Haley Freeman 2013-11-14 05:44:32
THE COURAGE TO SPEAK FOR HIMSELF AND OTHERS Larry Best and his brothers were raised by a hard-working single mother in the 1950s. “My mom was a smart woman, but the jobs available to women in the ‘50s were limited. It was difficult for a secretary to support three sons, even with child support,” Best remembered. Best dreamed of a career that would ensure the economic security that had eluded him during his early life. He abandoned his childhood aspirations of becoming an astronaut for the more attainable goal of working in the financial world. “In college one summer, I worked at a bank. It was the most boring thing I had ever done in my life. I was an accounting major. I found that it was not for me.” A friend of the family was a real estate lawyer. Best decided to study law and found it stimulating. When he graduated from Tulane as an eager young attorney in 1974, the headline in the New Orleans Times Picayune announced that due to the recession, no one was hiring lawyers. It was into that uncertain world that Best went forth to find his first job practicing law. His inexperience, coupled with his lack of social standing in patrician New Orleans, made finding work challenging. Best’s family friend, a real estate lawyer, introduced him to Joseph Waitz, a personal injury and insurance defense attorney in Houma, La. “He had both a plaintiff and a defense practice. I didn’t think I was cut out for litigation … I used to carry his trial bag to court and watch him win big cases. I was young, and it never occurred to me that I could do what he did,” Best said. Waitz mentored Best by providing him with hands on learning opportunities. “He forced me to learn a lot on the job,” Best said. “He was a very good courtroom trial lawyer, but not good about preparation. I remember him reading depositions the night before trial. He was afraid of flying, so I went all over the country and the world taking depositions because he didn’t want to do it. I am truly grateful for that unique experience. I would never be where I am today if I hadn’t learned from him.” Later in his career, Best had more than one case facing his former mentor in court – and prevailed against him. “The day came when I was defending maritime cases and he was the plaintiff’s lawyer on the other side. I was so intimidated. But, I worked hard, and I won,” Best said. Joseph Weigand, Waitz’s law partner, was another great influence in Best’s career. “He always told me that when you go into the courtroom, you have to know more than everybody else. I took that to heart, and I believe that is true to this day. They told me in law school that it’s all about preparation. Personality, persuasiveness and charm – those are factors – but 90 percent is preparation and hard work.” Best’s hard work paid off. He went on to practice with the firm of Hebert & Abbott (which eventually became Abbott, Best & Meeks) for nine years, where he excelled in corporate defense work. “They gave me cases to get started and carte blanche to build a team. I developed a substantial book of clients.” Best was ready to own his own business, so he ventured out and established a new firm with Peter Koeppel. Eventually, Koeppel took over the defense practice, and Best dedicated himself to plaintiff’s work. While Koeppel and Best now maintain separate practices, their firms still share an office building, and they remain close friends. Best’s fine reputation as a litigator has earned him the respect of his peers. He knew he had “arrived” in his profession when he received a call from a prominent firm asking if he would begin accepting their referrals for their plaintiffs’ cases. Now, virtually all of Best’s cases come to him through referral from other law firms. “I take my fiduciary duty to my clients very seriously,” Best said. “Sometimes, I’m the only hope they have. I have to put their interests ahead of mine. It can be very costly in a lot of ways, but I do put my clients first, and I think they know it and appreciate it.” Best has prevailed in a number of high-profile cases during his career. Currently, Best is representing the cross-plaintiffs in the much-publicized Evans v. Baker & McKenzie case. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $103 million in 2010, historically one of the largest awards ever granted in a legal malpractice case. The Mississippi Supreme Court has just affirmed that the plaintiffs proved liability against the defendants, however, the case has been remanded for a new trial with regard to damages for the plaintiffs’ claims. This may well work to the plaintiffs’ advantage in this case arising out of a dispute over the drilling of oil wells. According to Best, he gets results in the courtroom because, “I go in with a zeal and a passion that can be palpable. Juries know when it’s real. You can’t fake it. They see how hard I’m fighting for my client and it helps them to believe in his cause. It has been challenging, but it has made me a very good lawyer.” Best’s career has been marked by another, very different kind of challenge. “Most lawyers just know me as a trial lawyer. There’s a lot more to me that just that. There’s much more to all of us than that. I am a gay man, who was born in 1949 and grew up in a time of horrible homophobia,” he explained. In 1991, Best came out to his wife and three children. He then made his identity public in his professional community. “It was scandalous at the time,” Best said. “The legal profession is pretty conservative. There were only one or two other openly gay lawyers in New Orleans that I knew of and not anyone of my stature in the defense ligation legal community. It was scary for me going to court, knowing all of the rumors that were circulating, but most everyone treated me with dignity and respect.” Best maintained most of his clients, but he did suffer some losses, especially from the conservative insurance community. Overall, Best’s authenticity has been met with respect by his peers, and he has continued to prosper professionally. Shortly after separating from his wife, Best met his dearest friend and husband, Kory Chatelain. “I didn’t know any gay people. I was not a part of the gay community. I found a personal ad he had placed in a local gay newspaper called Impact,” Best said. He and Chatelain eventually began dating and have been together now for over 21 years. “In 2001, when Vermont became the first state to allow civil unions, we had a wedding and reception there with family and friends,” Best said. United States District Court Judge Ginger Berrigan officiated at the wedding with a Vermont justice of the peace. Berrigan was formerly a civil rights and gay rights activist whom Best met when he joined the Forum for Equality in 1991. Since that time, Best and Chatelain have become close friends with Berrigan and her husband, Joe. “She invited Kory and me to a U.S. Fifth Circuit Judicial Conference, where we think we were the first openly gay couple to attend.” In December of this year, Best and Chatelain are planning to fly to New York to be married again under New York law for tax and estate planning purposes. According to Best, one of the biggest misconceptions about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is that “people think we are not just like everybody else. In reality, there are professionals of every kind in the LGBT community.” Th rough the years, Best and Chatelain have been partners in all things. “He went with me to all of the children’s sporting and school events. He is a supportive part of my children’s lives and is now a doting grandpa who loves to entertain the grandchildren,” Best said. Best’s children have thrived from the care provided by all of their parents. One son is a successful entrepreneur, the other is a promising young lawyer, and his daughter is a writer and cofounder of a Web-based organization called the Gay Dad Project, whose mission is to assist children with a gay parent. “I am so proud of each of them,” Best said. When Chatelain was laid off by his engineering firm for lack of work, Best needed an office manager for his law firm. The couple now works happily together every day, usually from their home office in Hattiesburg, Miss. Best and Chatelain are politically active in campaigning and lobbying for human rights, and Best provides pro bono legal counsel for organizations like the Forum for Equality. Best explained that one of the greatest concerns for LGBT professionals is how their identity will affect their ability to acquire and retain business. “When I came out, it cost me business,” Best admitted. “Today, I represent blue collar working people from the conservative states of Mississippi and Louisiana. My concern is that my clients may lack confidence in me when they find out I am gay.” After he has established a rapport with a client, Best will often invite them to his home office and introduce them to Chatelain. “I don’t make a big deal about it. By that time they know me and can accept it. But, there is always some apprehension,” Best said. “It is one thing if you are in the art community, but litigation is not one of those professions where people expect you to be gay.” In an article entitled One Man’s Journey, Best wrote, “Speaking the unspeakable can be a powerful thing. The taboo is broken by the act itself.” He elaborated further, “We have made such progress because the LGBT community is talking. We are just ordinary people like everybody else. If you don’t’ respect yourself enough to be out, then people don’t respect you. It’s instinctive. ... I have brought my sense of personal injustice to my practice. My passion for justice comes from having been discriminated against. That’s what gives me that fire in the courtroom.”
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