Beaumont's Main Event

The SE Texas Record Dec. 22, 2007, 5:32am

Money can drive even rich people to do surprising things.

Plaintiff's lawyer Brent Coon has it. Lots of it. But he feels like he should have more, so he's suing his former boss, the man under whom Coon learned the tricks of his trade.

That's Walter Umphrey, the so-called "king of asbestos litigation" and one of fiercest plaintiff's lawyers in all of Texas. When Umphrey founded his law firm in 1969-- one that bears much responsibility for Beaumont's reputation as a lawsuit haven --- Mr. Coon was still in grade school.

Umphrey has more money than Brent Coon. Lots, lots more.

Coon has a slick motorcycle, a real estate development company and a rock band.

Umphrey takes a helicopter to work in the morning. Jerry Lee Lewis performed at his 70th birthday party, staged in his own private aircraft hanger. And he gave a whopping $20 million to his alma mater, Baylor University.

According to published reports, Umphrey was already worth $100 million back in the 1980s-- years before being anointed one of Texas "Tobacco Five," a privilege that netted Umphrey another $600 million-plus for helping the state successfully sue Big Tobacco in 1998.

Nice work if you can get it. Which is the rub for Coon, who feels that because he was a partner at Umphrey's law firm a decade ago, he deserves a taste of his swollen pile of tobacco loot.

That's assuming Umphrey deserves it himself. He doesn't-- the "Tobacco Five" pulled a doozy on the taxpayers of Texas that will forever live in infamy. But no matter.

Such competitions of covetousness among wealthy lawyers are never about right or wrong. They're ego-driven exercises in relativity.

It's not about being just rich-- but richer or richest.

Brent Coon is rich. But Walter Umphrey is the richest.

So could the one-time follower notch a win against his former sage? Might East Texas' brash up-and-comer outmaneuver its grand old master?

It's sad to see them both fight, especially during this season of giving. But that doesn't mean we won't be watching.

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