevant documents and agree to be civil. Unlike some of his cohorts who positively revel in going to trial, he praises the Texas law requiring couples to submit to mediation before going to trial. “It’s the most significant change in divorce litigation in the 30 years I’ve been practicing.”

Because of these practices, Vanden Eykel surmises that only about 5 percent of cases go to trial.

“People ask, ‘How bad could a jury trial be?’ I answer, ‘Have you seen the last five minutes of Braveheart? That’s how bad.’ If they say they didn’t see it, I tell them to rent it and then come back.”

Vanden Eykel describes the effect of jury trials in decidedly Texan terms: “It makes our practice more of the OK Corral gunfighter mentality — you saddle up 12 jurors and have a fight.” Still, Vanden Eykel believes jury trials are a citizen’s right. “What we have is what everybody started with — other states have taken it away.”

He’s not as charitable about Texas’ take on alimony. “We have embarrassingly paltry alimony — it’s not even worth being called alimony. We’re locked in the 17th century.”

If Vanden Eykel is part cowboy, he’s also part Boy Scout. His motto, as trivial as it sounds, is “Be prepared.” When he’s involved in a case, he says, he moves out of his house and stays in a hotel. “I eat, sleep and work. No family.” But he doesn’t eat enough, apparently. He estimates that every time he handles a case, he loses five to seven pounds.

“Preparation is getting up early, out-thinking them, out-smarting them.” It extends to the intangibles. Sometimes he polls jurors after a case, on what worked and what didn’t, and the results are illuminating. “I had a juror write ‘During the case, you sat forward and looked interested. The other lawyer sat back. That offended me.’”

The Boy Scout motto extends to his charitable work. Vanden Eykel talks passionately about the Campaign for Equal Access to Justice that provides funding to the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, which in turn provides legal services to the poor. Cathy Maher, executive director of the Dallas Bar Association, says that Vanden Eykel was so successful raising money for “Equal Access” when he chaired the campaign in 2001, that “[w]e made him the chair emeritus.” He’s working to grow an annual endowment of $1 million, more than double the program’s current budget. He’s also on the Board of Directors of the Collin County Children’s Advocacy Center and has been advocating that his firm and other members of the Dallas Bar do more pro bono work, as well.

A “typical” Vanden Eykel day begins at 5 a.m. when he lets his three dogs out of his Plano home (where he opened a satellite office six years ago), checks the plethora of e-mail messages that have arrived from late-working clients and associates, works out, gets bagels and is out by 7:15 a.m. to play golf, go to court or go to the office. If it’s golf, the rule is “Call me if there’s a death in the family. If not, there will be.” After that it’s meetings with new clients, mediation or court till roughly 6 p.m. Vanden Eykel doesn’t brook small talk. When an associate wants to discuss something, he’ll often say, “Walk with me,” resembling a scene from The West Wing.

The exception is the regular scheduled meetings with his associates who march into his office and discuss the cases they’re handling. Vanden Eykel reviews and plots strategy, entering appointments in his ever-present BlackBerry. No interruptions are allowed, with one exception: a phone call from Cathy. “Rule number one,” he says, is “Always take your wife’s call.” Then, on his way home, he returns phone calls. Once there, he checks his e-mail roughly every 40 minutes, until he goes to bed, usually around 9 p.m.

Dallas has been described as a “large city, but a very small town,” one in which everybody knows everybody else’s business. Vanden Eykel says he can barely have lunch or golf with someone in public without people gossiping. “I had lunch with the minister of my church and someone came by and asked him, ‘Is everything all right at home?’” A journalist friend whom Vanden Eykel regularly met with for lunch had to bring his wife along because she was getting suspicious that he might be getting ready for a divorce. “I had to reassure her we were just friends.”

That small-town aspect extends to the courtroom. In one case, the only date an opposing client, a surgeon, could make, was a Wednesday. Vanden Eykel said he couldn’t, on account of “a conflict.” When Vanden Eykel wouldn’t budge, the opposing lawyer cried, “For God’s sake, Your Honor, his ‘conflict’ is a golf game!” The judge leaned in and said, “Not only do I know it’s a golf game, I know where he’s playing, and who he’s playing with.” The parties worked around the tee-off time.

Maybe it’s a “Texas thing” — a “we take care of our own” mentality — but it’s virtually impossible to find someone in his field willing to say something negative about Vanden Eykel.

Brian Webb, a goateed, white-haired bear of a man, estimates he’s faced Vanden Eykel “over 100” times. “And I’ve won every one of them,” he laughs. Getting serious, Webb says he looks forward to having Vanden Eykel as opposing counsel because of his nonconfrontational philosophy and his experience. “You want someone who’s not going to get carried away because they have a rich or high-profile client.

“But the highest praise I can have for any lawyer in this biz, is: if they tell you something, you can take it to the bank. And that’s Ike.”

Doug Harrison, who has practiced family law for 30 years, echoes Webb’s assessment, and adds, “Ike has an ability to simplify complex situations. His attitude is ‘Let’s get this done.’”

With enemies like this, who needs friends?

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