Texas - Law Firms Finding Professional Challenges, Opportunities For Community Service And An Enjoyable Place To Live - In Houston

Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 01:00
John B. Strasburger

Editor: Please describe your practice area and the practice areas that the Houston office covers.

Strasburger: My practice currently includes complex commercial litigation, product liability and mass tort defense, and bankruptcy litigation. When I first got out of law school and worked at another firm, I handled a docket of small insurance defense and workers' compensation cases. Although those were not the most significant matters, they provided great courtroom learning opportunities. Weil's Houston office, which opened in 1985, started as a bankruptcy shop during the fallout from the Houston energy recession. Right now we are about 50 lawyers in Houston and, although we still have the premier bankruptcy franchise in Houston, we offer a lot more. We've got significant expertise in private equity work. We have one of the nation's most respected tax lawyers. We have a litigation war machine that has diverse capabilities including a patent litigation practice that is second to none. In our small Austin office, which is administratively part of the Houston office, we have a lawyer who is considered by many to be the best appellate specialist in the state of Texas. We also work very closely with our talented colleagues in our Dallas office who can supplement our expertise in a variety of matters.

Editor: You have also done a great deal of work involving Enron.

Strasburger: The Enron work has been fascinating. Enron transformed itself from what was essentially a low tech natural gas pipeline company into a sophisticated commodity trader that became the market maker in major commodity trading markets. The trading relationships with its counter-parties which have been valued at multi-billions of dollars were governed by a variety of contracts containing provisions that had not been tested in a bankruptcy setting. Along with several of my partners in New York and here in Houston, we have over the past three years been working on liquidating those trading relationships in an effort to maximize the recovery for Enron's creditors. We have been quite successful. Our success stems from convincing courts and our counter-party adversaries that our interpretation of these complex relationships is correct.

Editor: You have also been active in pursuing Internet fraud.

Strasburger: As we increasingly use the Internet on a daily basis to manage our lives and businesses, the opportunities for fraudsters will also expand. What lawyers and their clients can do is to be prepared to act quickly to minimize the effect of fraud and especially the theft of electronic data such as personal financial information. In one of the cases that we handled our client was a financial services company. They realized that someone was tapping into sensitive data relating to their customers such as financial data, passwords, social security numbers, etc. The data was being electronically sucked into a server that was located in a server farm in Houston. We received a panic call from our client at about 7 p.m. one evening. We put together papers very quickly and argued a motion for injunctive relief to a judge at her dining room table at 11 o'clock that night. About an hour later, we had posted a bond and had in hand a court order shutting the server farm down. That's just one example of how moving quickly can prevent major damage.

Editor: You have also been active in product liability suits representing General Motors and others.

Strasburger: We have had a lot of success representing General Motors. However, defending product liability cases can be a real challenge. Although there have been great strides in Texas law in an attempt to level the playing field for defendants, there are a handful of venues here where it makes little difference what the law is. These include Rio Grande City in Starr County, which is on the Mexican border, and Beaumont in Jefferson County, which is in east Texas. Plaintiffs' lawyers dominate the courts in those places. They rely on local trial judges and juries to hand down shock verdicts, even though they know that those verdicts will not stand up on appeal. They are betting on the likelihood that the defendants will settle during the appellate process and that they will end up paying a premium because of the bad result they got at trial. The lesson for clients is don't pinch pennies when preparing for trial in those cases, and stay the course on appeal in the event of a bad, hopefully short term, result at trial.

Editor: You and other members of the Houston office have been active in a tutoring program for underprivileged city school children. Perhaps you could explain the philanthropic spirit which seems to permeate your office in Houston as well as other Weil Gotshal offices.

Strasburger: Our firm has always had a culture of community involvement and the example starts at the very top with our chairman Steve Dannhauser, who works tirelessly in support of important causes in New York. Everybody here is expected to be involved in something that they believe in and that attempts to make the world a better place. In Houston, as elsewhere around the firm, a lot of our non-lawyer staff get extremely involved as well. I think that there is a realization that because we in the legal profession have enjoyed great benefits, we have a moral duty to give back.

Editor: You were instrumental in defending the voting rights of students. Could you tell our readers about these efforts?

Strasburger: I got a call, ironically on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, asking us to help with a voting issue in Waller County, which is not far from Houston, involving students at Prairie View A&M University, one of the nation's historically African-American universities. The district attorney there had been threatening to prosecute students for voting fraud if they voted because he felt that, because they were residing in dorms, they were not real residents of the county. Unfortunately for the DA, his position was contrary to Texas law which essentially provides that students can vote wherever they intend their domicile to be and, if that's a college dorm room, they have the right to vote in that county.

Working with election law specialists from the Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights Under Law based in Washington, we quickly filed a suit in federal court here in Houston, and we were able to negotiate a favorable settlement. First and foremost, we got a public apology from the district attorney, which essentially ended his political career. We were able to establish both a student internship at the DA's office and a liaison position to help relations between the Waller County DA and the student body of the University. Interestingly, during the course of all this we had to file a second lawsuit because the county had illegally changed the location and times for early voting in a attempt to further disenfranchise student voters. When we filed that lawsuit, the county changed back to the times and places for voting that they were required to offer. As a footnote, even though this was a Pro Bono representation, the court awarded every penny of the statutory attorneys fees we sought, and the fees will be donated to various civil rights causes. I received the 9th Annual ALEX award for Community Service and Legal Advocacy from the Houston Chapter of the NAACP, largely for my work on the Prairie View case and the Election Protection legal command center that we set up and ran during the 2004 presidential election.

Editor: You were also awarded the Houston Bar Association 2001 President's Award for outstanding work as the chair of its Continuing Education Committee.

Strasburger: Each year the HBA Continuing Education Committee puts together about 50 or so CLE programs including some rather lengthy institutes that offer highly specialized training. In addition to putting those programs together, our committee decided that we wanted to become one of the pioneers in providing Internet-based CLE. We ended up providing Internet access to state-of-the-art written materials. We designed into these programs an interactive function to let us qualify for the participatory CLE credit. The result is that CLE is now much more accessible to solo, small firm, and rural practitioners.

Editor: What makes Houston attractive to you as a place to live and work?

Strasburger : Houston offers a very sophisticated practice of law especially for litigators. The Bar Associations here are well organized and active. I think that 19 of the Fortune 500 companies are headquartered here. Some of the very best trial lawyers in history have come from here. Names like Joe Jamail, John O'Quinn, Rusty Hardin, and Leon Jaworski. Many of us were lucky enough to grow up around them and be inspired by them as advocates. It's also a great place to raise a family. The cost of living here is reasonable. The people are the friendliest of any big city that I have ever been to anywhere in the world, and they have an honesty, a work ethic, and a can-do spirit that quite frankly doesn't exist in a lot of places anymore. It's a city that welcomes people from everywhere and provides a great diversity of cultural offerings. You can have lunch at a fabulous Indian restaurant, and have a Vietnamese dinner before you catch a baseball game or go to the ballet. On Saturday, you can take your kids fishing in the Gulf or out to a ranch to ride horses. In short it's a place where you can have a great practice and a very rich life as well.

Editor: What does the future hold for the Houston office?

Strasburger: We occupy a very special niche in the Houston market and we'll never try to be all things to all people. We instead play to our strengths and focus on the deals, the cases, and the clients that make sense for us. Our growth will continue to be planned and moderate. We are going to focus on the quality of the people that we hire, both from law school and laterally, rather then just simply bringing in people because we want to bring in people. Our brand has always been providing outstanding client service in the most complex matters around and that is what we intend to keep on doing here in Houston.

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