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Five lawyers who are almost as mean as Bill Koons

Once upon a time, there was a nice lady who wanted to get divorced from her very kinky husband. She had proof that her husband was weird: several shopping bags full of his sex toys in the trunk of her car.

Unfortunately, near the trial date, her husband missed his toys and broke into her car to recover them.

Fortunately, she had hired Charles Robertson. He took his client downtown to one of the seediest adult bookstores he could find, and together they picked out everything they could find that looked like something her husband had owned. The bill came to $400. As they were leaving, the clerk said, “Y’all have been such good customers, I’d like to throw in a few free batteries.”

As the divorce trial rolled along, Robertson periodically would reach into one of his brown paper bags, pull out some device or other and put it back. His client’s husband, naturally, could not stand and say, “Wait a minute, your honor, I stole all my stuff back a couple of days ago.” Robertson won what he called a very satisfactory settlement.

That’s the sort of sneaky but imaginative practice that Robertson tries to cultivate. An SMU Law School graduate and practicing attorney since his first job with Jack Johannes in 1969, he has spent most of his professional practice in family law.

Robertson does not make as many “big money” cases as some of his colleagues, but he did handle one of the most significant battles since Texas’ family code became law in 1970.

Young v. Young, decided by the Texas Supreme Court in 1980, settled what then were burning legal questions: Could a trial judge, in dividing property between husband and wife, take into account the needs of an adult child or the misbehavior of one spouse?

James Lee Young had deserted his wife, Laura, in 1970, after 28 years of marriage. He then ran off to Mexico with a younger woman and obtained a divorce there, with the girlfriend impersonating Mrs. Young. Adding insult to injury, he proceeded to marry his mistress and cut off all support to his family.

In 1977, Laura Young went to Robertson for help. Her son was totally disabled with multiple sclerosis. Her daughter had borne an illegitimate child and also needed her support. She was trying to support the three of them by working at JCPenney, earning $2.30 an hour.

Judge Oswin Chrisman ruled that due to the needs of the 32-year-old son and the cruel behavior of Mr. Young, Mrs. Young was entitled to more than half of the couple’s joint property, including property Mr. Young acquired during his adulterous “second marriage.” The local appeals court overruled, but the Texas Supreme Court upheld Chrisman’s decisions.

Last year, Robertson struck again, with a one-two punch that made divorce even more hazardous for evil-doers. In Dilling v. Dilling, he represented a wife whose husband beat her severely enough to separate her shoulder, bloody her face and rip hair from her scalp.

Robertson had pictures taken of Mrs. Dilling for several days after the beatings, so he could catch the bruises when they were perfectly ripe. Then he filed a civil assault suit against Mr. Dilling, which was tried at the same time as the divorce case – an imaginative twist that allowed him to introduce evidence that might have been barred had the suits been tried separately. His client won $25,000 on the assault charge, more than half of the couple’s property, their house and their three kids.

“We got pretty much everything we wanted out of that,” he says.

When Louise Raggio started her legal career in 1954, working for District Attorney Henry Wade’s juvenile and child support division, many of her colleagues barely spoke to her.

She wouldn’t have been hired at all had District Court Judge Sarah T. Hughes not nagged Wade to hire a woman somewhere in his office. “He thought I would fall flat on my face, but it was a way to get Sarah Hughes off his back,” she says. As for her former colleagues, now among her closest friends: “It was several months before they saw that I’d do the job and would not put lace curtains up.”

When she left Wade’s office in 1956 to form the firm of Raggio and Raggio with her husband, Grier H. Raggio, it was only natural that she’d stick with family law. “When you start out as an independent, you don’t start with securities law. You take what comes in the door. I stayed in family law because I had the clientele.’.’

Of such accidents are legends made. Louise Raggio nowadays is known as the “grandmother of family law” in Texas, and her family, with son Tom as managing partner, still runs one of Dallas’ leading divorce firms. She has become “establishment,” in a big way.

She was on the original Family Law Council in I960 and chaired the group in 1965-67, when the state bar began making fundamental changes that led to the 1970 and 1974 family codes. She became chairman of the family law section of the American Bar Association in 1975 and 1976.

Tom, who was 5 months old when his mother started her five years of SMU Law School night classes, was graduated in the SMU class of ’71. Painstaking and meticulous-he never leaves more than one case file on his desk – Tom takes on the bulk of the firm’s trials, while his mother concentrates on negotiations, at which she is notoriously adept.

“I feel that the overall goal is to do the very best for your client,” Louise says. “The bottom line is how much your client nets. I try to negotiate everything because I feel that the client comes out with more of a net bottom line [with less devoted to lawyers and the IRS], plus the bloody battle in court leaves permanent scars many times on the children.”

She ought to know. Since she’s been practicing, 12 of her clients have killed or been killed. And she has not specialized in The most brutal divorce cases of all, those involving custody fights.

Mike McCurley made some Texas legal history only three years after he graduated from SMU law school. The case was called Risher v. Risher, and established that lesbianism could cost a woman her child. It led to a television show called A Question of Love, and to a book titled >By Her Own Admission.

But Mrs. Risher might never have made her own admission, had she not run up against McCurley. “Confession is good for the soul, if they’ve got you nailed,” McCurley says. He nailed Mrs. Risher by “hiring an investigator who hung around gay bars with a little camera.”

McCurley won by doing more than proving that the woman had uncommon sexual tastes. Over and over he harped on the effect that “being brought up differently from their peers” would have on the children. He raised the dispute from name-calling to child-welfare, at least as far as the trial transcript was concerned, which allowed the Texas Supreme Court to uphold his argument.

Since Risher, McCurley has solidified his reputation as a tough divorce lawyer, especially in custody cases. That’s one reason people from oilmen to airline mechanics line up to pay him -$20,000 minimum with a $ 10,000 retainer, plus up to $200 an hour.

He combines the country-boy approach of a Ken Fuller with the combativeness of a Bill Koons, and appropriately enough will join their firm in October. McCurley also has more than a passing acquaintance with the third partner in Koons, Rasor and Fuller – Riba Rasor taught his SMU classes in legal writing and research.

McCurley says he likes divorce law because “you are litigating about things that really matter,” and because “it is one of the last true arenas for competitors, and I like to compete . . . . You show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser. You don’t get many honorable-mention plaques in child custody.”

Joe Geary is one tough lawyer. At least one judge in the Old Red Courthouse had to rush into the hallway to prevent a fist-fight between Geary and his opposing counsel.

But Geary also is a good lawyer; he has handled many of the city’s biggest big-money divorces. And when Donald Smith sued Koons, Rasor and Fuller over the dissolution of their partnership, Koons’ firm hired Geary to defend them.

And Geary is a nice lawyer, outside of court. He once sneered down at an opposing attorney and said, sotto voce, “You’re not nearly as good as you think you are.” But the day after the trial ended, he called back and said, “You just knocked the [stuffings] out of me. I wanna tell you, you did a hell of a job.”

What Geary is, mostly, is a one-man school for bruising trial lawyers. His firm, now called Geary, Stahl and Spencer, produced Bill Koons, Bill Brice and half a dozen top trial lawyers. Its success may be due to Geary’s penchant for hiring people much like himself.

He is the holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bomber navigation over Vienna, an SMU Law School graduate (he was licensed to practice law in 1947) and an early associate of District Attorney Henry Wade. It was with Wade and his predecessor, Will Wilson, that Geary got his first taste of trying cases – for some years he prosecuted two crimes: “DW1 [driving while intoxicated] and Negro murder cases; before that they hadn’t cared about those murders” – and it’s as a trial lawyer that Geary has made his mark.

He may have perfected the art of “putting the black hat” on whomever he happens to be opposing. When he can’t find sex or violence to rely on, he’ll go for money. Most every businessman, he notes, will overvalue his business property in his bank financial statements, but undervalue it to the IRS and to his wife’s divorce lawyer. In a case where the man’s estimates were way off, his cross-examination might go like this (only much, much louder):

Were you lying to the bank about it being worth $1 million?

Were you lying to your investors?

Were you lying to the IRS?

Then why are you trying to tell the judge that it’s worth just $50,000?

Just by raising his Sam Ervin eyebrows and rolling his grizzly-bear head at strategic moments, Geary can convey his message: You are the lowest form of human life. It’s hard to come off the witness stand after that treatment without smelling like a skunk. Geary’s opponents say he may fly by the seat of his pants more than most top-notch divorce lawyers, but he always seems to land reasonably well.

And his clients get the satisfaction of watching him tear their ex-spouses limb from limb. “I think that most people want an aggressive lawyer,” he says with a smile.

There is a lot of Baptist preacher in Don Smith, but there’s also a bit of used-car salesman and a dash of Benjamin Car-dozo. Seeing him in court, you’d think he’d just fallen off a turnip truck, notwithstanding the $600 boots and gold bracelets.

“But,” says one of his longtime friends, “Smith is a sneaky SOB.” His presentation, seemingly so laid-back, probably was structured by a psychologist he keeps on retainer; the family albums he introduces, for no apparent reason, soon add up to solid evidence of a child’s attachment to his mother (or father, depending on whom Smith is representing).

And, of course, Smith is not laid-back. For one thing, he doesn’t eat during trials, unless he absolutely has to, because “I don’t think your blood can go to your head and your stomach at the same time.” At one trial, the opposing lawyer was making an argument to the court when he heard a loud “clunk” and looked over his shoulder to see Smith’s head resting on the counsel’s table. Smith won’t say whether he fainted or merely was trying to delay the trial.

Smith’s grasp of the law allowed him, during one high-stakes Houston custody fight, to keep his opponents from introducing certain medical records that could reflect well or badly on Smith’s client, a wife and mother. Smith’s last witness was his medical expert, who brought the material into evidence and made Smith’s client seem the better for it.

Smith’s lack of squeamishness allows him to hire private investigators quite frequently; he has sent photographers into hotel rooms and lakeside cabins, looking for hair curlers, lipstick marks and other telltale signs of infidelity.

One of his investigators followed an errant husband for hours, without catching the husband erring. But then the husband went into a bar and passed a note to a pretty young thing who, as it turned out, worked for the same detective firm. “Of course,” Smith says, “we arranged for them to get together. The case was settled, very favorably.”

Smith’s thoroughness verges on paranoia; he has had his own clients take polygraph tests and undergo hypnotherapy to avoid unpleasant courtroom experiences. Those precautions once helped him keep a female client out of trouble.

The other side kept making veiled references to their “dynamite evidence,” but the wife could remember supplying no dynamite. Smith had her hypnotized; she recalled a brief but serious sexual encounter some years earlier.

Had Smith not ferreted out the evidence himself, it might have been crammed down his client’s throat. As it was, he could present the situation himself in a light that made his client look good: The husband had taken his wife out for an evening, brought the other man to the table, encouraged his wife to drink heavily and watched, without protest, as the other man left with his wife.

Smith didn’t have to ask the husband whether he was a pimp or just someone trying to manufacture evidence for a divorce. Not in so many words, anyway.

Pretty slick stuff for a country lawyer from Hunt County. But then Smith, 39, has been in Dallas before. He attended Highland Park High School for a few years, then moved on to SMU for undergraduate school and night law classes. At least part of his SMU training has stayed with him: One colleague recalls trying a case with Smith and watching him unpack his traveling kit: A shopping cart worth of evidence, a clean shirt and a bottle of Johnny Walker. “We try never to go anywhere without our bar,” Smith says.