Stephen D. Susman, the peerless Texas trial attorney who helped pioneer litigation boutiques and contingency fees in high-stakes commercial litigation, died Tuesday from the effects of a traumatic brain injury suffered in a bicycle accident recently complicated by COVID-19.
The Houston native was 79.
Susman was both founder and force behind the Houston-based Susman Godfrey firm. Known for his brilliance (still highest-ever GPA at the University of Texas Law School), over-the-top playfulness and a roiling, imperious physical presence that sometimes scared even friends, Susman now rests in peace, as will many of his courtroom foes who came away knowing they’d been bested by the best.
When tort-reform and various forces within the legal profession in recent decades cut into the amount of cases actually going to trial, Susman fought back as executive director of the Civil Jury Project at the New York University School of Law, seeking to preserve trial by jury.
Tom Melsheimer, managing partner in the Dallas office of Winston & Strawn, worked alongside Susman in a major trial in 2009. While many athletes today can be compared to those who came before them, he says, “you don’t have that with trial lawyers.”
“There are fewer top ones like Steve and they’re not being replaced one by one,” Melsheimer said.
There’s a Latin legal term for Susman: sui generis. It means he was so unique as to be in a class by himself.
Some bona fides: Susman got a B.A. in English literature at Yale University; first in class and law review editor-in-chief in law school; clerked on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, for Judge John R. Brown; clerked for Justice Hugo Black on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Outrageously funny Steve Susman stories could fill multiple volumes. Perhaps the best was when Susman and two other partners at Fulbright & Jaworski in the mid-1970s decided to pull a prank on the firm, aimed at the profession’s growing frenzy in recruiting new talent. They created a phony resume for a FedEx carrier they knew and had him apply for an associate position. And with inside help from a partner on the hiring committee, the firm ended up making a job offer to a man who didn’t go to law school.
Rufus Wallingford, a retired Fulbright partner in Houston was Susman’s co-conspirator in the counterfeit hire.
“We cooked up the resume with some tipoffs in it, and it went down beautifully,” Wallingford said.
Along with the man’s actual name, the resume listed his college as Sucadich University and his fraternity as Iota Upsilon Delta; he clerked in the non-existent Northern District of Utah for a judge they named after Richard Nixon’s tax attorney.
At the end of his interview, the man told the hiring committee he already had offers from their rival firms, Baker Botts and Vinson & Elkins. Fulbright offered to bring him on to do trusts and estates.
“The managing partner didn’t think it was so funny,” Wallingford says. “He said ‘If you ever do it again, I’m running you all off’.”
That evening, following a firm-wide bash, there was an after-party at Susman’s house where the FedEx carrier was brought in to tend the bar. Some of the hoodwinked hiring committee members came by and when they recognized him, he said they must be confused.
Susman left the firm not long after that, moving to Austin to teach law at his alma mater but soon returned to Houston to practice with friends at a small firm, Mandel & Wright. There, he won the largest antitrust verdict ever at the time, known as the Corrugated Container Antitrust case, and ultimately a settlement for $500 million. He left that firm in 1980 to launch what then was Susman & McGowan.
Susman worked as hard at physical fitness as he did at lawyering. He’d been a lineman on his high school football team. For years he has been passionate about bicycling, typically for tens or scores of miles at a time around the U.S. and in Europe, including the 150-mile trek from Houston to Austin in the Bike MS: Texas MS 150, to raise money for multiple sclerosis research.
On April 22 Susman was on a morning ride in the Old Braeswood area of Houston with a few of his law firm friends when his front wheel caught and locked in an expansion seam in a concrete roadway. He was thrown over the handlebars and suffered traumatic brain damage as well as other injuries.
After more than a week in a coma and continued hospitalization at Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center, Susman was moved to the Memorial Hermann – TIRR rehabilitation center. There he began responding physically to verbal commands and progressed to speaking in monosyllables and singing entire songs, such as the Johnny Cash song “I Walk the Line” and “Under the Boardwalk.”
Then he regressed, requiring a shunt for better blood flow in the brain, and for a time that seemed successful. But on June 24 he was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.
Yesterday on the Steve Susman page at CaringBridge, his wife Ellen Susman wrote: “Our gallant Steve left us today. He fought a valiant battle, from his accident to rehab, but the combination of Covid and his weakened lungs were finally too much for his body. We are brokenhearted, but at peace with the fact that he is free and whole at last. He went peacefully, and we were by his side.”
Susman also is survived by his brother Thomas M. Susman, of Washington, D.C.; his son, Harry Susman, a partner at Susman Godfrey and himself a former Supreme Court law clerk; and his daughter Stacy Susman Kuhn.
“Steve was whip smart, but smart lawyers are a dime a dozen,” says Gary McGowan, a Houston arbitrator who joined Susman as name partner in 1980 when the firm now known as Susman Godfrey was launched. “What put him above the herd was his extraordinary physical stamina and emotional fortitude, bold creativity and innovation in a stodgy profession – and his relentless drive to win.”
Susman lived large. When camped in hotels during trials with legal teams, a typical dinner might be baked lasagna or hamburgers, says Melsheimer. “But with Steve it was things like sushi or Indian food. We had very good meals and we worked very hard.”
Among other idiosyncrasies, the “F-bomb” regularly passed his lips, though aptly and deftly as a well-thrown dart. At a first anniversary party for Susman Godfrey’s then-new office in New York City in 2007, I spoke with Peter Hewett, who was a director for a medical device manufacturing company that hired Susman for patent litigation in Texas after setting aside its New York lawyers.
Hewett said they began with mediation by the now-late William Sessions, a former federal judge and FBI director. After the other side’s lawyers, all from New York, introduced themselves to “Judge Sessions,” Susman began his own introduction with “Bill.”
“Bill, we are out of here in 60 f—ing seconds if these guys can’t assure us that they can make decisions right now on behalf of their client.”
His brother, Tom Susman, is two years younger and followed Steve’s path in many ways: Yale, Texas Law, clerked for a federal circuit judge. He worked for the Justice Department in the Johnson administration, in various roles for Sen. Ted Kennedy’s judiciary committee, then Ropes & Gray. He is now a strategic adviser to the American Bar Association’s Governmental Affairs Office, and its former director.
“When we were growing up, he got the nickname ‘Super Sus’, and that of course left me with the moniker ‘Little Sus’,” Tom says. “Imagine growing up under that shadow.”
Editor’s Note: Below is an earlier, breaking news story regarding Susman’s death.
Houston Lawyer Steve Susman‘s ‘Valiant Battle’ is Over
By Mark Curriden
Steve Susman, a legendary trial lawyer who pioneered the litigation boutique movement in Texas and fought vigorously to protect the right to trial by jury, died Tuesday. He was 79.
Susman’s family announced his death on the CaringBridge website.
“Our gallant Steve left us today,” Ellen Susman, his wife, wrote Tuesday evening. “He fought a valiant battle, from his accident to rehab, but the combination of COVID-19 and his weakened lungs were finally too much for his body. We are brokenhearted, but at peace with the fact that he is free and whole at last. He went peacefully, and we were by his side.”
Susman, the founding partner of the Houston litigation powerhouse Susman Godfrey, was injured in a freak bicycle crash on April 22, when the front wheel of his bike caught and locked in an expansion seam in a section of concrete roadway. After more than a week in a coma and continued hospitalization at Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center in Houston, he was moved three weeks later to Memorial Herman – TIRR rehabilitation center.
On June 24, things became worse: doctors diagnosed Susman with having contracted the coronavirus.
Born and raised in Houston, Susman graduated in 1965 from the University of Texas School of Law. He practiced law for eight years at Fulbright & Jaworski – now Norton Rose Fubright – and was one of the firm’s first Jewish partners.
In 1980, he started his own litigation boutique and grew Susman Godfrey into one of the most successful trial law firms in the U.S. Susman represented corporations in several billion-dollar lawsuits and continued to work full time until the bike accident in April.
“We all knew that the Steve Susman era would end at some point, but that did not stop us from hoping in our hearts that he would be with us at Susman Godfrey forever,” Susman Godfrey managing partner Neal Manne said Wednesday morning. “When he flirted with retirement two years ago, the partnership responded by unanimously adopting a policy of mandatory retirement at age 100.”
Susman won some of the largest jury verdicts in Texas history. He won a $1.1 billion breach of contract case for Texas Instruments in 1996 and he scored a $536 million judgment for GHR Energy Corp. in 1988 against El Paso Natural Gas. In 2017, he won a $71 million judgment for his client, Wellstat Therapeutics against BTG International.
“Steve was passionate about the law and justice,” Manne said. “He spent his entire life thinking and talking about, and working for, ways to improve the system of civil justice in America.”
Music was important to Susman, who could play the piano by ear. And music became an important part of his quest for recovery.
Though Susman at one point communicated mostly in monosyllables, he sang every word to the Johnny Cash song “I Walk The Line” accompanied on the guitar by a music therapist. He also sang along with one of his favorites: “Under the Boardwalk.”
The Susman family said that they plan a “drive by shiva/visitation” later this week and a full celebration of Susman’s life when the pandemic is over.