sk a sampling of Dallas lawyers what they think about “L.A. Law,” and they’ll tell you the popular series is out- landish. They’re right. But some of the “L.A. Law” plots, whether zany or dra- matic, are hardly more bizarre than the amazing events that take place in the various courthouses and law offices around Dallas County.
Yes, plenty of working lawyers in this town would fit in rather comfortably at McKenzie Brack-man. We held some auditions and came up with this cast for “Dallas Law.”
A two-part episode of “L.A. Law” featured Victor Sifuentes involved in a tough case. The opposition was a top-gun plaintiff’s lawyer imported from Texas-but he wasn’t the stereotypical six-footer with Stetson. In fact, he was a dwart who would climb atop his briefcase to address the judge and jury. Anything to muster an element of sympathy for him and his disfigured client.
The dwarf highlighted his presentation when he torched a dummy dressed in the same kind of dangerously flammable pajamas that lit up and left the client looking like the Phantom of the Opera.
At home, the viewer may think this excursion into courtroom pyrotechnics is an unfortunate byproduct of the writers’ strike of 1988. But the dwarf’s strategies are straight from Chapter One of Frank Branson’s master plan to extract big judgments for his personal injury clientele.
Branson has never been known to address a jury from atop his briefcase, but he does like to set people on fire-in a video presentation, we hasten to add. Branson is becoming known as the Steven Spielberg of the courthouse.
Branson’s animated sequence of a welder being blown through the roof of a truck garage so impressed insurance lawyers that they authorized a $4 million payment to a young widow in Fairfield, Texas. Subsequently Branson has upgraded his production techniques to involve professional stunt men skilled in re-creating the horrifying spectacle of a person engulfed in flames. He recently sealed off a block of downtown Dallas in an effort to reenact a client’s tragedy.
The lawyer estimated that production costs for the downtown demonstration, including stunt men and frightened extras, were $25,000 to $30,000, enough to create seizures with the senior partners of McKen-zie Brackman. Branson obviously feels the potential benefits justify the risk. The idea is to induce a pretrial settlement, sort of a “pay us now or pay us later1’ tactic. Often, as in the case of the now-wealthy widow in Fairfield, it works.
“The concept of the video presentation has been around since the mid-Sixties. I’ve sort of refined it,” Branson says. “The legal profession, of course, is a conservative thing based on old traditions. There is an unseen line that is drawn that constitutes how far you can go with what the profession regards as conventional standards. What I do goes over that line.”
Whenever a client approaches Joe Collins and wants him to handle a so-called “friendly divorce,” the lawyer’s first challenge is to overcome the urge to laugh out loud.
“I remember my first ’friendly divorce.’ I was right out of law school, working as a lawyer for the Defense Department and handling all kinds of cases of my own on the side,” Collins says. “One afternoon, I was told the friendly couple was in an outer office, waiting to sign some papers. The next thing I heard was the shouting, then the crash.
“I ran out there and found that the woman’s father had shown up and the husband had the guy up against the wall. They were exchanging some X-rated unpleasant-ries. It took two of us to pry them apart.”
Collins has been involved in a general civil practice for fifteen years, involving virtually all known forms of litigation and disputes. “There is nothing, no matter how much might be at stake, that generates the depth of ill will that happens in divorce,” he says.
“Sometimes both parties start with the best of intentions, but it almost always degenerates into something really unpleasant, more often than not involving a big custody battle over the dog.”
Collins, a partner at Malouf Lynch Jackson Kessler & Collins, recalls an incident when a divorce client called his office to report that her estranged husband was in the bedroom with a gun pointed to his head. “I said, ’For God’s sake, don’t call me. Call the police.’
“But an hour later she was at my office. She said she’d disarmed the guy and had the gun in a box. I noticed the gun manufacturers’ name on the box: Daisy. The guy had been threatening to kill himself with a BB gun!”
Collins admits his cases present some humorous sidelights, but says “it’s not quite so funny at the time.” That is why he also takes commercial litigation cases, such as disputes between business partners. After dealing with divorce, everything else becomes comic relief.
Sooner or later, every undergraduate comes to a haunting revelation: there is something beckoning out in the dark meridians just beyond the campus tavern-an ungodly abyss known as the job market.
With graduation approaching at Texas Tech, Terri Meador was scrutinizing the classifieds under “career opportunities: female.” Then Meador, who was sustaining herself as a legal secretary, experienced the rapture that comes with a once-in-a-lifetime inspiration.
The law. Long lunches. Motions for continuance. Scholarly chats with judges. Law school, suddenly, seemed like a reasonable pursuit.
“Even then, the actual practice of law wasn’t something that I thought would be a reality,” says Meador. “I went to law school because nothing else seemed that practical or promising and because I still felt comfortable in that sort of academic setting. Six months after I had finished law school and passed the bar, I still wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a lawyer.”
Meador says she didn’t realize what fun she was missing. Now a partner in a Dallas firm, she says, “When you’re listed in the business pages of the phone book under ’attorney,’ it means that you’ll get calls from unusual people with unusual problems.
“Like the woman who wanted to sue the U.S. government, claiming that special agents had taken over control of her mind by implanting computer chips in her breasts. It was through this mechanism that they got her to have sex with Sam Shepard, on stage before an audience.”
Meador defies the script people at “L. A. Law” to top that one. It sounds like a case Victor Sifuentes might want to jump on.
After devoting nearly twenty years to service in the trenches of criminal defense law, Kevin Clancy figured that he had reached that magic plateau where life offered no more surprises.
That was before Clancy recently received one of his frequent phone calls from a person in distress. The caller’s son was in jail, charged with rape. Naturally, the caller went on to insist that the kid was being framed. Couldn’t have done it. Not my boy. No way. Ironclad alibi.
Clancy, filled with a vague sense that he might have heard this melody somewhere before, inquired as to the nature of the young man’s alibi.
“My son,” the caller said, “is quadriplegic.”
Sure enough, Clancy located the accused confined not only to a wheelchair but to a cell, feeling bewildered and not the least bit flattered.
“In this instance, it was not that difficult to convince the state that this was a matter of mistaken identity,” says Clancy, who concedes that he felt slightly deprived at missing the chance to present this one to a jury.
When Clancy was a freshman at Dallas’s Jesuit College Preparatory School in the early Sixties, he wanted to grow up and be just like attorney Charles Tessmer, who won a not guilty verdict for a black man accused of raping a white freedom rider. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer,” Clancy says. “It was the first time a black man charged with raping a white woman had ever been acquitted in Dallas.”
But once out of law school, Clancy found that much of the legal profession was lacking in drama and romance. His first job was working as a skip tracer (tracking down those who failed to pay) for the collection branch of a Dallas law firm.
Now Clancy has what he regards as a stimulating client base, including Richard Lee Bednarski, the teenager convicted in the highly publicized Reverchon Park murder of two gay men.
“People talk about the inequities of the criminal legal system,” Clancy says. “It is my job to see that my clients are viewed by the courts as legally not guilty. That’s different than morally not guilty. That’s something that’s simply between the client and God.”
JANET M. WRIGHT
The silver-tongued defense lawyer was employing his fancy mind-fogging techniques and the jury seemed to be on the verge of buying at least some of it. Too much, Janet Wright thought.
Witnesses, the defender emphasized, could not be expected to positively identify his client as the person who robbed the bank by threatening to set off a bomb. After all, the would-be bomber wore a ski mask.
And, the defense reminded the jury, if you are less than absolutely. 100 percent dead-set sure that this nicely attired defendant is indeed the dreadful Mr. TNT, then it’s your obligation to turn him loose. That’s what the law says.
Wright, the prosecutor, saw traces of doubt in the faces of some of the jurors. When the state has anything less than what is known as “smoking gun” evidence, there is always a chance that the accused will walk.
Wright had no smoking gun to present as evidence in this matter, but she did have the next best thing: the smoking typewriter. Thanks to the miracles of technology, many typewriters now have memories.
Thus the jury had to be impressed when a typewriter, having been identified as belonging to the defendant, produced the following passage that had been programmed into its system: “Hand over the money or I’ll blow this place up.”
Wright remembers that as the most splendid episode of her personal tenure on “Dallas Law,” which for her has been running about as long as the TV fiction from Los Angeles.
After finishing law school, Wright went to work for a civil firm in Houston where she did bankruptcy and oil and gas law-both somewhat staid pursuits. “I learned quickly that civil cases rarely go to trial,” Wright says. “They almost always settle. I felt like I wanted to do something else.
“Some of my friends worry about me, asingle girl, trying some of these defendantswho are probably dangerous characters.That doesn’t bother me. I never feel scared,just disheartened sometimes when somebody gets off lighter than I thought theyshould.”
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