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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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Four years later, after a closing appeal from Spivey to send a message to big-firm lawyers, a jury of six men and six women filed back into state District Judge Kathleen Stone's Houston courtroom with a crushing verdict: it found V&E had been grossly negligent in its handling of the legal matters of its clients relating to the Moran estate; that the firm had knowingly engaged in a civil conspiracy with First City, Seagull Energy, Entex and W.J. Wooten to breach its fiduciary duties to its clients; and that it had charged $2 million in excessive fees to the Moran estate. It left Vinson & Elkins bloodied, but unbowed.

"I believe in the jury system," says managing partner Reasoner, who then adds rhetorically, "Do juries make mistakes? Sure. Most verdicts like this are reversed because of error, and I believe this one will be. When the facts are fully illuminated it will be clear we did nothing improper. If we had it to do over again, would we send 50 pages of disclosures to Pat? Well, you know, if that's what he wanted."

So how did the biggest public-relations Waterloo in the firm's history come about, if V&E did nothing wrong?

"I listened to Mr. Spivey's closing argument," says Reasoner slowly, "and his major theme was, 'This is your chance to teach those arrogant lawyers a lesson.' Appeals to prejudice are sometimes quite effective."

Reasoner delivered the line dryly, apparently not appreciating the built-in irony of a lawyer blaming another lawyer for blaming the lawyers.

When told of Reasoner's summation of his argument, Broadus Spivey, who earlier had counted himself as an admirer of the V&E chief, said Reasoner had blown a chance to close the door on his firm's conflicted past and start afresh.

"I'm disappointed," Spivey said from his Austin office. "I think he has missed an opportunity to rise to a higher level. In my cross-examination of Harry Reasoner, when he told about all he had done [to eliminate conflicts of interest], I said, 'I believe you, and if you had been managing partner of this firm at the time, I don't think it would have happened.' "

Spivey paused.
"Now I'm having some second thoughts about that," he said.
Meanwhile, a family friend says Ann Moran has funneled most of her inheritance from her grandfather's estate into the fight against V&E. The legal fees thus far are estimated at $500,000. Paul Knisely, another of the Morans' attorneys, estimates that the final disposition of the litigation is still years away. So far, V&E has shown no inclination to settle, he says.

Evans Attwell never testified in the Moran proceedings, except through a deposition. He's now in the process of gradually retiring from Vinson & Elkins and devotes much of his time to his trusteeship on the Rice University board. His office on the 34th floor of First City Tower is cluttered with mementos, among them miniature basketballs and a hoop, testimony to his status as an avid fan of the Owls and the Rockets.

It's a worn and comfortable place befitting a fading star, but obviously an area from which real power vacated some time ago. Something of a socialite and one of the few members of the V&E hierarchy with a fortune independent of the firm, Attwell seems headed for comfortable golden years pursuing his private interests.

Yet the former managing partner is clearly seething to have a final say concerning the Moran lawsuit, particularly since neither side called him to testify.

Attwell says he doesn't know why he was not called to defend his own firm. "I'm being perfectly candid," he insists. "I wish I had been called, I thought I should have been called, and I particularly would have liked to have been confronted with the accusations that are now made against me in [the Morans' appellate brief] so I could have responded to them. One by one."

Like Reasoner, who did testify, Attwell argues that Vinson & Elkins was caught between the bitter factions of a fractured family and did nothing wrong.

"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."

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck