The world was a different place when Kemp Smith law firm was founded by two former Confederate soldiers 150 years ago in Bryan, Texas. Back in those days you got around mostly by stagecoach.
But the railroad came through El Paso in 1881, and the firm followed its major client, Southern Pacific Railroad, to what was then a lawless boomtown populated by gunfighters and houses of ill repute.
One of the firm’s attorneys defended Constable John Selman after he killed notorious gunfighter John Wesley Hardin in El Paso in 1895.
These days Kemp Smith, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, is headquartered on the 17th floor of the Wells Fargo Building in Downtown.
The firm is the oldest in El Paso and second oldest in Texas. With 41 lawyers, 29 of whom are partners, it is also the largest law firm in El Paso. It has offices in El Paso, Las Cruces and Austin.
To celebrate its anniversary, the firm is holding a series of events throughout the year, including an alumni reunion, an open house and an event at the Downtown ballpark.
The firm has formed a historical committee that is digging up its history. It is also planning to collaborate with a different non-profit organization each month to help them raise funds and awareness.
Mike McQueen is the firm’s managing partner. His practice primarily consists of defending employers in employment-related litigation and providing counseling to organizations to avoid such lawsuits.
McQueen is a self-described Army brat whose father was in the Army for 30 years and moved the family all over the world. His parents met in Japan during the Allied occupation at the end of World War II.
When McQueen’s father was stationed at Fort Bliss in 1966, the family moved to El Paso. McQueen was a sophomore in high school, a tough time to be uprooted.
“It was one of the sadder days of my life, because we moved here from Honolulu. I was 16 years old and six months away from getting my driver’s license,” McQueen says.
Once in Texas, McQueen never left. He graduated from Burges High School in El Paso, earned his bachelor’s degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.
He returned to El Paso, and as a young lawyer at Kemp Smith, it was McQueen’s duty to wind the antique clock in the conference room, a firm tradition dating back to at least the early 1900s.
McQueen, 64, and his wife, Margaret, have two daughters who are both Certified Public Accountants.
He serves on the boards of the Downtown Management District and El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and has been selected for inclusion in Texas “Super Lawyers” by publisher Thomson Reuters for Employment Litigation Defense since 2003.
McQueen sat down with El Paso Inc. in the firm’s polished offices and talked about the firm’s big clients, why being a young lawyer is not what it used to be and how he became married to the law.
Q: How was the firm founded?
Two former Civil War Confederate officers, Bennett Hillsman Davis and Thomas Jeremiah Beall, formed the firm. Davis was actually a friend of Sam Houston’s and participated in the original Texas constitutional congress.
Q: What are some key moments or big cases you might highlight from the firm’s 150-year history?
We’ve had some very interesting cases and clients over the years. I’m told by our historical committee that one of the lawyers in the firm defended the Constable John Selman who shot John Wesley Hardin in 1895.
Q: Did he win the case?
I don’t know. Hardin was shot in the back several times. The coroner is said to have remarked something to the effect of “If Mr. Hardin was shot from the front, I’d say it was excellent marksmanship. If he was shot from the rear, I’d say it was excellent judgment.”
Some of the most interesting cases recently were the Downtown ballpark cases. We represented MountainStar Sports Group, so we dealt with the litigation filed to try to stop the demolition of City Hall and to keep them from opening the ballpark.
Q: How has the legal profession changed? You probably don’t defend many Wild West constables anymore.
It’s changed dramatically over the course of my career. The single biggest change is probably lawyer mobility. When I came to the firm and was being recruited, I remember Eugene Smith (a partner at Kemp Smith) shook hands with me and said, “Now, this is a very important decision for you to make. It’s like getting married. It is a lifetime decision.”
As it turns out, in some respects, it has been like getting married. When I came to the firm there was only one lawyer who had left who had not died.
Q: You’re with us until death do us part. No pressure.
That’s what we always hoped, but nowadays lawyers are much more mobile. They switch firms or leave to start their own – move to other cities.
Q: The process of becoming a lawyer has probably changed a bit since the firm’s founders hung out a shingle in 1886.
One of the things we learned about Captain Davis, one of the founders; he went through the process they called “reading the law” back then. Basically, you worked as an apprentice in a law firm and you literally read the law. At some point, you got licensed.
Q: These days, it would probably take a whole lot longer to literally read the law.
It could not be done now.
Q: For a long time the legal profession seemed to dodge the disruption other industries have seen.
Pretty much so. Depending on what the economy does, different areas of the law will be hotter or colder. When the economy is booming, you have mergers and acquisitions and those kinds of things. When the economy is bad, then there is more bankruptcy work and litigation. But the law business is a pretty steady business.
Q: Is that starting to change, though, with new technology and the Internet?
You know, technology impacts the way we practice law. There’s no question. All of the legal research nowadays is being done online. We file everything now online. But in terms of eliminating the need for lawyers, a computer can’t go down and try a lawsuit in court. It can’t negotiate a real estate deal for you.
Q: On the other hand, people can go online for a lease, make a will or incorporate a business.
No question. But really the impact has only been at the margin. Folks who only want a really simple will are not coming to a firm like ours anyway. Now, I’m sure it is impacting solo practitioners and very small firms whose bread and butter might be doing wills and stuff like that.
Q: What brought you to the law?
I never really wanted to be anything else since I was 13 years old other than a lawyer or the third baseman for the Yankees. My mother says it was because I watched too much Perry Mason when I was a kid. What was not to like about Perry Mason? He was a good-looking guy with a secretary who drove a convertible and always won his cases. How could you not fall in love with that?
Q: Never a policeman, fireman, doctor or astronaut?
Nope. Always a lawyer.
Q: I take it being a third baseman for the Yankees didn’t work out?
Couldn’t hit the curve ball.
Q: How is it different now for young lawyers entering the legal profession?
When I came out of law school, there were a lot of legal jobs. The job market has shrunk – a function of the economy and what we talked about before. It’s much more difficult for somebody coming out of law school today.
Q: What advice do you have for somebody thinking about the legal profession?
Before somebody gets in it, they need to be sure that is what they want to do. Law school is a three-year commitment, and then with the way the market is, there is no slam-dunk guarantee that you’re going to get the job you want. So you’ve got to be committed to the notion of wanting to practice law as opposed to, “Well, maybe this is something I’ll try.”
Q: It’s not like Perry Mason on television?
Much different. Perry Mason was in court every week and even our most active litigators may try five or six cases a year. It’s much more discovery oriented – a lot of paper work and things like that.
Q: Do you try cases?
In my area, employment law, if I try three cases in a year that is a bunch. We do a lot of arbitration now.
Q: The firm has 41 lawyers. How does that stack up statewide?
Texas Lawyer does an annual survey of the Texas law firms and the out-of-state law firms that now have offices in the state, which is another one of the big changes in the practice of law.
It used to be very regionalized. If someone had a case in El Paso, a law firm in Dallas or Houston would send it to an El Paso firm to handle. Now lawyers are following their cases, and you have national law firms that are signing national agreements to handle cases wherever they may be.
When Texas Lawyer puts that list out, they do the top 100, and we have historically been in the high 60s or 70-something range.
Q: In what areas are you all busy?
Labor and employment law has stayed very busy. That is a prime area for litigation here in El Paso.
To be honest, to some degree, because of the historical high unemployment rate and things like that. Jobs are very important to people and our juries tend to be made up of working people, so they tend to empathize and be more inclined to favor the ex-employee, as opposed to the company that let them go. There have been lots of verdicts here in employees favor and that feeds it.
With tort reform and all, for automobile cases and things like that, juries are very tough on plaintiffs who file lawsuits.
Q: You mean someone injured in a car accident.
Yeah. But when it comes to employment they tend to lean towards the employee or former employee, unless the employer has a really good case.
Q: How do you get young lawyers to take an interest in El Paso when they might be able to get paid more elsewhere?
We had that problem for many years. Our firm changed our recruiting model probably 10 or 12 years ago now. We no longer go on campuses or do the summer associate programs.
We found we hired people – people from a lot of different places – and they might come out here for two or three years and we would get them all trained up and they would take off because Dallas, Houston and Austin were paying higher salaries.
Now we focus on people who are from El Paso. We are trying to find people who are from El Paso, went to law school and maybe went to work in another city, developed some experience but want to come back to El Paso.
We’ll get calls from young lawyers saying they would really like to move back to El Paso and are wondering if we have any openings.
We probably get five or six emails a month like that.
Q: What is the pay difference?
The average lawyer in the state of Texas makes something like $78,000 to $80,000. But you have a large variety, everything from the huge law firms to the public interest lawyers.
Our starting salaries, and those of the other large firms in town, tend to be about 60 percent of what the mega firms are paying.
But it is a misleading statistic, because we are starting lawyers higher than the average for the state.
Q: Who are the firm’s top clients?
The business has changed. Take this bank (Wells Fargo) for example. When I first came here it was State National Bank and was locally owned and we did everything for them.
Now they are owned by Wells Fargo, and now much of their day-to-day legal work is being handled in other places.
That’s happened in several large industries down here, and we’ve had some go away like Asarco.
We do a lot of work for Hunt Companies, Western Refining and with the Tenet hospitals in El Paso.
We do a lot of litigation work in Southern New Mexico and east of here in West Texas.
Q: What’s next for Kemp Smith as you look forward to the next 150 years?
We are looking to expand our practice in Austin. We would love to expand our practice here in El Paso.
Our Las Cruces office was just restarted a few years ago, and we see that as an area for expansion, as well.