Former U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel recently left the bench after serving for 20 years in the Western District of Texas and has joined King & Spalding in Austin as a member of its trials and global disputes practice group.
Yeakel, 78, joined the firm as senior counsel today, the same day his retirement became official.
“I’ve had a law license for almost 54 years now, and so I thought maybe I would like to leave the bench when I could still do the job, instead of waiting until I couldn’t do the job to leave the bench,” he told The Texas Lawbook in an interview Monday afternoon. “It’s hard to know when maybe you ought to leave. I wanted to have some control over that.”
Yeakel became eligible to either retire or take senior status in 2014. He said part of what factored into his decision to retire from the judiciary was the workload in the Austin Division of the Western District of Texas, shouldered by just two federal judges.
“After a while, the sheer size of the docket gets to be daunting to you,” he said. “Austin desperately needs more federal judges, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get any for a long time. Judge [Robert] Pitman and I have had extremely large dockets, and now what I’ve done is double the size of Judge Pitman’s docket.”
“I told him I regret doing that, but not enough to not do it,” Yeakel said.
The head of King & Spalding’s trial and global disputes practice group, Andy Bayman, issued a statement welcoming Yeakel to the firm, touting his “long and distinguished career” as a jurist.
“His perspective on legal strategy, compelling arguments before juries and effective advocacy will be invaluable to clients and colleagues alike,” Bayman said.
In his new role, Yeakel will counsel clients on dispute avoidance in addition to representing them in court. The job will also allow him to stay in Austin, where he’s been since 1963 when he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Texas. He also holds a law degree from the school.
“I’ve been here long enough to see a small town grow into a world-class city,” he said of the state capital.
In stepping down from the court, Yeakel said he’ll miss presiding over trials and naturalization ceremonies, solving problems — including those that arose with the pandemic and through litigation challenging Covid safety measures — and being challenged by the complex nature of the patent disputes that filled his docket as Austin became a hub for technology and innovation.
“My hope is [attorneys who practiced before me] will see me as a judge that gave the taxpayers an honest day’s work, that I was fair and that I came in and tried hard to reach the right decisions,” he said of his legacy. “I’m hopeful that perhaps the lawyers will say I was a pretty good judge to try a case in front of, too.”
Yeakel was nominated to the federal bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush. Prior to that, he held the position of chief justice and justice of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin beginning in 1998. He was originally appointed to that bench by then-Gov. Bush and later won reelection to the appellate court. Prior to beginning a career in the law, Yeakel joined the Marine Corps and served during the Vietnam War, though his service was stateside.
“I got a lot more out of the Marines than the Marines got out of me,” he said. “I was never a good athlete, so it taxed me to the extreme to be able to successfully complete the training. You learn that your limits are somewhere beyond where you thought they were. That’s given me a lot of self-confidence when I think other parts of life have gotten hard.”
There are two bills working their way through the Texas Legislature this session that would see some types of cases — high-dollar business disputes and disputes involving state agencies — removed from the purview of Yeakel’s former court, Texas’ Third Court of Appeals. He told The Lawbook he has been following closely both the proposal to create a business court system and the proposal to create a Fifteenth Court of Appeals.
“I’ll be candid with you, I think we have a good system right now, and it’s getting the work done and we don’t need to change the system we have,” he said. “I’ve followed the writing and the debates … and I think the system is not broken right now and doesn’t need any fixing. I don’t have any confidence that adding a specialty court or a Fifteenth Court of Appeals, in the long run, is going to make any difference.”