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White had interned for then-congressman Bob Krueger, and in his final year in law school he worked on Krueger's losing senatorial bid against eventual winner John Tower. As the law review editor and top student in his class, White could have followed a typical career path for elite graduates: applying to federal judges for a clerkship. However, White made only one application, to Washington, D.C., appellate judge Malcolm Wilkie, a moderate Republican from Houston appointed by President Richard Nixon.
At the end of the job interview, however, White shocked Wilkie when he told the judge he wanted to eventually practice at Mandell and Wright, a forerunner of sorts to the later Susman Godfrey firm.
"He looked at me and said that was the most liberal bunch of lawyers he ever ran into in his entire life," laughs White. It also didn't help when the judge learned White had campaigned for the opponent of John Tower, a close friend of the judge.
White didn't get the clerkship. He returned to Texas to join forces with the man who would eventually introduce him to two men who would play key roles in his future advancement: President Bill Clinton and Lebanese billionaire Issam Fares.
At that time in the mid-'70s, Steve Susman had left Fulbright & Jaworski to teach at UT law school. While in Austin, he began sketching out the framework for what would become a plaintiffs' public issue law firm with a revolutionary concept: contingency fee basis. To make any money, the lawyers would have to win their cases. Susman began recruiting aggressive young attorneys willing to gamble their skills in exchange for rapid advancement. White was the sixth lawyer recruited and quickly rose to star status.
White characterizes his decision to come to Houston as an exercise in idealism and serving the victimized, a position that draws a chuckle from Susman.
"Please, give me a break. Bill loves a challenge. He's very competitive, obviously, and being on the plaintiffs' side of the docket in these cases you have to be competitive and entrepreneurial, 'cause if you don't win, you don't get paid.
"It's very risky and he's a risk taker."
White admits the prospect of rapid advancement was alluring.
"I did it because Steve Susman made a commitment to me that what I could do in the courtroom, what I could do in handling cases and financially, would be dependent entirely on just how successful I was."
One of the first great successes was a massive antitrust case against a group of corrugated-box manufacturers who had conspired to fix prices. Susman was lead attorney, but White played a key role in prepping and cross-examining expert witnesses.
Another standout case involved allegations by oil and gas producers that a company had provided low-quality cement for their West Texas wells, resulting in wellhead blowouts. When the defense got the original lawyers for the producers recused, Susman Godfrey came aboard for the plaintiffs. Paul Hobby was a young associate working for Fulbright, one of the defense firms, while White joined the complex litigation barely a month before trial.
"He walked in there and cleaned our client's clock and won like a $12 million to $13 million verdict, big money by Midland standards," remembers Hobby. "That was really my first awareness of Bill White. He was a so much better lawyer than the guys we got recused. That was the joke -- if we had let the other guys continue to stumble along, they would have messed up one way or another."
White also represented a pillar of the Houston Jewish community, Billy Goldberg, in an antitrust case challenging the city's cable TV contracts. It was his first exposure to the crony network linking elected officials and City Hall contractors and lobbyists.
"It was clear there were insider deals on these lucrative cable franchises where these local groups got the franchises and flipped them for a lot of money to out-of-town firms," says White. "And then we got the worst cable franchise of any big city in the country in terms of rates, availability, channels, etc."
Attorney Jim Drexler recalls driving White back from a preliminary hearing in a Beaumont case that involved an organized crime family, the Fredemans, who had cheated barge operators by shorting fuel deliveries. On the ride back, White pulled out a tape recorder and began dictating an extensive brief -- without consulting any notes.
"Bill starts dictating this statement of the case that ended up being about 65 pages long," recalls Drexler. When they reached their destination, Drexler's secretary transcribed the tapes. "He had dictated a short story in final form," Drexler says. "It was one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen anybody do."
However, as White progressed rapidly up the ladder of Susman Godfrey, his personal life was unraveling.
He and Carol were obviously headed in different directions. She had worked at Vinson & Elkins and then in the legal department of an oil and gas company. When Bill began unfolding plans for a life in politics, she concluded that it was time to part ways.
"After I came to have a sense of what a joint life with Bill was going to be in the future, it just became more and more clear to me that I wanted a quieter and more private life," says his ex.