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Mike vs.lke

Big money. Big headlines. Big egos. No wonder Dallas’ two most celebrated divorce lawyers got a "divorce" of their own.

JUST MENTION “IKE AND MIKE” TO ANY DIVORCE LAWYER in Dallas and there’s an instant flash of recognition. Those rhyming first names, especially when uttered in this familiar combination, are all you need to evoke a reaction, usually passionate, about either Ike Vanden Eykel or Mike McCurley. And despite the fact that the former partners are now each other’s No. 1 opponent, they’re often lumped together as a package. It’s inevitable; like many of the husbands and wives who pay them $400 an hour to handle complicated divorce and custody cases, “Ike and Mike” share a high-profile history of their own. They have followed widely divergent paths toward a common destination at the top of their field. No wonder breaking up was hard to do.

They see each other as complete opposites, and at a glance they certainly look the part. Vanden Eykel’s the tall, polished, downtown yuppie who now holds the reins at Koons, Fuller & Vanden Eykel; McCurley’s the short, paunchy, bearded guy in cowboy boots who heads up the competition: MeCurley, Webb, Kinser, McCurley & Nelson. Vanden Eykel drives a white Lexus, while MeCurley prefers a black Mercedes. Vanden Eykel initially made his name representing fathers in custody cases; McCurley gained fame in several cases involving lesbian relationships.

McCurley is often described as the aggressive, flamboyant, even controversial hit man, while Vanden Eykel is known as smooth, level-headed, and personable. But look closer, and you’ll find that both men have dimensions beyond the images.

“I have seen Mike devastate people in his cross-examination,” says former Family Court judge Paula Larsen, now a partner with Goranson & Larsen. But she adds, “I don’t think very many people know Mike very well. If 1 were really in a situation where I needed help, I’d call Mike McCurley, because I know that he’d be there for me. He is amazing sometimes, the lengths that he will go to, to try and help somebody.”

As for Vanden Eykel, he’s quick to point out that, when it comes to the courtroom, his sweetly reasonable approach has its limits. “I like to lead with a feather, an olive branch,” he says. “But the hand behind the back has a two-by-four with a very rusty nail in it. I believe that: disputes in this field are better solved with an olive branch and an effort to talk and come to an amicable resolution, if you pass that up, or, God forbid, you kick sand in my face, you get the two-by-four with the rusty nail.”

Actually, Ike and Mike have more in common than might be apparent, and more than they might like to admit. They’re close to the same age; Vanden Eykel is 46 and McCurley is 48. Roth have experienced divorce and parenthood, and both are now happily married. Neither set out to specialize in family law, but both have made it to the top of the heap at about the same time. Widely known as Dallas’ top two rainmakers in the family law arena, their fees are the same: $25,000 retainers for custody cases and $400 hourly rates. Those numbers have drawn the fire of critics.

“These guys run up tremendous fees,” says outspoken adversary Mary McKnight, “and it’s not necessary.”

Even former Koons partner Jimmy Verrier, who says McCurley and Vanden Eykel lead “the two preeminent family law firms” in Dallas, disapproves of their fees. “1 don’t think you need to charge an hourly rate that high to provide equivalent legal services,” he says.

Vanden Eykel has a quick, yet deliberate response to criticism about this issue: “We live in a free country, and no one is obligated to hire me or Mr. McCurley. I don’t receive complaints from people who hire me, only from people unrelated to the firm. I would welcome anyone’s debate, any day, about my hourly charges.” McCurley, too, says it’s simply a matter of supply and demand, the American way. “it is somewhat unfair tor lawyers who have never achieved that level to criticize those that have,” he says. Both lawyers add that their high-dollar cases are complemented by a significant amount of pro hono work for charitable causes and people of modest incomes.

Even their courtroom images are not without similarities. “They’re both very smooth in the courtroom, extremely well prepared,” former Judge Larsen notes, “I think that people have a healthy respect for them.”

Mary McKnight sees similarities as well–all of them unflattering, “They play dirty tricks,” she says. “They sort of perpetuate each other’s myths. They’re a legend in their own minds…As far as any rivalry between them, 1 think they still scratch each other’s backs a lot.”

Ike Vanden Eykel grew up in the Midwest, considered becoming a minister, chose instead law school at Baylor University, and launched his career in a downtown Dallas business law firm. With just three years of business litigation under his belt, he inherited from a departing partner the divorce case of a prominent banker, took it to a jury trial, and won. Then one of the bank’s directors, a wealthy rancher, asked him to handle his case, which was significantly larger than the first one. This time he went up against Bill Koons, a top dog on the Dallas divorce scene in the 70s, who 12 years later would welcome Vanden Eykel as a partner in his firm. They settled on the fourth day of trial. Next, the young whippersnapper won custody for the father of two little girls, an unusual feat in 1976. Case by case, Vanden Eykel’s reputation as an up-and-coming family law specialist was blossoming.

By the late ’80s, his cases were making the news. After Highland Park businessman Robert Edelman put out a murder contract on his wife, Vanden Eykel became part of a sting operation, working with the FBI to stage Linda Edelman’s disappearance and murder, then pay off and arrest the hit man hired by her husband. For the 10 days that the rest of the world believed she was dead, Mrs. Edelman was actually hiding at Vanden Eykel’s lake home. The case generated a book, a movie, and multiple TV talk show appearances. The stakes are always high when a client hires one of the most expensive lawyers in town, but the case of Fort Worth’s Rex and Josephine Cauble was a doozy, with $60 million up for grabs. Rex’s drug conviction–he was tagged the “range boss of the Cowboy Mafia”- helped Vanden Eykel claim the whole pot for Josephine. (See “Rex and Josephine,” D Magazine, January 1990.)

Today Vanden Eykel says his clients choose him not only for his upscale reputation but also because he produces “peace of mind for people. They put their life in my hands and feel good about it.”

His former client Twinkle Underwood, formerly Twinkle Bayoud, compares Vanden Eykel to a knight in shining armor. “He came riding in on a white horse when I was down on the ground with my jugular exposed and my husband’s attorney was coming in with a dagger.” But it took more than a first impression for her to place her trust in that gallant knight. “The first time I went in for a consultation with him, I thought he was a little cocky, but my intuition told me to go back and talk to him again,” she says. “This time, he didn’t try to sell himself, and when I saw who he was, I was really impressed.” Her intuition paid off; today, Underwood says Vanden Eykel literally “created” herfuture when he settled her custody case in the best interests of the whole family.

As for Mike McCurley, he’s a bom-and-bred Texan who came to Dallas by way of Lewisville, where he made headlines as the youngest licensed barber the state had ever known. He toyed with the idea of going to medical school but decided instead to major in business at North Texas State University, where he developed an interest in law. While in law school at SMU, McCurley took neatly every course offered by family law experts Joe McKnight and Reba Rasor, who would one day be one of his partners. Three days after getting bis license, he tried his first case as an associate for a firm that focused on civil litigation, namely liability and personal injury. It was his own experience with divorce and custody in 1974, though, that prompted his career move to family law. Without that inspiration, he says he probably would have become a good personal injury lawyer.

McCurley’s big break came in 1975 with the Risher case, in which he represented a father who was seeking custody of his son after discovering his ex-wife was living with her lesbian lover. McCurley won the highly publicized case, one of the first involving custody rights of homosexual parents. Less than a year later, he tried the flip side of the same issue, this time winning custody for a lesbian mother in Fort Worth. But it was the 1990 Martina Navratilova palimony suit with ex-lover Judy Nelson that really put McCurley in the limelight- Navratilova dismissed him before the case was settled, claiming she had been grossly overcharged. Local news reports cast a few shadows on McCurley’s limelight, but publicity is publicity, and in the scheme of things, the incident doesn’t seem to have done him any permanent harm.

Besides, no amount of bad press could compete with the genuine worship of the clients for whom McCurley has come to the rescue. “He is an exceptional, wonderful person. It’s hard to even put into words,” says Lucille Morton, a deeply religious Sachse grandmother who is fighting for custody of a granddaughter who has serious problems resulting from abuse. McCurley is helping her free of charge. “I knew I desperately needed an honest, upright, intelligent attorney with compassion and integrity, and I needed a person to help us pro bono,” Morton says. “It had to be a miracle.” She found McCurley’s linn while praying over the Yellow Pages and says he has never let her down. The little girl lives with her grandparents, and they hope to see the case closed this year.

A former client for whom McCurley won full custody of two sons says she would trust him with her life and the future of her children. “Caring, understanding, uplifting-Mike McCurley is all of these and then some.”

In an increasingly “cookie cutter” type of legal system under which every case is supposed to fit some precedent, guideline, or form, McCurley says clients come to him for “tailor-made” cases. “I’ve not yet in 22 years had anybody come in with the same problems as the client before them,” says McCurley. “To me, everybody’s life is unique; everybody’s case is an individual one.”

Vanden Eykel and McCurley began to cross paths in the late 70s, as they became active in professional organizations such as the Family Law Council, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and local, state, and national bar associations. They were also beginning to share the local family law spotlight.

“We became what I would call respected adversaries within family law, which was an emerging field in the 70s,” Vanden Eykel recalls. “I think Mike and I challenged the war-horses, as opposed to challenging each other in the early stages of our career. We both had successes knocking off the unsuspecting older lawyers, as opposed to knocking heads in the beginning. That was really the genesis of our relationship.”

In the late ’80s, McCurley’s wife, Mary Jo, went to work for the 20-lawyer firm where Vanden Eykel headed up the family law section. In 1990, he took the entire section with him when he left to merge with the kings of family law. The result was the powerful new family law boutique of Koons, Fuller, McCurley & Vanden Eykel, the largest firm in the Southwest to practice exclusively family law.

The perception in the family law community was that McCurley and Vanden Eykel would make a killer team. Instead, according to a former Koons partner, their union resulted in a massive ego clash that seriously divided the firm and eventually led to its breakup after two years.

McCurley packed his hags in 1992, taking his wife and another Koons lawyer, Keith Nelson, and joined up with Webb & Kinser, forming his own family law boutique. At the time, some called the split mutual and amicable, while othersclaimed it was anything hut, blaming McCurley’s handling of the Navratilova case and the embarrassing publicity it had generated.

“I’ve heard every kind of story you could imagine about that,” McCurley says. “It didn’t have anything to do with any par-ticulat case or any point in time. I wanted something different for the ’90s. Ike and I both want to do one thing in common, and that is practice divorce law at the highest level. But I think we want to do it in a different way, with different ideas, along different lines. That was not going to work together.”

McCurley’s former partners also avoid the Navratilova question. “I don’t think that needs any comment,” says Ken Fuller, now semi-retired. “Each one of them wanted to be the top man in their respective firms, and eagles don’t fly in groups.”

Vanden Eykel’s recollection of the split is similar. “Difference in styles. Difference in opinions. Difference in approaches, Mike and 1 are both very opinionated people. We are both very strong personalities. Rather than destroying our relationship, we thought it better to part, and 1 find it better to have my No. 1 adversary across town rather than down the hall.”

Three years after dissolving their partnership, the egos have landed, if not exactly where they once expected to. But if there are any hard feelings or sour grapes, no one’s talking. In fact, both sides of family law’s dynamic duo say they have reached a positive new level in their relationship. Comparing it to a marriage and divorce, Vanden Eykel says the current status of his relationship with McCurley is “in the comfort stage several years after the divorce, where you learn to accept the strengths and overlook some of the faults, and you take people for what they are in your life.”

They match wits a regularly and relish each and every case against each other. In one recent case, Vanden Eykel represented the operator of a family-owned business, with McCurley on the opposing side. Both lawyers hired expert witnesses to “value” the company, then took the case into mediation. The result was a “framework for peace,”says Vanden Eykel. “Then we set up a meeting with the experts and hashed out a range of figures, and came up with a written settlement that was signed by everybody. It was creative lawyering by both of us, and consequently we saved both clients an immense amount of money.”

So far they’ve settled every one of those cases, avoiding even a single trial. “One of these days, McCurley declares, “we’ll get an emotionally driven, non-logical circumstance, and that’s when we’ll go to trial for the first time. 1 can’t think of anybody I’d rather beat today than Ike.”

No doubt Vanden Eykel has given some thought to that ultimate victory, too. But he’s in no hurry. “The majority of family law cases, like any litigation, are resolved by settlement or mediation, and the higher the quality of counsel, the higher your chance of resolving it,” he says. “How many times during their existence as superpowers did the U.S.S.R. and the United States go to war? Why not? Somebody’s going to get obliterated, and possibly both. When Mike and I sit down, we put our guns on the table. We don’t have to prove to each other how big our gun is or how good a shot we are.”

Blood & Money: A brief history of family law in Texas

1941 The Divorce Act of 1841 establishes the first grounds for divorce in the Texas Republic. Let the games begin.

1945 A record number of divorces takes place when millions of American men return from World War II to women who have tasted the independence of working in war-related industries. Many want to continue working, leading to our first crisis of family values.

1969 The Texas Legislature opens the floodgates by adopting Tide 1 of the Texas Family Code, which allows no-fault divorce.

1975 The Texas Board of Legal Specialization begins to certify attorneys as family law specialists, creating a cottage industry around divorce.

1987 The Texas Legislature amends the Family Code to allow judges and juries to consider joint custody in all cases involving children. The same year, four Family Court judges in Dallas become the first in the state to order mandatory mediation in all divorce and child custody cases.

1988 Billy Ross Sims guns down his ex-wife and her boyfriend outside an East Dallas daycare center.

Family Court judge Bob O’Donnelt, who heard the Sims divorce case, is placed in protective custody while Sims is at large.

Also this year, Dallas developer Robert Edelman is sentenced to federal prison for attempting to hire a hit man to kill his wife during their divorce proceedings. This story later becomes a book titled My Husband is Trying to Kill Me and a television movie, Dead Before Dawn.

1991 Ann and John Flavin of Arlington brutalize each other in America’s most expensive divorce, reportedly running up more than $10 million in attorney’s fees and other costs.

1992 Fonner attorney George Lotr opens tire in the Fort Worth courtroom where his divorce was heard, killing two people and injuring three others. Tarrant County commissioners respond by ordering metal detectors installed in the courthouse.

1993 Hai Van Huynk, a 30 year old machinist, shoots his wife in the hallway outside the Dallas family courts, then kills himself. All the family judges in Dallas County refuse to hold court until security measures are tightened. -L.U.

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