From academic probation to success in the courtroom: UH alumnus defies odds
Before UH alumnus Ken Bailey founded a law firm and worked with a legal team that helped secure the largest multi-billion dollar settlement in United States history, he was a fledgling freshman who thought he was exempt from attendance policies just for being on the football team.
He was wrong and ended up on academic probation at UH.
“It wasn’t a good start,” Bailey said. “You can always find a reason not to go to class, and I always did.”
After a sincere talk with his father, Bailey stopped ditching class and devoted himself to his studies while also managing to become the starting quarterback of the football team from 1967 to 1969. After earning his bachelor’s in business, Bailey received the Charles Saunders Award for Outstanding Scholar Athlete and graduated from the UH Law Center in 1972.
Nearly two decades later, Bailey will return to his alma mater to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award at UH’s 61st Annual Awards Gala on May 2 at the Westin Houston in Memorial City.
“I am very humbled, and I know everybody says that,” Bailey said. “But it is an honor when your university recognizes a person for trying to give back, so I am very humbled and honored by that.”
Bailey never planned on being a lawyer — it was a UH professor in one of his business law classes that inspired him. He said he was fascinated by what he was learning and even intimidated the other students by constantly interjecting during lectures to answer questions.
“One day Dr. Irwin took me out in the hallway, and he asked me if I ever thought about going to law school,” Bailey said. “That was the first time I had ever even thought about it. So I went and checked it out, took the LSAT, got the acceptance and was off and running.”
Several years after working as a sole practitioner, Bailey was offered a spot at a prominent personal injury law firm, the Provost Umphrey Law Firm in Beaumont. Bailey said he enjoyed “doing the right thing” by standing by his clients who were often victims from asbestos exposure.
His involvement in the Wanda Jenkins Class Action in 1986 and Cimino Class Action in 1991 led to thousands of settlement cases for workers exposed to asbestos. One of his most rewarding cases involved helping a man that had developed severe lung cancer.
“When I called him and his wife in to get their money and sign the settlement, I slid the check over in front of him, and he didn’t touch it,” Bailey said. “He got up, walked around my desk and hugged me. He said, ‘Mr. Bailey, that’s more money than I’ve ever seen in my life. But you gave me more than that — you gave me my life.’”
After making a name for himself and developing relationships with leaders of the law community, Bailey became a founder and partner of the Bailey Peavey Bailey Law Firm, which has earned a national reputation for excellence as a premiere mesothelioma and asbestos law firm.
Aside from his work that has led to thousands of asbestos settlements, Bailey also worked on the 1997 landmark case against tobacco companies that became known as the largest multi-billion dollar settlement in history.
“Several law firms wanted to get out because the tobacco companies had never paid a nickel before,” Bailey said.
After months of investigating and working on the case, a fellow colleague working with Bailey on the case offered some words of advice that have served as his motto for the last 17 years.
“He said there’s nobody in this room that has backed down from anybody in our professional careers, especially when it’s the right thing to do,” Bailey said. “So if I have my client come in here and he wants me to represent him against the biggest company in the world, and it’s the right thing to do, I’m going to do what (he) said to do. Never back up. Represent your clients.”
Bailey said the key to a successful career is dedication to one’s education.
“Get as much knowledge as you can,” Bailey said. “You’ve just got to take advantage of opportunities… Prepare yourself, feel confident and just get after it.”