Leading by Example
State Bar of Texas President Larry P. McDougal on being prepared for the unexpected.
Interview by Patricia Busa McConnico
Larry P. McDougal always wanted to be a Marine like
his father. The Tyler native grew up in a loving-yet-modest home in El
Campo, a small town about 75 miles southwest of Houston, where he
remembers getting their first window unit air conditioner. His dad, who
was a veteran of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Leyte, had a strong work
ethic that he passed on to his only child. McDougal thought of him as a
hero, his hero. But when McDougal told his father that he wanted to
follow in his footsteps and go into the military, the elder flat out
said no. “He said he lived through hell so that I would not have to,”
McDougal recalled. The compromise? McDougal would become a police
officer. And so in 1977, McDougal became a deputy sheriff at 19, which
was the minimum age requirement at the time. He attended the Houston
Police Department K-9 Handler Academy and enjoyed having a partner he
considered man’s best friend. One night McDougal’s K-9 partner saved his
life as they were about to walk into an ambush. McDougal also attended
the Houston Police Department SWAT Basic & Advanced program, where
he worked on his negotiation skills and was trained to always be
prepared for the unexpected. While working his way through college at
the University of Houston as a police officer, McDougal was pulled aside
one day by one of his professors, who convinced him to take the LSAT. He
began taking classes at South Texas College of Law that next spring.
McDougal set goals and made sacrifices to meet them—working, attending
school, and studying. His determination and diligence paid off, and he
landed a position with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office,
where he discovered what happens with criminal cases after an arrest.
During that time he also worked as a criminal investigator, responding
to several crime scenes, only now through the eyes of a prosecutor.
McDougal eventually realized he wanted to hang his own shingle and
started his own practice in Richmond with a focus on family law,
criminal defense, and personal injury, helping all manner of clients
from juveniles to police unions and associations. His son began working
with him during college and law school, which brought them even closer
together. Now they work together, trying cases, helping people, and
building a special father-son bond like the one McDougal treasured with
his own dad.
On June 26, 2020, McDougal was sworn in as president of the State Bar of Texas at the bar’s first-ever virtual annual meeting. McDougal recently talked with the Texas Bar Journal about his career, making good choices, and practicing law during COVID-19.
Who is your legal role model or mentor and what impresses
you most about him or her?
Judge R.H. “Sandy” Bielstein. Sandy was a 3L when I was a 1L at South Texas College of Law. We were both police officers, but he was a lieutenant in homicide. When I left the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, he was right there waiting on me. He helped me start my practice and was available to me 24/7. Later when he became a judge, he always gave me insight on what the judges wanted and the mistakes he made as a lawyer. As a judge, he had an open-door policy and was always willing to help any lawyer with any problem, professional or personal.
What prompted you to go into criminal law? What do you like most about your practice area and why?
Having been a police officer and Harris County assistant district attorney, the practice of criminal law chose me. Most of my clients are good people who just made a bad decision, and I enjoy helping them get their lives back. Yet there are those cases where you believe that your client was wrongly accused. Those are the ones that keep me awake at night.
What lesson or experience has most impacted the way you practice?
I always try to look at things from my clients’ perspective. When they show up at a criminal defense lawyer’s office, they are usually near hitting rock bottom.
What is the biggest challenge and what is the biggest reward of working in a small firm?
The biggest challenge was getting the firm started and making it profitable. The reward is the freedom of taking only the cases you want. It has also allowed me to take time off to be with family.
You have a history of giving back to the community. Why are you so passionate about helping others in your community and how do you motivate others to do the same?
Giving back is just something my parents engrained in me. I am not sure how you motivate others to do the same other than leading by example. All three of my daughters are schoolteachers and practice leading by example in everything they do.
Your staff has been working from their homes since mid-March to ensure the safety of your employees and the community during COVID-19. How have you helped get the firm adapted to working remotely during the pandemic? What piece of advice would you give to others to be prepared in the event something like this happens again?
Our firm consists of three attorneys and four licensed paralegals. We decided that the personal safety of our staff was our number one priority, so we closed the office and had everyone work from home. We invested in software that allowed us to access client files remotely. We set up a rotating system so we all took turns answering the phones. We stayed in constant communication with each other through group chats, and the attorneys assigned work to the staff as if we were all in the office. Our clients’ access to us never changed. The problem became getting in touch with judges and court staff. The only real advice I can give is to plan ahead. We saw this coming in early January and started preparing early.
What areas will you be focusing on this year as State Bar president?
Several of the past presidents have told me that the year you plan for is not the year you get. COVID-19 has certainly proven that to be true. We are watching the practice of law change before our very eyes and in ways many of us have never imagined. We must focus on keeping our State Bar strong and protecting and helping the lawyers through this crisis. My priorities also include continuing to advocate for grievance reform as well as a statewide courthouse access badge for Texas lawyers.
If you could try a case with any lawyer (dead or alive), who would it be and why?
That has already come true for me. My son is my law partner and we try all our cases together.
What do you think the legal profession will look like 50 years from now?
I honestly have no idea. I suspect that in the next year we will see the practice change more than it has in the past 50 years.
Name your three absolute favorite things to do on the weekend.
I love to fly. I call it therapy with Dr. Cessna. While flying, the only thing I am thinking about is flying the plane. I love spending time outdoors, whether it is hunting, fishing, working the land on a tractor, or just playing with the cows. Most of all I just love spending time with my wife of 42 years. We are into Jeeps, and we like driving on the beach at night, building a campfire and just listening to the waves. TBJ