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staff reporter Dallas-Some changes have been small. The Budweiser on tap that Baron & Budd lawyers could guzzle after work stopped flowing sometime in the 1990s. Name partner Russell Budd smiled warmly at the memory, as he sat in his large corner office with its huge potted cactus and expansive views of the city. “It’s one of those cultural things that time just passed by,” he shrugged. And no, he laughed, the brand of beer had nothing to do with his name. An annual lawyer-staff ski weekend in Colorado was terminated a couple of years ago. The problem was size, founder Fred Baron said. In 1996, the firm had 44 lawyers and a staff of 218; now it’s 78 and 499. He hopes to revive it when he finds a bigger lodge. Perhaps the largest change was the hiring of a managing partner. Baron had carried the load since 1977. In 2001, the partners hired a lawyer with an MBA degree. The “crazy plaintiffs’ lawyers” woke up one day and said, “Hey, this is a business!” quipped Budd. The trick, he said, turning serious, is figuring out how to apply business principles without interfering with the firm’s culture. Such are the challenges of success. And by any measure, Baron & Budd, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, is one of the country’s most successful firms. Its specialty is toxic torts. The product that turned it into one of the largest plaintiffs’ shops anywhere is asbestos. Baron, who took his first asbestos case in 1973, is a pioneer and it’s made him rich. Forbes reported that in 2000 he earned $21 million. Baron scoffed at the number, but declined to correct it. Likewise, managing partner Lance Pool wouldn’t discuss the firm’s revenue, expenses or asbestos caseload. Of the last, he said the firm has settled tens of thousands of cases and has tens of thousands pending. Defense lawyer Donald Godwin of Dallas’ Godwin Gruber is Halliburton Co.’s lead negotiator settling asbestos claims. In the past 18 months, he tentatively settled 340,000 claims for $4.2 billion-about 7,500 brought by Baron & Budd, he said. B&B could recover more than $90 million. At its customary one-third fee, the firm could net $30 million. Three years ago, this newspaper named Baron among the 100 most influential U.S. lawyers. Soon after, he spent a year as president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. He has campaigned against “tort reform” and has played an increasingly prominent role in Democratic politics. He is a national finance co-chairman of the presidential campaign of North Carolina Senator John Edwards, himself a former trial lawyer. Baron spends a good deal of time in his D.C. condominium, but his passion and optimism permeate the modern offices in northwest Dallas. His firm occupies eight of the 11 floors, some featuring terraces and all decorated with art ranging from Impressionist paintings to turn-of-the-century photographs. The firm is much more than the Fred Baron show. His wife, Lisa Blue, is a top litigator. She’s also a therapist and an expert on jury selection. Steve Wolens, who opened offices in Illinois, Ohio and New York to accommodate the flood of asbestos clients, is another star and a 12-term Texas legislator. Last May, D magazine mailed ballots to 3,000 Dallas attorneys asking them to vote for the city’s best lawyers in 20 practice areas. Five of B&B’s 22 partners (including Budd and Blue) were chosen. What the money and recognition mean is not only that the firm can attract hordes of asbestos clients. It can also diversify to prepare for the end of asbestos-which could come in the form of legislation pending in Congress. “I don’t know any other plaintiffs’ firm that has these resources,” said Celeste Evangelisti, an associate who worked at two defense firms before arriving last year. “It has all the assets and resources of a big defense firm.” Last April, when a deadline loomed for filing dozens of Fen-Phen cases, 25 lawyers and hundreds of staff members worked evenings and weekends, she said. “In my six years doing defense work, I never had that happen.” Fen-Phen, Rezulin, Baycol and other pharmaceutical cases have helped the firm reduce its dependence on asbestos, which represented 95% of its practice for its first 17 years, according to managing partner Pool. Over the past eight years, that’s been reduced to about 70%, he said. Another new practice area involves groundwater contaminated by the gas additive MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether. Despite or because of the success, the firm has taken hits in recent years. Most notably, it has been criticized for a widely publicized memo written by a paralegal that surfaced in 1997, after it was inadvertently turned over to a defense attorney. The subject was witness preparation, and some interpreted it as advising B&B employees to encourage clients to fabricate testimony. In the face of withering criticism, the firm offered several lines of defense: It was an isolated, unauthorized incident; the memo didn’t really say what it seemed to say; the memo was privileged. Baron was particularly aggressive in defending the firm. Though he allowed that it was a blow, he also insisted he grew from it. Looking back, Brent Rosenthal, an appellate lawyer who has been with the firm since 1980, acknowledged there were passages that “look bad.” “I know what the intent was, but when it gets into the wrong hands, they can make it look like we were telling people what to say,” he said. “We kind of put ourselves on a white horse, which makes it particularly difficult when your integrity is questioned. So, no question, it was a difficult time for us, no matter what Fred says.” A number of lawyers interviewed, including defense lawyers who represent B&B adversaries, said they felt too much was made of it in the press. Baron & Budd has also been criticized for obtaining recoveries for asbestos clients who are not functionally impaired. “While he represents a significant number of cancer cases,” said John Aldock, a defense lawyer at Washington’s Shea & Gardner, who has often opposed Baron, “the vast majority of his clients are nonimpaired people in that they are not sick and are unlikely to get sick. He’s got a right to do it, and has made a fortune.” Criticism comes with the territory, said Aldock. “If you’re in the business that they’re in, it causes controversy and disagreements about propriety and values. They and others have bankrupted 62 companies. That gets people’s dander up.” What angered Evangelisti last month, as she talked about the MTBE case in which she, Baron and partner Scott Summy represent Santa Monica, Calif., was the behavior of gas companies. “I love being mad,” she said. “If I didn’t thrive on being riled up, I shouldn’t be a litigator.” Of B&B’s culture, she said, “The people I work with are honestly here to help others, first of all clients but also other lawyers. It’s nice to work in a place where the goal is to help the client and not dollar signs.” James Dougherty is a client and a believer. “I hate lawyers,” he said in a telephone interview from his lawyers’ offices. But Dougherty, who suffers from the signature asbestos disease mesothelioma, said his lawyers “went out of their way to accommodate me.” They functioned as an efficient team, he said, and even made house calls. With the settlement they secured, “my family is taken care of.” What hasn’t changed at Baron & Budd, its lawyers say, is the qualities at the heart of the culture that they associate with their founder: passion, optimism and commitment to clients. Budd said a New Yorker cartoon “describes Fred as well as anything.” Two prisoners are in a pit, surrounded by stone walls. High above their heads is a tiny opening. “OK,” says one. “Here’s my plan.” Hechler’s e-mail address is [email protected]

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