Joining Forces

The eight lawyers at Houston litigation boutique Powers & Frost are now working at Wilson Elser in Houston. Sharla Frost, a founding partner of Powers & Frost who is the new regional managing partner of Wilson Elser’s 20-lawyer Houston office, says the opportunity to join the 800-lawyer Wilson Elser on Jan. 1 was simply too good to pass up. “We had been on our own for a long time and survived the worst of tort reform. The more we investigated and pondered it, it seemed like the right thing to do,” she says. Because of Powers & Frost’s small size, Frost says the lawyers at the 18-year-old firm were missing out on some big litigation. Recently, she says, did didn’t get hired for a couple of “very significant assignments” — one in New York City and one in Los Angeles — because the firm didn’t have offices in one of those cities. That won’t be a problem at Wilson Elser, she says, because the firm has offices in both cities among its 25 offices. “A lot of corporate clients were just hesitant to send significant work to a firm our size. Some were very straightforward about it. We did a lot of soul searching and due diligence and concluded it was time to do something different,” Frost says. The move has been a long time in the works. In February 2012, Frost says, she met with E. Stratton Horres Jr., the regional managing partner at the firm’s 30-lawyer Dallas office, for a 45-minute coffee before she rushed out of town for a trial. “We just really hit it off…His was the first message on my desk when I got back from trial. We just started talking from there,” Frost says. Frost says the negotiations progressed slowly, in part, due to some conflicts that needed to be resolved. Also, she says, it made sense to make the move at year end. Horres, also Wilson Elser’s lateral hiring partner, says it was clear to him from the start after his first meeting with Frost that the Powers & Frost lawyers would be a good fit for his firm, which is 85 percent litigation. “They do a lot of what we already do nationally,” he says, noting the lawyers’ toxic tort and products liability defense work. Horres says the firm wanted to expand its Houston office because of litigation opportunities in Texas. The firm moved into Dallas in 1992 and Houston in 1997. In addition to Frost, others who joined Wilson Elser in Houston from Powers & Frost are of counsel James Powers, Gwendolyn Frost, Shawn Golden, Clive Markland and Laura Rahman and associates Chandria Jackson and Michelle Scheiffele. Frost says clients the group brought with them to Wilson Elser include Georgia Pacific LLC of Atlanta, Pfizer Inc. of New York and Union Carbide Corp. of Houston. Horres notes that Wilson Elser is looking to expand elsewhere in Texas, and also opened an office in Milwaukee, Wis., on Jan. 1.

Running Start

Brand new 3rd Court Justice Scott Field is not wasting any time. Normally, it takes weeks and sometimes months before a new Texas appellate justice puts his or her name on a signed opinion. After all, there are many things to do before getting around to writing opinions including: hiring a staff; attending oral arguments; going to conferences and finding out exactly where the bathroom is at the court. So, it was a surprise to see Scott K. Field’s name on James Seth Hicks v. IndyMac Mortgage Services, an opinion released Jan. 9 by Austin’s 3rd Court of Appeals. That brief opinion dismissing an appeal was released a mere eight days after Field was sworn in as a 3rd Court justice by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, a former chief justice of that court. “We really tried to hit the ground running,” says Field, who replaced former justice Diane Henson on the court. “One thing that helped is I decided to keep Judge Henson’s staff attorneys. They know what they’re doing and have really helped my transition.” So far, Field says he’s happy with his new gig and enjoys the research aspect of the job, something he did plenty of in his previous life as an appellate attorney and former Texas Supreme Court briefing attorney. “I feel like it’s been a smooth adjustment,” he says. Next up for Field is getting his picture and biography posted on the 3rd Court’s website. “I have not had my judge picture taken yet. I had a clerk come by last week and say ‘Hey, we need a photo and a bio.’ “

Texas Firms Recognized

Greg Bopp, a partner in Bracewell & Giuliani, who serves as co-head of its business and regulatory practices, believes his Houston firm’s appearance on a recently published roster of the top 25 advisory firms for worldwide completed deals in 2012 may be unprecedented. Bracewell, which ranked as 25th on the list Thomson Reuters published Jan. 7, may not ever before have appeared in that top group for worldwide performance, Bopp says. Thomson Reuters ranked the firms on the list according to the aggregate dollar value of the worldwide deals for which the firms provided advice in 2012. Bracewell moved up to the 25th ranking in 2012 from its 109th ranking on the same list in 2011. Bopp says Bracewell’s appearance reflects the firm being “exceedingly busy,” due to the rise in deals in the energy sector last year. “It was a terrific year for an energy practice firm,” he says. Only one other Texas-based firm, Vinson & Elkins, made it on the list of top 25, placing in the 20th spot. V&E had ranked as 32nd on the same Thomson Reuters list for 2011. Keith Fullenweider, a V&E partner and group leader of the firm’s M&A and private equity practices, as well as member of the firm’s management committee, says sometimes one very large deal —”with a lot of zeros” — explains a firm’s ranking movements on such lists. But Fullenweider says, in V&E’s case in 2012, the rise in the rankings reflects not “one mega deal” but a lot of “nice-size transactions.” Says Fullenweider: “That’s our sweet spot.”

Pro Bono Opportunity

Alberto Garcia, a solo criminal-defense lawyer in Austin and University of Texas School of Law graduate, had hoped to join students from the law school when they traveled to the Rio Grande Valley this week. On Jan. 6, some 30 UT law school students and faculty members left for the Valley to set up temporary pro bono clinics to assist youths who are petitioning for relief under the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) federal program. They are scheduled to stay through Jan. 11. In the fall, after Congress failed to pass the more permanent DREAM Act legislation, President Barack Obama implemented DACA with an executive order as a regulatory band-aid solution for children of illegal immigrants who have lived most of their lives in this country. The DACA rules allow those youths to apply to gain temporary legal residency in the United States. Garcia had participated in all six of the similar clinics for DACA applicants that the UT law school students and faculty, led by Professor Barbara Hines, had set up in Travis County before the holiday break. At those Travis County clinics, Garcia, the students and faculty, and other volunteer attorneys, helped high school students who were DACA petitioners complete forms and compile documents to comply with the program. Hines says Garcia stood out among the many lawyers in the community who chipped in, based on his persistence. Garcia says he learned a lot and gained much from the experience, most notably, an opportunity to help young people, who, like himself, were not born in this country, but who, unlike him, had not had the advantages he had gained from his mother acquiring legal residency for him. “I have been a supporter of reforming our current immigration laws, especially for young people,” Garcia says. So buoyed by his experience at the fall clinics, Garcia had wanted to go to the Valley the week of Jan. 7 but the demands of his criminal practice after the holidays made that impossible, he says. But Hines says other opportunities will arise for Garcia and other interested lawyers to lend a helping hand since, based on the success of the previous clinics, she plans to set up more in Travis County this year.

No Legislative Continuances

Jan. 8 was opening day of the Texas legislative session in Austin. But one traditional component appears to be absent: legislative continuances. By state law, Texas lawmakers who are also attorneys in cases in state courts are allowed to delay proceedings in those cases for a period of time that begins a month before a legislative session starts until a month after the session ends. As a result of reforms the Texas Legislature passed in 2003, lawmakers must disclose publicly their requested continuances in reports to the Texas Ethics Commission. According to a Jan. 7 email from Tim Sorrells, the general counsel of the TEC, “[T]here have been no legislative continuances filed since 2011.” Historically, many lawmaker-litigators sought legislative continuances. According to the most recent report on the topic — issued in 2006 by the Austin-based nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice — between September 2003 and September 2005, 32 lawmakers sought 431 legislative continuances in Texas court cases. Since TPJ issued that report, however, Craig McDonald, the group’s executive director, says his organization has found in unpublished studies that the number of legislative continuances has dropped. McDonald says he therefore is not surprised to learn that no lawmakers have yet reported continuance requests to the TEC for the upcoming session. But, McDonald cautions, an absence of reports to the TEC does not rule out the possibility a lawmaker or two have sought legislative continuances in cases but failed to report their actions to the TEC.

Cruz News

The confirmation process for Texas federal judges just became really interesting. Shortly after Vice President Joe Biden swore in Ted Cruz on Jan. 3, Cruz landed a plum assignment on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The freshman senator’s voicemail box at the U.S. Capitol was full on Jan. 4. But judging by his recent Facebook post, it was pretty clear which of his committee assignments is his favorite: “Looking forward to serving with my Senate colleagues on Judiciary, Commerce, Armed Services, Rules, & Aging Committees,” Cruz writes. It is rare for a state to seat two senators on the Judiciary Committee, which has the important job of deciding whether to confirm the president’s federal judicial nominees. Texas certainly has not two members on that committee in recent memory. Cruz’s fellow Republican committee member U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has taken on a prominent role on the committee in recent years. He’s been heavily involved in managing the candidates selected for White House approval, even calling press conferences when he disagrees with Texas Democratic congressional caucus over individual judicial candidates. Cruz and Cornyn undoubtedly will play key roles in reviewing candidates for the many federal judicial vacancies in Texas: currently five district court benches and two seats on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. President Barack Obama has seated several district court judges in Texas and two justices on the 5th Circuit, but neither appellate jurist hales from the Lone Star State. Despite how politically heated the judicial nomination process has become in recent years, Cornyn has never used what’s known as the blue-slip process to block any of Obama’s district court appointments in Texas. Cruz — a Harvard Law grad, former Texas solicitor general and big firm partner — certainly will have good grasp of the legal players in Texas who may become judicial candidates. He could follow Cornyn’s lead in working with the White House to fill some big holes in the Texas federal judiciary — or not. The choice is his.