Private trial lawyer in Texas. Chaired SCLAID. Honored by NLADA.
Oral history details
|Date of interview:
|May 7, 2015
|Where relates to:
|American Bar Association (ABA)
|Georgetown Law Library link (possible video):
Full text of transcriptDownload PDF: Transcript
Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library Oral History Collection
Interview with Bill Whitehurst
Conducted by Alan Houseman
May 7, 2015
Transcriber: Heidi J. Darst: HEIDI J. DARST, CSR, RPR, RMR, CRR, TCRR, TMR
This is an oral history of Bill Whitehurst, who is a prominent private trial lawyer in Texas and has been very active in a number of issues around civil legal aid. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice Library. Bill, let’s begin with a little bit of your background, where you grew up, where you went to school, how you got involved with the practice of law. And I’m quite intrigued by your pharmacy degree as well. So a little bit of background.
Well, I grew up in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and went to the University of Oklahoma for pharmacy school. I have a twin brother, and we were both in pharmacy/pre‑med at University of Oklahoma. The last years there, I was student body president and got interested in legal matters through that position and decided I was going to go to law school. My brother went on to medical school, I went on to law school.
I attended law school at the University of Texas. Before that, between my pharmacy degree and going to law school, I married Stephanie Whitehurst, who drew me down to Texas. I attended law school there from ’68 to ’71. I actually graduated in ’70, my class was ’71. And I went with a large law firm right out of law school. It was Fulbright & Jaworski at that time. It’s Norton, Rose & Fulbright now, I guess.
As many of us did, I had an ROTC obligation from undergraduate school to go into the Air Force. I fulfilled that obligation as a JAG officer stationed first at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. Then under a new program, I was in Okinawa, Japan, for two and a half years where I was a Circuit Defense Counsel for the Pacific. I defended all Air Force felony cases either primarily or secondarily in all the countries in the Pacific, including Japan, Korea, Thailand, Philippines, and Guam. Wherever the Air Force was, if they had a felony case, I would go and defend it. And I was always the defense lawyer over there.
In 1975, I was discharged from the Air Force and returned to Austin, Texas. The firm I had been with previously was in Houston and we had decided we wanted to live in Austin. I came back as staff counsel for the Judicial Affairs Committee in the Legislature, which I held while looking for a job in Austin. I got a job with Mack Kidd, who was a very prominent plaintiffs lawyer in the State of Texas. I have been with that firm now this month 40 years. Same firm. Well, we’ve changed over the years, some lawyers have come and gone, but I have remained.
I’ve always done plaintiffs personal injury, products liability with an emphasis on medical malpractice and I continue to do that, although not as actively as I have been in the past.
In 1984, I was elected to be president of the State Bar of Texas. So I served a year as president‑elect from ’85 to ’86, and then ’86 to ’87 I became president of the State Bar of Texas.
Before we get into your legal aid work, you’ve also been a prominent player in trial lawyers associations both here in Texas and I think nationally, if I’m right.
Yes. I have been president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which is a big job, I might add. And I did that and worked a lot with our Legislature on tort reform issues. I had some very difficult issues for trial lawyers, you can imagine, in Texas. I also worked with what is now called the American Association for Justice and also the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and served most recently as president of that organization.
So how did you get involved in activities around civil legal aid and ultimately the bar leaders for the preservation of civil legal aid?
Well, I’ve been asked that a lot. I really think it started when I was running for these bar positions in Texas. When you run for president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association ‑‑
Which you were president of.
‑‑ which I was president of, or the state bar, it’s a statewide election. And Texas is a big state. So I ran for both of those and as a result had two opportunities to really go throughout the State of Texas. And I made a point in that process of stopping in at all the legal aid offices that I came in contact with or that I went to their community.
So that was my first introduction to them which paid off later because it gave me a lot of credibility in saying I really knew what was being done by our legal aid lawyers. I stopped, I visited with them, I saw their offices, saw the conditions they worked under, saw their clients. So I’d done that twice throughout Texas when I became president of the bar.
After being elected and while president‑elect, the Legal Services Corporation was invited to have a board meeting in El Paso, as I recall. I believe that was in late 1985. And our president could not go to welcome the board, so I went as president‑elect in his place.
I went to that board meeting sort of fat, dumb and happy maybe, and naive. But I was there ahead of the time that I was to make my welcoming gesture to them, and so I heard a lot of the legal aid lawyers go up and testify in front of this committee and answer the Legal Services Corporation board. I was appalled at how they were treated. It was very condescending, very combative. Clearly the people on the board did not have a grasp of the issues and certainly didn’t have a grasp of the financial issues. Of course, the legal aid lawyers who were testifying in front of them knew them very well.
Well, I just couldn’t believe that this board was so hostile to the programs which I knew were doing great work under very difficult circumstances — always underfunded and really not with a lot of support from the organized bar in Texas, which we changed later.
So when I got up to give my remarks, I gave them a welcome to Texas, but I also made a point to say something to the board. I really did spend some time telling them how disappointed I was in the manner in which they addressed our legal services lawyers and really came down on them pretty hard.
So that was the start. Then I later went to the ABA meeting and found out that two other bar presidents had had similar experiences, John Ross, who was the president of the bar in ’85 to ’86 for New Hampshire, and Mike Greco who was president of the Massachusetts bar from 1985 to ’86.
So we just sort of met I think in the hallway or some way and we got to talking about our experiences on this. I had learned between the time I spoke to the board in El Paso and the time I went to the ABA meeting. I had made a point to learn more about what was going on and then became aware that Reagan was really battling legal services, that he had a zero line item budget for legal services. He wanted to do away with federal funding for legal services. We observed that the ABA was doing all it could do but seemed to have very limited ability to confront this. And they were sort of the lone warrior, it seemed.
And that’s when John and Mike and I decided that we would form a national group. I must say, we did that with the help of a lady, Gail Kinney, who we all three give all the credit to. This lady really kept us together. She kept us pointed in the right direction. She was a very competent writer and very knowledgeable on legal aid issues.
So with her help we formed the Bar Leaders for the Preservation of Legal Services for the Poor. The great thing about that is that overnight we had an organization that was made up of most of the state bars of every state and many of the local bars, which gave us a platform to go to the LSC board, go to Congress which we did on multiple occasions, address the ABA and different groups of the ABA. We had a newsletter that went out to all the bars throughout the country. This was before the Access to Justice Commission, so we really had no infrastructure. That was the problem. What we did is overnight create an infrastructure that allowed us to represent the views. We knew that legal aid had the support of the organized bars, it just was not in a format that could be conveyed to Congress or to the ABA even or to other groups.
We started working with NLADA. We started working with PAG and got very involved with the ABA. What helped more than anything is it told the people who were doing the work every day in the legal aid office that they had newfound friends and new support in Washington.
All three of us were trial lawyers. We just assumed we could fight the battle, argue the case and win it, and then go home. But we learned real quickly that this is a career‑long endeavor. It doesn’t ever go away. But the organization itself, I am pleased to say, was very successful in what we wanted it to do at that time.
From that, the three of us stayed primarily with the ABA. I became Chair of the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. John likewise. And then also head of the Pro Bono Committee and he has continued to be very active. Of course, Mike Greco became president of the ABA. So all three of us continued in our own way working for legal services in different capacities.
I then returned to Texas and during that time was very involved in trying to get IOLTA started in Texas, which was not an easy road, but we got it done. Then most recently I got involved with the Access to Justice Commission here in Texas.
So you were chair of SCLAID.
Talk a little bit about your year at SCLAID and some of the issues you saw with what SCLAID tried to do.
Well, the years obviously were very busy years for SCLAID. SCLAID is the original standing committee for the ABA and as a result was always able to attract really quality people. And we did. We did both criminal and civil on SCLAID. I was the head for a three‑year term.
It was a very busy time. One, we were always fighting with the board of the Legal Services Corporation, trying to get additional funding. Congress as well. We continued in that battle. We were able to establish a permanent presence for Access to Justice Commissions in the ABA, so we had a staff person, an office in essence — the thing that we did in IOLTA where we tried to build it up and finally got it in all the states. We also had a presence in the ABA. We had the the presence with the Access to Justice Commissions.
We also redid all the rules for legal aid guidelines. A massive undertaking, I might add, that was done during those years. And then we had a very active program on the criminal side as well. It was a busy, busy time but one that I really enjoyed and I got to work with some incredible people.
Talk a little bit about that you’ve been on the Access to Justice Commission in Texas.
You know, it’s really interesting. I have never been a commissioner. I have been involved with the Access Justice Commission from day one, and they’re kind enough to invite me to all their meetings, some of which I can make, some I can’t. But, although I’ve been involved with it, I have not actually been a commissioner on its behalf.
So what has it done?
Well, it’s done incredible things. We have a mandatory bar in Texas. And, for example, when I was president, legal aid was at the forefront. That was my project. But that’s not the case for all bar presidents, and I understand that. As a result legal services for the poor would get attention some years and would not get so much attention the other years. Legal aid had to share attention with all the other things that the bar did — on CLE, on grievance, etc.
The Access to Justice Commission concept had a formula. The formula was that you needed to involve your Supreme Court. We were able to do that early on with our Supreme Court — who, by the way, is an all‑Republican Supreme Court. They really got on the bandwagon early. We created an Access to Justice Commission which we’d never had in Texas. That gave attention to legal services seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year that dealt with nothing other than civil legal services to the poor. It has been a tremendous project and really has established a national example of how to do it.
We have nine judges, and to a person all are involved in this group. We’ve been able to get very prominent lawyers from large law firms to chair it — like Jim Sales and Harry Reasoner from Vinson & Elkins — who have a lot of credibility in the bar and attract good commissioners. And so we’ve had really good people on it. We had a banquet recently, we do one a year, where we raised $400,000 and dedicated that to legal services for veterans. So this is the kind of work they do. They work with IOLTA and the IOLTA funding and the foundation as well. It’s a tremendous success in Texas. We know the formula. It will work in every state, and it’s just a matter of time to get it done.
Yeah, I interviewed Chief Justice Hecht earlier today and was surprised at the degree of action and commitment that he showed. I was very impressed. So my question is: How come in Texas?
You know, I don’t know that I can explain that. With Judge Hecht, it is genuine. With the judge before him, the two justices before him, it was genuine. It has been from day one.
We had some hearings early on before the Supreme Court on some problems we were having in legal services and getting funding and the bar’s lack of ability to give it attention. I think through all that, they became involved. Once they got involved, it really became a calling for them.
Again, this is an all-Republican, very conservative Supreme Court, which tells you that legal services for the poor should be bipartisan. It should never be a Democrat/Republican issue, and I think they’ve proven that in Texas. But they are passionate. The judges are passionate about it, and we have great support because of that. We have great support from the law firms. Our pro bono efforts are wonderful in Texas. We’ve really turned it around.
Let me add one other thing that we’ve seen a change on since those early days. Many of us have also worked in our law schools for this. We have changed the culture at the University of Texas School of Law and really in all the law schools in Texas. All of our law students now are educated that public service is a part of your career. You may never work in the public interest law area, but part of your career has to be dedicated to public interest matters. We’ve established that especially at the University of Texas, where I’ve been more involved, where we’ve created the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law. We have fellowships available. We have clinics available. We’re turning out law students now who, the brightest and the best want to have a career in public interest law and do things, give their time, volunteer time while they’re in law school. It is really a wonderful change to see. The problem is that we don’t have enough funding to hire all the people who would love to have a career in legal aid or public interest law, and that’s the effort that continues to go on.
Reflecting back on your work for civil legal aid, how important both for you and the profession do you think involvement like yours in civil legal aid has been?
Well, let me just say I feel like I’m the beneficiary of it personally, and it comes from working with the people in this arena. I often tell people this. If you want to be inspired, go work with legal aid lawyers. The people who do that are incredible people. I can say that now because over all these years, I’ve had the chance to rub shoulders with them and see what they do and see their results, fight their battles with them. To me, it has been so inspiring to see the people who do this day in and day out. Their love for what they do, their competency as lawyers and as counselors, it has really been a great part of my career, one that I cherish.
Also, the bar leaders who have worked in that arena as well are all just amazing people. And the people with the NLADA, the people with PAG, the people like Julie Clark, for example, who just have it in their bones to do this kind of work and do it so well and inspire people like me to want to be a part of that and to continue to be a part of it. So, that’s what it has meant to me. It’s been a great thing, a variety of different things. I have done many other things in my career, but this has been a major part of my career as a lawyer, and I’m very proud of that and I’ve really benefited from it.
Do you have any thoughts about the future of civil legal aid and access to justice based on your long involvement in it that’s useful for the record?
Well, you know, I try to be optimistic. I think the key now is to continue developing the Access to Justice Commissions. And the reason is it gives us an important infrastructure. If we’d had that had early on, there would have been no need for us to create the Bar Leaders for the Preservation of Legal Services to the Poor. We had no infrastructure back then. But if we could get Access to Justice Commissions or something similar established in every state ‑‑ and we’re getting there, it’s growing ‑‑ so that we have the support of Republicans and Democrats and Supreme Courts.
You know, when we have Law Day in Washington, D.C. to go talk with the congressmen, our justices go up there. That’s impressive when they knock on the door of the congressman or the senator from Texas to say we want your support. As a result, we have total support now of our senators and that wasn’t always the case. And most of our congressmen. And we localize it. So that’s what access to justice has done. I really think that is the future of legal services in America from an infrastructure standpoint.
The other is to find continuing sources of money to fund it. It’s a constant battle with Washington. And I never have really understood why, but it is. And I think that’s going to continue. I think we will always be looking for additional revenue to fund the effort. But I must tell you that the quality of the services was as great then in the past as it is today. We’ve continued to have quality delivery of legal services for the poor from those who do it.
So I’m optimistic that at least we’re headed in the right direction. We certainly have gotten the attention of the right people in Texas and I think in other states as well. I hope that that will continue.
I guess my final question is: Is there anything that we haven’t discussed that we should have discussed? Do you have any other thoughts you want to share about access to justice, civil legal aid in your long involvement?
Well, I came in as you were finishing up with David Hall, who I hold in very high regard. And he mentioned this working closer with the criminal aspect because so many of our problems today in our societies come from the criminal side of the docket, with so many people being imprisoned, so many families left without ability to have an income as a result of that. All of that is intertwined with society’s need for legal services for the poor. That is one thing I would like to see done and we need to do a better job at it. I think there are a lot of problems on the criminal side of our docket, too many people being imprisoned. Obviously in Texas, we’ve had so many people who have been exonerated, it’s just it’s tragic.
I read a quote from a justice on the Court of Appeals in California. And you may have heard this before. He said, saying the poor in America have access to the courthouse is like saying the Christians who were thrown to the lions had access to the coliseum. We know that if you don’t have legal representation, you do not have access to the courthouse, and then you don’t have access to justice. And so that’s what we’re all working for and it’s a constant battle. It’s amazing to me that it needs to be a battle, but it is. And the good news is that we have good leadership, we have great lawyers coming up who are going to continue this fight. And I am optimistic about its future.
Great. Well, thank you. It’s been terrific, Bill.
You’re quite welcome. It’s an honor. Thank you.