Having outlived the good ol' boy era, when it had a hand in every deal, houston legal giant

Vinson & Elkins is entangled in a legacy of litigation from its past.

"We stood up to them, we went after them, and we kept going after them," she says. "Now they are saying we victimized them. These are moral eunuchs -- they have no moral sense of the injustice of what they have done. They have the power and control, they use shame, they violate families at a very vulnerable time."

Neither Pat nor Ann Moran looks much like a victim.
Husky and round-faced, 47-year-old Pat Moran lives with his family in a sprawling ranch-style home on a forested acre in the tony Memorial-area enclave of Hunter's Creek Village. His sister Ann -- "Sissy," as he calls her -- is an earnest, middle-aged brunette who now resides in Seattle and holds a doctorate in public health from Harvard.

Both Morans exude the self-assurance of people who were born into wealth and are familiar with its entitlements. But probe beneath that veneer with a mention of their ongoing battle against Vinson & Elkins, and you'll tap a gusher of unrefined outrage. For Pat and Ann Moran do indeed see themselves as victims. They are, in fact, charter members of what must be the wealthiest victims' rights group in existence, a collection of heirs who claim Vinson & Elkins attorneys cost them millions in lost assets through mismanagement and by failing to disclose potential conflicts that lawyers for the firm may have had in estate-related transactions.

Another member in good standing is Betsy Mecom, daughter of the late oilman John Mecom, whose lawsuit against Vinson & Elkins accused the firm of mismanaging her inheritance and having a conflict of interest in representing both her and her then-husband, Don Mullins.

Larry Doherty, a lawyer who specializes in suing other lawyers for malpractice and negotiated a sizable settlement from V&E on behalf of Mecom, says the firm's history in Houston has spawned a genre of jokes in legal circles, including the well-circulated one-liner that "Vinson & Elkins never met a conflict it didn't like."

"It's not just notorious," elaborates Doherty, a bald, wildly expressive man with bulging eyes who seems perpetually to be trying a case to an invisible jury. "[The lawsuits] are something of a prophetic payback. Vinson & Elkins lawyers used to surreptitiously refer to themselves as the 'second seat of government in Texas.' The truth of the matter is that kind of arrogance could not go unrewarded very long ... Texas is bigger than V&E."

Doherty recalls that early in the discovery phase of the Mecom case, he asked a lawyer he was considering using as an expert on the firm whether a young attorney could rise to the top at V&E "simply by administering a wealthy person's estate and maximizing the person's income and charging them hours and seeing they kept all their money and saved all their coupons and dotted all their I's and T's.

"He just fell out laughing," Doherty says. "That was not the pathway to partnership. You need to get in and actively do something with the client and their money, and move it around and justify your existence. And you were expected to show some creative interaction to rise in the ranks."

To this day, a monthly "heroes sheet" circulates among V&E lawyers, listing the attorneys who billed the most hours to clients. According to former partners, the heroes sheet provides suggestive role models for aspiring associates.

Veterans of lawsuits against V&E are a select crew, and they trade information and advice, sharing the juiciest depositions from past cases and researching earlier instances of alleged conflicts of interest by the firm. Betsy Mecom even extended that cooperation by putting Ann Moran up at her Bayou Bend apartment for several months while Moran's lawsuit was being tried.

Among the cases that form that body of lore mined by V&E opponents is a suit filed by the George Foundation of Fort Bend County, to which V&E returned $1.5 million in legal fees rung up by a partner who served as trustee and decided his entire practice could consist of working the foundation for the firm. Vinson & Elkins prefers to characterize the settlement as a "donation" given to the foundation over a five-year period, but Evans Attwell acknowledges that V&E asked the partner to leave the firm after the episode. And there is the suit lodged by heirs of Central Texas oilman Herman F. Heep, who in 1991 extracted an $11 million settlement from Vinson & Elkins for actions that apparently occurred three decades earlier.

The recipient of one sizable settlement from the law firm says moral and tactical support is needed in successfully fighting an institution such as Vinson & Elkins.

"Their reputation in Texas and Houston is that they are so powerful, and they use it to control businesses and families. It's hell to come up against them because you've got to take on the whole city. They tried to get me to break, but it just made me stronger."

Harry Reasoner is Vinson & Elkins' present and its foreseeable future. Elected by the firm's partners to his first biennial term as managing partner four years ago, Reasoner is an affable, bespectacled man with dark, wavy hair and an athletic frame. At 56, he is the human face of the impersonally large 20-section law firm. When he learns his questioner has not invested in mutual funds, he solicitously suggests, "If you don't, you should. You need to start putting away some money. Dangerous to have faith in the Social Security system at your age."

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