Photo by Laura Crosta.
Injustice anywhere, the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, is a threat to justice everywhere.
It also has an innate talent for kindling resistance in those it touches, as it did with Nate Palmer.
A partner at Reid Collins & Tsai in Austin, Texas, Palmer was in high school, just learning to drive, when a well-to-do client destroyed his father’s construction business.
“He lost everything,” Palmer recalls. “The family was in turmoil. Throughout the rest of high school, I worked two or more jobs. I played baseball, I studied and ended up as the valedictorian in my class. But I just started grinding away at that point to pay as many of my own expenses as I could. And it crushed my dad.”
The experience was a seminal one for Palmer, influencing his thinking when an acquaintance of his father offered career advice years later. An undergraduate at Wheaton College in Illinois, he decided to take the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT, and was accepted at the University of Texas, where he earned his juris doctorate in 2008.
After a year as an associate at Diamond McCarthy, he joined a core group of young attorneys who left to form Reid Collins. Early on, he played a role in an early lawsuit by the Colombian government accusing Diageo plc and Pernod Ricard SA of helping drug traffickers launder money through alcoholic beverages smuggled into the South American country.
The lawsuit had been filed in U.S. District Court, and “it was fascinating to see how the political and legal systems in a foreign country interacted with the U.S. legal system,” Palmer recalls. “It was a complete quagmire to sort through.”
Lawdragon: That sounds like great experience to get early in your career. Can we go back a little further than that? Tell me about where you grew up. Were there lawyers in your family?
Nate Palmer: I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, to a very blue-collar family. I didn’t know any lawyers growing up, or really what they did. I had no idea. By the time I was in high school, my dad had gone out on his own and started building residential homes, some of which were “spec” homes.
He built one spec home, a man agreed to buy it and my dad bent over backward doing things for him, accommodating the level of detail he wanted. The buyer wanted to pay for lead, but he expected gold. He would ask to have closet shelves torn out, sanded, and the underside painted because they weren’t smooth enough. My dad did all that, and then the guy came back months later and sued him.
We obviously didn’t have any money, so my dad hired a lawyer – for the first time in his life – and he got the case dismissed. Then the guy sued my dad again, and his attorney contacted my dad’s lawyer and said, “This man has paid me several hundred thousand dollars, and he told me my mission is to put Mr. Palmer out of business.” My dad had nothing left after the first lawsuit, so he filed for bankruptcy.
LD: I’m so sorry. That’s a terrible story.
NP: That was my first introduction to the power of the law. I didn’t like that things like that could happen to people. I have a very strong protective instinct, and I believed that’s not the way these things should operate. You shouldn’t be able to just crush people the way that my dad was crushed. He didn’t have the means to fight back, unless an attorney took the case pro bono, but he couldn’t find anyone that would do that.
So I went to college, kept playing baseball and working on the side to pay for school. During the summer, I worked with my dad on commercial construction jobs as a carpenter, and I met an acquaintance of my dad’s, a salesman whose wife was a judge. We all started talking, and he asked what I was going to do and I told him I didn’t know. He said, “Let me give you a bit of advice: If I could do it all over again, I’d be an attorney or a veterinarian.” And at that time, I hadn’t taken all the science courses. I had done well in science in high school, but I hadn’t pursued that in college. And I was like, “Well, I can’t be a vet; I don’t want to go back and take all those classes. That’ll take forever. So let’s see what I can do on an LSAT.” So I did; I had the idea from that point on that I would try to protect or help people who got into situations like my dad’s. I knew that being an attorney, I could provide for my family, and provide them with opportunities that I didn’t necessarily have as a kid.
LD: So after Wheaton, you went to the University of Texas for law school. Were there professors or people you met who really helped you process the inclination you already had to help the little guy?
NP: There were. One professor who did was a practicing attorney, Mark Perlmutter, who had a seminar class; very, very different from a normal law school class. It focused on trial strategy, how to be an ethical attorney and protect the integrity of the system, protect the integrity of your clients. And how to be a better trial lawyer by using emotion to communicate to a jury. So that’s the one class I can really remember that kind of touched a nerve with me.
LD: Tell me about your path to Diamond McCarthy.
NP: It’s funny how it all circles back to the same point. Another job that my dad was working on was with a commercial construction company and there was a lawyer named Brent Bull out of Dallas who did construction litigation. One of those jobs had something going on, and my dad told Brent about me and I ended up meeting Brent.
My wife, Krissy, and I were about to move to Austin to start law school and he said, “Well, I know a guy down in Austin, he’s a great person. You need to meet him.” And that was Jason Collins. When we moved down here, we became a part of Jason’s small group. And so we got to know Jason and his wife, Lisa, pretty well.
Jason had told me, “If you do well your first semester, I’ll see what I can do. I can’t promise anything.” And then I did well my first semester, so I got my first-year clerkship with them that way. So I clerked for Diamond McCarthy, where Jason was at the time, and I clerked for Baker Botts.
LD: It’s great you had two different types of firms to compare.
NP: My path has always been defined by looking at two things: One is what I want people to say about me when I die. The other is that everywhere I went, I looked at the attorneys who were senior and I said, “Is that where I want to be at that point in my life? Do I respect what they’re doing? Do they have the same values I do? Do they have the same ethics?” And that was really one of the questions I asked. And the Austin office of Diamond McCarthy was Bill Reid, Jason, and Lisa Tsai.
I knew Jason had many of the same values. He was a good dad. He spent time with his family. He was a good lawyer; he lived by his morals. And Bill was the same way. Bill was having kids at that point and I could see that he was a good dad. He loved his family and wanted to spend time with them. That’s kind of a unique thing, I think, in the legal world. To me, family has always been something that’s extremely important. I wanted to find a way to have a career but not sacrifice my family. Because even though we didn’t have money, the one thing my dad always gave me was time. He was our coach in baseball from the time I could read, from when I was little all the way through high school. And he was always there.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to do exactly what he did with the career I had chosen. But I wanted to be able to give time to my family and kids. And I could see that in them, and what they modeled in their lives.
LD: Tell me some of your recollections of your first cases and how they laid the groundwork for your niche of coming up with innovative legal approaches that have a big impact.
NP: I’m curious. I’ve always been curious about things. I liked digging into the different businesses, learning what they did, and learning who they were, and what happened. The earliest one I can remember involved a friend of Bill’s who was a wine merchant and had become involved in a dispute but didn’t have the resources to hire an attorney. So Bill put me on it. I think this was within a month after I got my license. It was awesome. You get great experience that way. I moved for summary judgment, and Bill went with me and let me argue the whole thing. And we won; we got the case tossed. That was the earliest one I can remember where it was much more of a David-and-Goliath story. And we achieved a good result.
LD: And Bill saw you in action, what you were made of. And so I assume you went on to some bigger cases from there. Are there some that stand out to you?
NP: There have been a number. Obviously, Credit Suisse is far and away the biggest highlight. That one was so long and intense and so much work, and the result at trial was awesome.
LD: Can you walk me through some of your work on that case?
NP: Highland Capital had sued CBRE, which handled an appraisal on behalf of Credit Suisse that convinced Highland to participate in the refinancing of the Lake Las Vegas real estate development. The project later went bankrupt. They were getting close to trial and summary judgment motions when I started getting into the case, and negotiations with Credit Suisse were starting to break down. We were looking at filing a suit against Credit Suisse, and I began to wonder what the credit agreement actually said about the appraisal. What were the requirements? What exactly were they supposed to deliver?
I started going through the credit agreement, reading the definitions, piecing together all the different definitions and then going through the contract itself and looking at, “OK, where do they come up? How is all of this fitting together when it comes to the appraisal? What was its role? Why is it there? What are the requirements?” And I realized we might have a breach-of-contract claim. I took a copy of the credit agreement that I had highlighted, tabbed, and marked so that I could easily demonstrate my theory and showed it to Bill. When you took the various pieces and put them together, they created an obligation. We told Highland Capital, walked the strategy past some of their business people and from there, I put in the complaint.
LD: And it achieved such an amazing result. The Colombian case sounds fascinating, too. What was that like?
NP: That was just a crazy experience. Greg Schwegmann and I were the two young guys on that one. Once it moved into discovery, Colombia had to respond to all of these requests and the two of us were sent there for a week at a time for several months, where we went from department to department meeting with officials to discuss the case and discovery-related issues.
It was a really fun experience – a crazy experience. We were still pretty young lawyers, and we were sitting there with the head of what was, in effect, their customs department, talking to him, and we would go meet with high-ranking government officials. I hadn’t spent much time with politicians in a close capacity before, and it was fascinating to see how the political and legal systems in a foreign country interacted with the U.S. legal system. And of course, we had to figure out how to get people with such different expectations and understandings of the world to adapt to the U.S. legal system.