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Two East Texas lawyers are gearing up for a high-stakes race for president-elect of the State Bar of Texas. The winner of the race between Guy N. Harrison of Longview and John R. Mercy of Texarkana will lead the Bar through the “sunset” process during the 2002-2003 term. Despite the grueling session that Bar officials experienced in 1991 — the last time the Legislature evaluated the agency under the Sunset Act — Harrison and Mercy say they aren’t overly concerned about the upcoming review. “I think the Bar can put its best foot forward,” says Harrison, a solo with 27 years of experience. “I look at sunset as an opportunity to tell the Legislature what the Bar has been doing since the last sunset.” Mercy, a 19-year law veteran and partner in Mercy, Carter & Elliott, has a similar view about the legislative review that the Bar undergoes every 12 years. “I think sunset is really an opportunity for the Bar to highlight what it does do, both for the public and the members,” he says. However, Bar leaders found themselves in a defensive mode in 1991, especially in the 150-member House of Representatives. During the House debate, Bar opponents portrayed the agency as a boozing, spendthrift collection of hacks who take advantage of state services but ignore state requirements. ” ‘It was not really a debate, it was sort of a slam-the-State Bar session,’ ” Hughes & Luce partner Darrell Jordan, a former Bar president, was quoted as saying after the House considered the bill. During that 1991 debate, Rep. Steve Wolens, a Dallas Democrat and partner in Baron & Budd, tried unsuccessfully to attach an amendment to the sunset bill that would have replaced the Bar with a state agency to handle discipline and licensing and leave its other functions to a voluntary association. The Bar emerged from the session intact but severely battered. Bar President Lynne Liberato, a partner in Haynes and Boone in Houston, says the problems identified in the grievance process during the 1991 sunset review have been resolved. Liberato says the Bar president and the Bar directors from each district now have no control over the workings of the grievance system. “There’s no way a lawyer can come to his local Bar director and say, ‘Help me out in the grievance process.’ That simply can’t happen,” she says. Public members also have been included on grievance panels, Liberato says, noting that each three-member panel includes one member who represents the public at large. She says the process also has been changed to make it easier for members of the public to file grievances, and the Bar must investigate every legitimate grievance. Frank Newton, dean of the Texas Tech University School of Law and a former Bar president, says efforts are under way to strengthen and improve legal services to the poor in civil matters. The proposed Access to Justice Commission that’s expected to be created in April will provide a multifaceted approach to meeting the legal needs of low-income Texans. Newton says the Bar probably will have “smooth sailing” in the next sunset review. If neither the grievance process nor pro bono is run exclusively by the Bar, he questions, “What is there left for the Legislature to shoot at?” However, Newton says some people question whether there is still a need for a mandatory Bar or whether a voluntary association could handle the remaining functions. One function that a voluntary association couldn’t handle is collecting the $200-a-year occupation tax that lawyers must pay to prevent the suspension of their law licenses. Liberato says the fact that this year’s nominees were selected from smaller communities should be a plus during the sunset review process because most legislators come from nonmetropolitan areas. PAST SERVICE According to the State Bar of Texas Policy Manual, in August prior to the nomination in January, the Nominations and Elections Committee chair of the State Bar of Texas board of directors notifies local bar associations and State Bar divisions, sections and committees that the election process has begun. Names and background information of potential candidates are requested. The Bar has a three-year cycle. One year nominees come from metropolitan areas, the next year nominees come from nonmetropolitan areas, and the third year, nominees can be from either a metro or nonmetro area. The committee screens potential candidates and recommends two. The nominees are presented at the January board meeting. Broadus Spivey, the Bar’s president-elect, says he’s happy to have two trial lawyers as the nominees. “Trial lawyers know how to approach legislators,” says Spivey, of Austin’s Spivey & Ainsworth. “I think either John or I will be able to make a good presentation and relate to those who are on the [sunset] committee,” Harrison says. According to both candidates, one of the areas in which the Bar can show that it has tried to provide leadership is indigent criminal defense. In December 2000, a Bar committee sponsored a two-day symposium in Austin to give participants from around the state an opportunity to discuss possible solutions. Harrison, 54, is a graduate of the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law. His practice includes family law, personal injury, general practice and mediations. Describing himself as a small-town practitioner, Harrison says he is particularly proud of the advancement of the mediation process in East Texas. Mercy, 44, received his degree from Baylor University School of Law. He started his firm in January 2000 after spending 17 years at the Texarkana firm of Atchley, Russell, Waldrop & Hlavinka and is board-certified in personal-injury trial, civil trial and civil appellate law. In 1998, Mercy convinced the Texas Supreme Court to overturn a $100 million verdict against a railroad client, in Southwest Electric Power Co. v. Burlington Northern Railroad Co. The railroad had been accused of overcharging the utility for coal hauled from Wyoming to Texas. Mercy says that he wants to make the Bar “user-friendly.” Bar leaders typically are “large-firm, big-city lawyers,” but the majority of members are in firms with five lawyers or less, Mercy says, adding that he wants to make sure the Bar makes its services available to lawyers in smaller communities. Lawyers in small towns shouldn’t just hear from the Bar about CLE, dues and filed grievances, he says. The new “My Texas Bar” Web portal sponsored by the Bar is a “pretty good start” at making more services available, Mercy says, but he wants to see more done. Harrison wants to reach out to future lawyers and hopes to make it part of the Bar president’s job to visit each law school in the state. There are several thousand potential lawyers in the schools who may not know what the Bar does and think it is a trade association instead of the administrative arm of the Texas Supreme Court, he says. “They need to know … what they should expect of us, what our job is,” Harrison says. Both candidates have served the Bar in various capacities in the past. Harrison served as chairman of the Bar’s board of directors during 1997-1998 following a three-year term as a director from District 2. He previously has served on the Bar’s local grievance committee and last year chaired a Bar task force that reviewed the organization’s committee structure. He also is a member of the Gregg County Bar Association and the Gregg County Family Law Council. Mercy served as a District 1 director on the Bar board from 1995-1998 and is a former board member of the Texas Young Lawyers Association. He also is a former president of the Texarkana Bar Association and is a member of the Northeast Texas and Arkansas bar associations. Harrison and Mercy are making plans to hit the campaign trail beginning March 15 and hope to shake as many hands as possible before they have to stop campaigning on April 16, when the Bar sends out the ballots. “I’m going to do what is traditionally done and walk through as many law firms as I can in the big cities and contact as many people as I can,” Mercy says. Harrison also plans to make the firm circuit and says he’s looking forward to the campaign. “I enjoy visiting with lawyers,” he says. Returned ballots for the race will be counted May 1 in Austin. Kimberly Schmitt, spokeswoman for the State Bar of Texas, says a decision has not been made if the counting will be done by an outside company or by Bar staff.

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