In 1901 a well at Spindletop Hill sent petroleum shooting 200 feet in the air and made Beaumont, Tex., one of the first oil boomtowns. Decades later some locals tapped into a different kind of gusher: personal-injury litigation. Starting with highway and refinery accidents, and then moving to asbestos and tobacco, lawyers at the firm of Provost & Umphrey hauled in the kinds of fees that would make Wall Street lawyers drool.
But as is the case with oil in Texas, the easy money in injury lawsuits is gone. Thomas Walter Umphrey says the firm he co-founded in 1969 is downsizing. It's also prospecting in other fields of law to try to keep the business flowing. A couple of hundred miles to the north, in Daingerfield, plaintiffs' firm Nix Patterson & Roach is also pushing in new directions. "If today we were relying on personal-injury cases in Texas, we would be bankrupt," says partner Nelson J. Roach.