by Andrew M. Jones
Growing up in the Smoky Mountains hamlet of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Richard “Dick” Sayles knew from a very early age that he wanted to become a lawyer. “My parents ran a motel and gift shop there,” Sayles recalled. “When I was six years old, my dad said, ‘I wish I had been a lawyer. I think you should be one.’” That was all it took. Sayles went on to graduate from Sevier County High School, a few years behind the famed Dolly Parton.
But it was football, not music that earned Sayles a scholarship to Vanderbilt University, where he played four years, from 1967 to 1970. “I was fortunate to play college football,” Sayles said of the sport that paid for his college education. “I was the slowest lineman in the Southeastern Conference, and that’s a record that still stands to this day.”
At the time, Sayles realized opportunities for young lawyers in East Tennessee were limited. Most lawyers in Gatlinburg who made a good living, Sayles noted, did so outside of the legal profession in businesses catering to the tourist industry. So Sayles set his sights on Texas, anticipating that opportunities would be more plentiful there. Sayles attended law school at the University of Houston, where he graduated magna cum laude.
Upon graduation, Sayles clerked for United States District Court Judge Robert M. Hill in Dallas. The next year, Sayles joined Carrington Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal, where he practiced law for more than 19 years. There, Sayles built a reputation as a highly skilled trial lawyer. Sayles credits much of his success as an attorney to his mentor, the legendary Jim Coleman. “Jim lives what he taught: always take the high road.”
Sayles’ first jury trial was in 1975, just months after arriving at Carrington Coleman. In a breach of contract case, Sayles obtained a $7,000 verdict. In his first year, Coleman assigned Sayles seven cases that went to trial. Sayles won all seven. “I thought I had the secret to success and would never lose a case,” he noted to Mark Curriden of the Texas Lawbook.
Sayles left Carrington Coleman with a few other attorneys to start his own firm in 1994. Sayles Werbner has since enjoyed tremendous success as a high-profile, high-stakes trial firm. Sayles’ practice spans commercial disputes, personal injury cases and patent litigation. Sayles is board certified in both Civil Trial Law and Personal Injury Trial Law by the Texas board of Legal Specialization. He has tried more than 150 jury cases, with more than a dozen resulting in verdicts of more than $1 million. A notable success includes a $1.67 billion verdict for Centocor Inc., a division of Johnson & Johnson, in a patent infringement case—at the time, the largest patent verdict in United States history. His impressive track record also features numerous significant defense wins.
“We stay lean,” Sayles said about his firm. “We generally have about 10 attorneys, and that’s all we need.” Sayles credits his firm’s strong relationships with large national law firms as a key factor in its success, including significant participation in high profile matters. “We are often asked to be involved as local counsel,” he noted. “When we are, we insist on being substantially involved. Our roles in such cases always grow.” The model has worked for almost 25 years. “Each January 1, I look forward to the New Year but am never sure we can keep our momentum going. But somehow, each year, we’ve been able to do it again.”
Sayles fondly remembered a case he tried years ago with attorney Ed DeYoung, now deceased, in which his clients, oil and gas promoters, were sued by investors when some deals went sour. His clients, who had used both borrowed money and invested sums to promote the ventures, in turn sued a bank in a third party action on a theory of negligent lending. Against long odds, Sayles and his team obtained a whopping $13 million verdict on the third party claim against the bank. “We celebrated that evening, with plenty of Dom Perignon, and with a member of our team earnestly playing piano from our rented trial penthouse while we toasted our win.”
About a year later, however, the verdict against the bank was reversed. While Sayles’ team succeeded in defending the investors’ claims against the promoters, the promoters were unable to pay their legal fees. “The only payment I ended up getting was a case of Acacia wine.” Here, football lessons applied. “When you reach a verdict, your case is not over. You’re really just at halftime.”
The Texas Lawbook recently honored Sayles as a member of the highly prestigious Lions of the Texas Bar, a group of 50 prominent Texas attorneys. Sayles has also been honored by Chambers USA among the leaders in Commercial Litigation, by Benchmark Litigation as a top national litigator and by Texas Super Lawyers, named seven times to the list of Top 10 attorneys in Texas. He also received a Lawyer of the Year award for 2018 in Bet-The Company Litigation from the Best Lawyers in America.
Congratulations to Dick Sayles, recipient of the Dallas Bar Association’s Trial Lawyer of the Year award.
Andrew M. Jones is Co-Vice Chair of the DBA Publications Committee and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.