A Houston Office With Global Reach

Monday, September 1, 2008 - 00:00

Editor: John, please tell our readers about the beginnings of Weil's Houston office. Why did the firm decide to open a Houston practice?

Strasburger: The Houston office opened as a bankruptcy practice in 1985, and quickly added litigation and corporate capabilities. Houston was then at the complete opposite end of the business cycle from where we are now. Oil was cheap - about $25 a barrel - and was quickly getting cheaper, oil exploration was decreasing, and lots of companies in that sector were shuffling over to bankruptcy court or otherwise trying to restructure. Two enterprising young partners from established Houston firms flew to New York to meet with Weil's bankruptcy icon, Harvey Miller, and pitched the idea of a Houston office. After a very brief meeting, they returned to Houston thinking their meeting in New York had been a total waste of time. But Harvey called and told them to get office space as soon as possible and get things up and running. That is typical of our firm - when we make a decision we are off and running and don't look back.

Editor: How much of the Houston office's practice is centered in Texas and how much is of a national or international scope?

Strasburger: Our firm is organized into global practice groups, so our lawyers in Houston are as likely to be working in New York, Seoul, or Tulsa, as they are in Houston. We try to match the best lawyer for the client's needs, regardless of geography. We have a real mix of clients in Houston, some are based in or have significant operations in Houston, and many do not.

Editor: What are its major practice areas? Perhaps, you could elaborate on some of the major strengths of these practice areas. Why has the office not expanded to include other practice areas?

Strasburger: We have always played to our strengths. Bankruptcy was the cornerstone of our office, and remains a focus. We really boosted our capabilities about seven years ago when one of the best bankruptcy lawyers in this part of the world, Alfredo Perez, joined us. Complex Commercial Litigation is a core strength in part because of the variety of matters we have handled. We have been involved in some of the most contentious litigation in some of the most difficult venues in the country, and our lawyers are willing to try cases. I started my career trying products liability and insurance defense cases in a pre tort reform era of runaway juries, and that experience has been invaluable in helping me counsel my clients on how to assess and manage risk, and how to put together a commercial case.

We are always on the look out for new practice areas that make sense for us. For example, we really had no patent litigation capability in Texas until David Healey rejoined our firm several years ago. We are now consistently the top ranked patent litigation shop in the state and have a practice here that compliments our tremendous intellectual property capabilities firm wide. We have a very deep bench of talent, both in the Houston and Austin offices. Our entry into the patent litigation practice was a complete success, because we got the right people in the right practice area.

In terms of new practice areas, we are evaluating opportunities to add the right corporate team here, but we are really choosey about who we want. We had a corporate capability here years ago, but we never got the mix of people quite right. For now, we rely on our world class transactional lawyers in Dallas, Boston, New York, and elsewhere when our clients need them.

Editor: Have the ranks of lawyers in the firm swollen as a result of the wave of bankruptcies sweeping the country? How are Texans faring in terms of the economic downturn?

Strasburger: Part of our formula for success in Houston is to avoid over-hiring, even in strong practice areas. We have had moderate growth in our restructuring practice here, and we are right sized now, although that may change as we continue to get busier in that area. I believe that many other firms have over-hired in the bankruptcy area because the major debtor cases - the type of cases we are most interested in - were slower to materialize than expected given the softness in the national economy. We would rather hire only top people, run a lean operation, and not face the issue of what to do with too many restructuring lawyers when the cycle turns.

Compared to the rest of the country, the Texas economy is robust, in part because of the relative strength of the energy sector, and in part because our real estate market never became as overheated as most other major areas. But the reality is that we are also part of the national and global economies, and $4 a gallon gas and tightened credit affects business activity here.

Editor: Houston is customarily the home of law firms with vast oil & gas expertise. Has Weil purposefully steered away from this area of expertise or do you anticipate the Houston office will eventually move into this arena?

Strasburger: Our firm does plenty of work related to the energy industry, but we have no interest in having a traditional oil and gas practice. Commodity lease work and oil rig slip and fall suits don't fit with our business model. We want to help energy industry players solve their most complex and demanding problems. The Enron case is a good example of that - we did not handle routine matters for Enron, but got called into the big game. We are currently representing SemGroup, a mid stream service company, in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding and related litigation. Last year, our firm's private equity lawyers handled the going private transaction for Kinder Morgan, and the Houston office has been heavily involved in the shareholder litigation related to that. I recently defended an oil field services company in a case alleging, among other things, theft of trade secrets. We currently have several major confidential representations in the energy sector on multiple issues including gas pipeline construction, energy trading contracts, and counseling related to restructuring. So we are deeply involved in the energy industry.

Editor: Your case load was heavily weighted toward Enron matters at one time. Have these matters now been put to rest?

Strasburger: There is no question that most of the Enron litigation has been resolved. Although there are a handful of Enron related litigations going on, I thought my personal involvement in Enron had concluded until Enron learned last year that the company it hired to administer the settlement fund in the ERISA class action case had completely botched the job, and it distributed the wrong amounts of money to almost all of the former Enron employees, causing a major shortfall in the settlement fund. So we are now involved in the litigation to force that company to pay to fix their mistake.

Editor: The firm's Houston office has carried the day in the number of honors it has received for its community service and pro bono work. Would you mention some instances of the office's outstanding work in these areas?

Strasburger: I am extremely lucky to have many colleagues who are truly committed to serving our community. On the pro bono front, although I serve as the Co-Chair of Weil's Pro Bono Committee along with Steve Reiss in our New York office, my Houston partner Sylvia Mayer heads our local pro bono committee and she is terrific - much of our success can be attributed to her. In 2007, our office had the top pro bono performance in terms of productivity in the firm, and along with our Dallas and Austin offices, we were recently recognized by the Texas Lawyer as having the top pro bono hours among big firms in Texas. Our work is incredibly diverse, and includes immigration matters, veteran's issues, guardianship cases, voting rights, multiple representations for the City of Houston, and innocence project work. Our work can be as simple as helping a mother obtain guardianship of her disabled adult son, or as cutting edge as suing a district attorney who was improperly threatening the voting rights of African American students - I had both cases on my docket at the same time. Our pro bono program provides something for everyone, and we have found that you can operate a profitable law firm and still do good works that make an impact on the society.

Editor: The Houston Law Firm Diversity Report Card gave the Houston office an A+. Please tell our readers about your achievements in the area of diversity.

Strasburger: I don't think we ever really changed what we were doing, I think the rest of the profession started to take seriously the diversity issues that we have been addressing for decades. Since this office opened, we have hired people based on their ability to do the work, and their willingness to make a contribution. We don't care about your politics, whether you belong to a country club, or who your father is. When you build an office with that mindset, not only do you get really talented lawyers, you get people who tend to reflect the world around you, and not just people who remind you of yourself. We have now moved on to tackle some of the more difficult issues, such as once you get this talented and diverse group of people in the door, what do you do to make them happy and keep them at the firm. So we are currently very focused on mentoring and looking at alternative work arrangements such as flex time. Law firms that don't address these issues will fail.

Editor: What type of footprint would you like to see the firm place on the Houston landscape? What would you like to see the name "Weil, Gotshal & Manges" call to mind in the Houston community in future years?

Strasburger: We don't want to be the biggest, and we don't want to practice every type of law under the sun. We want to be known for what we are: passionate advocates for our clients, experts in our fields, and lawyers who provide solutions rather than just recite the law. We want to be short list contenders for high stakes matters involving important clients, whether those matters are in Houston or Timbuktu. We are a gateway to a global law firm that can bring tremendous resources to bear on a problem. And of course, we want to be known as a firm that spends its time, talents, and money making Houston a great city.

Please email the interviewee at john.strasburger@weil.com with questions about this interview.