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.

"Our malpractice insurer," he says, "tells us this is the single area where there is the greatest concentration of malpractice suits. And I think it's because you're dealing with individuals, many of them in an emotional state ... a lot of them have differences of opinion [on] what was left to them, whether that was proper. Or how wills should be interpreted.

"What happened with us [in the Moran case] was we found ourselves in a situation where we represented these executors and they were fighting among themselves and that difficulty was compounded by the fact the beneficiaries were fighting among themselves."

The lawyer still seems stunned that a jury found in favor of the Morans.
"I couldn't believe it," he recalls of the day the jury verdict was announced. "I thought there was no basis for them coming back with it."

Attwell reiterates Reasoner's claim that his board memberships did not constitute a conflict of interest. "Obviously, in retrospect," he says, "we would have clearly said, 'Here are all the things with Seagull. What do you want to know about our relationship with Seagull?' We would have just handed [Pat Moran] a proxy statement of Seagull, handed him a proxy statement of First City Bancorporation that shows all our relationships. That's hindsight, because that's the basis on which they made their case."

But testimony during the trial from Steve Peterson, a former counsel to the State Bar of Texas, ran directly counter to Attwell's reasoning.

"The responsibility is the attorney's responsibility to disclose," Peterson told the jury. "Disclosing from some other source just doesn't count." Such omissions, Peterson went on, "can work harm to the client. Because the client now is not armed with the information necessary to make a rational and reasonable decision as to whether to continue the representation."

In 1988, V&E partner Donald Wood, the same lawyer who Pat Moran says warned him of the consequences of fighting the firm, wrote Attwell a memo in which he reported that Moran was pushing to limit Vinson & Elkins' representation of the estate.

"As a result of Pat's decision, it seems certain that the level of our representation of the estate will significantly decline," Wood reported. He added, in a handwritten note out to the side of the memo's typed text, "Obviously, his current actions are not of benefit to our firm."

To Pat Moran, that notation tells the world exactly where Vinson & Elkins strayed from the practice of ethical jurisprudence.

"This is turning the whole concept on its head," he says. "I, as a lawyer, can tell you that never, ever in my career did the thought ever cross my mind that a client should be acting in my best interest. I always understood it was the other way around."

Attwell says he "didn't necessarily interpret" the note that way. Rather, he says, he viewed it more as an attempt by Wood to help a V&E associate seeking to make partner by explaining to Attwell just how difficult the work on the Moran estate had become. But, Attwell concedes, "I guess everybody could put their own interpretation on the matter. I took it from a different perspective."

When asked whether he was let down by the firm he helped build to a pinnacle of power by not being allowed to testify in the trial, the former managing partner was reflective.

"I don't think the firm let me down," he said. Then his voice dropped to an almost inaudible murmur as he added, "The firm always supported me in anything I did or wanted to do."

It's possible the legacy of that past freedom will be giving Harry Reasoner headaches for years to come.

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