Early in his life Oliver Howard agonized over whether to go into the ministry or to make a career in law.
“Ultimately, I did both,” he said.
Oliver, who was part of record-setting judgments in both Oklahoma and Arkansas, is a member of GableGotwals, 100 W. Fifth St., in Tulsa.
“Eventually, I saw the legal profession as a way to deal with the needs that clients have and to be able to make an impact,” he said.
The Tulsa Business Journal surveyed attorneys of Tulsa-based law firms, executives and Tulsa judges, asking what lawyers they would recommend in four business-related categories — bankruptcy, corporate, tax/estate and oil and natural gas. The TBJ also asked what lawyer they would want to represent them in a courtroom.
We guaranteed the more than 40 sources used in this compilation anonymity so they would feel comfortable speaking frankly.
Among the ones listed prominently were Oliver Howard, Michael Atkinson and Joe Farris.
Describing himself as “an advocate,” Howard enjoys battling for peoples’ rights.
“I think ultimately I saw a lot of good that could be done. Plus, the legal profession is intellectually challenging — I look forward to dealing with all the different people that I interact with,” he said. “I have learned facts and patterns in people behavior. I’ve met so many different people, and as a result have learned so many different aspects of the economy and society.”
Howard has served as team leader on several complex cases.
Ten years ago, Howard served as lead trial lawyer for a team that obtained a record $742 million judgment in Oklahoma.
It remains the single largest settlement in state history.
The case arose from a failed merger between two energy companies — the former Cities Service Co. and Gulf Oil.
The case was one of the longest in state history, beginning in 1982.
“Many of the facts had been forgotten. Several witnesses had been deceased — it took a lot of reconstructing,” Howard said. “We had to rebuild (the case) from the ground up because so much time had elapsed.”
Howard also participated as lead trial counsel on behalf of a class of natural gas royalty owners in a trial in Sebastian County, Arkansas in 1998.
The $109 million jury verdict and judgment was the largest at the time in Arkansas. The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed that judgment in 2000.
Howard grew up in a family that taught him to be concerned about the needs of others.
At the same time, he was interested in law. The father of a boyhood friend was an attorney.
“I had great respect for him as a boy,” he said.
All in the Family
Michael Atkinson is “an absolute master in the courtroom — regardless of the type of law involved,” said one observer.
Atkinson is a third-generation lawyer — his grandfather Charles Washington Atkinson and his father, Charles Pierce Atkinson, were lawyers.
“I became a lawyer because I did not have a great imagination,” he said.
Atkinson’s grandfather was a county judge in Fort Worth, Texas, but lost a bid for re-election in 1932 and “had to work” as a lawyer in Washington, D.C.
“He lost because he would not allow the (Ku Klux) Klan to meet in the Tarrant County Courthouse,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson came to Tulsa in 1972 and has been with the same firm ever since.
The bottom line is that a good trial lawyer is not much different from a good teacher, Atkinson said.
“A lawyer is not only a teacher, but a producer and a director,” he said. “How the evidence gets delivered to the jury has to be in such a way that the client gets good reviews from the jury.”
One of Atkinson’s largest settlements was in 2004 when he won a $44 million judgment against an insurance company.
His perspective has changed over the years, however.
“There was a time when I won a verdict on behalf of my clients, that it was a joyous occasion,” he said. “But, as time has marched on, it is more typical to feel an enormous sense of relief if we get a good outcome.”
It is part of what Atkinson calls the “joy and agony” of the business.
One legal mind called Joe Farris, of Feldman, Franden, Woodard, Farris & Boudreaux, an “extremely skilled litigator.”
Farris has been handling legal malpractice cases for a quarter century.
“Actually, it was serendipity — like a lot of things in life,” Farris said, in describing how he entered that portion of the profession.
Farris was assigned a legal malpractice case. He defended it, then was handed another. Today, Farris said he’s handled more than 200 cases.
Farris is proudest of two cases where companies were forced to pay back wages to employees.
The first was a class-action lawsuit against McDonnell Douglas after the airplane maker closed Plant No. 3 at Tulsa International Airport.
The 90-plus-page judgment awarded the 1,100 workers $40 million back wages following their termination as a result of the plant closing.
Another significant settlement was the $10 million judgment against Otasco for back wages.
Beats Picking Cotton
He jokes about how he entered the profession in the first place.
“Electrical engineering was too hard,” he said. “And I’d picked cotton and mowed lawns. I knew I did not want to do that for a living.
“Any job that let me work in an air conditioned building and wear nice clothes sounded good,” he said, laughing.
The team listed are attorneys — in no particular order — recommended by their peers, executives and judges as the tops in these business-related categories:
Sidney Swinson, GableGotwals; Carol Allen, Atkinson Haskins Nellis, Brittingham, Gladd & Carwile; Tim Trump, Conner & Winters; Steve Soule, Hall Estill; John Carwile, Atkinson, Haskins, Nellis, Brittingham, Gladd & Carwile; Tom Creekmore, Hall Estill, Hardwick, Gable, Golden & Nelson; John Cannon, Jones, Gotcher & Bogan; Mark Craig, Morrele, Saffa, Craig, Hicks Barhart
John Carwile, Atkinson, Haskins, Nellis, Brittingham, Gladd & Carwile; Randy Shorb, Johnson, Jones Dornblaser Coffman & Shorb; Ken Dornblaster, Johnson, Jones Dornblaser, Coffman & Shorb; John O’Connor, Newton, O’Conner Turner, Kechum; Daniel Ketchum, Newton, O’Conner Turner, Kechum; William Jones, Jones, Gotcher & Bogan; Jim Farris, Feldman, Franden, Woodard, Farris & Boudreaux; Thomas Vogt, Jones, Gotcher & Bogan
M. Benjamin Singleterry, GableGotwals; Lee Levinson, Bodenhamer & Levinson; David Keglovits, Gable Gotwals; Jim Sturdivant, GableGotwals; Harry Barker; Steve Adams, Fellers, Snider Blankenship Bailey & Tippens
Jeffrey Rambach, GableGotwalls; John Johnson, Johnson, Jones Dornblaser, Coffman & Shorb; Andy Johnson Johnson, Jones Dornblaser, Coffman & Shorb; Bill Newton, Newton, O’Connor, Turner & Ketchum; Daniel Ketchum, Newton, O’Connor, Turner & Ketchum; Charles Tetrick, Moyers, Martin, Santee, Imel & Tetrick; Jack Brown, Jones, Givens, Gotcher & Bogan ?