Harold Nix: A Small-Town Lawyer with a Sweeping Practice

If you think the sleepy, 2,500-person town of Daingerfield, Texas isn’t where you’d expect the birthplace of a nationally acclaimed plaintiffs’ firm to be, you think very differently from Harold Nix.

Born and raised in the same small area where he still resides, the renowned commercial and personal injury litigator founded his firm, Nix Patterson, in Daingerfield in 1985. Today, they’re still operating with that small-town feel – on a national scale. In the last four decades, Nix and his team have recovered more than $25B for plaintiffs in high-profile class actions, securities litigation, toxic torts, individual personal injury cases and more. The firm now operates out of Texarkana, Texas – as the name suggests, along the border of Texas and Arkansas – along with offices in Austin and Oklahoma City, serving clients across the country.

Nix is perhaps best known for his work in a landmark 1995 tobacco litigation, where Nix Patterson, along with four other firms, represented the State of Texas against major tobacco companies. The team came to the case after Big Tobacco had seen more than 800 litigation victories; famously, Nix and partners were the ones to bring them to heel. Together, the plaintiffs’ team achieved a settlement of more than $17B – which the firm says was the largest civil litigation settlement in history at that point. “Our handling of the Texas Tobacco cases was without doubt history-making and the highlight of our careers,” says Nix.

In another prominent ‘90s litigation, Nix and partner Cary Patterson spent more than a decade representing steelworkers at Lone Star Steel Mill. The workers suffered from cancer and breathing conditions after years of exposure to silica and asbestos, and the Nix Patterson team brought a monumental toxic tort litigation that resulted in a $90M settlement for the injured steelworkers.

Nix’s passion for serving the disadvantaged has been a core tenant of the firm. He has been firmly committed to pro bono work throughout his career, and he is a dedicated philanthropist. His philanthropy focuses on local issues, as well as education, cancer research and women’s rights. The firm has worked with entities including the Women’s Center of East Texas and family shelters in the area.

Nix was inducted to the Lawdragon Hall of Fame in 2021.

Lawdragon: Was it ever challenging to operate at a high level in a small town? What drew you to stay there all these years?

Harold Nix: I was born a mile south of the city limits of Daingerfield. Shortly thereafter, we moved to the community of Jenkins, where my father worked in a sawmill and we lived in one of the owners’ tenant houses. I attended the Daingerfield Schools from first through 12th grades. My father started working for the local county sheriff as the deputy sheriff in the early ‘50s and continued to work there throughout my youth and formative years. That’s important to my early history because the Morris County Courthouse and District Judge and County Judge’s offices were directly across the street. 

Any time my dad had the opportunity to take me to the courtroom to watch a hearing before the court, he did so. By the time I reached junior high, I saw how good lawyers could and did make a difference.

During those years, my father would take me to the courthouse and sheriff’s office where I met numerous lawyers and judges. Early on in the ‘50s I became known around the courthouse as “Little Guy Boy,” a take-off on my father’s name – Guy. More importantly, I started being exposed to lawyers, courtrooms, judges, hearings, trials, early on in my life. The rest is history.

That brings me to your important question: Was it ever challenging to operate at a high level in the small Texas town of Daingerfield? Challenging, yes, but important and necessary for the making and building of our outstanding Nix Patterson firm we have today. And on the question of what drew me to stay all these years, I’ll give you the short and simple answer: My love of family, friends, neighbors, clients, the poor, the afflicted, the oppressed and the direction from the Lord!

LD: So your inspiration to become a lawyer started from childhood?

HN: Yes; I first decided I wanted to be a lawyer in those early days of hanging out around the Morris County Courthouse and sheriff’s office. Any time my dad had the opportunity to take me to the courtroom to watch a hearing before the court, he did so. By the time I reached junior high, I was a seasoned observer of lawyers and saw how good lawyers could and did make a difference. There were no lawyers in my family of farmers and working people and having the experience of seeing lawyers perform live in that courtroom made all the difference. Reflecting back, I don’t remember exactly when it was during those formative years that I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, but I dreamed about it by the time I entered high school. 

LD: Was there an early win in your career that made you realize you were going to be successful in this field?

HN: Yes. In fact, there were two cases early on. Interestingly enough, both were criminal cases and both pro bono; one was a murder case in Morris County and the other a case of rape in Mt. Vernon. Both had all the evidence and trappings of guilt. The latter had the sheriff of Franklin County, a local county in our Judicial District, as the star witness. The other case was a double murder case in Daingerfield and the defendant was the son of a local farmer, a family friend who I had known since childhood. Without detailing the chilling facts of the double murder of the two unarmed victims sitting in their car, a guilty verdict was anticipated by all but me and my client. Looking back, those were the early two cases that gave me complete confidence that I could and would become a good trial lawyer.

LD: Why did you decide to start your own firm?

HN: My dream from the day I started at Baylor Law School on a full-tuition scholarship was to someday have my own firm. Right out of law school, I took a job with a small firm that wanted me to start a litigation practice for them in Lufkin. After about three months of doing nothing but abstract and property work, my wife, baby daughter and I packed everything in our old car and drove the 75 miles to Daingerfield. That ended my work for another firm and the rest is history. 

LD: What is your leadership style?

HN: I would have to say that my leadership style in the Nix Patterson firm has been to depend on my partners to hire great young partners (and they do that) and to stay out of the way. That’s been highly successful and makes my job easy. 

Any time my dad had the opportunity to take me to the courtroom to watch a hearing before the court, he did so. By junior high, I was a seasoned observer of lawyers.

LD: How about in the courtroom ­– what’s your style there? 

HN: I strive to be myself, connect with the jury and show kindness to all; no notes, no airs, freewheeling. And to not be pushed around!

LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, is there a particular case that stands out as a favorite or is otherwise most memorable?

HN: Yes, without question – this is an easy one! We still refer to it as the Texas Tobacco Litigation Case, the case in which we obtained millions of dollars from the tobacco industry for the State of Texas and its school children after a long and difficult fight. Our team of lawyers was headed up by my Baylor Law School classmate Walter Umphrey of Beaumont. The litigation team included John O’Quinn of Houston, another Baylor Law School classmate John Eddie Williams of Houston, Wayne Reaud of Beaumont, my partner Cary Patterson and me. It’s my favorite case and certainly the most memorable.

LD: How is it different representing a sovereign state, as you did in that litigation, versus citizens or companies? How does your approach change? 

HN: That’s a good question but with a simple answer. Assuming you have a normal type of representative of the state – i.e. attorney general, state rep., governor, etc. – the approach changes very little. The main difference is that normally there’s already a good relationship with the representatives of the state; otherwise you won’t be representing the state in the first place. You can depend on it. The approach is simply to strengthen the relationship.

LD: You’ve been practicing for over 50 years. How has the industry changed since you were a new lawyer – the good, the bad and the ugly?

HN: Law practice has become much more technical and diverse but also more rewarding. On the other hand, it’s become more difficult and demanding. But in recent years, I note the hostility and lack of civility among lawyers that I never saw in those “old days.” As with society itself, there is an anger and hostility in the air among lawyers and in the judiciary that we never saw in those earlier times. It’s sad! Especially to an old lawyer like me. 

LD: You are an active philanthropist. How do you decide what causes to pursue?

HN: I’m a strong believer in good causes! I always prefer to help our local needs and the needy first. However, education, cancer research, and women’s rights are right there at the top of the list. 

LD: Is the firm still pursuing pro bono work?

HN: Our pro bono docket is now in the hands of our younger lawyers for the most part, who are encouraged to handle any and all they may have time for.

LD: What advice do you have for young lawyers today who want to build a name for themselves in the law?

HN: Reflecting on my career and the early years of practice, I got up early every morning and went to work in my little two-room frame office next to the Daingerfield courthouse. So, the first requirement is to dedicate oneself to hard work. The other necessary requirement is to find the right partner to have on the journey to success. I hired Cary Patterson from Texarkana to join me as my partner just a few years into my practice; the rest is history.