James Michael Bell, Sr. was born, a long time ago, far out on the windy, hot, dusty, sometimes cold (but always windy), flat, sun-blasted plains of West Texas in the middle-sized town of Odessa, in the heart of the Permian Basin, a large area of oil & gas development and production stretching into New Mexico as well. His parents were from that region, too, having grown up in a small town southwest of Odessa called Fort Stockton. Mike spent his youth exploring and wandering around the wilds of West Texas looking for Pecos Bill. Mike started working early, first doing yards in rapidly growing Odessa, then as the first employee for a start-up pest control business, then for a lumber yard and finally as a roustabout and roughneck in the oil fields and on the drilling rigs surrounding Odessa. When it came time, he went off to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, next door to a little school called Harvard (never having been further east than Dallas). After a brief stint at MIT, Mike returned to Texas to go to Law School at The University of Texas in Austin. During his college days, he took a year off from university to go to Alaska and work as a roughneck on a brand-new drilling rig purchased and built for the newly-opening Alaska oilfields. He spent a great year there in the far Northwest!
Following his formal legal education, after graduation, he was selected by one of the Judges of the Texas Supreme Court to be his briefing attorney (fancy term for law clerk) and spent a year and a half there. This was the start of his real legal education because, in contrast with the United States Supreme Court, where all deliberations are in secret, the nine judges of the Texas Supreme Court allowed their briefing attorneys to sit in on their deliberations on cases and to contribute to and participate in them as well. This was where the rubber met the road! One got to hear all of the judges arguing and debating the issues and points of law of the many cases that found their way to the Court during its session. Briefing attorneys also, besides researching the law of the cases, were expected to draft opinions for the judge to take as a starting point for his decision. A few of Mike’s drafts actually found their way into print as the official opinion of the Court, with virtually no change from his draft.
At the end of his fun experience with the Texas Supreme Court, Mike was lucky enough to be hired by a well-known firm in San Antonio called Cox & Smith. It was quite small at that time (about seven attorneys) but has grown to several hundred.
Mike found himself doing a lot of work for Mr. Johnny Cox in the area of land titles for oil & gas companies. This was fascinating work – like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of the history of Texas land, all the way back to the beginnings of Texas under the Spanish Crown. Mike also helped another partner in his work in Wills & Estates, including helping try a will contest or two during the early years of his practice. At some point he started doing the work of legally “vetting” corporate finance deals done by a local NYSE-member firm. This led to being offered the position of in-house general counsel for that company. He found himself doing more business work than law work over the next several years. While this was happening Mike met a very wealthy family in San Antonio that had a family investment company here. Eventually they offered him a position with them, managing and growing a portfolio of small, entrepreneurial companies and projects in which they had invested. He handled this for the family for several years, quite successfully, and eventually, with the support and participation of that family to the extent of putting up ten percent of the capital he raised, Mike left them and formed his own management firm for a partnership of venture capital. He proceeded to call on institutional investors, corporate funds and endowments and wealthy families around the country, shortly succeeding in attracting investment from a stellar group of blue chip institutions, including the endowments of Harvard, Yale, MIT, Cornell, Stanford, Harvey Mudd and Washington University in St. Louis; insurance companies John Hancock and Aetna; companies like Weyerhauser, Tenneco, AMP, USAA and Timken; and wealthy families such as Kerr of Oklahoma, Keck of California, Johnson of Texas and the original family in San Antonio, the Hixons.
Mike managed these funds and more as time went on, investing in companies, when quite young and small, like Apple Computer and Dell Computer. This activity went on quite successfully for about twenty years from the time the funds were formed. Eventually, these funds were fully invested, matured and realized upon by liquidation and then the partnerships distributed and dissolved. Mike retired.
After a fairly short period of retirement, a close friend asked Mike to do some legal work for him, leading to representing him and his branch of the family in a lawsuit that had to be filed to cause a large estate to be wound up and distributed. This brought Mike back into the practice of law. He remembered that he liked it… and was good at it!
Shortly thereafter, Mike found himself here with this young group of attorneys who needed the seasoning and wisdom of a grey-headed old guy. The rest is history!
Areas of Practice
- Probate & Living Trusts – Texas has a streamlined probate system, relatively fast and economical. Wills providing for independent administrations are the way to go for most people. Revocable Living Trusts are useful, but often cumbersome and complex, taking lots of attention for years before being most helpful, following death.
- Wills & Estate Planning
- Durable Powers of Attorney – Directives to Physicians
- Real Estate transactions
- Texas Land Titles, for rural real estate transactions like farm & ranch purchases, and especially oil & gas division orders and leasing decisions
- Business Organizations – formation and operation
- Debtor representation against creditors