‘Don’t Call Me Professor – Call Me Bill’: Dorsaneo’s Impact in Texas Immeasurable
By Mark Curriden
(March 17) – Bill Dorsaneo
garnered the name “Wild Bill” during his four decades of teaching civil litigation, but his first big case was in 1962. He was arguing before the city council at Valley Forge, Penn., that a proposed curfew on young people was “unconstitutional and unfair.”
Dorsaneo was only 17 at the time and president of the student council of his high school.
“I had no substance in my argument, but there were lawyers present who told me I did a good job and they encouraged me to become a lawyer,” he says. “I found the experience of standing up and arguing for a cause to be exhilarating.”
A graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Dorsaneo has had more impact on the Texas civil justice system than any other lawyer who has not served on the Texas Supreme Court.
“The nature of the kind of work [lawyers do] has changed a pretty good bit,” says Dorsaneo, who has taught more than 8,000 law students during his 41 years as a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law.
“When I graduated from UT in 1970, I would say that half of the graduates went into some sort of physical harm work – personal injury, worker’s compensation and so forth,” he says. “There were a lot of opportunities for that kind of work.”
Thanks to tort reform, board specialization certifications and other efforts, those legal practices nearly disappeared and it became much harder for young lawyers entering the profession to be successful.
William V. Dorsaneo III has authored scores of law journal articles, books and treatises. He has served as a regular instructor of advanced legal educational training for appellate judges across the country.
The Texas Supreme Court appointed Dorsaneo as a member of its Advisory Committee in 1982, and the Texas Supreme Court’s Task Force on Revision of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure in 1991. He also served as a member and as the reporter to the Combined Committee that drafted the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure that was promulgated by the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1984. Dorsaneo has served as a member of the Texas Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee since 1982 as a result of consecutive reappointments since 1982.
Dorsaneo is perhaps known best as the principal architect and the principal author of a 26-volume treatise entitled the Texas Litigation Guide
first published by Matthew Bender & Company in 1976. He also co-authored a five-volume Texas Civil Trial Guide
and three casebooks entitled Texas Trial and Appellate Litigation, Cases and Materials on Civil Procedure
and Texas Pre-trial Litigation.
Students consistently rank Dorsaneo as one of the best law professors at SMU. They especially love his classroom quotes, which combine humor and sarcasm with highly instructional points. Many of his purported quotes can be found on various online websites, including:
- “Law tends to be very legalistic.”
- “You guys laugh about being sued for $2,000, but I’ll bet if you were actually sued for that you’d be upset.
- “You guys are smarter than pigs, but not by much.”
- “Do you have days where you just don’t remember what you did? All of 1968 is like that for me.”
While Dorsaneo is considered a leading academic voice in Texas on civil litigation, he thinks of himself more as a lawyer than an academic.
“Don’t call me professor – call me Bill,” he says. “The word ‘professor’ is not in my name – it is what I do. I really hate it when people call me professor.”
Dorsaneo says he did not expect to be an academic.
“I wanted to be a trial lawyer and I went to work with Bill Brice and Joe Geary who were some of the best lawyers in North Texas at the time,” he says.
Dorsaneo’s name first appears in case law in a matter called George Reed v. Mark Enright
, which was tried in 1970. The three-week trial focused on the ownership of a 1603 painting by Michael Angelo Amerigio Caravaggio called “The Entombment of Christ,” which was found in a Mexican church in 1965.
“Entrepreneurs took the painting around the country selling ownership interests to wealthy families, including the Getty family,” he says.
A dispute arose when various parties claimed they owned more than others, which resulted in a three-week jury trial before state District Judge D. Brown Walker.
“I was a rookie lawyer, but it was a great experience to watch Bill Brice in action,” he says.
A year later, Dorsaneo was the lead lawyer representing an insurance company who had hired football coaches to serve as part-time agents selling policies. The litigation arose after the coaches, who received cash advances, quit the insurance company to join a competitor for more money.
The insurance company sued the coaches and a weeklong trial ensued.
“We won and the jury awarded us $5,000, which was a lot of money back then,” he says.
By 1975, Dorsaneo decided to reinvent himself and changed course.
“I was burned out,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about SMU and not much about legal education, but I thought I would look into it.
Following the lead of his academic mentors, Alan Bromberg and Joseph Webb McKnight, he embraced the opportunity to design and prepare a set of law books explaining the entire litigation process in multiple subject areas – from pretrial to final appeals in multiple subject areas.
Each chapter of the Texas Litigation Guide gives specific step-by step guidance about how to prosecute and defend particular kinds of cases. It includes legal background information, practice and drafting guides, forms of pleadings, motions and other documents paired with comments on how to prepare and use the forms and research guides containing references to primary and secondary sources.
“At first, I kind of stumbled into work on the book,” he says. “It was something to write to get tenure. As time passed, the Texas Litigation Guide became my main business.”
In 1977, Matthew Bender & Co. published Texas Litigation Guide
by William V. Dorsaneo. Twenty-five subsequent volumes followed, and the book became the industry’s standard. Lawyers, judges and legal academics identify the guide as simply “Dorsaneo.”
“An understanding of the of civil procedure comes when you begin to understand how the rules interact, and how they can be used fairly resolve disputes and to achieve legitimate goals,” Dorsaneo writes. “At a deeper level, a sophisticated knowledge of civil procedure is the key to the successful operation of the civil justice system to better serve the interests of justice under the rules of law.
Dorsaneo says he is concerned about the future of the civil justice system. The number of jury trials in Texas and across the country has plummeted for a number of reasons, including some misguided efforts at tort reform, binding mandatory arbitration and a perceptible tendency of some appellate courts in Texas and elsewhere to minimize the pivotal role of jurors in the litigation process.
In 2001, Dorsaneo authored a powerful law review article that directly challenged appellate judges to resist the urge to second-guess jury decisions.
“There is nothing to prevent … invasion of the jury’s province except the self-restraint of the judges themselves,” he said. “It is simply an institutional risk. Despite the fact that the subject of evidentiary review of jury findings by appellate courts has received scant attention in academic literature, there is probably no single legal subject that is more important to the administration of justice than the standards of judicial review of verdicts, judgments, and other orders based on the sufficiency of the evidence presented at a hearing or trial.
“The Supreme Court has recognized the pivotal role of the jury’s right to draw inferences from the evidence,” Dorsaneo continued. “This right cannot be set aside by a reviewing court merely because the reviewers regard a competing inference as equally probable or more convincing.”
Dorsaneo ended the law review article with this challenge:
“If we have lost faith in the ability of the common man to make a reasonable decision in civil cases, we should have the fortitude to say so,” he wrote. “Perhaps the reluctance stems from the implications such an admission would have on the other decisions we entrust to ordinary citizens, such as electing our government.
“The founding fathers’ reason for preserving the right to trial by jury is still the best reason for guarding that right today – it protects us from the tyranny, or potential tyranny, of the judiciary, most of whom are legally or practically insulated from public accountability,” Dorsaneo stated.