How the Best Lawyers Stack Up

Let’s face it. Choosing a good lawyer is about as tough as finding the right dentist. You rely on referrals and friends to point you to the right person. So how did we figure out who the best lawyers are in Dallas? Easy. We just asked other attorneys to n

The results reflect the hot areas of legal practice in the last decade: of 2,000 responses, we received 900 votes in business litigation, with 20 attorneys making the list, followed by family law with 12, and labor and employment law with 11. In some fields, such as tax, bank lending, ERISA, franchise and dealership, and white-collar criminal defense work, only two or three attorneys garnered enough votes to make the list.

What traits do the best lawyers in Dallas have in common? “Every good lawyer has mastered the area in which they practice,” says Mike Boone. “They understand the basic legal issues and the substantive law issues. They have great people skills. The separator is excellent judgment.”

Ernie Figari calls them “hard workers” dedicated to the interests of the client. And they are “fighters,” aggressive competitors who’ll find a way to win, but within ethical and moral boundaries.

Absolute integrity is an important characteristic of a “best” lawyer, says Vester Hughes. While an attorney is actually simply a “high-powered servant” to the client’s needs, Hughes says that the best lawyers know that they may need to convince clients that their objectives are not ethically or professionally wise.

“I think the best lawyers are those with the technical skills and the temperaments to solve problems and decrease hostilities among the parties,” says Mike Baggett. “They try to figure out how to resolve matters in the most effective way.”

Few lawyers in solo practices made the list. “Getting the experience you need is difficult unless you associate with people who have some business,” says Coleman. And though there are excellent attorneys who practice alone, especially in the area of family law, it’s harder to take on big cases and win. “You’ve got to have backup and support to get anything done,” says Boone.

The old saw that if you want to be a lawyer in Texas you’d better go to school in Texas proves not to be true. Only 33 percent of our top attorneys graduated from Texas law schools; 67 percent went out-of-state. For those who decided to stay in-state, SMU rules: 34 percent graduated from SMU, 20 percent from the UT, and 5 percent from Baylor. No other schools ranked. Of those who graduated out-of-state, Harvard and the University of Virginia law schools each accounted for 4 percent, followed by Duke, Georgetown, and Louisiana State University with 2 percent each.

   What areas of the law will produce the next decade’s best attorneys? Coleman points to the increasing importance of intellectual property. “A lot of that is trademark work,” Coleman says. “There will be a great deal of litigation regarding people changing from one company to another and whether they are carrying with them trade secrets.” Attorneys who have technical and engineering backgrounds will also be highly sought after.

Attorneys who focus on technology now will be breaking new ground, and that means being in the forefront of emerging law. Lawyers poised to take advantage of technology’s disappointments will flourish as well. “Technology is big, but right now there’s a hiccup across the nation,” says Boone. “Bankruptcy is hot, hot, triple-hot.”

Baggett sees creating new forms of corporate and business financing as a potentially lucrative field in the next decade. “Lawyers with fairly broad experience can act as counselors for business people trying to resolve conflicts and put transactions together,” says Baggett.

International law will also continue to grow as global markets become more vital to American business. “We’ll see lawyers trying to bring different countries’ laws into harmony,” Coleman says. This will also fuel the need for lawyers with expertise in immigration law as companies turn to foreign markets for workers.

Though the attorneys on the advisory panel acknowledge that any survey has shortcomings, they felt the 2001 list is a good representation of the Dallas Bar’s current cream of the crop. Will the same lawyers be on the list next year? Don’t bet on it.

“This is a profession where if you don’t stay up, you’ll get surpassed,” says Boone.




Some of the names on our list are stalwarts often mentioned in the press; others are relatively unknown. A few, such as Coleman and Hughes, have practiced more than 50 years; others, like Bart Showalter of Baker Botts and Wei Wei Jeang of Munsch Hardt, have been at it as few as seven years. But maturity and mileage count for a lot: the attorneys who made the list averaged almost 27 years of experience.

Eighty-seven percent are male and only 13 percent female, signaling the slow progress women have made into the top ranks of the legal profession. And the big firms dominated, with 61 percent from law firms of 100 or more attorneys.


Few lawyers in solo practices made the list. “Getting the experience you need is difficult unless you associate with people who have some business,” says Coleman. And though there are excellent attorneys who practice alone, especially in the area of family law, it’s harder to take on big cases and win. “You’ve got to have backup and support to get anything done,” says Boone.

The old saw that if you want to be a lawyer in Texas you’d better go to school in Texas proves not to be true. Only 33 percent of our top attorneys graduated from Texas law schools; 67 percent went out-of-state. For those who decided to stay in-state, SMU rules: 34 percent graduated from SMU, 20 percent from the UT, and 5 percent from Baylor. No other schools ranked. Of those who graduated out-of-state, Harvard and the University of Virginia law schools each accounted for 4 percent, followed by Duke, Georgetown, and Louisiana State University with 2 percent each.

   What areas of the law will produce the next decade’s best attorneys? Coleman points to the increasing importance of intellectual property. “A lot of that is trademark work,” Coleman says. “There will be a great deal of litigation regarding people changing from one company to another and whether they are carrying with them trade secrets.” Attorneys who have technical and engineering backgrounds will also be highly sought after.

Attorneys who focus on technology now will be breaking new ground, and that means being in the forefront of emerging law. Lawyers poised to take advantage of technology’s disappointments will flourish as well. “Technology is big, but right now there’s a hiccup across the nation,” says Boone. “Bankruptcy is hot, hot, triple-hot.”

Baggett sees creating new forms of corporate and business financing as a potentially lucrative field in the next decade. “Lawyers with fairly broad experience can act as counselors for business people trying to resolve conflicts and put transactions together,” says Baggett.

International law will also continue to grow as global markets become more vital to American business. “We’ll see lawyers trying to bring different countries’ laws into harmony,” Coleman says. This will also fuel the need for lawyers with expertise in immigration law as companies turn to foreign markets for workers.

Though the attorneys on the advisory panel acknowledge that any survey has shortcomings, they felt the 2001 list is a good representation of the Dallas Bar’s current cream of the crop. Will the same lawyers be on the list next year? Don’t bet on it.

“This is a profession where if you don’t stay up, you’ll get surpassed,” says Boone.


 

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