By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
Your January 23 story on John O'Quinn ["O'Quinn Unzipped," by Mary Flood] brought to mind a phone call I got from O'Quinn's secretary in 1989. I'd never met the man, but I certainly had heard of him. We met for lunch, where we talked about our work, growing up and maybe playing some basketball. Then O'Quinn handed me a $5,000 check. At the time I ran Texans United, a nonprofit environmental organization doing battle with petrochemical companies. He said we were doing the Lord's work and he wanted to help out. It was an unexpected and much needed contribution.
Once a year, for three or four years after that, O'Quinn hosted a fundraiser and contributed to our work helping communities poisoned by corporate polluters. Not once did he ever suggest or hint that we send him clients -- even though we were in a position to do so. Later, O'Quinn turned down a multimillion-dollar fee from a would-be client who wanted to build a controversial hazardous waste facility near Lake Houston. I know because I saw a copy of the contract.
I don't run in John's circles and haven't spoken to him for more than a year. What little I know says he may be a complicated person -- but a greedy case-running lawyer he's not. Clearly, some things are more important to him than money. O'Quinn wins for victims against powerful corporations and the best defense firms they can buy. That's the one significant thing that sets him apart from the lawyers who are not targeted for investigation, but should be.
Your article on John O'Quinn provides a new opportunity to examine whether and to what extent attorneys should be permitted to seek out potential customers.
Newspaper people, who are rightly concerned about protecting freedoms of speech and press, regularly fail to notice that seeking business is itself a form of communication.
The acceptability of different forms of solicitation reflects the fact that the powerful make the rules. When a lawyer seeks out a person who is likely to need counsel due to a recent injury (often on the job), that is labeled "ambulance chasing." How often do you think the organized bar has been concerned about solicitation of business during a round of golf at an expensive private country club or an expense-account lunch at a fancy restaurant?
The organized bar, including the State Bar of Texas and the American Bar Association (I am a member of both organizations), has long sought to stifle price competition within the bar (through minimum fee schedules) and the seeking of business. It took decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, over the vigorous opposition of the bar, to permit any advertising or solicitation for clients. The ads for lawyers that appear in the Press every week would have been illegal under bar rules only a few years ago.
A related way in which the law limits competition is by requiring that simple tasks related to legal matters be performed only by lawyers. Assistance with uncontested divorces, preparation of wills and the purchase of a home are everyday examples. Recently, the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston refused to permit an officer of a corporation to deliver a cash deposit [to cover] costs with the court. In plain English, the individual could not give money to the court, either on his own behalf or for the corporation. According to the court, both the individual and the organization had to pay a lawyer to perform this ministerial task. Imagine if you were not permitted to deposit money in your bank account, but had to hire a lawyer or banker to do so on your behalf.
Pious observations by professions about protecting the public disguise the fact that usually the profession, rather than the public, is the primary beneficiary of this "protection."
Stephen K. Huber
Benton Musslewhite's Grievance
Regarding the article about John O'Quinn: While I understand that it involves so-called "public figures," thus giving the writer more liberties with the facts (and while I do appreciate the diligence that Mary Flood employed in writing the story), I am compelled to point out three glaring mistakes that create unjustified, adverse impressions about me:
1. The article reports that "Bob Loving [was] a private investigator who worked for Benton Musslewhite ...." This is not a correct statement. Bob Loving did not back then, and does not now, work for me.
2. The article reports that I "was suspended from practicing law for three years for contacting victims of a North rig disaster in 1988." Again, this statement is absolutely incorrect. I was not accused of contacting any of the victims or their families in the Piper Alpha disaster. In fact, Steve Smoot, who as the assistant general counsel of the State Bar testified at the revocation proceedings, admitted that after spending several days in Scotland investigating the matter, he could not find a single victim or family member who had been contacted by me. The essence of the charges with regard to the Piper Alpha disaster were that we (I and the team of lawyers with whom I worked) had issued a press release and held a press conference that somehow violated the "advertising rules" of the State Bar.
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