Is the pro bono lawyer suing RISD a do-gooder or a ‘bad boy’?

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In New York City, 30 years ago, a businessman seeking a lawyer to handle his multi-million dollar lawsuit “went from one plush office suite to the next, giving written psychological tests to the city’s best lawyers. His goal: to find the most aggressive, most persistent, most take-no-prisoners law firm in town. He is now a client of Bickel & Brewer.”

That would be Dallas-based Bickel & Brewer* — the same Bill Brewer who is now denouncing Richardson ISD with two lawsuits. One claims that the district’s board election structure violates voters’ rights, and the other alleges trustees are doing public business in private.

“Obnoxious” and “dirty players” was how critics described Bickel & Brewer’s litigation boutique in a New York Times piece from 1988. The attorneys were “the bad boys of the Dallas Bar,” according to a 1998 Dallas Observer piece, “high-priced, high-profile Rambo lawyers whose scorched-earth litigation style is credited by some as forever changing the way the Dallas legal establishment practices law.”

The firm not only embraced this reputation but played it up publicly; in one infamous anecdote, Bickel & Brewer sponsored all of the snakes at the Dallas Zoo as part of its Adopt-a-Pet program.

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Then in 1995, a little over a decade after the firm opened, the bad boys suddenly morphed into do-gooders. They opened the Bickel & Brewer Storefront, a pro bono legal effort in South Dallas. The Dallas Morning News and City Council praised the firm’s effort to help the disenfranchised African-Americans living nearby.

The neighborhood, however, didn’t buy it.

“All their talk about wanting to make a difference and giving back to the community was just a couple of white guys trying to make themselves feel better about making all that money,” the Observer story said of the community response.

The storefront took on a string of goodwill cases over the next couple of years but nothing that lived up to its hard-charging history — until they sued Yvonne Gonzalez, the first woman and first Hispanic to be named superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, ultimately forcing her resignation and leaving a blazing trail of racial infighting and government corruption in the lawsuits’ wake.

In the firm’s early years, the most common complaint against Bickel & Brewer was that “its lawyers prolong proceedings, making the opposition’s ordeal as expensive and tiring as possible.” Tactics seemed no different in its pro bono representation of Matthew Harden, the district’s African-American CFO.

“For a seven-month period, they dedicated their law firm to Matthew Harden, recouping nothing but their expenses, and essentially donating $500,000-$600,000 of billable time to what they perceived was a noble cause,” the Observer story notes. “The storefront seemed to be bridging a gap by unleashing the forces of a major downtown law firm behind a matter of minority concern. But whether this was bridge-building or empire-building depends on whom you ask.”

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The way Brewer tells it, at least to a Abilene Reporter-News writer who profiled him in 2009, the idea for the storefront came to him while sitting in a Dallas courtroom just three years after Bickel & Brewer’s litigation boutique was established.

“We were watching a case be disposed of in front of us and it was clear if you really listened that the black plaintiff had a legitimate complaint … but he was represented by a lawyer from the community that was clearly outgunned from an advocacy, from a resource, from every other perspective.”

The storefront’s next big newsmaker, in 2002, again sued Dallas ISD leaders, this time alleging that trustees had wronged the Latino community when they conspired behind closed doors and silenced community input during a redistricting process. A judge ultimately agreed with Bickel & Brewer, and recordings of the trustees’ behind-closed-doors conversations were made public, exposing their racial slurs and politically motivated tactics when creating the maps.

The trustees were ordered to racial sensitivity training and a Texas Open Meetings Act refresher course. The redistricting maps went back to the drawing board. And Bickel & Brewer recouped $219,000 in attorneys’ fees, paid by the Dallas ISD residents who had elected the dishonest trustees.

The intervening years have seen Bickel & Brewer’s names on some of the most familiar immigration and voting rights cases in the DFW area. In almost every single one, the firm prevailed and taxpayers footed the bill as their elected representatives put up an ill-fated fight.

In the most famous case, both locally and nationally, the storefront spent seven years challenging the city of Farmers Branch on its immigration ordinance. Ultimately the ordinance was struck down as unconstitutional, but as time dragged on, Bickel & Brewer compounded its lawsuits against the local government. The storefront sued over free speech, open meetings, open records and, ultimately, the federal voting rights act.

Juries and judges ordered Farmers Branch to turn over documents and recordings. A single-member district election system replaced the at-large system, both at the school district and the city, the latter resulting in the first Hispanic voted onto the Farmers Branch City Council in 2013.

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And all it cost the City of Farmers Branch was an estimated $7 million in legal fees.

Brewer has no doubt that his firm will be victorious in the suits against Richardson ISD, just as it has in all prior Texas Open Meetings Act and federal Voting Rights Act cases, he says.

“Our track record is that we don’t bring cases just to harass,” he told the Advocate in an August phone interview. “We bring cases where we believe change is needed and because we’ve done legal factual research.”

As of Aug. 22, RISD already had spent $69,370.48 in attorneys’ fees related to the lawsuits, according to district officials. That’s money paid to its own defense team, and doesn’t include any fees the district may have to pay Brewer Storefront if RISD either settles or loses in court.

For RISD to continue to fight is “foolish,” Brewer says. “It’s a waste of money. It’s a misapplication of resources and, frankly, decision-making.”

*Editor’s note: John Bickel left the firm in 2014. The firm has since been renamed Brewer Attorneys & Counselors, and the pro bono arm renamed Brewer Storefront.

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