Editor: Please tell our readers about your background.
Collins: I grew up in Maine and went to college at Northeastern University, graduating in 1977 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. From there I went to Boston College Law School and graduated in 1980. I was recruited from law school by Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago to join their Chicago office. After 16 years in Chicago, I was asked to transfer to help build the Houston office and arrived in Houston in May, 1996.
Editor: Did you initially start your practice as an employment lawyer?
Collins: Yes. When I was in law school I worked part time for a small firm that represented public employers in labor relations matters. I became interested in the whole area of labor and employment law. In deciding where I wanted to work after law school, I became aware of Seyfarth Shaw as one of the major players in the employment law area, if not the largest, in the country at that time. I was fortunate to interview with Seyfarth on campus and upon graduation joined the firm as a labor and employment lawyer. My twenty-five years as an attorney have all been with one law firm and in one practice area. When I was in Chicago, I spent approximately half of my time in the traditional labor relations area representing companies in union-related matters and the other half litigating employment matters, principally employment discrimination claims. As time has passed, that mix has changed. There is not as much traditional labor relations work in Texas as in the Midwest; in regard to employment litigation, I have gravitated over the years into larger litigation matters, such as class actions.
Editor: I understand that you have defended large manufacturers in discrimination cases. Could you describe one of those cases?
Collins: Our Texas office represented a diversified manufacturing company based in Connecticut that was alleged to have discriminated in pay against an entire class of salaried female employees at facilities all over the United States. That case was brought in federal court in Dallas where we were successful in defeating class certification about a year ago. Currently we have an ongoing class action here in Houston where our opponents are the EEOC and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Editor: Why would Seyfarth with its strong labor expertise decide to open an office in Texas, a right-to-work state?
Collins: Not only is Texas a right-to-work state but Georgia is also where we have an Atlanta office. We had discussed in the partnership the need and desire to have an office in Texas. Over the years we had handled various large matters for existing clients, whether in the form of litigation or some other matter in Texas. It seemed to us that if we were truly going to represent our clients on a national basis, we needed to have an office in this state, which has a large and growing population and is business-friendly.
Editor: Do you find that there is much unionization of the work force in Texas?
Collins: Certainly not to the degree that exists in the Midwest, Northeast and California. There are pockets of industry in Texas that are heavily unionized. For example, in the refining and chemical industries there are a significant number of union-represented employees. What we see happening more recently are attempts by unions to organize the Hispanic workforce. We have seen that among our clientele, particularly in the construction industry and lower wage service industries. It appears that organized labor has determined this is a fertile area of growth, and we expect to see more attempts at union organizing in the future.
Editor: And you do counseling for employers in ways to handle unionization?
Collins: Yes, a portion of our work is representing employers who would prefer not to be unionized and who need guidance on how to avoid violating the law in communicating with their employees about the benefits of remaining union free if they so choose. That has historically been a substantial part of our firm's labor and employment practice. Another major focus of our work has been in representing companies in matters such as collective bargaining and grievance arbitration.
Editor: Is there anything peculiar to Texas employment law that our readers should know about?
Collins: Based on my knowledge of helping clients in many states, Texas by and large has fewer restrictions on employers than other states. Texas is a business-friendly environment. One of its peculiarities, however, is that Texas is the only state in the country where an employer can choose to opt out of the workers' compensation system. If an employee gets hurt on the job, the employee has his traditional common law rights to sue for negligence and is not relegated to his workers' comp remedy if his employer has opted out.
Editor: Tell us about the expertise within your Houston office in other practice areas.
Collins: Our two main practice areas in Houston are the labor and employment group and a significant commercial litigation group. We are probably 60/40 employment law, but our commercial litigation area is growing rapidly. In the employment area our practice runs the gamut from representing huge companies in very large matters, often in conjunction with lawyers from some of our other offices, to representing small entrepreneurs in helping them devise employment policies, etc. Much of our employment practice is litigation based, though we also negotiate labor contracts and provide counsel and advice on work force restructurings, human resources policies and the like. We do get involved in union-related matters and labor arbitrations. Another area where we are helping employers is in regard to counseling employers on the new rules for compensating employees as a result of a change in the Fair Labor Standards Act regulations last year.
Editor: How does your Houston office interface with your other Seyfarth offices?
Collins: Our firm, unlike some other firms with outside offices, has never accounted for each of our offices as a profit center on an office by office basis. For example, we have never focused upon this office's profitability versus that of some other office. Our firm is truly a centralized whole, which reduces what otherwise might be barriers between lawyers seeking resources from other offices to help our clients. I do not have to worry that if I get attorneys in our Atlanta, Boston, LA or other offices involved in a matter that somehow this sharing will negatively impact our office in Houston. We have handled a number of matters and continue to handle a number of matters where we truly have a team of lawyers, based upon their expertise, who are spread out among our various offices. We believe that the firm has the latest in communication tools, allowing us in a seamless manner to represent our clients as a team, whether as a team here in Texas or elsewhere.
We have corporate capability in Chicago and Atlanta that also services our Houston clients to the point that we have lawyers who go back and forth on a regular basis. Our ERISA practice is largely centralized in Chicago and Atlanta, but these lawyers service our clients everywhere. There are lots of practice areas where it is not quite so crucial to have somebody face to face as in a litigation context. We may be called upon by clients in California for counseling and other non-litigation work because our local market rates here are a little less than those in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Some sophisticated consumers of legal services take advantage of that differential.
Editor: How many attorneys are in your Houston office? Do you see your Texas office growing?
Collins: We currently have twenty lawyers. Our strategic plan is to have the capabilities in this office that mirror the practice capabilities in our other offices, which means that as we go forward we are in a growth mode seeking out attorneys who can help us in the areas of real estate development, corporate transactions and so forth. We are always in the mode to add high quality attorneys with practices that are compatible with our own who operate at a sophisticated level of excellence and deal with similar kinds of clients.
Editor: Are you tapping into the law school graduate pool or doing mainly lateral hires?
Collins: We are more in the lateral acquisition mode at this point. Any law office needs stratification - a spectrum of junior and senior lawyers. Our interest at this point is in expanding into some of the areas where we have strength in our other offices which will help us as a firm and our clients overall. Of course, if there are other labor and employment practitioners out there who have practices similar to ours we are always happy to explore whether there is a fit as well.
Editor: How do you find the Texas court system?
Collins: A large part of labor and employment law is federal law so there are not great differences here in regard to federal law practice. My observations of the state law practice in Texas are that Texas state practice is very trial oriented. The legal standards that have grown up over the years are not as amenable to granting defendants summary judgment as in other places. Here the attitude seems to be that if you have a dispute, let's get it before the jury and let them decide.
Editor: Do you find in the employment law practice that it is equally litigious or is there more of an effort to settle?
Collins: Mediation has really taken hold in Texas litigation practice, much more so than I experienced in Illinois. Most cases here will be referred to mediation by the trial judge before setting the matter for trial. The norm seems to be that you don't get to trial until you have been to mediation and failed.
Editor: Is there anything else you would like to add to the interview?
Collins: We are excited about our prospects here in Texas. The state is growing rapidly. There is a lot of opportunity and we are looking forward to helping our current clients as they expand their operations and helping those clients who come to us in the future.
Editor: Do you have a kind of philosophy in the firm about community service and pro bono work?
Collins: We have a formalized pro bono policy, and we encourage all our offices to get involved in community activities. There is a big bike race that occurs in Texas each spring called the MS 150, a charitable endeavor providing funding for multiple sclerosis reseach. Our office played a significant role in that event this year, and we look forward to doing that in the future.