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. By Tim Fleck
"The Second Government of Texas"
The arrogance of power was revealed to Ann Moran one day in 1990 as she was leaving a Harris County courtroom.
Moran, who lived in Boston at the time, was in Houston for a hearing on a lawsuit her younger brother Pat had filed against his fellow executors of the estate left by their grandfather, Conroe oilman William Moran. Later that year, Ann Moran would file suit against Vinson & Elkins, accusing the giant law firm and its allies at First City Bank of mismanaging and manipulating William Moran's estate for its own benefit, and of failing to disclose conflicts of interest in the firm's representation of the estate.
As Moran exited the courtroom that day, she was accosted by a burly spectator, a man unknown to her then and whom she still can't identify, who pressed her against a wall in the hallway and hissed, "Get on back up there where you belong. You can't come down here being Carrie Nation. This is the way things are done down here."
Four years later, a jury of 12 Harris County residents reached a different conclusion, returning what eventually added up to a $35 million judgment against Vinson & Elkins -- the second largest legal malpractice judgment ever rendered in Texas.
The court battle is far from over, however: Vinson & Elkins' appeal of the judgment is pending before a three-judge panel at the state 14th Court of Appeals, and the firm has given no indication that it wants to settle the Moran lawsuit outside the courtroom. Even so, Evans Attwell, the firm's former managing partner and a central figure in the Morans' accusations of conflicts of interest by Vinson & Elkins, concedes the jury decision was equal to any public relations setback in the firm's storied 78-year history.
Although the malpractice suit was brought in Ann Moran's name, it was Pat Moran, a Georgetown-educated lawyer, who a few years earlier had begun questioning the firm's billings for its estate work. It was about that time that Pat Moran got his own wake-up call on the prerogatives of power, which, he says, came in the form of a blunt cease-and-desist issued by V&E partner Donald Wood, who, up until then, Moran had considered a close friend.
Wood told him, Moran says, that if he didn't back off, "These people are going to come at you and do everything they can to destroy you. They're very powerful. They will drag out everything in your past and say all kinds of things about you."
Moran says he told Wood, " 'Don, since I've met my wife I've never touched another woman, I don't gamble, I don't drink, I take care of my kids. So let 'em.'
"And he looked at me, sort of like, 'You poor stupid thing.' And he said, 'Pat, it doesn't have to be true.' "
Donald Wood declined to be interviewed for this story. But during the trial of Ann Moran's lawsuit, when he was questioned on the stand about Pat Moran's version of their conversation, Wood testified that he could not recall it.
Ask Pat Moran today if his grandfather would have undertaken the same fight against the law firm if he were alive, and his answer trenchantly conveys the depths of the bitterness he and other members of his family still harbor toward Vinson & Elkins.
"I promise you they would have never made it to the courthouse," Moran says. "First of all, they would never have tried it, and if they did, my grandfather wouldn't be screwing around with a lawsuit. They would be not robbing any more graves. They would be in their graves."
Evans Attwell, a congenial but somewhat distant man whose role at Vinson & Elkins has diminished considerably in recent years, hardly batted an eye when told of Pat Moran's remark, seeming to dismiss such rhetorical excess as simply a lapse in manners. "That's uncalled for," was his only response. Yet Attwell took his own backhanded slap at Moran with a comment that suggested he considers William Moran's grandson an impertinent upstart.
"You know," said Attwell, "I thought he was an attractive young man. I hate to say that now, in light of what he has said about me personally and the firm. He appeared to be very articulate, smart, very knowledgeable, but I had very limited contact with him."
Attwell and his successor as managing partner, Harry Reasoner, maintain that Vinson & Elkins did nothing wrong in its representation of the Moran estate and other trusts that have been the objects of lawsuits against the firm. In their view, the 525-lawyer firm, perhaps the most powerful private institution in Houston's history, was the victim -- of both the changing standards of what constitutes a conflict of interest and a public frenzy to punish arrogant members of their profession.