Back in the 1990s, Brian Jose Chavez — one of the members of the football team immortalized in the book “Friday Night Lights” — had good reason to stay in his family’s law practice in Odessa, Texas. His father had been convicted of a felony, sent to prison and disbarred. But on May 9, Chavez began learning what life is like with a second-degree felony on his record and without his law license.
On July 15, 2010, Brian Chavez pleaded guilty to burglary of a habitation with the intent to commit assault. Chavez’s lawyer, Odessa solo Michael McLeaish, says his client’s offense involved a dispute at a residence. The parties got into a dispute, and Brian returned to the house “to settle the matter and it got out of hand,” McLeaish says.
Chavez was sentenced to deferred adjudication and community supervision for five years. He says he settled a civil suit against him brought by the victim.
Texas Assistant Attorney General Wes Mau, who prosecuted Chavez after the Ector County District Attorney’s Office recused itself, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Chavez signed an agreed judgment of suspension with the State Bar of Texas in April, which prevents him from practicing law from May 9 until Dec. 15, 2015. He is required to notify every justice of the peace, judge, magistrate and chief justice of each and every court of his suspension. He also must notify his current clients in writing of his suspension and return all their files, papers and unearned fees paid in advance.
Chavez and his life story are familiar to many. His teenage years are forever captured in “Friday Night Lights,” H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book about football-obsessed Odessa and Chavez’s time as a high school football player on the 1988 Permian Panthers’ squad, which went to the state championship and lost to the Carter Cowboys of Dallas. The book later was turned into a movie and a television series.
Chavez went on to attend Harvard University and on scholarship to Texas Tech University School of Law before returning home to Odessa in 1996 to practice law with his father at the Chavez Law Firm. [ See "All-American Attorney," Texas Lawyer, Nov. 1, 2004, page 1. ]
Although he had the resume and the smarts to practice anywhere in Texas, his decision to live and work in Odessa was solidified in 1998 when his father, criminal-defense lawyer Tony Chavez, pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, in Pecos, to a federal charge of accessory after the fact. In a 2004 interview with Texas Lawyer, Tony described his conviction as the result of him inappropriately delivering money from one potential client to another client. Tony spent 16 months in federal prison and lost his bar card. After his release from prison, he returned to his law office and worked as a legal assistant for his two lawyer-sons, Brian and Adrian Chavez.
Now Brian will be in the legal assistant role for the next four-and-a-half years until his Bar suspension is over, he says. “It’s pretty much going to be what my dad was doing. I’ll be running the office, and I’ll be a legal assistant,” Brian says. “I know I’m lucky, and I’m thankful. It’s a family business where you take care of each other. I’ll still be getting my same salary. But what we’re losing is my court appointments.”
Brian says he remembers how his father waited five years after serving his prison sentence to apply to the State Bar to get his law license back. Tony also had to retake the Texas bar exam. Tony regained his law license in November 2010.
“His biggest words of wisdom when all this went down were, ‘This, too, shall pass,’ ” Brian says of his dad’s advice. “ I saw everything that he went through. He got through this, and I know I can.”
Brian pursued an appeal before the Board of Disciplinary Appeals (BODA) in which he challenged whether the charge he pleaded to was a crime of “moral turpitude.” But if BODA had disagreed with his argument, he risked disbarment, Brian says. So he withdrew the appeal and decided to accept an agreed suspension.
“If you’re suspended, it’s up when the suspension is. Once you’re disbarred, you have to wait five years before you can reapply to petition back into the Bar. And then you have to take the bar exam,” Brian says. “You’re looking at probably six or seven years longer if you’re disbarred rather than if you’re suspended.”
Tony says he’s glad Brian didn’t risk disbarment. “It’s frustrating and humiliating, actually,” Tony says of his own disbarment. “It’s funny. The punishment that I had — the time that I spent waiting for this [to reapply to the Bar] — that was more punishment than the actual incarceration. Anytime you go anywhere you have to go through the slings and arrows of public opinion.” That was plenty of punishment in Odessa, where Tony is well-known, he says.
Tony says he has regrets about Brian’s decision to practice law in his hometown. “Here, he graduated from Harvard. He could have practiced anywhere in the world. And he gets back here and gets involved in something that just got totally out of hand. Weird things can happen to anyone,” Tony says.