King & Spalding's Houston Office: An Energy Focus And More

Friday, September 1, 2006 - 01:00

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

Smith: I joined King & Spalding in 1987 directly from the University of Georgia Law School. I practiced at the firm's Atlanta office until 1995, when I was asked to relocate to assist in opening the firm's Houston office.

Editor: And your decision to join King & Spalding?

Smith: There were two principal things that attracted me to King & Spalding. First, I had made a decision to practice in the Southeast, and King & Spalding appeared to me to be the premier law firm in both Atlanta and the region. In addition, I was attracted to a firm that aspired to become more than simply the premier firm in the region. The firm's ambitions constituted a real draw.

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

Smith: As a young associate I practiced mainly in the business litigation area. A couple of years before I was asked to relocate to assist in opening the Houston office, I began handling a considerable volume of work for Texaco. This ranged from business litigation work to a variety of tort disputes, including environmental torts and personal injuries. My business litigation practice, primarily in the energy sector, has grown substantially over the years we have had an office in Houston. I am also engaged in antitrust work and, more recently, international arbitration.

Editor: Speaking of Houston, what was behind the firm's decision to establish a presence there?

Smith: We were responding to a request from Steve Turner, a former Texaco general counsel, that we open an office in Houston to assist Texaco with its litigation needs in Texas and the Southwest. But for that request, I am not certain that we would have considered a Houston office at that time. Nevertheless, we scrutinized the Houston legal market and concluded that we could be competitive in Houston and, with Texaco as a platform, grow the practice. That has been the case.

Editor: What practice groups were represented?

Smith: Initially, we only had litigation. Within a year we were engaged in business litigation, royalty disputes and mass tort litigation for Texaco, so we were growing from the very beginning.

Over time the office has become more diverse in terms of practice areas. Several years after opening the office we added a domestic corporate capacity, and soon thereafter a global transactions practice followed. The latter is both transactional, in the sense of mergers and acquisitions, and projects-based. We also have a real estate capacity in Houston, and most recently we brought intellectual property into the fold.

By the end of the year we anticipate having close to 100 lawyers, of whom 65 or so will be litigators.

Editor: Who are the clients? Are certain industry sectors important in the office's practice?

Smith: The Houston economy has a strong focus on energy, and that certainly informs our litigation practice. We handle a substantial amount of litigation for Chevron and Shell Oil, and we represent a diverse group of energy companies in connection with their business litigation needs, international arbitration and tort work. We also have excellent client relationships with Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown & Root. We also handle a considerable volume of work for Miller Brewing Company, including distributor litigation. We have relationships with Aon Corporation and Continental Airlines as well. Given the nature of the Houston economy, much of what we do has an energy connection, but that is not the exclusive focus of the office's practice, nor is it the entirety of our client base.

Editor: How does the Houston operation fit into the firm-wide structure?

Smith: The working relationship among the firm's offices is about as seamless as it can be. Our Houston business litigation work is closely integrated with that of the Atlanta, New York and Washington, DC offices, and our tort litigation practice involves integrated teams from Houston, Atlanta and Washington on an almost ongoing basis. Similarly, the firm-wide international arbitration practice is a closely coordinated effort that involves principally attorneys in our Houston and London offices. Many of the clients are resident in Houston, and they look to us for their Texas litigation needs. That, in turn, leads to our representation of them in the international arena, for which we draw upon our resources here in Houston as well as those of the London and other offices.

Editor: International arbitration is a growing area for many firms today. Would you give us an overview of the Houston office's work in this area?

Smith: The firm's international arbitration capability is spread across the Houston, Atlanta, New York, Washington and London offices, with a particular concentration in Houston and London. While we are engaged in a wide range of arbitration matters, a particular area of expertise is in the investment dispute area between private investors and governments. This area has, in addition, a Latin American focus in that we have a number of pending matters against various Latin American governments.

Several of our Houston lawyers, the most prominent of whom is Doak Bishop, practice exclusively in the international arbitration arena. Much of this work, but by no means all of it, concerns investment disputes. Commercial arbitration disputes constitute an important aspect of this practice as well, and we look upon this as a growth area for the firm.

Editor: What are the forums the group utilizes?

Smith: The majority of our investment disputes are before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, ICSID, which functions under the auspices of The World Bank. I believe we have as many pending ICSID cases as any law firm in the world. We also have cases governed by the United Nations Commission on International Trade rules, UNCITRAL, and much of this work is handled by our Houston lawyers. As a matter of course, we have a great deal of experience with the American Arbitration Association, the AAA, in the U.S., and we also are active in arbitrations before the London Court of International Arbitration, LCIA, and the International Chamber of Commerce's International Court of Arbitration, ICC. In many instances, where we arbitrate is dictated by the contract between the parties.

Editor: How about clients? Are there some industries or industry sectors that lend themselves more to arbitration than to litigation?

Smith: Our Houston experience has been chiefly in the energy area. Energy sector clients tend to be involved in a variety of substantial international projects, including construction and concession agreements with governments, and handling disputes through arbitration is looked upon favorably. The office is also engaged in a wide range of commercial arbitrations that do not originate in the energy sector. I think it is the international factor that points clients toward arbitration - the ability to have a dispute addressed in a strictly neutral forum - rather than the industry sector in which they operate.

Editor: Would you give us your thoughts as to the future of the firm's international arbitration practice?

Smith: We expect it to continue to grow, both in terms of the number of lawyers involved and in terms of the revenue the practice generates. The practice is not Houston-centric, however. Growth is anticipated across the entire practice, wherever it resides, and that may be in places where we do not have offices at present.

Editor: The Houston office also has a strong energy practice - both energy litigation and the representation of members of the energy sector generally. Can you give us an overview of this aspect of the office's work?

Smith: The office has a strong energy focus. On the litigation side, we are a full-service operation as it relates to energy sector disputes. We represent energy companies in mass tort disputes or large-docket tort cases, including benzene exposure cases and MTBE groundwater contamination claims, and this is a nationwide practice. We also represent major energy companies in royalty disputes with private parties and with governmental entities. We also work on antitrust matters, gasoline pricing issues and a variety of investigations which have an energy focus. And, as I have indicated, our international arbitration practice has a very strong energy sector orientation. One of the principal goals of our Houston office is to serve as a full-service provider to the energy industry.

Editor: In both litigation and on the transactional side, an energy practice is interdisciplinary. What are the groups that you draw on for your projects? From across the firm as a whole?

Smith: We draw upon a variety of practice groups from all across the firm in addressing our energy clients' needs. That includes, for example, calling upon the environmental expertise that resides in Atlanta, Washington and elsewhere to assist us in our environmental tort related litigation work. We are heavily engaged in several Federal Trade Commission, Congressional and state attorney general investigations relating to gasoline refining capacity and pricing, and we call upon the expertise of our Washington office's regulatory practice on a routine basis. We have all of the resources that one would expect of a firm this size, and we work very hard to coordinate and marshal those resources in an effective way to serve the needs of our clients.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts about the future of the Houston office? What kinds of growth do you anticipate?

Smith: We do not have a preordained growth strategy for Houston. Since opening the office in 1995 our growth has been both careful and opportunistic in the sense of being responsive to demand. Nevertheless, over the past ten years that growth has gone from a handful of litigators to what is anticipated to be a hundred lawyers at the end of 2006. For the future, we expect to grow the practices we have in place, and if the past is any indication that will include high-profile lateral partner additions. That kind of addition adds luster to our roster of lawyers, and it also brings in new clients with new needs, which enables us to enhance our expertise. At the moment, we think that our domestic transactional practice and our IP practice, both transactional and litigation, are opportunities for growth for Houston. This is a very good market for legal services, and we anticipate good things for the future.

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