When CEOs failed to follow in the footsteps of Dallas' Old Guard leaders, lawyers stepped up to plate. Now, with the increasing number of attorneys in civic roles, lawyers are the city's new power brokers. PLUS: Our exclusive list of the top 180 attorneys in 20 specialities, as selected by thier peers.
by Wick Allison
Why Lawyers Now Run Dallas
Everybody expected CEOs to take the place of the Old Guard leaders, but they didn't. That's why lawyers are the city's new power brokers—and its new power holders.
A QUIET REVOLUTION HAS TAKEN PLACE in the power structure of Dallas. It has been so long in the making and so subtle in its emergence that, as far as I know, nobody has noticed it until now. Once recognized, it is self-evident. The reasons for it, I believe, are understandable given what has gone on in American cities and in business in the last two decades. It should have even been predictable, although nobody I know who writes about cities or about power elites predicted it. I am talking, of course, about the rise of the lawyer at the power center of the city.
To give but one example (the example that alerted me to the phenomenon and caused me to write about it): a few weeks ago, I was invited to a discreet breakfast meeting downtown to discuss a particular city problem. After I had ordered my corn flakes, I was introduced to the others at the table. It didn't strike me until halfway through the meeting that of my five compatriots, five different law firms were represented. As far as legal matters were concerned, I was the only civilian at the table. But the meeting had nothing whatsoever to do with the law (and if it had, five lawyers would have had five different opinions, so what good would it have done?).
The meeting I attended is not an unusual experience anymore. Look at the leadership of any charity or civic venture in Dallas, and you'll see a lawyer at or near the top. When the business community wanted to pursue a bid for the Olympics, they recruited a lawyer, Tom Luce, the co-founder of Hughes & Luce, to lead the effort. That shouldn't surprise anyone, because the organization that epitomizes the city's business community, the Dallas Citizens Council, has been chaired for several years by Mike Boone, co-founder of Haynes and Boone. In fact, Boone so far has held the second-longest tenure of any chairman in the Council's history. Where business executives once ruled, lawyers now dominate. When the mayor wanted an examination of the city's governance, she called on David Laney of Jackson Walker to head the Charter Review Commission. When the mayor wanted a change at the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, she was able to dislodge chairman—and lawyer—Chris Luna. But Luna still holds his position as chair of the Dallas Assembly.
While there are good reasons for it, there is also certain irony in the proliferation of attorneys in the leadership slots of the city. For decades, the Dallas Citizens Council—formed by bankers Bob Thornton, Fred Florence, and Nate Adams to comprise the "yes or no" men of Dallas—had as a firm rule that no lawyers would be admitted. They wanted as members only owners of companies or progenitors of great wealth who could make a decision without having to consult with a board of directors or a group of partners. Lawyers were seen as agents, not as doers.
The first crack in the old-line position occurred in the mid-1970s when, after much internal debate, the Citizens Council decided to hire a full-time director to manage its activities. Up until then, the Council's affairs had been run by the business leaders themselves. When the decision was made, insurance magnate Ben Carpenter groused to a young associate named Rick Douglas (later president of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce) that it was the end of the Council as an effective organization. From then on, he said, people would leave the fate of their city to "hired hands." The first of these hired hands was the recently retired Dallas city attorney, Alex Bickley, who was brought on board in 1976 as executive vice president.
The second crack in the surface of the business establishment was more of a thrown-open door. While Bickley worked hard to maintain the clout of the old-line business establishment—often resorting to lawyerly bluster where quiet persuasion had worked before—there was no doubt that, as the 1980s began, the members of the Old Guard were beginning to fade. A new generation of leaders was emerging in Dallas. Among them was a youngish lawyer by the name of Johnny Johnson, who had not only founded the fastest-growing law firm in Dallas, at that time named Hewitt Johnson, but who also numbered among his clients a fellow SMU graduate named Ray Hunt, scion of the second Hunt fortune and a growing force in Dallas civic affairs. (Hunt and Johnson were also board members of D Magazine's parent company at the time.)
Johnson made his presence felt first in 1981 by organizing and leading a successful public campaign to throw out an incumbent school board and replace it with a reform slate. The next year he was invited to chair the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, a slot in the Dallas power structure that had never before been held by an attorney. As a result of his new position, and under Hunt's patronage, in 1983 he became the first lawyer to be invited to join the Dallas Citizens Council.
Once the dam broke, the flood began. Johnson was the first of the law firm's managing partners to be invited to Dallas' most prestigious table, but within a decade lawyers came to be counted among the Council's most dependable members. In the last five years, lawyers became instrumental in all areas of our civic life. Attorney Susan Mead was not only the first woman to chair the Central Business District Association, but she also founded the Downtown Partnership (with Gerald Sampson, then COO of Neiman Marcus) to stimulate development of Main Street. Darrell Jordan has headed up the Cotton Bowl Committee. Jesse Oliver has been chairman of DART. Santiago Salinas is the vice chairman of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport Board.
There are two good reasons why lawyers have stepped into civic roles. To understand them, we first should remind ourselves why the Dallas Citizens Council was formed in the first place. The motivating rationale came from R.L. Thornton. He felt that businesses and banks in Dallas spent too much effort competing against each other, everyone fighting to get a slightly bigger piece of what was actually a small pie. Thornton suggested everyone's time would be better spent if they worked together to make the pie bigger. If Dallas grew, their businesses would grow, real estate would be worth more, bank deposits would swell. The Dallas Citizens Council became the engine they used to build a little town on the prairie into the seventh largest city in the United States.
These were big businessmen, yes, but they were a different breed of businessmen from people who do big business today. To start with, they were owners. On top of that, they were owners in a particular place—Dallas. If Dallas went belly-up, they would have to pack up and move. If Dallas boomed, they would boom.
The first reason lawyers have moved into the lead in so many civic roles is that those owners no longer exist. Their businesses and banks were bought up in the great wave of consolidation that has characterized American business over the last two decades. Large businesses aren't run by owners; they are run by CEOs. Those CEOs report not to their peers in the city, but to the financial markets. Their concerns are not about new stores in North Dallas, but about new stores in Guangzhou. They have nothing to gain—and a lot to lose—by getting embroiled in local controversies. Their only real tie to Dallas is that many of their employees work here. But many of their employees work in Stuttgart, too. CEOs don't act like the old owners, first of all, because they aren't owners. Second of all, because they don't depend on Dallas for their revenues.
Managing partners of major law firms act like owners because they are owners. Their law firms depend on business being done in Dallas. They can open offices in Houston, Austin, Washington, even Mexico City, but the cash flow starts here. If Dallas dried up, their firms would split up. So, like the owners of old, like the Stemmonses and Carpenters and Cullums, it is in the self-interest of the lawyer to make sure the city prospers. The more hospitable the climate is for business, the more business will be done here. If downtown is a turn-off to a new business, it is in the interest of the major law firms to spend time and effort and money to invigorate downtown. Do that first—make the pie bigger—and then there will be an opportunity later to compete to get the new client who moves to Dallas because of the sex appeal of our downtown. If there are no new clients, there will be nothing to compete for.
Self-interest is the first reason lawyers have stepped into the breach, and it is the best reason a city could hope for, because it is a reason without illusion, without sentiment, and without any sign of going away. It is the kind of reason that gets things done.
The second reason is that clients want lawyers who have clout. Rainmaking is often a matter of making power connections. Not only do those connections bring in more business, but they also establish lines into the power centers where decisions are made. A law firm without the perception of clout is a law firm that will soon be depending on trusts and estates to scratch a living.
To my mind, there is a huge benefit to having lawyers step in to fill this leadership role in the life of a city. Lawyers are intellectuals. They make their livelihood by their wits. They are trained—those that are trained well—to think things through, to watch for consequences, to be foresighted. They are also well-equipped to deal with a public process that in the modern world must involve different constituencies, solicit opinions, and forge compromises—all of which would drive an owner accustomed to getting his own way up the wall with frustration. Cities are complicated creatures, and these are the kinds of qualities that politicians, who are necessarily short-sighted and often dumb, don't bring to a city's leadership.
Lawyers are also advocates. Most business people are fairly inarticulate, as well as fairly narrow, in their interests and their understanding of the outside world. When it comes to politics, business people are, in fact, downright naive. Lawyers may be lots of things, but they are not naive.
For better or for worse, lawyers are our new power elite. As far as I can tell, they've arrived at the top just in the nick of time. I can't think of a time when Dallas needed a new power establishment more.
A jury of their peers selected the top 180 attorney in 20 specialties.
Before you object to the subjective nature of this list, let us explain how we did it. D Magazine mailed ballots to 3,000 attorneys across Dallas-Fort Worth who were licensed to practice with the State Bar before 1994, asking them to vote for the lawyers who represent the best of the profession. The ballot was also posted on our web site.
We asked each attorney this question: "Which Dallas lawyer, of those whose work you've witnessed firsthand, would rank among the current best? Your answers may include co-counsel, lawyers you have observed in court, opposing counsel, etc." With that question in mind, lawyers were asked to name three lawyers—one from inside and two from outside their law firms. Self-nominations were not counted, and attorneys had to nominate at least one lawyer from outside their firm for their same-firm vote to be valid.
That said, we took great pains to prevent any bias in favor of large firms and to prevent ballot-box stuffing. We hired a marketing research company to tally the votes. Same-firm votes were assigned less weight than outside-firm votes, so a large number of same-firm votes did not guarantee a best listing. Only ballots signed by the attorney with his or her State Bar number were counted. We also enlisted the help of a panel of well-respected attorneys to review the list. Final decisions regarding confusing ballots or close calls were deferred to our committee.