Updated: Nov 6
By Anne Johnson
More than four decades into her pathbreaking legal career, Nina Cortell still draws inspiration from her mother’s excitement over becoming a U.S. citizen after World War II. A refugee of Nazi Germany, Anneliese Amelie Feibel was forced to flee as a teenager, bearing the scars of the horrors she witnessed in her native country and the loss of her parents at Auschwitz.
“The enormous pride she felt in becoming a U.S. citizen and the high regard she held for our country and legal system were palpable and infectious,” Nina recalls.
Anneliese and her husband, Walter Cortell, who also emigrated from Germany and served in the U.S. Army in World War II, raised Nina in Dallas, stressing the values of education, hard work and self- determination.
They instilled in Nina a strength of character that enabled her to blaze trails at her law firm and in the Texas appellate bar, while also raising a family and working tirelessly to mentor young lawyers and promote greater diversity in the profession.
In addition to her parents, Nina credits Haynes and Boone, where she has worked her entire career, for mentoring her and giving her the platform to accomplish so much. When she graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1976, it was very difficult for women to land jobs at corporate law firms in the state — regardless of the candidates’ credentials. She often recounts her great luck in meeting Dick Haynes at a 1974 recruitment interview, which led to a summer clerkship, a permanent offer, and the opportunity to work with such great lawyers as Dick, Mike Boone and George Bramblett.
Nina was the first female lawyer (and 13th overall) at Haynes and Boone. She became a formidable litigator, trying many lawsuits with Bramblett and growing Haynes and Boone’s litigation department in size and reputation. In 1989, she joined the firm’s fledgling appellate practice and quickly distinguished herself thanks to her impressive skills as a writer, oral advocate, and strategist. Nina’s list of landmark victories is long, and her list of devoted clients is longer. She helped obtain a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court overhauling the Texas public school finance system and has scored impressive wins in state and federal courts on behalf of clients such as American Airlines, AT&T, ExxonMobil, CitiGroup, Matador Resources Company, and NextEra Energy.
Lawyers who have worked with Nina over the years all say the same thing – she is the complete package. In the words of Dallas trial lawyer Jeff Tillotson, “opposing counsel get depressed when she is hired on the other side. They know they are up against the very best.”
But perhaps Nina’s greater legacy has been her role in building Haynes and Boone’s nationally- recognized appellate group, which owes much of its success to Nina’s model of excellence and superior client service. Her ability to attract and develop legal talent has not gone unnoticed by clients. “Nina has used her talent not only to further her own career, but also to further the careers of others,” wrote ExxonMobil Counsel Charles Beach in 2005. “She has allowed the lead junior attorney to be the main contact with me... Unlike many attorneys who jealously guard their relationships with major clients, Nina has shared her relationship with ExxonMobil for the benefit of others.” It is little surprise that the appellate group that Nina helped start 30 years ago now boasts nine Chambers- recognized appellate partners, more than any other previously recognized Texas law firm.
Beyond mentoring generations of lawyers at Haynes and Boone, Nina has worked diligently throughout her career to make the legal profession more open and hospitable to women and minorities.
To cite one example of her many efforts to promote diversity, she is a founder and the former president of the University of Texas Law School’s Center for Women in Law (CWIL), which was launched in 2009 and is the premier legal educational institution dedicated to the success of the entire spectrum of women in law – from first-year law students to the most experienced attorneys. Linda Chanow, the center’s executive director, writes: “Nina played an instrumental role in the creation of CWIL.... Her goal: creating a center with the capability of transforming a profession.”
Nina always is quick to point out that the bedrock of her success, personally and professionally, is her marriage of 43 years to Dr. Robert L. Fine, a renowned expert in medical ethics and palliative care, and the unsurpassed joy she has derived from raising three wonderful daughters and doting on her four grandchildren.
Few of us achieve lasting professional distinction, let alone find the time to also serve as a role model, mentor, inspiration, philanthropist, and devoted wife, mother and grandmother. Nina is the kind of person, not just the kind of lawyer, who we all aspire to be. I can think of no worthier standard bearer of the prestigious Fellows Justinian Award.
By Anne Johnson
Anne Johnson was an appellate partner in the Dallas office of Haynes and Boone, LLP, and served on the firm’s Executive Committee at the time this article was written.
This article appeared in the March 2019 edition of Headnotes published by the Dallas Bar Association.