David Wright Shares His Perspective on His Own Path as well as Practicing Law in Austin
David Wright, a shareholder at Davis & Wilkerson longs for the day when a trial lawyer was a trial lawyer. The economics of going to trial have changed all that, stripping the job title of its literal meaning.
And this bothers Wright, who is a shareholder at Davis & Wilkerson. Not because he wants to go to trial more often. But because he believes young lawyers are missing out on something by not being able to go to trial, or even observe a trial.
1. Describe your legal practice?
I have always been fortunate to have a varied trial practice. When I started practicing in 1979, I was primarily focused on insurance defense. At that time, insurance defense was an area practiced in all of the bigger firms. You were surrounded with experienced trial lawyers. You had younger lawyers with which to share your experiences and discuss problems. There was no specialization even within insurance defense. I handled and tried cases that included automobile accidents, products liability, construction defects, consumer complaints, workers’ compensation, employment disputes, professional liability (including doctors, engineers and architects), and first party insurance cases involving alleged insurance code violations. When I had been practicing for about 4 years, I tried on my own a 6 week jury trial in a construction defect case. I have also tried construction defect cases that lasted 12 weeks (the longest civil jury trial in the history of Williamson County) and 9 weeks. I have tried cases in the other areas listed above. Because of my trial experience, I have been able to evolve into others areas involving commercial litigation. Most recently, I have assisted in representing an insurance client involved in mass litigation resulting from hurricane claims.
2. What are the biggest challenges of those you interact with on the legal front, and what is the key to helping them resolve those challenges?
Today, for a trial lawyer, the biggest challenge is getting to trial. There are simply not as many cases getting to trial for a variety of reasons. Trials can be expensive. They are getting more expensive. This is a real challenge for young lawyers who want to get experience.
When I started practicing, my friend and partner, Glen Wilkerson, told me that if I tried 10 jury trials to a conclusion, I would have tried more trials that most lawyers, who called themselves trial lawyers. I did not believe him then, but I can say now that I think that his number was too large. There are jury weeks in Travis County where courtrooms sit empty. When I started, there would be 9 courtrooms filled with lawyers picking juries with other cases on standby. So, how to get to trial? I think that is the biggest challenge for any trial lawyer. One can develop skills in hearings or depositions, but there is no experience that is a substitute for going to trial
3. What are the advantages to practicing law in Austin?
I have had many mentors in the practice of law and Austin is a legal environment where that has been possible. I started working for 2 lawyers, Glen Wilkerson and Terry Scarborough, who stressed that I go to trial and go observe trials with good lawyers. They stressed improving my knowledge and skills in my early years instead of emphasizing the billable hour. The introduced me to other lawyers. The included me in depositions, client meetings, hearings and trials.
I have learned things from lawyers on both sides of the docket through instruction, observation and experience. I can even recall getting chewed out at times but it made me a better lawyer (and the chewing out was justified) and I am thankful for it.
You find mentors in many forms. I have mentors today, both younger and older than me. The generally congenial legal community in Austin, at least when I started practicing, fostered this mentoring. I like to be able to talk to the other side frankly about a case and, with Austin lawyers, I usually feel that I can
4. How would you improve the legal profession if you could?
The 7th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right of trial by jury. This is an underappreciated right. It is a right that is under assault, ironically often by people and groups who are self-described defenders of the Constitution. There is much political rhetoric about, and credit taken for, controlling frivolous lawsuits, but tort reform efforts do not focus on the “frivolous” lawsuit. They limit rights on all lawsuits. Hence, you have limitations on damages in various types of cases without regard to the merits of the case or the true amount of damages. There is no remedy for some people because a lawsuit simply can’t be afforded because of damage limitations. There is talk of people taking responsibility for themselves, but no talk of those who injure others taking responsibility for fully compensating the damage they cause. In my opinion, this type of legislation is an assault on the right of every citizen to a trial by a jury.
Have I seen frivolous lawsuits? Yes. Have I seen many of them? No. There are rules for dealing with these lawsuits, but there has been no attempt to put any teeth into these rules. The “solution” seems to be to limit everyone’s rights and hope to catch the frivolous case in the net.
Undoubtedly, lawsuits are powerful instruments for social change. There are numerous examples of this. Cars, toys, drugs and many other things are safe because of lawyers and lawsuits. Roads are safer. Construction workers are more secure and less likely to be injured. We are all safer but I question whether we will continue to see these benefits if we aren’t all held responsible for our actions.
5. Who or what was your biggest influence in becoming a lawyer and why?
I was asked recently by a friend who is not a lawyer whether I considered myself to be successful. This is how I answered–
My Dad literally started with nothing. His father ran off and he had no memory of him. His mother died when he was about 12 and his grandmother died when he was 16. He had to report the death. It was the depression. He was on his own after that. He had a little sister to help take care of. He lived in a boarding house after that. He supported himself and his sister by delivering newspapers. He had to deliver papers twice a day, collect from his customers every week, pay his room and board, take care of his sister and go to high school.
A lot of people in that situation would have dropped out of high school. But, he finished high school and started college. He was driving to study at school on a Sunday morning to study after delivering papers when he heard about Pearl Harbor. He went to war and was a D-Day veteran. He was in Czechoslovakia when the war in Europe ended and was preparing to be shipped to Japan when the bomb was dropped. The GI Bill helped put him through college and law school, but he once told me that he was determined to graduate from college even before he had that help. He continued to deliver papers right through law school and was married and had a child when he graduated. He was then widowed with children who were 1, 2 and 3 years old. He never talked about any of this except when asked directly and then not much.
He continued to practice law and was later elected Democratic Chairman in Tarrant County and to the District court bench where he was the judge in a Family District court for 21 years. He “adopted” his old elementary school, which was all African-American at that time, and regularly had parties for the students in his courtroom.
Compared to that, I don’t know that I have accomplished much, but he was a powerful influence on me, not only to become a lawyer, but to take care of family