By Melody Finnemore | Daily Journal Of Commerce | April 13, 2012
Inspired by a colorful, prominent criminal defense attorney in his hometown of Cincinnati, Stephen Houze was about 12 when he decided that he, too, wanted to follow that path.
He majored in political science at Brown University and earned his law degree from Vanderbilt University Law School in 1972. One of his law professors was Jim Neal: a Watergate prosecutor, a member of Robert F. Kennedy's legal posse and the attorney who put Jimmy Hoffa behind bars.
"Jim Neal was a very interesting guy and he made me believe that was the kind of work I really wanted to do," Houze said. "A lawyer who truly believes in the rule of the law can be a tremendous advocate for his client. You can make all the difference in a person's life."
While at Vanderbilt, Houze surveyed the conditions of Tennessee's prison system for the governor's office. He toured death row and noticed that most of those prisoners were black and, according to Houze, had terrible representation.
"I think having gone to law school in the South was really an eye-opening time in my life," he said. "(The prison project) was shocking to me and really further animated my belief that poor people need good lawyers."
Houze moved to Portland in 1972 and joined the fledgling Metropolitan Public Defender office. He left three years later to establish his private practice in criminal defense, but he continues to support MPD and is a longtime board member.
"The idea of indigent people having a right to defense counsel was relatively new then, and it was a great time to become a criminal defense attorney," Houze said.
Now, more than 35 years later, Houze has accumulated an impressive record of victories on behalf of his clients. His firm was named this year's best in Portland for criminal defense, both white collar and non-white collar. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, has ranked among the Best Lawyers in America since 1993 and is recognized by Super Lawyers as well. He was the 2010 Best Lawyer of the Year in Portland for non-white collar criminal defense.
More recently, he received the top honor at the Daily Journal of Commerce's Battle of the Lawyers, in which five Portland-area litigators redelivered closing arguments from some of their most memorable cases.
"This is work I love to do because it's something I embrace and believe in," Houze said. "I truly can't think of anything I'd be more suited to do or that would hold my interest the way this does. Our clients are real people. They have families and children and their futures are at risk. It's the responsibility and a privilege for a lawyer to stand up and defend another person."
As one of Portland's most prominent criminal defense attorneys, and with a roster of highly visible and highly emotional cases, Houze has received his share of negative comments. He said he has never feared for his life, though, and considers it all part of the package.
"Sometimes a case that is high profile will generate comments from detractors about either me or the role of the defense lawyer or my client. It just kind of comes with the territory," he said.
As PowerPoint, iPads and other technological advances increasing play roles for trial attorneys, Houze prefers to stick to his tried-and-true method of winning through the power of the spoken word.
"I'm just old school," he said. "I happen to think it's more effective to stand in front of people and say what is right."