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ABA Section of Business Law

Business Law Today
January/February 2001 (Volume 10, Number 3)

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From Karen Silkwood to the ABA presidency

A profile of Bill Paul


In 1979, Bill Paul found himself pitted against a more than formidable opponent.

He represented Kerr-McGee against charges brought by the heirs of Karen Silkwood, an employee of the company’s Cimarron nuclear plant, north of Oklahoma City.

"The reason the case was so significant was that it was at the height of the anti-nuclear movement in this country," said Paul, who served as ABA president from 1999 to 2000. "The case became a symbol of whether we should have nuclear energy or not. It wasn’t so much about Karen Silkwood as it was about should we have nuclear plants — period. Regrettably for me, we had to fight that kind of battle instead of a traditional battle."

Silkwood died after apparently falling asleep at the wheel and getting into a one-car accident near the power plant. Many thought that Kerr-McGee had some part in her death. Paul found himself battling the nationwide popular opinion.

Silkwood’s heirs brought charges that the company conspired to prevent her from organizing a labor union and from filing complaints against Kerr-McGee under the Atomic Energy Act as well as willfully and wantonly contaminating her with toxic plutonium radiation.

In the first round of the case, the case largely revolved around charges that there was a conspiracy to violate Silkwood’s civil rights.

"The courts gave the plaintiffs every opportunity to come up with some evidence to prove their case," Paul said. "Lots of depositions were taken, lots of hearings. We filed a motion for summary judgment at that time and we said there is nothing to these wild charges. That’s all they are — wild charges. The plaintiffs have had three years to come up with evidence and they’ve come up with none and the case should be dismissed."

And the case was dismissed. Silkwood’s heirs appealed to the 10th Circuit Court; dismissal affirmed. Then they sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, which was not granted.

The case, however, did not end there. Another case was brought against Kerr-McGee. This one was a personal-injury lawsuit charging that Karen Silkwood suffered injuries as a result of plutonium contamination. "The plaintiff’s position was, ‘We don’t know how the plutonium got on her person, we don’t have to know, there’s absolute liability, Kerr-McGee should pay’," Paul said.

Kerr-McGee alleged that Silkwood had received plutonium contamination through trying to salt some of her urine samples with plutonium in order to embarrass the company.

On finding that Silkwood had plutonium contamination, Kerr-McGee had sent her to a testing facility that found she had 25 percent of the permissible level of exposure for an occupational worker as determined by the Atomic Energy Commission. Despite that, a jury decided that Kerr-McGee should pay damages.

After Silkwood’s lawyers won the initial round, Paul won in the appellate court and the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where that court disagreed with the 10th Circuit Court on one issue and remanded the case for further proceedings. The parties then settled and avoided a second trial.

The saga would later become the subject of a 1983 movie starring Meryl Streep that garnered five Academy Award nominations.

Apart from the Silkwood case, many lawyers know Bill Paul as the man who led their profession as president of the ABA. He is, by the way, a member of the Section of Business Law.

"Lawyers have an obligation to support the work of the profession," Paul said. "The ABA does much of the work of the profession and somebody has to pay for it. What am I talking about? I am talking about work to improve the justice system. About work to support legal services for the poor. I am talking about work to develop appropriate disciplinary rules and codes of professional responsibility. . . . This is work that must be done and it’s the obligation of every lawyer to participate in it. Lawyers that don’t belong to any bar association may not be doing their proportionate share to support the profession."

Paul had previously been elected president of the Oklahoma County Bar Association in 1971, the Oklahoma Bar Association in 1976 and the National Conference of Bar Presidents in 1986. He had also been a member of the ABA House of Delegates since 1975 and a chair and member of numerous committees.

He had run for the nomination for ABA president in 1992 but didn’t receive it. "I got a lot of encouragement to run again," Paul said. "I didn’t lose any friends; I made a lot of friends. People continued to encourage me, so I ran again for the nomination in 1998 and that time it worked out swimmingly well."

Paul’s main goal while ABA president was to initiate measures to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the legal profession.

"In a population that is 30 percent people of color, the legal profession is 92.5 percent white," Paul said. "This is an institutional weakness clearly and it also portends problems with the justice system in the future because the legal profession should reflect the society that it seeks to serve. If it doesn’t, it’s not going to serve it very well, and we don’t. So I tried to solve that problem head on, but it’s not something you can solve in a year or even 20 years. We certainly did focus on it and made a lot of progress, which I believe is going to continue."

Paul initiated a financial assistance program for racial and ethnic minority law students that he and his wife, Barbara, and his law firm were the first contributors to. The fund has raised $1.3 million so far and has granted 20 scholarships chosen from among 1,300 applicants. He also established judicial clerkship programs for minorities and assembled a resource guide for every program throughout the country working to solve the problem of under representation of minorities in the legal profession.

"On a personal basis, (being ABA president) was the finest gift I could ever receive," Paul said. "Clearly the most wonderful thing that ever happened in my professional life was the privilege of leading the profession for a year. I had some very specific initiatives to pursue and we made great progress on each of them. I just feel very good about the direction in which the profession and the ABA is heading and I felt good about the year."

Paul aspired to be a member of the legal profession for as long as he can remember. He was the fifth generation of his family to grow up in the town of Paul’s Valley, Okla., a town of 6,000 that was founded by his great-great-grandfather and bears the family name. He lived on Paul Avenue. Several people influenced him through their involvement in the legal profession, including his father and uncle.

"When all the kids would talk about what they wanted to be," Paul said, "some wanted to be a fireman and what have you, well, I just always wanted to be a lawyer."

Paul started down the road to that goal when he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma. He was a student commander of the Naval ROTC. When it came time to graduate in 1952, he received his degree along with his commission for active duty in Korea. He served in the Marine Corps instead of the Navy.

In 1954, he returned from active duty and spent the next two years finishing work on his law degree, which he received from the University of Oklahoma in 1956. He remained in the reserves until 1975, eventually reaching the rank of colonel.

After graduating from law school, Paul initially practiced law in the mid-sized town of Norman, Okla., where the University of Oklahoma is located. He practiced there for eight months before realizing he was interested in something else.

"I wanted to practice in Oklahoma City, which is our largest city and our capital," Paul said. "The kind of legal work there was much more to my liking."

He contacted Crowe & Dunlevy, Oklahoma’s oldest law firm, to see if they would be interested in hiring him as an associate. They were interested; he came aboard in 1957.

For the first part of his career at Crowe & Dunlevy, or about 12 years, Paul divided his time between trial work and other legal work. Eventually he spent all of his time doing trial work, from about 1969 until 1984.

After the Silkwood case, Paul found himself on the opposite side of televangelist Oral Roberts and his legions of loyal followers. In 1978, Roberts announced his plans to build a new hospital in Tulsa, Okla. The hospital would combine modern medical science with spiritual healing. There was just one problem with the proposed facility: According to the other hospitals in Tulsa, it was not needed, and not only would it fail, but it would cripple the existing health-care institutions in Tulsa as well.

Paul represented the hospitals of Tulsa in their effort to get Roberts to call off his plans. Against the advice of experts, Roberts was granted a certificate of need for the hospital through administrative hearings largely because of his public support and charisma. Paul appealed the decision and won the appeal, but when it was again appealed and brought to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, a split decision left Roberts with permission to build the hospital.

Paul suggested appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but his clients demurred. "The judgment of my clients proved to be precisely correct," Paul said. "The hospital was not economic."

Roberts built a scaled-down version of the hospital along with a medical school. But despite the "heroic efforts of Oral Roberts" to keep the hospital going, it was eventually closed down. The medical school moved out of state and the hospital buildings were converted into office space.

In 1984, Paul was approached by Phillips Petroleum Co., Oklahoma’s largest corporation, and was offered a job as their general counsel. At first he was hesitant because he was senior partner of Crowe & Dunlevy and had a very comfortable practice. He had also just come off being managing partner of the firm, which is one of the experiences that attracted Phillips to him. But after thinking it through, he became more and more excited about the prospect of working for the oil company.

"It was just a whole new challenge," Paul said. "It was a whole new dimension, kind of like having two careers and it’s still in Oklahoma."

Paul decided to take the job, which included overseeing the 2,000 cases that Phillips was involved in at any one time and managing the company’s 85-person legal division with offices in four states and five countries.

But disaster struck during his transition period from Crowe & Dunlevy to Phillips. The notorious corporate raider T. Boone Pickens and his company, Mesa Petroleum, made a hostile takeover offer for Phillips.

"That was all-consuming for a period of three months," Paul said. "I mean like 19-20 hour days and going for a couple of weeks without even seeing my family. It was intense, high-pressure work. That was my baptism; that’s how it started."

Phillips was successful in fighting off the hostile takeover through a combination of legal and financial battles. Eventually a corporate restructuring was proposed to the shareholders of Phillips that the majority found to their liking; the takeover attempt was averted.

Paul remained at Phillips as senior vice president and general counsel until 1996, when he returned to Crowe & Dunlevy. Now that he has finished his term as ABA president, he plans to devote "only 20 percent of my time to bar activities instead of all my time."

After all, life does go on — even after the ABA.

Ordower is a freelance writer in Evanston, Ill.


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