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Many lawyers have a story about how they wandered into the Piney Woods and — willingly — never found their way out of the deep East Texas towns of Nacogdoches and Lufkin. For example, one was an out-of-towner stationed as a legal aid lawyer in Nacogdoches and wound up staying and setting up shop as one of the region’s only immigration lawyers. Another chose working in a small defense firm in Lufkin instead of clerking at an appeals court after law school and fell in love with the region’s scenery and people. All lawyers who make their living in Nacogdoches and Angelina counties tend to give the same answer for why they rejected a big-city practice: They relish making a living in a place where friends and family always come before billable hours. Richard S. Fischer, a New York native, landed in Nacogdoches in the early 1980s as an attorney for East Texas Legal Aid. “I figured I would be here one year. I just got into it,” says Fischer, who found the area was starved for immigration lawyers and set up his own practice, the Law Offices of Richard Fischer. “Before I knew it, I’d been here so long, it was going to hurt to move.” Fischer’s roots, like many other East Texas lawyers, are now firmly planted in the area’s soft, red soil. He’s even an elected member of the local school board. “If you ask people why they decided not to go elsewhere, they’ll say this is a tremendous place to raise children,” Fischer says. “If you go to the store, you see people you know. And if you like that, it’s hard to go to Dallas.” Clay Dark, an Amarillo native, had a job offer clerking for Tyler’s 12th Court of Appeals after law school in 1973, but instead took a job working as an associate with what is now Lufkin’s Zeleskey, Cornelius, Hallmark, Roper & Hicks — one of the region’s oldest firms and, at nearly 20 lawyers, one of its largest. The chance to join that firm and immediately start litigating allowed Dark to hang some skins — and a gold record — on his wall. That record, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which still hangs in Dark’s office, is the 1980 heart-breaking country ballad hit by George Jones. It’s a personal gift to Dark from the music legend. Dark handled insurance liability work for Jones in the 1980s, when the singer ran a country music park outside of Lufkin. Jones has since returned to Nashville. “When he finished recording that song he said ‘Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch,’ ” Dark says and laughs. The song is considered a classic and is believed to be about Jones’ breakup with another country music legend, Tammy Wynette. Dark worked for the Zeleskey firm for 15 years as a partner doing civil defense litigation before setting up his own practice in 1988. Now he’s a solo practitioner who specializes in real estate law — an area in which he believes he has an edge over other lawyers in Lufkin. “In this area, most people who do real estate work don’t try lawsuits. It’s kind of niche,” Dark says. And finding a niche is the key to success in East Texas, Dark and other lawyers say. Most young solos who set up shop have trouble making ends meet as general practitioners — even in a place with a population of 80,000 people, like Angelina County. A lawyer’s business tends to flourish after he or she finds the kind of law he or she enjoys and earns a reputation as a specialist. “I think you have to struggle and take anything you can and see where your niche falls,” Dark says. East Texas Courts Lawyers in Nacogdoches and Lufkin often cross the county line to practice in all the area’s county, district and federal courts. Nacogdoches, which bills itself as the oldest town in Texas, is home to the 145th District Court and a county court at law. The area is so old that Sam Houston, commander of the Texas Revolutionary War forces and president of the Republic of Texas, is said to have practiced law in Nacogdoches when he lived outside of the town in the 1830s. But in modern times, Lufkin has become the busier area for business litigation as timber and trucking companies located there. Angelina County has the 159th District Court, the 217th District Court, two county courts at law, and a federal court that is staffed by Tyler U.S. district judges. Lufkin became especially busy starting in the 1990s as Tyler U.S. District Judge John Hannah began holding court in Lufkin on a regular basis, Hannah says. The Lufkin courts have been good to plaintiffs attorney George Chandler, of Lufkin’s Chandler Law Offices. “I think we probably see more logging injuries. And fortunately we see less of those as time goes on,” Chandler says, who adds that cases he tries locally are mostly trucking and industrial accident litigation. Chandler has built a prominent and profitable practice, advertising on his Web site that his five-lawyer firm has obtained more than $250 million in jury verdicts since 1994. These days, Chandler, who serves as the president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, is more likely to try cases outside of his hometown. “We like to think of ourselves as deep East Texas trial lawyers,” Chandler says. “And if we could try everything in the Lufkin courts, we would.” Few lawyers complain about the juries in East Texas. They’re often described as conservative, but not necessarily when it comes to damage awards. Damage awards are fairly middle-of-the-road — no more and no less than typical awards in other parts of Texas, three lawyers say. “People have basic values, and they don’t believe in frivolous lawsuits, but they don’t believe in frivolous defenses either,” Chandler says. “If they give you their word that they’ll be a fair juror, they will be. But if you’ve got a weak case, they’ll sniff you out.” Jousts between lawyers at trial are rarely personal in Nacogdoches or Lufkin, three lawyers say. The cities are small enough, lawyers litigate against each other over and over. “There’s no snide comments. These guys know what comes around, goes around,” says Ed Klein, the Nacogdoches County district attorney. His four-lawyer office generally litigates against eight criminal defense lawyers in the area. “We might need their help, and they need ours,” Klein says. “There are no problems on continuance motions. And motions for discovery are not problems.” The same goes for Lufkin courts, says Paul E. White, judge of Lufkin’s 159th District Court. White, who was appointed to the bench in March 2001, has had a smooth ride so far when it comes to lawyers. He says he hasn’t even come close to sanctioning a lawyer in his courtroom. “No sir,” White says. “In fact, in most motions to compel – I don’t have many – but rarely do they ask for attorney fees. I haven’t even had that. What’s that say?” A Nacogdoches Legend Walk into the Nacogdoches County Courthouse on Main Street on any given day you’re likely to run into Marion G. Holt. The Nacogdoches solo has jaunted to the courthouse from his South Street office every day “whether or not anything’s going on or not” for the past 53 years. “That’s been my life,” Holt says. “Walking across the street to the courthouse.” The 79-year-old lawyer, who served as a paratrooper in World War II, mostly handles routine family law matters. But long ago, he etched his name in Nacogdoches legal history. In the summer of 1970, civil rights crusader Mickey McGuire came to Nacogdoches and wanted to hold a civil rights parade. But McGuire met with the same resistance other civil rights activists did in the South during that time. Police tear-gassed the parade, and McGuire was arrested and taken to jail for holding a parade without a permit, Holt recalls. “Nobody here that I knew of would represent him,” Holt recalls. So Holt bonded McGuire out of jail and agreed to represent him. “He was entitled to a lawyer. It didn’t make any difference that he was black.” Holt says he negotiated with the Nacogdoches police chief and got McGuire a parade permit. The parade was peaceful, and McGuire ultimately never was prosecuted, Holt says. Holt’s former law partner, Richard Fischer, says Holt has earned the kind of respect among his fellow lawyers that few ever get. “He’s history,” Fischer says. In a recollection of the event — published as an opinion piece in Nacogdoches’ The Daily Sentinel — that Holt wrote to record the event in 1999 “before it is too late,” Holt stated his representation of McGuire “is one of my most treasured memories of my career.” “I am proud of my opportunity to have represented him,” Holt wrote.
I Like Practicing in Nacogdoches-Lufkin Because … “I work with essentially the same group of lawyers day in and day out; I know the ones I can rely on, and I know the ones . . . I cannot rely on.” “The people here tend to be straightforward. You don’t have a lot of pretension.” “It’s as close to perfect of a place to raise kids.” “It’s a casual lifestyle. I don’t wear a suit. I wear jeans most every day.” “We have the best of both worlds: a great profession but a small-town feel.” “I’m from this community. The main reason I’m back is because I can have a full-time practice in whatever area I want, without living in the city.” “It’s my home.” “It’s a great place to live.” “I can practice and have a life, too.” “I’m 10 minutes from the courthouse. Bottom line that’s it.” Source: Anonymous interviews with 20 lawyers practicing in Angelina and Nacogdoches counties.

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