The power and the responsibilities that come with being a lawyer are practically hardwired into Debbie Dudley Branson’s DNA. The legal profession was her father’s calling and his father’s and his father’s. Going back three generations in rural Northeast Arkansas, each practiced law in a way that placed great importance on leadership, political involvement, education and community service.
Like them, Branson has dedicated her career to using her resources as a lawyer to make a difference in people’s lives. Her talent in the courtroom has helped build Dallas-based litigation boutique The Law Offices of Frank L. Branson into one of the most well-known and respected plaintiff litigation firms in the Southwest. Along with her husband, renowned trial lawyer Frank L. Branson, her work has contributed to headline-grabbing verdicts on behalf of individuals injured by dangerous products, trucking and transportation companies, hazardous worksites, negligent corporate practices and business disputes.
Throughout four decades in practice, Branson has simultaneously embraced regional and national leadership roles in political campaigns, organizations and causes. When the largest publicly funded hospital in North Texas faced a potentially catastrophic loss of federal funding following a series of high-profile regulatory and compliance failures, Branson had just been tapped to serve on the hospital’s board of directors, but within months, she was the elected chair of the board. That began a five-year commitment marked by long workweeks, in addition to the demands of her law practice. Her leadership during that crisis is credited with helping bring the hospital back into good standing and regaining the public’s trust.
When Covid-19 began to spread rapidly in early 2020, Branson was again called to serve, this time for a role on the Dallas County Covid-19 Task Force and its Public Health Committee, where she takes part in daily meetings and works with medical leaders to coordinate a multiagency response for one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. Like her work in the courtroom on behalf of injured individuals, the common denominator is her recognition and embrace of the lawyer’s unique ability to make a difference in people’s lives.
Meanwhile, she continues to leverage her trial science and jury expertise to help level the playing field for individuals. She was part of the trial team that, last year, won a record $242M automotive product defect verdict.
Lawdragon: As the fourth generation of lawyers in your family, how did you decide to become a lawyer?
Debbie Dudley Branson: My decision to become a lawyer was really a practical choice. Having said that, I’ve always been proud to be a lawyer. I believe that practicing law is a privilege, and being a trial lawyer, very simply, means providing a level playing field in the courtroom for ordinary people.
I’ve been a lawyer for 40 years now. My father and his father and grandfather were lawyers. My husband is a lawyer, as is my sister and son-in-law. My children are both trained as lawyers, making them the fifth continuous generation in my family to be lawyers. Pretty cool! And it has been an absolute joy and privilege to practice law with Frank for so many years.
LD: What are some of the takeaways that you’ve learned in your career in law and public service?
DDB: I’ve learned that opportunities for leadership often arrive without warning. Anyone can make a difference if she responds to a genuine opportunity to find a solution to a problem – whether it’s yours or someone else’s. Over the years, I’ve concluded a few things – one of them is that men and women really think about things differently. I’ve learned that we, as women, can lead with quiet force, with integrity, with command of the subject matter, with lofty goals and with a smile!
I’ve confirmed that hard work is the only way to get things done. I know that we can learn from all sorts of people and in all sorts of circumstances. In terms of our moral compass, I’ve learned that we need to be consistent in doing the little things right to have any hope of doing the big things right. You’re ready to do what’s right when it really counts because you’ve done what’s right when it barely counted.
One of the most important things that I’ve learned is to be me as a lawyer. I think it’s very important to watch others and emulate those you admire, but when I started practicing law, the successful lawyers I watched were men. I thought I needed to be like them. Not so. I’m much more effective as a lawyer when I convey the fact that I am a lawyer who is a lady. I also know that women’s experiences are sometimes like those of our male peers – and sometimes not. And candidly, I think there is a huge advantage in the courtroom, and most anywhere, to having the benefit of all the experience we can muster.
At the end of the day, we have chosen a profession that allows – demands, really – that we spend our time reading, learning about other people’s lives, their needs and their screw-ups, thinking deeply, logically and creatively, and then persuading others about the rightness of our position. And most of the time, we get paid to do it. From a trial lawyer’s perspective, at the end of a case, we have often made a real difference in someone’s life. What could be better?
LD: How did your upbringing affect your career path, work ethic and professional values?
DDB: I’m from a family of doers. Their values and work ethics – their perseverance and commitment to improving themselves and the lives around them – were instilled in me at an early age.
I grew up in Pocahontas, Ark. – a bustling town of about 5,000 – and my family has always placed great importance on education and community service going back many generations. My dad was an elected official – first as a prosecutor, then as a trial judge and finally as an Arkansas Supreme Court Justice. So I grew up in the thick of whatever Democratic politics were going on around the state. I’ve been to more Fourth of July fish fries than anyone should. I clearly remember going down to the Randolph County courthouse as a little girl in my pajamas to watch as votes were counted and tallied. I thought it was important and exciting then and still do.
My mother served on boards and taught Red Cross swimming lessons. My grandmother, who was the first licensed clinical psychologist in Arkansas, set up special-ed programs and did testing throughout the state.
My great-grandfather, Robert Dudley, literally rode a mule across the state in order to continue his education beyond ninth grade. He supported himself for two years while attending school. After graduation, he rode his mule back home and taught school for a number of years before he was elected Treasurer of Clay County, Ark. After deciding to become a lawyer, he could have easily “read law” and obtained his J.D. without going to law school. But he wanted a better education. He graduated from the only law school in Arkansas and was elected to the state legislature while there.
LD: What advice do you have for lawyers interested in public service?
DDB: Most of us get involved in the community because there is some need not being met. It may be for your business. It may be a service your child should have – or a program for the community’s children. It might be an issue or a candidate that captures your imagination. The goal is usually to better life in some manner. I am no different.
There are so many opportunities to help. Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone, really understand the work that needs to be done and just roll up your sleeves. I firmly believe that we have a responsibility to do just that. As I’ve said countless times, those of us who have the benefit of a good education; an honorable profession; and an income sufficient to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table and gas in the car have a special responsibility. For me, this involvement has been an exceptionally rewarding part of my adult life.
LD: You have blazed many trails in your career as a trial lawyer. What are some of the important lessons and advice you can share for lawyers just starting their litigation practices?
DDB: There is a story that Leon Panetta tells that I like. It’s about a rabbi and a priest who decided to learn more about each other and to better understand one another through social interactions. One evening, they attended a boxing match. As the fighters entered the ring, one of them made the sign of the cross. The rabbi asked the priest what it meant. He replied, “It doesn’t mean a damn thing if he can’t fight!” The moral of that story is that even with heroic hard work and a great jury, the underlying case matters. What we do – how we fight – also matters. I encourage lawyers to be daring, look at a case from different perspectives, be creative, be anything that will demonstrate integrity of purpose with consistency and credibility – and then listen some more.
Your reputation is critical. Who you work with is important. Walking into a courtroom in which the judge knows he can count on you to be an honorable professional makes a big difference. As Warren Buffett says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
The impression you and your team make on jurors is crucial. It serves you well to remember that jurors notice much more than what happens on the witness stand. The jury watches you, your clients and each of your staff – in and out of the courtroom. After a recent trial, I was reminded of this when each of the jurors I interviewed complimented the fluid, courteous, cohesive and professional – their words – way in which our trial team worked and interacted. Those observations impact your credibility.
They not only notice how you treat each other within your team but how you treat the Court and its entire staff. They notice you in the hallway, in the bathroom and in the garage. They notice if you help someone in the hallway looking for directions – or if you don’t. All of these things factor into their evaluations of whether you’re a likeable, trustworthy and credible person/lawyer.
Jurors look for consistency. They want a presentation – a story – that makes sense. Again, after a recent trial, a common refrain from the jurors was that our story was consistent. The defendants threw out a number of theories, and in the end, none of them sold. Their credibility was diminished by doing so.
Successful lawyers know to let the witnesses tell their part of the story. Work on words, flow and communicating ideas. Do what you need to do to prove your case, make your record and then stop. I’ve heard so many jurors say that they “got it” long before a witness left the stand. You can often see their faces glaze over when they’ve had enough. I have heard on a number of occasions that jurors feel their intelligence is insulted when lawyers continue to make the same points over and over again.
Sequencing witnesses is important, too. Lots of schedules have to be managed during trial, but telling the story in a way that makes sense and delivers the most impact shouldn’t be underrated.
When considering your strategy, remember and honor the fact that our experiences and communities shape who we are. I review, over and over again, the information collected on each juror and use that information in determining how and what needs to be elicited from witnesses and, without fail, points for argument. It serves us well to remember that our lives are influenced by millions of events that interact in mysterious ways to form the basis of our opinions and decisions. Jurors don’t leave behind their training, their family experiences, their community experience, their adversities, their successes or their feelings about right and wrong as they deliberate. All of these things matter. Pay attention to all the information you gather – and then listen and watch some more. Learning to really listen will enable you to actually hear.
Jurors want guidance on numbers for the damage issues. They may not accept them, but they want them. Again, if you have earned credibility and trust by the end of trial, what you say matters.
LD: Your public service work is rarely relegated to passive involvement, and you often end up working in leadership roles on difficult projects. What was your most challenging role in this regard?
DDB: From a community-service perspective, my service at the Parkland Health & Hospital System has been the most meaningful to date. It was challenging – a truly arduous task.
I was appointed to be on the Parkland board of managers in February 2011, with the idea that it would be a commitment of 10 to 12 hours per month. I felt that was doable, it would be interesting work and provided an opportunity to do something particularly worthwhile. But three months later, the results of a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) survey and a threat that federal funding would be cut brought the hospital to its knees. When the previous chair stepped down, I was asked to consider replacing her. The only responsible answer was yes. To walk away from such an important institution in its darkest hour would simply have been wrong.
But those 10 to 12 hours per month turned into 60 or 70 hours per week. Because the C-suite was in such flux, my role as board chair morphed into something more akin to executive chair out of necessity. It was not the optimal role but a necessary one. There were many sleepless nights, vast amounts of time away from my practice and my family, and lots of new lines on my face. I had to make many really difficult decisions and had to have plenty of painful conversations. But I also came to appreciate the amazing people who comprise Parkland – with their awesome dedication, passion, commitment and plain old hard work devoted to the hundreds of thousands of Parkland patients.
During my time on the Parkland board, I learned a lot about myself, while drinking from a firehose learning the intricacies and complexities of a large safety-net hospital. My core values were important. The necessity of stepping up and standing tall was reinforced. As board chair, I was under constant scrutiny, and many times, it wasn’t pleasant. The notion of the importance of diverse perspectives in leadership was reinforced. The value of being prepared – something that’s imperative for a good trial lawyer – was reinforced.
And as important as anything else, the power of relationships was demonstrated. Without diminishing one moment of hard work performed during the crisis, the relationships created and built with regulators were critical. Those relationships allowed us to earn credibility and trust – which were sorely lacking.
I also learned how difficult it is to restore public trust once it’s been broken, as well as how vital each position of leadership is. It’s the “weakest link in the chain” theory. I saw what happened when there are breakdowns. I concluded that both our legal clients and hospital patients inhabit the same sacred space. They expect, and rightfully so, that we will go the extra mile to make certain their interests are protected.
I know that neither backing up or backing down are options when the going gets tough. My parents taught me a long time ago that you don’t quit something you’ve started.
My legal training and background were invaluable – in spite of the fact that lawyer jokes are rampant in a hospital setting! The ability to ask lots of questions, gather information, analyze it and determine how to use it effectively was useful. The goal, both as a lawyer and as board chair, is to find solutions to problems.
While I know leadership matters, it takes the whole village to change culture and turn a ship. No matter your role, you are important.
The good news is that Parkland completed rigorous corrective procedures, which provided a road map for sustainable improvements in the areas of quality of care, patient safety and regulatory compliance. We moved into a state-of-the-art hospital. We hired a CEO who has proved to be top-notch. There is a continuing partnership with a world-class medical school, and there is incredible support from the community.
There will always be challenges, and there will surely be mistakes and missteps, but Parkland is again showing its compassion, its competence and its leadership during the Covid-19 crisis in Dallas County. For that, I am grateful and proud.
LD: You’ve won record verdicts and taken on immense challenges in your career. What motivates you at this point in your career?
DDB: What has motivated me and what continues to motivate me are a strong work ethic, a solid desire to tackle tasks with capability and competence, and an ultimate goal to make some difference, even to a single person.
Every single one of us is defined by the choices we make, the obstacles we surmount, the dreams we achieve, the relationships we have and maybe by the goals we don’t quite reach. How we choose to handle those moments is what makes us.
I am a wife, mother, lawyer – and most importantly – a grandmother. I am the product of a small Arkansas town and its public schools who has had the good fortune to see and do more things than I knew possible. I love this time in my life. I belong to a generation of empowered, mature women who have experience, education, health, economic resources and information. We’re strong. We’re committed. We know how to get things done.
It’s important to reach out and back to help others move forward. As women, we have not only the opportunity but the responsibility to add our viewpoints, our wisdom and our voices to whatever we are engaged in. As long as I can contribute, I will. It doesn’t have to be a big thing – just a good thing.