The Judge and the Advocate: Meet the Lynns
April 24, 2014 – As a Dallas County jury read its verdict in March, Mike Lynn pulled his iPhone from his coat pocket and sent one email.
“We won. $319 million."
A few blocks away, U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn was on the bench in the middle of her own trial when the message arrived. “I wanted to be there in court with Mike when he won such a huge victory for his client,” she says.
Adds Mike Lynn, “The only thing that would have made that moment any more glorious is if Barb had been there in the courtroom.”
Mike and Barbara Lynn are Dallas’ undisputed legal power couple.
She was a lead plaintiff and key witness in a series of lawsuits in the 1970s that forced Dallas’ largest law firms to start hiring women lawyers from law schools. She has shattered numerous gender barriers her entire life - the first class of women admitted into the undergraduate program at the University of Virginia, the first woman lawyer and later first woman partner at the Carrington Coleman law firm, and the first and only lawyer to ever chair both the American Bar Association’s Litigation and Judicial Sections.
Now a U.S. District Court judge, Barbara Lynn has presided over some of the most controversial and important trials in North Texas during the past 15 years, including the 2009 criminal prosecution of Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill and the Hosam Maher Husein Smadi terrorism case. She is a leading national voice on patent infringement disputes and how they are resolved.
The National Law Journal named her one of the most influential lawyers in the country.
Mike Lynn is a pit bull trial lawyer who stunned the legal community two decades ago by leaving the comforts of a large silk stocking law firm where he was destined for senior leadership to start what has become one of the most successful and respected litigation boutiques in Texas. He is currently the lead lawyer in a handful of high profile and big-dollar corporate lawsuits.
In February, he represented Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners in a landmark lawsuit against Enterprise Products of Houston over a failed effort to build a pipeline - a case that resulted in the jury awarding Lynn’s client at least a $319 million jury verdict, which is the largest judgment ever issued by a state court jury in Dallas.
“Barb and Mike are two of the smartest, most talented and ambitious lawyers I have ever met,” says Patrick Higginbotham, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, who has known the couple since they were in law school together at Southern Methodist University in 1974.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Barbara is one of the five best federal judges in the country and should be on the president’s short list for the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court,” Judge Higginbotham says. “And Mike is simply one of the best trial lawyers in the country.”
Dena DeNooyer Stroh, the general counsel at Murchison Oil and Gas, says the Lynns have made a significant mark on the legal profession by significantly supporting legal services for the poor and needy and zealously advocating for the future of the jury system.
“There are no two lawyers in Dallas who are more influential in the legal community than Judge Lynn and Mike,” says Stroh. “They give so much of themselves to younger lawyers and to trying to improve our justice system.”
Or, in the words of Royal Furgeson, the dean at the University of North Texas School of Law and a former federal judge, “Mike and Barbara are great lawyers and great Americans.”
Which One is Dominant
Interviewed at their home facing White Rock Lake, the Lynns say they feed on each other’s success.
“A lot of people ask me which one of us is the dominant one in this relationship,” says Mike Lynn. “Neither of us, or maybe both of us at different times."
"Mike makes sure that I never get judge-itis," Judge Lynn adds. “Mike will tell me sometimes that I am being an ass.”
“That’s true,” Mike Lynn interjects, “but she says that about me a lot more than I say it about her.”
Barbara Golden and Mike Lynn met 43 years ago when they were students at the University of Virginia. He was a junior. She was a freshman.
In fact, she was in the first freshman class of women admitted to the historic college.
“Mike led a very active social life, which included personally meeting most of the women in the freshman class,” Judge Lynn told the Dallas Bar Association in 2012 when she was awarded the organization’s prestigious Dallas Bar Foundation Fellows Award. "He finally made his way around to meeting me.”
Lynn Orchestrates a Political Coup
Their relationship solidified when Golden tried repeatedly to become the first woman admitted into the Jefferson Literary and Debate Society, a 190-year-old organization that is considered one of the oldest and most prestigious clubs at the University of Virginia. Woodrow Wilson and Edgar Allan Poe were members.
Each time, southern conservative male leaders of the Jeff Society denied her petition because of her gender. But Golden had a secret weapon.
"One weekend in February, when the anti-women cabal had left for New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras and I knew I had the votes with them gone, I called for a vote [of the remaining members] to change the bylaws to admit women,” says Mike Lynn, who was the vice president of the Jeff Society at the time.
That same day, Feb. 12, 1972, Golden was elected as a member by a single vote, according to UVA officials.
“That no doubt cemented our relationship,” says Mike Lynn. “There’s a plaque on the wall at UVA celebrating Barb as the Jeff Society's first woman member. No mention of me, though. I guess it got me married, so that is reward enough.”
The political coup envisioned and executed by the Lynns was a harbinger of things to come.
“I asked Barb to marry me while we were there at UVA,” he says. “She doesn’t remember me asking, but it must have taken hold because here we are 40 years later.”
The couple went to law school at Southern Methodist University, where she graduated first in her class. They were on the SMU mock trial team together with prominent Houston criminal defense attorney Rusty Hardin.
“We thought we were the best mock trial team ever,” says Mike Lynn. “The judges apparently disagreed, but we had so much fun.”
Law Firms Sued for Gender Discrimination
As her law school days wound down, Lynn and her fellow women classmates noticed that they were receiving very few offers from large Dallas law firms.
“We had this crazy idea that if we worked hard, did well in law school and demonstrated our skills, that we would get job offers," says Judge Lynn. “We noticed that men who graduated well below several of the women in our class were getting offers while those same law firms were ignoring the female law students.
"One law firm refused to extend me an offer because of my supposed strong connections to New York, even though I had not lived in New York since I was four years old,” she says.
Lynn and her classmates formed a student group at SMU and sued a half-dozen major law firms. Nearly every law firm settled instead of going to trial. And even though the one case that did go to trial was unsuccessful, most law firms in Dallas quickly changed their hiring policies.
"There was definitely fallout from Barb taking this very public stand,” says Mike Lynn. "We were never going to receive offers from any of those law firms that were targeted. But we did okay.”
Akin Gump hired Mike Lynn. Carrington Coleman extended a job offer to Barbara Lynn in 1976, making her the first woman lawyer at the firm. Seven years later, she became its first woman partner.
"We had a firm policy to never hire students right out of law school,” says Jim Coleman, one of the firm's founders. "But once we saw Barbara's resume and once we met and interviewed her, we eliminated that policy. And it was one of the best decisions we ever made.”
The couple actually tried their first and only case together the summer following Barbara Lynn’s graduation from law school but before they went to work at their respective law firms.
"I had accepted the job offer from Carrington Coleman but had not yet started and Mike was in the same position with Akin Gump,” she says.
Judge Higginbotham appointed her to represent a former inmate who sued the sheriff for wrongful imprisonment. She asked her husband to join her as co-counsel.
“There Would Have Been Blood”
“I’m not sure either of us knew what we were doing, but we knew our client had a definite cause of action,” Judge Lynn says.
Their client won the case when the Fifth Circuit ruled that the sheriff had kept the inmate longer than permitted and the Lynns’ client was awarded damages.
Even though the couple practiced at different law firms and represented scores of competing clients, they never faced off against each other in court.
“Oh no, that would not have been fun,” says Mike Lynn. “We would have taken each other's heads off."
Adds Judge Lynn, “There would have been blood. But I really wish we had gotten to try a couple more cases together.”
From Advocate to Judge
Barbara Lynn’s career as a trial lawyer blossomed at Carrington Coleman, where she frequently defended large corporations being sued for employment and labor matters. But every once in a while she represented the plaintiff.
A good example occurred in 1988 when she represented Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company in a business contract dispute against Irving Savings Association, whose corporate officers were convicted of criminal offenses.
The court awarded her client $7 million in damages. The case was also significant because it was one of the first times that a court admitted as evidence the criminal convictions of the defendants as a means of proving the alleged underlying facts.
Lawyers who worked with Barbara Lynn at the law firm say she was super-competitive.
“The partners held a bowling event for summer clerks while I was there and Judge Lynn lobbied to get the best bowlers on her team,” says Stroh. “It was all a lot of fun, but she still clearly wanted to win.”
President Clinton nominated Barbara Lynn to the federal bench in 1999 to replace U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders, who had taken senior status.
In the past 14 years, the Dallas Bar Association has consistently rated Judge Lynn as one of the fairest and most knowledgeable judges in North Texas.
Legal experts point to a 2011 opinion she delivered in a potential securities class action lawsuit brought against Halliburton as clear evidence of Judge Lynn's brilliance and influence.
In her decision, Judge Lynn ruled that Fifth Circuit precedent required that she decide for Halliburton, but she made it clear that she didn’t like it and believed that the Fifth Circuit made it too difficult for plaintiffs in these kind of cases to achieve class action status.
“This was a great opinion because Judge Lynn followed the law as set by the Fifth Circuit, but she also noted how she thought that precedent was wrong or at least too burdensome on plaintiffs," says Nina Cortell, an appellate law expert at Haynes and Boone in Dallas.
Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Halliburton case, citing Judge Lynn’s opinion as its guide in ruling for the plaintiffs and striking down the more burdensome Fifth Circuit precedent.
“The Halliburton case demonstrates that Judge Lynn is certainly brilliant and that she follows precedent, even if she disagrees with it, but that she also possesses great common sense and is able to convincingly share that common sense with her colleagues on higher courts,” says Cortell.
Any lawyer who has a case before Judge Lynn needs to know her biggest complaint against lawyers: misspellings and grammatical errors fill two-thirds of the motions and briefs that come to her.
“I’ve seen lawyers get their own client’s name wrong and some have even misspelled my name,” she says. “If I’m the judge in your case, know that you need to proofread your briefs and know that not only do these mistakes upset me, they cause me to not trust you on other things.
“Lawyers tell me that these mistakes should not perturb me, but that doesn’t change the fact that they do,” she says.
Mike’s Career Course Changes
After three years at Akin Gump, Mike Lynn was growing frustrated that he wasn’t able to try more cases in court. His mentor, Akin Gump partner Jack Hauer, advised him to leave the firm to join the Dallas County District Attorneys Office, where he would get more trial experience.
But Henry Wade refused to hire him because he had no trial experience.
“When I told Jack that Mr. Wade refused to hire me, he ordered me to go sit outside Mr. Wade’s office until he hired me," Mike Lynn says. “I reported to Mr. Wade's office every day at 8 a.m. and sat there until 5 p.m. for two weeks.”
Finally, one of Wade’s assistants, Doug Mulder, “took pity” on Lynn and hired him to prosecute cases.
“Doug took me in to see Mr. Wade, who told me that if I fell below the average conviction rate for two months that he would send me back to Jack as a loser,” says Mike Lynn.
The experience was invaluable, as Mike Lynn tried more than 50 cases to a verdict. He has now led 98 jury trials to a verdict – nearly all of them civil cases since he left the prosecutor's office - and he expects later this year to surpass 100 jury trials, which is nearly unheard of today because so few civil cases go to trial.
Mike Lynn returned to Akin Gump, where he was elected partner in 1982. Barbara Lynn made partner at Carrington Coleman the very next year.
A few years later, the couple started a family. They have two daughters.
“Mike was so committed to saving enough money for our daughters to be able to go to Harvard that he refused to trade in his old silver Toyota Celica with a very leaky sunroof,” says Judge Lynn.
“So, Mike would drive around town having to wear a raincoat in the car to stay dry.”
In 1993, Mike Lynn did the unthinkable at the time. He quit the security and comfort of Akin Gump, a high-powered and extremely influential national law firm founded in Dallas, to start his own small litigation-focused law firm.
“A lot of people said I was crazy,” says Mike. “It was certainly a scary decision to go out on my own.”
The firm, now called Lynn Tillotson Pinker & Cox, has two-dozen lawyers and a strategic plan to grow to about 50 lawyers over the next few years. With an hourly billing rate of $725 an hour, Lynn and his partners say they provide clients with the quality of representation offered by large full service law firms, only $150 an hour less.
Lawyers who work with Lynn say that his interviewing skills for potential new hires are unconventional.
“Mike took me to lunch and I was expecting him to flatter me with all kinds of praise and tell me how great his law firm was," says Jeremy Fielding, who was an associate in the real estate law section at Baker Botts when he interviewed with Lynn.
“Instead, Mike starts telling all the downsides to the job and how I probably would not be a good fit and how it's not an easy place to work," says Fielding, who worked with Lynn on the ETP trial. "My wife asked me why anyone would want to work at that law firm. I told her I didn't understand why anybody would want to work anywhere else.”
Mike Lynn has certainly experienced some extraordinary litigation successes. He represented Alcatel in 2000 in a high-dollar trade secret dispute with Samsung, which Lynn says settled “very favorably” for Alcatel. While the terms of the agreement are confidential, lawyers familiar with it say it is the largest corporate trade secret settlement agreement ever reached in a Dallas County court case.
Visa International hired Lynn in 1998 to defend the company against charges made by Dallas-based Zixit Corp., an Internet credit card processing company, that a Visa executive had anonymously posted 437 critical messages on Yahoo's investment website. Zixit sought $800 million in actual damages and $1 billion in punitive damages. Lynn employed the “so what” defense.
“Sure, we did it, but so what? We showed that the postings had no material impact on the market,” Lynn says. “The jury gave us a complete victory.”
Lynn is currently representing Chilean-based Inppamet in a $60 million international business dispute against RSR Corporation, a Dallas-based lead smelter. The case became newsworthy when Lynn accused his opposing counsel, Bickel & Brewer, of improperly hiring a former executive of Inppamet in an effort to gain insider, privileged information. The Dallas Court of Appeals has upheld Lynn's request to disqualify Bickel & Brewer from the case, which is now on appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
"Mike is fierce and unpredictable," says Jeff Tillotson, his long-time law partner. "Mike loves to find the weakness in the other side's case and then exploit that weakness completely.
“Despite his toughness and aggressiveness in court, Mike is the most loyal and kind- hearted man I know,” says Tillotson. “He’s an extraordinarily gentle and sentimental father and he treats everyone who works at the firm as if he is personally responsible for them.”
Tillotson, Fielding and others say that Mike Lynn is constantly throwing out new ideas about strategies in a case.
“Mike will come up with 100 new ideas – 80 of them are okay but just won’t work, 15 of them are so crazy and unworkable that even he knows they are nuts, but the remaining five are pure gold that truly help us win the case,” says Fielding.
David Coale, an appellate partner at Lynn Tillotson, says Mike Lynn’s courtroom style, especially his cross-examination technique, is like “Yoda from Star Wars wielding the laser sword.”
“There’s a lot of energy and a lot of wild swinging of the sword, but you know he’s going to land some strikes that are deadly and win the case,” he says.
Mike Lynn’s biggest courtroom victory came two months ago when he convinced a Dallas jury to rule that Houston-based Enterprise Products had violated its partnership with ETP in order to do a more profitable deal with a competitor.
The jury awarded ETP $319 million in actual damages and found Enterprise liable for potentially an additional $595 million.
"This was a huge win for Mike and his firm and instantly elevates his reputation among corporate general counsel as one of the leading go-to trial lawyers for high-stakes business litigation in Texas,” says Stroh.
Lawyers who have tried cases with and against Mike Lynn say his approach is unorthodox and that he can come across as abrasive or overly confrontational in court.
"I enjoy Mike's quirky, no-nonsense approach," says Stroh. “I don’t need a warm and cuddly lawyer representing me. I want my lawyer to be fearless and loyal, and that is Mike.”
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