The Good Fight
State Bar of Texas President Joe K. Longley on eradicating injustice.
Interview by Patricia Busa McConnico
When Joe K. Longley visited the 153rd District Court of Tarrant County for “Civics Day” during junior high, he watched a case unfold between a beauty shop and a client who claimed her scalp was burned while having her hair dyed. This was the first time Longley had been in a courtroom—and had met a lawyer. The ninth grader, who had a large personality and enjoyed being around people, was mesmerized. Longley watched the woman tell her story and the opposing counsel test it, and he realized that at the end of the day, there would be a winner and a loser. That’s when he knew he wanted to be a trial lawyer.
Longley was born in West Plains, Missouri, where his mother was
living while his father served as a B-17 pilot during World War II. By
the time the war was over, Longley and his family had moved to Fort
Worth, where he spent the next 12 years growing up in the public school
system and having some fun along the way. “My personality is outgoing,
which I got from both my mom—a born ‘horse trader’—and my dad, who never
met a stranger and who everyone referred to as their ‘best friend,’”
Longley said. “As a result, I could sing, dance, and tell jokes.”
After graduating from Arlington Heights High School, Longley moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where he majored in marketing because “it involved people, advertising, and sales.” During his time as an undergrad, he began working at the Capitol in Lt. Gov. Preston Smith’s office. The following year, he landed a position in Gov. John B. Connally’s office, which he held while attending law school at UT. His interest in government continued after graduation, and he stayed in Austin working for the Office of the Attorney General for a year before moving to Corpus Christi to work in private practice.
Above from left: Joe K. Longley at age 2 while living in Rapid City,
South Dakota; as a youth, Longley played Little League baseball for the
West Side Lions in Fort Worth; the young Longley graduated from
Arlington Heights High School in Fort Worth and then headed to Austin to
attend the University of Texas.
He soon found his way back to Austin, working as a solo practitioner
and later founding the partnership of Longley & Maxwell with Philip
K. Maxwell for 25 years. Longley became a fixture at the Capitol, where
he was instrumental in drafting numerous pieces of legislation,
including the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Consumer Protection Act,
or DTPA; amendments to the Texas Insurance Code Chapters 541 (unfair
practices), 542 (prompt payment of claims), and 544 (unfair
discrimination); and the Texas Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. In
2005, he went out on his own and has been practicing solo ever since.
On June 22, Longley will be sworn in as president of the State Bar of Texas at the bar’s annual meeting in Houston. Longley recently talked with the Texas Bar Journal about his career, role models, and plans as president of the State Bar.
Above from left: Longley as an undergraduate at the University of
Texas at Austin, where he studied marketing; Longley getting sworn in as
an attorney by
Texas Supreme Court Justice Joe R. Greenhill in 1969.
Who is your legal role model or mentor and what
impresses you most about him or her?
There are three—and they were all in Corpus Christi, where I practiced during 1971: the late Judge James “Jim” DeAnda, who taught me compassion for my client—as well as for my opponent on the other side; William R. “Bill” Edwards, who taught me to prepare, prepare, prepare; and Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, who helped crystalize my political beliefs into an unapologetic progressive.
What lesson or experience has most impacted the way you practice?
I’d say the demise of jury trials in civil cases through tort reform of consumer, policyholder, and injured persons’ rights under the rule of law.
What do you like most about your practice area and why?
In recent years, I have enjoyed dealing with the “big picture” through representation of collective clients in class actions. I was class counsel to 12.5 million class members in my last class settlement.
What is the biggest challenge and what is the biggest reward of working as a solo practitioner?
The biggest challenge is that you cannot get sick. The biggest rewards are the personal contact and relationships you develop with your clients—as well as greater financial rewards through no splitting of fees.
You have a history of getting things done and working with the Legislature. What gets you motivated and how do you motivate others?
My motivation is seeing injustice and trying to eradicate it. Some examples can be found in various Texas laws such as the DTPA (consumer protection); Texas Insurance Code Chapters 541 (unfair practices), 542 (prompt payment of claims), and 544 (unfair discrimination); the Texas Home Solicitation Act [Texas Bus. & Com. Code]; the Texas Fair Debt Collections Practices Act and Consumer Credit remedies [Texas Finance Code]; and various Landlord-Tenant remedies [Texas Property Code]; and last, but not least, the Texas Sunset Act [Texas Gov’t Code].
My ability to motivate others has largely been financial—as in the provisions for the award of attorney’s fees in all of these laws (with the exception of the Sunset Act) in which I played a major role in obtaining passage through the Legislature.
What do you think the legal profession will look like 50 years from now?
Lord, I haven’t a clue. If you had told me in 1976 that my first fax machine would morph into the communications we have today I would, of course, not have understood a word you were saying. Having said that, let me say I hope in 50 years there will be some method whereby someone can use “matter” transfer and time travel to go back to 1969 and start erasing all of my losses at the courthouse.
Name your three absolute favorite things to do on the weekend.
Being alive in Austin, Texas, with my beautiful wife, Maggie; spoiling our five grandchildren with food and fun; and watching Rangers and Astros baseball.
You have talked about transparency a great deal. What else will you be focusing on this year as State Bar president?
Helping President-elect Randy Sorrels keep a steady hand on the bar budget to hopefully implement another 5 percent ($2 million) reduction from the general fund budget like we enjoyed last year. Randy will be the incoming chair of the State Bar of Texas Budget Committee.
If you could try a case with any lawyer (dead or alive), who would it be and why?
Bill Edwards. He and I sometimes tried two jury trials a week. He was amazing to watch—always stressing his three P’s: preparation, presentation, and persistence.
Describe yourself in five words.
Friendly, fair, persistent, and firm.TBJ