Texas - Law Firms Houston: A Fantastic Place To Practice Law

Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. Coley, would you tell our readers something about your background and professional experience?

Coley: I was born and raised in Atlanta. Following my undergraduate studies, I went to work for a commercial bank there. Six years later I went to law school and graduated from Vanderbilt Law School in 1978. I joined King & Spalding immediately following graduation and, in 1985, became a partner. While in Atlanta, I was fortunate enough to head the firm's corporate group. In 1996 I left the firm to head the investment banking department at Morgan Keegan, one of the firm's clients, in Memphis. After several years there I decided to return to the practice of law and began to explore returning to King & Spalding in Atlanta. At that point, Ralph Levy, then chairman of the firm, asked me whether I was interested in helping to build the firm's Houston office. After visiting the office and experiencing its enthusiasm, I was excited to rejoin the firm in Houston.

Editor: You first joined King & Spalding out of law school and then rejoined in 1999. What was it that attracted you to the firm?

Coley: When I first joined the firm in 1978 it was one of the premier firms in Atlanta. It was a regional firm at that time and enjoyed some excellent client relationships including the Coca-Cola Company, Trust Company of Georgia, which became Sun Trust, and the Robinson-Humphrey Company. The firm also had a well deserved reputation for collegiality. There was one office and just over 80 lawyers.

By 1996, when I left to join Morgan Keegan, King & Spalding had become a major national/international firm with offices in Washington, DC, New York and, most recently, Houston. That evolution has continued (we opened our London office in 2003), and it makes King & Spalding a very attractive place to be. Today we have approximately 800 lawyers in five offices.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice. How has it changed over the course of your career?

Coley: I began my career as a securities lawyer, and much of my work in the early years involved underwriter representations for the Robinson-Humphrey Company, an Atlanta-based investment bank. The firm also acted as regional counsel for Goldman Sachs for southeastern public offerings. I also developed important relationships with firm clients Cousins Properties Inc. and National Commerce Bancorporation. In the mid 1980's, I was involved in the savings and loan conversion process, culminating in the representation of the first foreign purchaser of a U.S. savings and loan association. Also in the mid 1980's, I represented Cousins Properties Inc., a major Atlanta real estate development company, in its conversion from a C-corporation into a real estate investment trust. That was the beginning of the modern REIT era. As a result of that transaction I developed a reputation in the REIT area, and I continue to represent both REITs and underwriters of REITs. One of my proudest accomplishments was working with a group of lawyers and investment bankers to develop a structure permitting REITs to participate in the hospitality sector and still qualify for REIT treatment.

My experience in the REIT arena led to my introduction to Morgan Keegan and my tenure in the investment banking world.

When I returned to the firm in Houston, I had to transition into the energy business. One of the things in my favor is the fact that many of the skills that I have developed over the years are adaptable to the types of transactions this office encounters in the energy sector.

Editor: King & Spalding's presence in Houston dates from 1995. What is the origin of this undertaking? What factors went into the decision to open a Houston office?

Coley: King & Spalding is very circumspect when it comes to opening new offices. In the case of Houston, however, the CEO and General Counsel of Texaco, for whom we were handling a significant volume of litigation, asked us to open the office. It was an easy decision.

Editor: How has the office grown over the past ten years?

Coley: In 1995 we had three lawyers, two partners and a senior associate, who worked exclusively on Texaco litigation. Today we have 75 lawyers who represent a number of disciplines. Our client base has become diversified, as evidenced by the fact that the percentage of office revenues that derives from Chevron, which acquired Texaco, continues to decline, even though our gross billings to Chevron continue to increase significantly.

The Houston litigation practice has expanded from energy litigation exclusively and now includes environmental and royalty litigation, general commercial litigation, an appellate practice and an international arbitration practice. I strongly believe that our litigation group is the strongest in Houston. We also have expanded beyond litigation to include an M&A practice with both a domestic and Latin America reach, a corporate finance practice and a global transactions practice. The success of our global transactions practice in the liquefied natural gas area has resulted in our firm being recognized as one of the leading LNG firms in the world.

Editor: How would you describe the Houston legal market today?

Coley: It is a very competitive market. Obviously, there are great law firms here, both Houston-based and other national firms. We have been able to compete because our firm culture is very consistent with that of the major Houston clients and law firms. We are well managed, and we are able to deploy in all of the areas of expertise that this market demands. That has enabled us to prosper here, and we have every expectation that our growth will continue.

Editor: I gather the Houston office is able to call upon the resources of the firm's other offices.

Coley: Absolutely. King & Spalding does not view itself as a series of independent offices. When a matter comes in, we identify the best lawyers to handle it, regardless of where they reside. One of my major clients has had a number of IPO transactions in New York, for which I rely on the New York office. We call upon Atlanta, Washington and New York for a wide range of support services, including tax and ERISA expertise, which enables us to avoid duplication and redundancy from one office to the next. Our global transactions lawyers and our international arbitrators interact continuously with our London office.

Editor: Please tell us about the Houston office's international transactional practice. Who are the clients here?

Coley: There are a number of different types of transactions. In Latin America we have been involved in numerous M&A projects for, among others, BHP, Coca-Cola, UPS, Home Depot and Sprint. We have also been engaged in project development work for clients from Australia, Canada, Spain, Chile and Indonesia. We also represent Shell in some of their international activities, as well as Maersk Oil of Denmark and some Norwegian clients.

Editor: Would you tell us about Houston as a place to live and work? How do you sell the city to, say, recent law graduates or young laterals?

Coley: Houston is a fantastic place to practice law. Since there are a great many Fortune 100 companies here, particularly in the energy industry, a very sophisticated bar has developed in just about every practice area. From a professional perspective, Houston is a very easy sell.

Houston is also a very entrepreneurial and merit-based city, one that welcomes anyone willing to work hard irrespective of where they come from. It is also one of the great cultural destinations in the country, something for which it does not always receive credit. The visual and performing arts are alive and well in Houston. Houston is also well represented in professional sports and has hosted the Super Bowl and the Major League Baseball All-Star game in the last couple of years. It is one of those places that has something for everyone.

Editor: And the place King & Spalding occupies in the larger community? Please tell us about some of the firm's community undertakings.

Coley: King & Spalding has always encouraged community involvement. It is a matter of great importance for the firm to be fully engaged in each of the communities where it resides, something that traces back to the firm's founding in 1885. In Houston we are active in a great variety of pro bono and volunteer activities. We have represented a death row inmate in an ongoing series of appeals - we have just had a successful hearing before the Texas Court of Appeals. While that end of our pro bono work involves litigators, we have taken advantage of Texas C Bar, an organization that matches transactional lawyers with new §501(c)(3) entities in need of organizational and business advice. One of our associates serves on that organization's governing board. We also work with an organization called Houston Volunteer Lawyers, where lawyers are assigned to a variety of cases. Just this week, for instance, I represented an indigent client appealing a decision not to award him social security benefits. Almost all of our lawyers are engaged in one type of pro bono or volunteer activity or another, and this is ongoing.

We have a number of people active in various bar activities, which includes taking leadership roles in bar committees. One of our Houston partners recently received an award for his outstanding performance last year as the chair of an AIDs outreach committee of the Houston Bar Association.

Editor: How about service on the governing boards of hospitals, museums, educational institutions, charities, performing arts organizations.

Coley: We are very committed to the community, and that commitment is reflected in both financial support and participation on the governing boards of a great many non-profit charitable and educational organizations. We are represented on the boards of the Alley Theater, the Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Symphony, the Contemporary Arts Museum, Texas Children's Hospital, Catholic Charities Foundation, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, among others.

Editor: And the role you play with the Greater Houston Partnership?

Coley: I am an active member of the governing board. The Greater Houston Partnership is similar to a chamber of commerce, although it has an involvement in the trade side of Houston's economy that reflects the city's significant role in the international community.

Editor: How do these activities contribute to the culture and values of King & Spalding?

Coley: It has always been a hallmark of King & Spalding to be actively involved in the communities in which it has offices. These activities project a very positive image of the firm, but more importantly, we are engaged in this work because we have enjoyed good fortune and, as a consequence, have an obligation to give something back. This is also a way of ensuring that the community thrives and continues to attract others to help in its growth and prosperity, all of which contributes to our growth and prosperity.

Editor: What about the future? Where would you like the Houston office to be in, say, five years?

Coley: Our objective is to be one of Houston's go-to law firms, a goal we are well on the way to achieving. We are not wedded to any specific size. Rather, we seek to grow by attracting lateral partners who are leaders in their practice areas. This is consistent with the firm's overall objective to be engaged in leading practices throughout the country and to set the standard for experience and expertise in the disciplines and practice groups that are called upon by our clients. We will continue to grow in direct response to our clients' needs.

Please email the interviewee at rcoley@kslaw.com with questions about this interview.