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Family, Navy service are ties that bind for Oklahoma firm

Fletcher D. Handley, Jr.

By Brian Cox

Fletcher Handley is right at home in a family law practice.

As a newly minted lawyer in 1979, Handley joined an Oklahoma family law firm with deep roots in the town of El Reno, where he quickly proved himself and became a partner. More than 25 years later, he ventured off to establish The Handley Law Center, a family law firm of his own that now includes his two sons, Ashton and Alex.

“Our family is pretty close,” says Handley, who has been married to his wife Dianne for 48 years. “I get to spend time with my sons here at the office and then we spend time together as a family. We enjoy playing golf together. We enjoy having meals together.”

Legal careers at Handley Law Center are not all the two sons share in common with their father: All three are also Navy veterans.

Handley’s sons served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Persian Gulf during the summer of 2003 — Ashton aboard the USS Boxer and Alex aboard the USS Nashville. Both attended college on full Navy scholarships.

“That’s very competitive,” says Handley, “so I was very proud of them to get that.”

Handley says he wouldn’t trade anything for the four years he was in the Navy. After an unsatisfying initial stab at college, Handley enlisted at age 21 and served as an air crewman during the Vietnam era, traveling extensively throughout the Caribbean, Europe, and the North Atlantic.

“I got to see and do a lot and made a lot of lifelong friends I’m still in touch with today,” he says.
He also learned a thing or two that have proved valuable in his long legal career. One of them came from playing cards with shipmates, specifically bridge, which he says was very competitive.

Fletcher Handley and his wife Dianne are avid travelers, recently enjoying a trip to Eastern Europe that included a stop in Munich.

“I took some of that competitiveness I had playing bridge and poker and applied it to my law practice,” says Handley. “I think you have to adopt an attitude that you don’t like to lose. It’s hard sometimes to figure who the winners are and who the losers are in this business – it’s not always readily apparent. But I didn’t ever want to lose for something I’d done or neglected to do. I got that from playing cards in the Navy.”

The military also taught him how organizations work and are structured and he learned he didn’t want to be at the bottom of any hierarchy the rest of his life. The experience provided him the incentive to return to college when he got out of the Navy, more mature and committed to excelling. After his first semester at the University of Oklahoma’s H.H. Herbert School of Journalism in Norman, Handley met Dianne in the summer of 1973 and the couple was married less than a year later.

Any thought of law school was still a way off.

Handley’s father was a man of various entrepreneurial endeavors who on more than one occasion had needed a lawyer and so he’d suggested Handley go to law school, but Handley says he was “originally not crazy” about the idea.

Instead, he had his sights set on becoming a novelist.

A professor at OU, Jack Bickham, a prolific writer who was the author of the “The Apple Dumpling Gang,” encouraged Handley’s ambitions and became his mentor as Handley worked on a book about his experience in the Navy.

“I completed the novel,” recalls Handley, “except I was never happy with the ending.”

Despite a publisher’s interest in “Go Away, Navy,” Handley first wanted to give the novel a complete rewrite. He and Dianne moved to Texas about 50 miles south of Dallas where Handley took a job as a journalist for the Corsicana Daily Sun and labored on rewriting the book at night.

Life took a turn when Dianne became pregnant with their first child and Handley discovered that on his newspaper salary of $125 a week, he couldn’t qualify to buy a $15,000 home that was built in 1922.

“It seemed like I was destined to be broke for the rest of my life and law school started to look pretty good,” says Handley, who shelved the novel and returned home with a week-old baby boy to attend Oklahoma University College of Law.

“And the rest is history,” he says.

The young father worked three part-time jobs to put himself through law school and afterward joined the law firm of Fogg, Fogg & Howard, where he would stay for more than 25 years.

“I caught on pretty quick,” says Handley, who had success early on representing plaintiffs and became a partner in short order.

His efforts led to the Oklahoma Bar Association recognizing him as Oklahoma’s Outstanding Young Lawyer in 1983.

In the mid-1980s, as still a young lawyer, Handley was appointed the liaison counsel for nearly a dozen Oklahoma savings and loans that were involved in multi-district litigation. For the next five or so years, Handley crisscrossed the United States taking depositions in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or St. Louis and other far-flung cities.

“The benefit to me was that I met these lawyers from all over the country and learned that they weren’t any smarter than I was and most of them didn’t have the experience I did,” says Handley. “I learned that I didn’t need to be intimidated by lawyers from the big city, and that served me well over the years.”

Handley was drawn back into military service in 1981 when he enlisted in the Oklahoma Army National Guard. He was commissioned into the JAG Corps in 1983 and retired in 2008 as the Assistant State Judge Advocate for Oklahoma and Military Judge.

Handley is a charter member of Primerus and is proud to have been involved with the writing of the society’s Six Pillars. In 1995, he and his partner at the time, Richard Fogg, received the first Primerus Public Service Award for their volunteer work on behalf of victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing. In 2012, he was awarded the Primerus Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions and service.

“I never joined an organization unless I thought it was a good enough organization to be active in,” says Handley. “So, from day one I was active in Primerus.”

Handley and Fogg became charter members in Primerus because they’d noticed some erosion in their business that they attributed to increased attorney advertising, which they found professionally suspect and occasionally deceptive.

“We felt we were losing some of the business we had earned through our reputations to advertisers,” says Handley, “and we didn’t want to engage in the type of advertising that was common in those days.”

Primerus presented an opportunity to advertise tastefully and accurately, says Handley, benefiting the firm over time by enhancing its reputation and name recognition.

“We were interested in that,” says Handley. “We felt like the good lawyers, the lawyers who laid awake nights worrying about their cases and their clients and who went to the courthouse and fought on their behalf, deserved to be getting the good clients.”

He has continued to excel as a trial lawyer, and in 2018 was recognized by his peers as The Oklahoma Association for Justice’s Trial Lawyer of the Year.

Now at 74, Handley plans to stay active at the firm but to also scale back a bit in order to play more golf and travel more with his wife. The couple recently spent close to a month in Eastern Europe on a Danube River wine cruise, stopping off in Budapest and taking an unplanned detour to Munich.

In addition to a collection of legal accolades and honors, Handley has twice received the Lamplighter Award from the El Reno Education Association for his years of volunteering as the high school mock trial coach, which included a State Championship in 1990.

“I’m also a distinguished graduate of El Reno High School,” says
Handley with a grin. “I’m proud of that.”