Law Center alumnus, hailed as ‘Super Lawyer,’ gives back
Overlooking Houston from the 73rd floor of the J. P. Morgan Chase Tower sits the elegant, expansive office of a lawyer who went from UH Law School to counsel for one of the University’s most contentious cases this year.
Law Center alumnus Tony Buzbee has argued on behalf of the University in the lawsuit against the former South Texas College of Law. If the present state of the case is any indication, he’s likely to win it.
“They can call themselves whatever they want,” Buzbee said at an Aug. 26 hearing where the UH legal team requested an injuction to stop Houston College of Law from using the name.
“But what they can’t do is change their name and their colors exactly like ours, and then call themselves a name that’s very similar to us,” Buzbee said.
His more well-known cases have received widespread media coverage. There is the defending a Church’s Chicken employee who suffered burns on 65 percent of her body after a ceiling collapse and the winning of a $100 million settlement for 10 workers who claimed they were injured after an accident at BP’s Texas City plant in 2007.
Buzbee was Rick Perry’s lawyer during his indictment for abuse of power. He had the case dismissed.
And now, he’s representing the University — pro bono.
“When he takes on a case, he lives it, looks at every part of it, pursues every avenue,” said Peter Taaffe, a lawyer at the Buzbee Law Firm and a UH System Board of Regents member. “He becomes totally absorbed. He does it much more so than any other lawyer that I’ve encountered.”
The right person to call
Last Friday, federal judge Keith Ellison granted a temporary injunction in UH’s favor that forced the the Houston College of Law to immediately stop using its new name.
“The next step is for South Texas College of Law to remove their billboards, change their website, remove merchandise from stores and change their name in the American Bar Association database,” Buzbee said in an official statement.
The original claim is based on whether Houston College of Law willfully infringed on UH Law Center’s academic reputation and ranking. It assumed a similar-sounding name to purposefully mislead the target market — potential students, parents, employers — into the perception of a false affiliation, the UH counsel said.
David Beck, a lawyer for Houston College of Law, said at the hearing that the college had to change its name to reflect its geographic location because of the outdated definition of “South Texas.” He also criticized UH’s claim as factually mistaken.
“They are essentially trying to shut us down from using the name ‘Houston College of Law,’” Beck said.
Beck argued that neither the word “Houston” nor the phrase “college of law” were trademarked by UH and therefore could not be infringed upon. There is no reason for the schools to be confused despite their similar names and color schemes, Beck said.
“How about the change of colors?” Ellison said. “That seems very coincidental.”
Houston College of Law said they adopted a crimson-and-gold color scheme around the same time of the name change, but Ellison said that the gold seemed to disappear on public reproductions of the logo.
Beck credited faulty printing practices but did not clarify why gold was not used on the website.
In its counterclaim filed in August, Houston College of Law said that UH used “pejorative language in its complaint that does nothing to support its claims, such as its unfounded assertion that the name change is intended by the College to ‘shed its image as a night school.’”
Buzbee maintains close ties with the Law Center and the University. Taaffe, the UH regent who is a lawyer at The Buzbee Law Firm, is Buzbee’s friend from law school.
“When I got the call, of course I was flattered by that,” Buzzbee said. “It’s cool to be in a position to represent your alma mater.”
In his professional life, he employs a “take-no-prisoners” philosophy all the while maintaining the adequate amount of “yes sir, no ma’am” respect to the judge, jury and opposing lawyer.
That is, he said, until the opposing lawyer lies to him.
“He can be very funny — until you’re opposing him in a lawsuit,” said Chris Leavitt, a lawyer at the Buzbee Law Firm.
Buzbee said it’s important to be aware of a lawyer’s position in the court regardless of reputation.
“When you walk into the court, you have to remember who the decision-makers are,” Buzbee said. In the court, it’s the judge’s show.”
Buzbee has been lauded in his career as a Texas Lawyer magazine’s 2015 Lawyer of the Year, “Super Lawyer” by Thomson Reuters and has been featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. He said, however, it was simply for being good at his job.
“One of the things I’m good at is explaining things in a way that I need to,” Buzbee said. “The good lawyers can handle any kind of case. It’s a matter of doing your homework.”
Buzbee is not one to sit still. As a Recon Marine, he jumped out of helicopters and high-speed boats. He reached the rank of captain and was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal before seeking a more “intellectually stimulating” path.
“I figured out I’d done all the cool stuff I could do,” Buzbee said. “I decided to start looking around for something different.”
He graduated second in his class from the Law Center in 1997. A gifted rhetorician, Buzbee’s star power and acumen for driving the argument, often forcefully, might suggest the lawyer cliché.
“Most people, especially the judges, have preconceived notions about me,” Buzbee said. “Many of them are surprised that I don’t really fit in the persona.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t relish luxury. Buzbee, his wife Zoe and their four children live in a multi-million dollar English cottage-style mansion in River Oaks, where they hosted a fundraiser for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in June.
According to the Texas Tribune, Buzbee has since renounced any affiliation with Trump.
Buzbee owns three planes and a yacht named “Mas Grande.” His luxury car collection was until he donated all of them, except one, The Houston Chronicle reported.
As a Law Center alumnus, Leavitt recalled seeing Buzbee speak on the first day of college orientation. In his early 30s, Buzbee had already made a name for himself as one of Law Center’s distinguished alumni.
Even then, the young lawyer left a strong impact on Leavitt.
“There is not a more hardworking or prepared lawyer,” Leavitt said. “I’ve spoken to a few lawyers who have left and gone to other law firms and they’ve said ‘Tony does it the right way, others are not nearly as sophisticated.’”
The first days of law school seem to leave quite the first impression. Just as Buzbee spoke to the Leavitt’s entering class, Judge John O’Quinn, a fellow Law Center graduate and prominent Houston attorney, spoke at Buzbee’s first day.
The Houston College of Law case is settled, for now. The two institutions will meet again Wednesday to discuss the next steps.
But Buzbee, a man not yet 50 who has the luxury of choosing his cases, events on his calendar and even the choice to represent his alma mater for free, remains confident that he was the right choice to obtain the ultimate outcome.
“I think I put together a pretty good team,” Buzbee said. “We certainly have the better argument.”