Looking back on those events almost thirty years later, I decided that people wouldn’t be interested in what Connally had done for my career. Still, my experience with a big law firm could be a good subject. And the idea of a superstar adopting an underdog was a “feelgood” theme. It just needed a little spicing up.
I went back to what had happened after Connally won the hearing. That was the beginning of a new era in Houston. An avalanche of bankruptcies, business failures, bank closings and unemployment descended on the town. From 1982 to 1995 Houston was in a recession. The country in general was experiencing problems but they were magnified in Texas in general and in Houston in particular because the city depended so heavily on the price of oil.
It’s likely that even if I had never met Connally, if he had not been impressed with my skills, my career would have taken off. My firm had hired me for exactly that contingency, though no one expected the crisis to be so deep or so long. When I was hired I was told that I could not expect to become a partner. I was just a temporary hire for a “little problem”.
The crisis affected Connally and me in two dramatically different ways. The firm came to realize that they needed me, not just for a little while but for the long term. My clients, my billings, my prominence as a public speaker at bankruptcy conferences made me perfect partnership material. I was made a partner.
At almost the same time, Connally’s guarantees of numerous real estate loans was catching up to him. The bottom had fallen out of the market. Banks were calling in the loans, calling on Connally to make good on his guarantees. Of course, he had never expected all the deals to go bad. Nobody had. No one expected someone so brilliant, so prominent to fail. There’s a similar feeling today – “too big to fail..” But Connally learned then, as people have learned today, that the big can fail.
Even worse, the bank loans Connally had guaranteed were mostly with the law firm’s biggest client – First City National Bank. We were disqualified from representing him. He had to resign from the firm. Finally, as I watched helplessly from the sidelines, he was forced to file personal bankruptcy. All of his personal belongings would be sold at a televised auction. It was the ultimate humiliation.
He made the best of the situation, appearing at the auction and contributing personal stories about the items that increased the bidding. He became a symbol for troubled Texans. Many came to his assistance, buying back his property and giving it to him. But in the end, it was a tremendous failure, a blow to the Texas psyche.
Another topic for a book? The problem was, I was qualified to be an author but not to comment on the state of the economy. I didn’t want to preach, I wanted to tell a great story.
I thought more about the Connally angle. I remembered a rumor that he had collected a lot of personal papers during his career and had planned to donate them to the University of Texas. Allegedly he was very upset to learn that the papers would become part of his bankruptcy estate to be sold at auction. Allegedly he told his lawyers to go to hell – the papers would be given to the University.
I never learned what happened to the papers but I got an idea. What if the papers contained evidence of the Kennedy assassination? What if Connally, a victim of the assassination attempt, had learned that someone – LBJ, for example – had been behind the plot, and had somehow gotten his hands on incriminating material?
What if, faced with the possibility of losing the material Connally had turned to a young protege, a bankruptcy lawyer he had helped to make partner, and asked for help?
I set out to explore that angle.
Sometimes you’re lucky. Opportunity knocks and you recognize it immediately. That’s what happened when former Texas Governor, former Secretary of the Navy, former Nixon Treasury Secretary, former Presidential candidate, victim of Oswald’s attack on Kennedy – John Connally entered my office in early 1982. Only an appearance by the Angel Gabriel could have been more significant.
The “Gov”, a senior partner in my firm, had a bankruptcy problem. He and his brother had gotten involved in a deal with a man who had filed bankruptcy. Connally wanted out of the deal. The bankrupt wanted to keep him in and was making all sorts of allegations about being defrauded. Connally needed help from someone who knew their way around bankruptcy court. I was the one.
There were other people in my firm who knew about bankruptcy. Some of them had been involved in big bankruptcy cases. But none of them thought of themselves as a bankruptcy lawyer. They were “trial lawyers”. I was the only lawyer who was solely and exclusively bankruptcy. So I got the Gov. I guess. I never knew the real reason he settled on me.
When the firm and the world knew I was representing Connally my life changed. People greeted me in the elevator. All my friends called to ask what he was like. I got respect.
And working with Connally was fun. There was no way he was going to lose against the bankrupt. When we went to the bankrupt’s office for Connally’s deposition he was mobbed by the people in the building, by the receptionist and secretaries. Even the managing partner of the bankrupt’s law firm came into the deposition to say that he voted for Connally in the Texas primary. “You shoulda been President!”. It completely disrupted my opponent.
Connally was the perfect client. He was brilliant. He instantly “got” the nature of the case and what bankruptcy could do for him and for the other side. We drove to Austin to meet with his brother and on the way I explained about the potential of the Bankruptcy Code. He got that, too. He wasn’t demeaning, wasn’t ashamed to be seen with the lowest person on the totem pole. I was a happy camper.
Before the trial i went to see my senior partner. I told him I was worried because there was only me representing Connally, while the other side had three lawyers. The partner looked at me like I was crazy. “You have Connally. You don’t need to worry.”
But Connally never treated the matter that way. He was generous in praising me. As we left the office to head to the courthouse we passed the managing partner and some other senior lawyers in the lobby. “I’m going to court with a REAL lawyer, he said.” He seemed to love it that they were nonplussed.
The “trial” of the bankrupt’s case against Connally was a triumph. The most worrisome thing that happened was the he got stopped at the security x-ray. . He had to go through four times before he remembered his big cigar holder in his jacket pocket. Before the trial we went to visit one of Connally’s old friends, the senior United States Judge. i sat in the judge’s chambers while the two reminisced about the good old days at the University of Texas.
The actual trial lasted about ten minutes. The judge was awestruck to have Connally in his court. When it was over, Connally and I were invited to the judge’s chambers for cookies and talk.
I was in heaven.
I became a bankruptcy lawyer in 1977. It was an exciting time in our profession. In 1979 the new Bankruptcy Code became law. It was full of promise. It would change bankruptcy from a sleazy backwater to a major corporate restructuring tool. At the time, of course, only bankruptcy lawyers knew this.
I decided to be a bankruptcy lawyer in law school. People told me I was crazy. I was at the top of my class. I could probably be hired by one of the best Houston firms. None of them were looking for bankruptcy lawyers, though. They were still in the “dark ages”. Perhaps my story could be about the beginnings of my career-the beginnings of bankruptcy as an important legal practice.
At that point I got sidetracked. The story of my strange career path became the focus of my writing. Write what you know, and I knew myself, right? So for months I tried to tell the story of my getting hired by a big Houston law firm after spending several years as a small bankruptcy practitioner. By 1981, even the most prestigious firms realized that the Houston economy was in trouble. They decided to hire bankruptcy lawyers, but where to find them? One big firm dug up my resume from my law school interview and called me.
I got hired, to the amazement of every bankruptcy lawyer I knew. I was a “first”. The thrill soon faded. The big firm had hired me, but they had no idea what to do with me. I spent quite a while staring at the walls and waiting for something to happen.
Meantime, the Houston economy was listing like a great ship that had suffered a torpedo attack. Economic trouble was all around but the town was in denial. This was just a little hiccup. Just borrow a little more, extend those loans and in a year or two everything will be fine.
Since everyone was in denial, no one really wanted to talk to me. That would be an admission, since the world knew I was one of “them”–a bankruptcy lawyer.
I felt like I was wearing a cloak of invisibility. No one would talk to me. No one greeted me in the morning except my poor secretary who made it known that she was working for the lowest status human on the law firm totem pole.
Finally, though, things got so bad people had to acknowledge the truth. They were in trouble. The oil patch was in trouble. People had borrowed and banks had loaned on an assumption that the price of oil would be skyrocketing. Instead it fell. Suddenly loan that had been “well secured” were “troubled”. Borrowers found their lines of credit cut off.
The wealthy Texas oilmen had been smart. They did not bet their entire fortune on oil. they “diversified” into real estate, restaurants, entertainment. They never suspected that everything would come crashing down together. But that’s what happened.
I went to lunch with friends who were getting great new cases. Drilling companies, small operators, real estate developers were looking for help. Was this new Bankruptcy Code the answer? I listened to their excited stories. When they asked me what I was doing I told them I had to keep it under wraps. The truth was I was doing nothing.
Then one day someone walked into my office and changed everything.
You’ve considered the evidence, you’ve read the suspicions. Possibly you’ve come to your own conclusions. Now what?
Write a book, of course! Which is what I set out to do in 2007. At first I just wanted to write a book, any book. I had taken years of classes at Gotham Writers Workshop (a great online university for aspiring writers of just about anything). I had written short stories and enjoyed it. But a novel was much more challenging.
One of my class exercises was to write a 500 word piece that made use of all the human senses-taste, touch, sight, smell, sound. I chose a story about a man in a nighttime police chase whose car finally runs off the road into a field of wildflowers. It was called “Trip in the Dark”. My story got great reviews and I loved the title. I decided (without any plot at all) to call my novel Trip in the Dark, after checking Amazon and Barnes and Noble and learning to my shock that there was no other book by that name. It was a sign.
I also loved the chase – the smell of stale cigarettes in the car, the feel of the wheel, the sight of the police blinkers catching up with the criminal on the dark road and eventually the sound of the sirens as they caught up and the taste of blood in the criminal’s mouth as he hit his face on the wheel when the car ran off the road. I decided to build a story around that scene.
What story? I learned that writing about what you know is the best way. It was a lesson I learned while trying to craft stories about things I didn’t know – private detectives, people living through a cataclysmic event, actors, acrobats. All failures. Finally I made a list of all the things I did know about. Since I’m a lawyer, the top of the list was the practice of law—bankruptcy law in particular. Bankruptcy frequently involves criminals. People who have to file are often afraid of losing some precious possession, so they try to hide it. Sometimes its money or gold bars or jewelry. Sometimes it’s a memento they can’t bear to part with. Baby’s first pair of shoes. My life was full of stories of people trying to hide things from their creditors, some of them hilarious. The search for these hidden objects, especially the money and gold bars, was often thrilling.
One doctor living in England decided to file bankruptcy in England and then flee to New Zealand. The English bankruptcy trustee followed him to New Zealand and began a search for a reported stash of gold bars. An investigation of his house, car, office, yard proved unsuccessful until the trustee accidentally met the man who had built the doctor’s New Zealand house. The builder commented that the doctor had made a strange request – a large room under the floor of the house with a secret entrance. Voila – gold bars recovered.
I thought of doing a collection of these true stories, but that didn’t really qualify as a novel in my opinion. So I had to pick one great story.