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It was an unusual assignment for a commercial lawyer. But when then-gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush tapped Harriet Miers as general counsel for his 1993 campaign, her performance won his favor and set the Dallas litigator on a trajectory to the White House and her recent nomination to the Supreme Court. While her job for Bush was anything but ordinary, most of Miers’ work during her nearly three decades in private practice was as a mediator of mundane business battles. Though Miers’ Texas firm served as a launching pad for her community and political activities, her legal practice had little of the glamorous or precedent-making federal cases that marked the career of now-Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. Miers wasn’t exactly a small-town lawyer. Her clients ranged from local Dallas businesses to — particularly in later years — major companies such as Microsoft Corp. and the Walt Disney Co. But, for the most part, her legal work was limited to the confines of the Lone Star State. And though her cases took her in and out of state and federal courts, most were settled at the negotiating table, rather than before a jury or a judge. Within the Dallas legal community, Miers was known as a hard-nosed litigator, straight as a slide rule, and one of the go-to attorneys for out-of-state companies that had cases in Texas. Indeed, Miers’ career was defined less by a signature case or controversy than by a steady, accumulating devotion to her work and to the law. “You considered that their clients had hired heavyweights to come into the court, that they took the case seriously in hiring Harriet and her firm,” says Barbara Rosenberg, a former state judge who once won a case against Miers. Still, little of Miers’ law firm work dealt directly with the type of constitutional questions she is likely to face as a Supreme Court justice — a point her critics have highlighted. But others view her background in the practical minutiae of business as a boon and perhaps a counterweight among a group of justices whose careers have been based more in the esoteric and intellectual walks of the law. Commercial litigators “are people who understand the real world and are not going to be making decisions in an academic vacuum,” says Larry Gross, chief legal officer for SunGard Data Systems and a one-time client of Miers. “She is very grounded in the world of commerce and politics and social policy where she’s worked her whole life.” THE FIRST LADY The business world, however, was tough on Miers, at least at the start. When she graduated from law school at Southern Methodist University, in 1970, no firm in Dallas would hire her. After a two-year clerkship with federal district Judge Joe Estes, the firm then known as Locke, Purnell, Boren, Laney & Neely made a bold decision to make Miers its first female attorney. At the time, Locke, Purnell had only about three dozen lawyers in broad-based corporate practices focused mainly on real estate, banking, and finance. But the Dallas firm already had a political legacy: The founder, Maurice E. Locke, was considered for the Supreme Court in the 1880s. His son, Eugene P. Locke, had been appointed to the Texas Supreme Court. And the founder’s grandson, Eugene M. Locke, had served as ambassador to Pakistan and deputy ambassador to South Vietnam under President Lyndon Johnson. Miers soon came under the tutelage of then-name partner Stanley Neely, one of the firm’s lead litigators, for whom she handled a number of antitrust cases. Other lawyers in the firm often turned to Miers for assistance on federal cases because of her clerkship, says longtime Locke Liddell & Sapp partner Andrew Barr. In just six years, Miers made partner. Dallas in the 1970s was considered the business and banking capital of the Southwest, and many of Miers’ clients fell into that mold. They included Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. — a predecessor of what today is JP Morgan Chase — Republic Bank, as well as Trinity Industries, a local steel fabricating company. One of Miers’ biggest clients was longtime firm stalwart Lomas & Nettleson, a mortgage powerhouse built up by former Locke, Purnell partner Jess Hay. The work varied, but one major case Miers worked on involved questions over property taxes Lomas paid for its mortgage companies, says Robert Mowrey, a longtime Locke Liddell partner. That relationship continued until the company went bankrupt in the late 1990s. Even then, Miers served as counsel, along with partner C. Michael Moore, to former officers and members of the board of directors who were sued by the bankruptcy trustee. Miers also took on smaller clients. She once represented a Dallas Morning News reporter, who had been subpoenaed by the district attorney over a story she had written about justice for repeat offenders. Miers’ work also included a healthy amount of pro bono representation of the poor — a cause she later trumpeted in her bar leadership. In one 1981 case, Miers argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit on behalf of a single mother who had been denied Social Security disability payments. Although the panel denied the appeal based on the limited medical evidence, it noted Miers’ “able” representation of her client. BIGGER CLIENTS, BIGGER HOPES Though Miers’ outside affiliations — as president of the Dallas Bar Association and the statewide bar and as a member of the City Council — consumed much of her time, she didn’t lag in her firm leadership, either. By the 1980s she was on the firm’s management committee and assisted with Locke, Purnell’s first merger, in 1987, with Rain, Harrell, Emery, Young & Doke, an approximately 50-lawyer general practice firm in Dallas. That merger brought the firm one of the biggest names in the legal business, former American Bar Association President Morris Harrell. With Harrell came one of Miers’ largest cases, says Jerry Clements, a litigation partner at Locke Liddell. Harrell was a friend of Microsoft’s then-General Counsel William Neukom, who turned to Locke, Purnell in 1993 when a class action was filed in state court in Texas over alleged malfunctions in Microsoft’s MS DOS 6.0 operating system. The fight largely centered on the class certification. Over the next three years, Miers took depositions, examined witnesses, and even argued an appeal. Her team eventually knocked down the action in 1996, when the lower court judge decertified the class just before the case was pending before the Texas Supreme Court. Yet, say attorneys who worked on the case, it was Miers’ organizational skills and work ethic that stood out. “Even though she was the senior lawyer on the case, I remember how she worked with us,” Clements says. “There were a couple of times when we had things that needed to be filed and we needed to work 48 to 72 hours straight. She was right there with the team.” That reputation brought Miers more prominent clients, as well. She won the confidence of Edward Nowak, general counsel at the Disney Co., who fed her a steady stream of work involving Disney trademarks, bankruptcy collections, and labor matters, as well as a case for the Anaheim Angels, then owned by Disney, according to Thomas Connop, a longtime Locke Liddell partner. Once, Miers was called in to clean up a case run by one of the country’s largest firms, Jones Day. The Cleveland-based firm had been representing SunGard Data Systems in the mid-1990s as counsel in a business dispute the company faced in Texas. Upset with the direction of the case, Gross, the chief legal officer, says he replaced Jones Day with Miers and Locke Purnell. Miers, along with Philadelphia-based attorneys from Blank Rome, took the case against Southwest Securities to trial. The jury awarded the company about $1.7 million in damages and attorney fees, although the parties reached a confidential settlement while the case was on appeal. Throughout this period, Miers continued to advise then-Gov. Bush on everything from policy to judicial nominations. Once, in 1994, she got the governor dismissed from a wrongful termination suit brought by the manager of a fishing club where Bush was a member. Eventually, her work for Bush brought her into legal wrangling over the 2000 election — in Texas. The little-known case, filed by a number of Texas citizens, alleged that the Republican presidential ticket violated the 12th Amendment, which bars having presidential and vice presidential candidates from the same state. The crux of the plaintiffs’ argument: that vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney had lived in Texas. The court sided with the candidates, finding that Cheney’s recent change of residence from Dallas to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he had served six terms in Congress, was sufficient to satisfy the Constitution. Of course, not all Miers’ cases were winners. In 1996, as local counsel to Security Life of Denver Insurance Co., Miers tried to stave off certification of a class action concerning claims that the company had misled customers with so-called vanishing premiums for its life insurance policies. After the class was certified, Miers, along with co-counsel in Washington and Florida, was fired, says Fred Misko, a plaintiffs attorney in the case. Misko says the case settled in 2000 for about $50 million. “They had a really bad position on the law and the facts,” Misko says. Still, he adds, Miers “made the very best she could on a losing position.” In between her cases and political appointments, Miers was elected managing partner of her law firm in 1996 while sitting on the Texas Lottery Commission. It was a time of explosive growth and increasing competition in the legal market, and her former partners say her consensus-building and low-key style helped steer the firm through good and bad. “She’s very intelligent and very tough-minded, and yet she is very fair and had a very strong sense of right and wrong,” says Robert See, the firm’s managing partner just before Miers’ ascension. Miers’ biggest accomplishment was shepherding her firm through a highly successful merger with Houston-based Liddell, Sapp, Zivley, Hill & LaBoon, which transformed the firm from a 200-attorney Dallas shop to a more than 400-lawyer regional power.”She’s a very tough negotiator, a good businesswoman,” says Bruce LaBoon, the former head of Liddell, Sapp, who became co-managing partner with Miers in the merged firm. Yet shortly after the merger, Miers’ firm was hit with a lawsuit alleging that attorneys at the firm had aided a client in defrauding investors in a foreign-exchange trading company run by Russell Erxleben, a former University of Texas football star. Erxleben pleaded guilty to criminal securities fraud, and Locke Liddell settled a related civil suit for $22 million in 2000, according to Locke Liddell’s Clements. Whatever the troubles, Miers maintained the confidence of her colleagues, and her leadership came to a close only when that very unusual client, now-President Bush, brought her to Washington in 2001 for work that was anything but ordinary.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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