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

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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."

Pat Moran describes Reasoner as "smoother than owl shit," but admirers in Houston's legal community credit him with trying to guide the firm into the modern world through a transition sprinkled with unexploded legal mines laid by V&E's practices over the previous two decades.

"He's a minesweeper," says one legal expert, "and there are plenty of explosives out there that have not yet gone off." In fact, another major estate-related lawsuit is expected to be filed against the firm before the year is out.

Ask Reasoner a question based on a supposition, and he invariably starts his answer by disagreeing with the premise. But before he's finished, the answer suspiciously begins to sound like an agreement. He rejects the "minesweeper" analogy, but then goes on to explain how the firm has established a committee on professional responsibility, maintains an elaborate computer system to keep track of possible entanglements and provides "engagement letters that spell out what it is that [clients] are asking us to do or not to do." It is true, Reasoner adds, that "those procedures have been implemented since I became managing partner."

In short, the firm did not have such safeguards before 1991.
Reasoner is not without a subtle sense of humor. While being interviewed in a conference room on the 28th floor of First City Tower, he produced a Russian nesting doll commissioned for him by lawyers at the firm's Moscow branch office. Painted on the outer shell of the gourd-shaped doll is Reasoner's face, dated by a now-vanished mustache. But pop off Harry's head, and underneath is the head of Evans Attwell. Beneath Attwell's head is yet another, and then another, managing partner's face. At the bottom of the doll is the small head of the firm's founder, James A. Elkins.

It's funny, but the doll also provides a dead-serious historical metaphor for Reasoner's position. He may be the new, scrubbed visage of Vinson & Elkins, but he's also saddled with everything that has gone before -- including the firm's representation of the Moran estate.

An old Texas truism coined by UH law professor and ethics expert Eugene Smith holds that in Dallas the banks used to run the law firms, while in Houston the big law firms ran the banks. And until the energy bust of the mid-1980s, that was certainly true of Vinson & Elkins and First City.

From its inception in 1917, the law firm has been one of the prime political and economic forces in Houston's development. Judge James A. Elkins, who got his title from his brief stint as Harris County judge while in his twenties, captained V&E to its preeminent position by pairing the firm with what was to become First City Bancorporation. The synergy was simple: If you wanted a loan from First City or its predecessors, you took your legal work to Vinson & Elkins. And vice versa. And if you couldn't get what you wanted at V&E or First City, well, it probably wasn't available in Texas.

Elkins started the bank, then called Guaranty Trust, in 1924, just in time to soak up a tide of wealth that rolled into the city as local oilmen began exploiting the massive East Texas field. He cultivated the trust of independent Texas operators suspicious of East Coast bankers, and the firm and the bank, which became City National Bank in 1934, grew together. In 1956, Elkins merged City National with the older First National to form the nucleus of what later became First City Bancorporation, a holding company operating banks around the state. Under managing partner Attwell, V&E grew in the 1980s to be the third largest law firm in the nation, with sections serving almost every civil specialty imaginable. One of the few specialties the firm has shied away from is divorce, because of the messy social reverberations, and it rarely handles criminal cases.

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck