Forging an alliance built on a mutual respect for the inherent rights of property owners, trial attorneys Jim Spivey and Soledad Valenciano are a formidable team. A somewhat unlikely partnership on the surface, these two professionals have leveraged their individual strengths to build an eminent domain practice that has far surpassed their imagination.
Whether it was fate or circumstance that paired these opposites is less significant than what has resulted since they joined forces. Long before the concept of Spivey Valenciano PLLC was in the nascent stages, these two devoted trial attorneys shared a home at one of San Antonio’s largest and most prestigious firms, Cox Smith Matthews Incorporated.
The Very Beginning
When Valenciano joined the firm of Cox Smith Matthews in 2006, Spivey was already a shareholder in the firm’s litigation department. Having joined the firm in 1995, Spivey says he was fortunate to benefit from the wisdom and mentoring of several exceptional attorneys most notably the late Keith Kaiser and Michael Ferrill. Spivey describes Kaiser as “one of the finest trial lawyers I’ve ever known” and Ferrill, the firm’s brilliant in-house counsel, as “fiercely protective of the firm’s work product and reputation.”
As Valenciano was joining the firm as an associate, Spivey was entering a new phase in his career. Having cut his legal teeth on large, complex commercial cases that often played out in the courtroom alongside Kaiser and against some of San Antonio’s greats like Larry Macon and Ricardo Cedillo, Spivey found himself in the typical position of many new partners – figuring out how to develop a litigation practice that could sustain his career and interests.
“When I first started with the firm, I was very fortunate to work with Keith who had a pile of complex ‘bet the company’ type litigation cases,” he says. “So, in the early stages of my career I worked day and night it seemed, but I got to be a part of some really interesting, complex litigation and trial work.”
Kaiser built a trial team made up of Ferrill, Kaiser, Spivey, and Leslie Hyman, a smart appellate guru.
“As time went on and I made partner, what I learned was that the pendulum was moving from trial to mediation, meaning fewer and fewer cases ever saw a jury,” he continues, “While I understood the shift in the profession toward early dispute resolution, I really missed the excitement, action and challenge of being in trial. Let me put it this way, those who know me know that there are two places I am very happy and my best self – the courtroom and in the outdoors. Fortunately, my current practice requires me to be in both places quite often.”
At the same time, Valenciano, who had a previous life as a special education teacher, was finding her way in big firm culture while managing a busy family of five. Her early mentors were Hyman, who gave Valenciano opportunities to present CLEs, write law review articles, and eventually, become a regular contributor to the San Antonio Lawyer Magazine’s “Federal Court Update,” and Brett Schouest, who kept Valenciano busy with some of his key clients.
“The first case that Jim and I worked on together was a wrongful death case in South Texas,” she says. “It was a very sad case, of course, because a family tragically lost their 20-year-old son. But, we really believed our client wasn’t liable under the facts. The case was fact-driven and exciting, and Jim and I really clicked. We both love litigation, and we truly complement one another with our different skill sets. Jim has energy for days. I ask a lot of questions. These working styles make Jim slow down and me speed up. While some might think this could be frustrating, it’s what immediately made us both better.”
Spivey recognized her talents and became one of Valenciano’s earliest supporters and eventual mentor. “This first case of ours definitely changed how I approached being an associate. As I drove to Cameron County for a ten-party mediation, I knew that a good opening statement would be very important. I knew what I would say, how I would say it, etc. But, I wasn’t the lead attorney, Jim was. But once we were there and seated in that large conference room filled with attorneys, I looked at Jim and said, ‘Let me do the opening.’ He did without even blinking an eye. To everyone’s surprise, I delivered the opening in Spanish, directly to the grieving parents. They knew we cared. That, with Jim’s unwavering knowledge of the facts and fearlessness, crystallized for everyone that our client didn’t need to be there. Our client was very happy – almost as happy as his insurance adjuster!”
It was just about this time that the CREZ Project (Competitive Renewable Energy Zone) took off. CREZ spurred the construction of hundreds of wind turbines in West Texas and the panhandle to bring electricity to the Texas metroplexes. These wind turbines had to be connected with new electric transmission line infrastructure, and nine transmission service providers were fast-tracked to do so. These providers went on to build 2,400 miles of transmission lines across Texas using the power of eminent domain.
“At that point in time, another attorney became a very important mentor to me,” says Spivey. “Mike Montgomery was a real estate lawyer with our firm who had the idea of creating a landowner condemnation practice, and Mike wanted me to be a key part of it. CREZ created the perfect opportunity for this new firm practice area. Our new practice combined the outdoors that ranch inspections required and focused trial advocacy skills. So, of course, I jumped at the opportunity.
“I also knew Soledad would be a great addition to our team. Soledad was not only extremely efficient and very bright, but she was fun to work with and clients loved her,” says Spivey.
One does not need to dig too deeply for an explanation as to why this pair chose to champion the cause of landowners in eminent domain cases. Both Spivey and Valenciano fiercely believe in the inherent rights of the individual to protect his or her property and to receive just compensation if the property is taken for public use. Part of this comes from Spivey’s love of the outdoors and the connection he makes with every rancher he meets, and part of this comes from Valenciano’s concern that property is a huge financial and personal investment for people, so they deserve to be treated with that in mind.
Not too surprisingly, some friends and colleagues seemed to think choosing a woman for this particular practice area might not be the best option for Spivey. Thankfully, Spivey disagreed.
“I appreciate so much that Jim didn’t give in to stereotypes,” says Valenciano. “If there were skeptics, I liked to remind them that women own property too! In fact, I like to tell people that I’m a lawyer that wears high heels and boots.”
And they were both ready to get their boots dirty if necessary, to get the job done right.
To build a name for their practice and see the CREZ-affected communities, Spivey, Montgomery and Valenciano traveled to CREZ strongholds to host town-hall meetings. Spivey explains. “We weren’t even necessarily trying to market work but that’s what happened. Ranchers connected with us and wanted us to represent their interests.”
In order to host these town-hall meetings, Spivey admits he dove headfirst into an intense “crash course” on condemnation.
“I spent 2009 and 2010 reading every condemnation case, every CLE article I could find, and even some transcripts of condemnation trials,” he says. “After a full day’s work, Mike, Soledad and I would hop in my truck and drive out to rural communities like Coleman, Lampasas and Knickerbocker and we’d do these town-hall meetings. Before long, we started getting calls from folks who were facing transmission lines on their property.”
This was the start of not only what would become one of the most successful landowner condemnation practices in the state, but also a powerful and progressive team.
But, in 2012 Spivey and Valenciano hit a bump in the road. Big firm life had its advantages, but as many lawyers know, every new case starts with a conflicts check.
“There were other sections of our firm that represented various municipalities, there were those who represented pipeline or gas companies, which are the same entities that are bringing condemnation cases against landowners,” says Spivey, “so we could see that ours was going to be a very difficult practice to develop long term in a big law firm.”
This original setback signaled the start of Spivey Valenciano PLLC in 2012. Gratefully, it was with the complete support and encouragement of the people the two had worked with for so long. “We were very fortunate to have the support of our colleagues, including that of Jamie Smith, Cox Smith’s then-managing partner,” adds Valenciano.
Complex Eminent Domain
As the firm continues to expand its client base and markets, Spivey and Valenciano somehow retain the same zeal and dedication that first brought them together.
“Our focus has been, and always will be, on helping landowners in eminent domain cases,” says Spivey. “We proudly and exclusively represent ranchers, developers, fiduciaries, and other property owners. You’ll never see us on the other side.”
While they initially focused on ranchers and electric transmission lines, Spivey and Valenciano’s practice looks very different today. “We represent clients in extremely complex cases, especially against TxDOT, and in very large takings, such as when a substation is being built on a property or when a school district is building a new site. We also do a lot of writing and speaking in our field, and recently Jim was invited to the Texas Capitol to discuss pending eminent domain legislation. One of our goals is to be a thought-leader in our field,” adds Valenciano.
This growth wouldn’t have been possible without Spivey and Valenciano’s complementary strengths.
One look at a condemnation appraisal report, and one would agree that eminent domain is a very fact-intensive practice area. “Jim is our firm’s leader. He often surprises people with how much he learns about a particular property. When you combine that property-specific knowledge, intense work ethic, understanding of the law, curiosity, and superior trial advocacy skills, it’s really special,” says Valenciano.
“But she does slow me down,” kids Spivey. “Seriously, Soledad is my biggest champion, but she’s also my harshest critic. Maybe it’s her teaching background, but she knows how to read a room and capture the audience. She is great at voir dire because she connects. So, she makes sure I connect with the jury or fact finder. Plus, she likes to write a lot more than I do. And clients love her. Those are all pluses in my book.”
Balanced with their individual strengths and buoyed by their strong compatibility, the team and firm of Spivey Valenciano continues to grow its client base. In addition, Spivey and Valenciano are often asked to team up with other lawyers around Texas on condemnation matters. “We have been hired as co-counsel to come in and try condemnation cases six weeks before trial. These have been great experiences,” Spivey says.
Their representations include virtually every type of condemnation. They also represent clients in select Texas Public Utility Commission routing cases also known as CCN proceedings.
“I always want us to be growing our client base,” says Soledad, “but to never lose that personal connection that we share with our clients. We still have many of the clients we brought with us back in 2012 and we’re meeting new ones every day. We are close with our clients and try to remain so. Many whose properties remain in the path of development continue to return to us time after time when the need arises because they know how much we work for to protect their property rights.”