The Minister, the Lawyer, and a Quarter Billion Dollars in Wins

In Ben Hall’s world, only the bad guys get caught in the web

Published in 2007 Texas Super Lawyers Magazine — October 2007

Peppered throughout Ben Hall’s Houston office, which is rumored to be Howard Hughes’ one-time dance hall, are nasty little reminders. Some are on the wall. Some lie on the table. Some are rubber, and some are hairy.
 
The tarantulas and other spiders—whether they are toys or actual once-living creatures pinned into shadow boxes—are part of the complex personality of Benjamin L. Hall III , his reminder to himself to stay humble. 
 
The litigator, friends with Houston Mayor Bill White and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, says he has a problem with arrogance. The spiders serve to represent Arachne, the woman in Greek lore who claimed to be the best weaver in the world; she upset Athena, the goddess of wisdom and weaving, with her claims of superiority. Arachne was turned into a spider as punishment.
 
Self-importance is not unusual in lawyers who have won awards totaling one-quarter of a billion dollars. But Hall, who is an ordained minister with a Ph.D. from Duke University, is anything but usual.
 
Hall, whose résumé also includes a law degree from Harvard, has been called by juries “brilliant,” “dynamic” and “deadly.” In person, he comes off as likable and down-to-earth. 
 
But he does have a healthy ego. He keeps subtle displays of his professional success and his perch in the community throughout his classically decorated office with its original oil paintings, watercolors, bronze sculptures and fabulous African art collection. In plain sight are a framed $10 million check from an early case, another one for $12 million, an unframed picture of himself sitting in a car with former client Jesse Jackson, and another photo standing with Oscar winner Jamie Foxx. He likes winning and he likes money. But that’s only the beginning.
 
“I have started to choose cases that are socially important,” Hall says. And though he understands that “the law is a business,” he adds that “I would not want to leave the planet when my only achievement is some large bank account. I really want to use this marvelous craft of the law to humanize some part of a society that we can be proud of.”
 
Former Houston mayor and Hall’s one-time boss and client Bob Lanier says one of the things that attracted him to Hall was his heart.
 
“He has a bent to go into cases that are really good for people,” says Lanier, who hired Hall to be his city attorney. 
 
Hall’s biggest judgment came from one of his most altruistic and memorable cases. It was also his most tragic. He pauses before he talks about it and tears well in his eyes.
 
In 1998, a 9-year-old boy, referred to only as J.R., was repeatedly raped by a male teacher. A federal judge gave Hall one hour to present his civil case. In that time, he called more than a dozen witnesses. 
 
Though Hall eventually won the case, none of the $48 million awarded J.R. would ever be collected from the teacher. While preparing for the trial, the boy’s only family member, his mother, died. While the teacher was serving time, J.R. committed suicide.
 
“Everybody failed to meet the needs of that kid,” Hall says. “The school system failed that kid, the judicial system failed him, and time failed him. The damage inside that kid was not addressed in time to save him. As I walk around here and I think about what we do here, I’d have to say that that stays with me.” 
 
Hall adds that he will go to his grave wondering what he could have done differently to address that child’s great pain. Now, he says, when he sees any case, he asks himself, “Is there some way to plug up the social leak?”
 
A native of Laurence, S.C., Hall was born in 1956, and experienced racism the day he was born. His mother would tell him about how, while in labor, she was asked to enter the hospital through the back door. 
 
Later, in high school, Hall’s guidance counselor recommended he become a bricklayer or barber.
 
Hall’s desk sits under a display of bills of sales of human beings that he found while at Duke, under the stairs of his rental house. Among the old pieces of paper he found were deeds detailing the sale of slaves, as well as a list of property that included the unborn child of a slave woman.
 
“I put those on the wall to make sure that we realize that the law can do good things and it can do very harmful things,” he says.
 
Also on the wall are artifacts of African-American men who overcame prejudice, including an autographed pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves and a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., under which are displayed canceled checks for $11 million, from a products case against an automaker.
 
As an example of both his defining principles—avoiding the obvious and taking socially responsible cases—Hall tells of his representation of an African-American family in Katy, Texas, near Houston, that found a flaming cross in their front yard in 2000. A group of neighborhood teenagers and adults had been caught planting the racial affront. Hall went after their insurance companies and claimed the African-American family had been slandered and defamed. He won the family a substantial judgment: $24.2 million.
 
Craig Smyser, the lawyer who recruited Hall and trained him at Vinson & Elkins, calls Hall’s method of trying the case “creative.” Smyser goes on to say that the normal action would have been to build a case against the individuals who put the cross in the yard. But that would not have brought the same kind of result.
 
Gary Bledsoe, an Austin lawyer and president of the Texas NAACP, says, “There are a lot of great lawyers who have handled cases involving major traditional tort issues, but how many can say they took a case to a diverse jury involving a cross burning and got a huge verdict?”
 
In another case, Hall successfully sued a couple after the husband, a white man who was drunk, killed his African-American neighbor. In this racially charged case, Hall again sought the unobvious approach. He went after the wife of the shooter. He claimed she was negligent because she did not keep the weapon, which she co-owned, away from her drunken husband. Like the cross-burning case, this one settled, though Hall will not disclose the amount. 
 
For Hall, the case was all about “making racism pay. I don’t want rights to be trampled on,” Hall says.
 
Hall took on his local sheriff’s department in Harris County. He sued the department after a white deputy shot and killed a black undercover cop late at night with no witnesses. Hall says he spent a half-million dollars representing the dead man’s family. By the end of the case, the jury was hung. Hall says he might retry it, but that he can still take some satisfaction the suit helped create a department that is more sensitive to racial matters.
 
In another case, an African-American sheriff deputy shot an undercover cop, also African American. Hall represented the downed officer’s family because “it was clear to me that this was going to happen again.” Ultimately, he lost. It was one of only four losses he’s had in the past two decades. Still, he claims some victory. Now, he says, there is a training program in place as a result of the case.
 
These days, Hall is looking at another avenue to foster social change. He’s thinking of a run for political office. “The mayor’s seat would be nice,” he says. 
 
It’s not just a pipe dream. Hall’s oratorical skills—refined in his position as a minister—are strong, and he is not without experience. For 34 months starting in February 1992, Hall served as the city attorney in Houston, an appointed position. He beat out U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for the job. Former mayor Lanier says Hall would be an “A+” candidate.”
 
“I think he’d be good at anything he does,” Lanier says. “He’s smart and has a good mind.”
 
Smyser, who is now in practice at Smyser Kaplan & Veselka, says Hall has what it takes to run the Houston government. He seems to have read from the same talking points as the former mayor, saying Hall has “a good heart and a good mind” and would be a “fine mayor.”
 
Time will tell. If elected, Hall says he would approach politics the same way he does the law—with compassion and unorthodox thinking. 
 
“I’m not a by-the-book kind of guy,” he says.  
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