Top Lawyers 2020

The Change of Plans That Made Rufus Cormier a Trailblazer

The attorney never wanted to practice law, but he ended up in the middle of history.

By Emma Schkloven December 14, 2020 Published in the December 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Rufus Cormier, retired partner at Baker Botts, never planned to go into law. But a campus protest during his junior year at Southern Methodist University changed everything. 

It started when the school’s Black students decided to occupy the president’s office and demand that more Black students and faculty be recruited to the school. After a couple of days the college’s president organized a meeting between two representatives of the Black campus community and the university’s law school. Cormier, an All-Southwest Conference nose tackle who played alongside future Houston Oiler Jerry LeVias, was named one of those representatives. He and another student argued their classmates’ point of view to several law professors, and, several sessions later the two sides reached a compromise. Cormier was an anthropology major, but when the law professors got up from the negotiating table, they suggested that he apply to law school. 

Ironically, Cormier resisted—after all, he’d grown up as part of a low-income family in Beaumont, a segregated Texas town that had only three Black lawyers. The most successful of them, Civil Rights attorney Elmo Willard, also operated a funeral business to support his family. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, other than escape the poverty that I was accustomed to,” Cormier says.

However, conversations with Willard and other Black lawyers eventually convinced him, and upon his graduation in 1970, Cormier headed up north to Yale Law School, where he studied alongside future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, future First Couple Bill and Hillary Clinton (still Rodham then), and future Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

It was during law school that Cormier got his first taste of Houston, when he clerked at Baker Botts the summer between his second and final years. His clerkship not only fueled his future, it broke boundaries in the South. “There’d never been a black lawyer employed as a lawyer or an intern in these large firms south of Atlanta,” Cormier recalls now, quietly.

Baker Botts offered him a position once he graduated, but Cormier had just married his high school sweetheart, anesthesiologist Dr. Yvonne Clement Cormier, who was still finishing up a Yale PhD. Six months later, in January 1974, he’d been tapped as a special assistant to John Doar, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s lead council for the Nixon Impeachment Inquiry.

His work was more in-depth than the title might indicate. Over the next nine months, Cormier conducted preliminary research on what fell under the Constitution’s definition of impeachable offenses; outlined potential talking points for representatives to present on the floor; assisted senior litigators in preparing for their interview with Attorney General John Mitchell; and even helped work on the articles of impeachment. The experience was an incredible education, Cormier reflects. “I was able to observe incredible, talented, and senior lawyers that impacted my view of how to practice law for the rest of my career.”

Within a month after Nixon resigned, Cormer took the job at Baker Botts, prepared, this time, to be a trailblazer at the firm’s Houston office. Something significant had changed between his clerkship and his return as an associate, though. Although the Bayou City was “still terribly segregated,” Cormier was now not the only Black lawyer on staff. “Back then, I think, there were roughly 25 Black lawyers in Houston, mostly in individual practices in family and criminal law, Civil Rights law.”   

He spent his time at the firm doing corporate transactional law, much of it oil- and gas-related. “You can’t work in Houston in most instances without being heavily involved in oil and gas,” he says.

Cormier made Lone Star State history for a second time in 1981 when he became the first Black partner of a major corporate law firm in Texas. Cormier, who retired in 2012 and now devotes his time and resources exclusively to philanthropic projects, sees them as an obligation to support the next generation of minority lawyers, no more, no less. “I was too young to participate in the Civil Rights Movement, but I was among the first group of young African Americans who benefitted from the opportunities that the participants in the movement fought, sacrificed, and, in some instances, died for,” he says. “The least that I could do is to assist other ambitious young African Americans to the extent I could.”

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