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Take Nothing: Delivering a Courtroom Masterclass

Two months in court, 1,700 miles from home, $100 million at stake. In this edition of V&E+, Vinson & Elkins partners Jim Thompson, Nick Shum, and Stephanie Noble share their story of a marathon trial — and how they emerged victorious.

Well, let me begin by saying, congratulations. In a trial where plaintiffs sought more than $100 million from your client, the jury awarded nothing. What should we know about the case?

Jim: Thank you. We’re all very pleased with the outcome. The case centered on an oil and gas property near Bakersfield, California — the King Ellis lease. Our client, Aera Energy, is one of three companies holding a working interest in the lease. The other two sued Aera, who is also the operator of the lease.

What did plaintiffs allege?

Nick: Essentially, that Aera beached its obligations under the parties’ joint operating agreement, by failing to drill dozens of additional oil and gas wells on the King Ellis lease, failing to protect the lease from drainage, and failing to abide by a vote removing Aera as operator, among other unfounded claims.

Stephanie: Plaintiffs’ theme was simple: By prioritizing development of neighboring properties that it owned outright, Aera left the King Ellis behind, and intentionally misled plaintiffs about doing so. But their allegations had no basis in law or fact.

Tell me about your approach to defense.

Jim: Well, we knew that winning the case would depend in large part on our ability to marshal evidence. So, an aggressive discovery strategy … taking thorough depositions, acquiring records from plaintiffs’ internal files, for example — that was imperative. And with that evidence in hand, we presented it piece by piece in court — through both documentation and testimony.

Nick: Definitely a methodical approach. We wanted to show that Aera operated in full compliance with the parties’ agreement, that plaintiffs had ready access to information they claimed was concealed or misrepresented, and that there were many legitimate challenges — regulatory, economic, and technical — associated with further developing the King Ellis lease.

Stephanie: Setting the jury’s expectations was super important. In voir dire and in our opening statement, we told them straight up: You’re going to have to be patient.

We said: When you hear from plaintiffs, you’re going to hear part of the story. You’re going to see snippets of documents devoid of context — snapshots in time in random order — in service of a theatrical narrative designed to work you up.

But when we get the mic, you’re going to hear the whole story. We’re going to walk you through the parties’ working relationship in its full context, and give a detailed, factual account of the events in question — in the order that they occurred. It’s going to be technical, and it’s going to take time.

Nick: The goal was to be the side that provided more information — to show that we trusted the jury to examine the evidence and draw their own conclusions. And I think they appreciated that.

You likened plaintiffs’ approach to shining a small camping flashlight in a dark room, and promised to flip a switch to light the whole room.

Jim: We did. A masterful turn of phrase that I had the privilege to deliver in court. But coming up with it — all credit to Nick and Stephanie.

What did plaintiffs hope to keep in the dark?

Nick: Wow, so many things: Aera’s work to secure permits to develop the King Ellis, Aera’s candor about drilling on neighboring land, plaintiffs’ failure to timely approve wells that Aera proposed, the challenging economic and regulatory environment during some of the time period at issue.

Stephanie: And those are just a few examples. Plaintiffs also conveniently ignored how much of the King Ellis had already been developed when the parties were making the decisions under dispute, and the hundreds of highly successful wells that Aera had developed and maintained on the lease — at a substantial profit for plaintiffs.

The documentary evidence you gathered before trial — it really must have helped you shed light on these points.

Nick: For sure. But I’d argue that testimony, especially from Aera employees, was what really brought our case home.

How so?

Nick: Just by the employees coming across as who they are — credible, genuine experts whose deep knowledge and experience positioned them to make sound, reasonable decisions about how best to develop the King Ellis lease.

Jim: How Aera’s employees were able to express highly technical concepts in plain language … it was an exceptional performance — both in response to our questions and under cross-examination.

What about the experience? Such a long trial, so far from home, with so much at stake — it couldn’t have been easy, and I’d imagine that you learned a lot.

Stephanie: Definitely. I think I developed a greater appreciation of the value of slowing down — of how important it is to pace yourself when doing high-pressure work over a long stretch.

In a one- or two-week trial, attorneys can be tempted to go all out — to block out distractions and push themselves to the limit. You might try to get away with not eating, sacrificing sleep, skipping workouts — with running entirely on adrenaline.

But try that over two months, and you’re going to crash — hard. You have to build healthful habits into your daily routine. You have to set time aside to manage your other cases. You have to do more advance preparation — coordinating witness appearances in this case, for example, was a job in itself. It really is a whole different animal.

How about teamwork? That must have been key as well.

Nick: No question. But more specifically, trusting your teammates. To win a trial this long and complex, you need a deep bench of sharp attorneys, and that’s exactly what we had. Jim, Stephanie, and I have talked about it a lot: Our associates — Leslie Mason, Brooke Noble, and Austin Turman — they were just incredible, and we can’t emphasize enough how important they were to this victory.

When you can trust your colleagues to handle their responsibilities, it frees you up to focus on yours. We trusted our associates, for example, to take complete ownership of witness preparation, and they each did an outstanding job.

And then, this might sound obvious, but you have to like your teammates as people. Eating meals together — hanging out on the weekends — it deepened our friendships outside the courtroom, and worked to our advantage inside it.

And the distance element — how did that factor in?

Jim: You begin to miss home, absolutely, but you do your best to create a semblance of normalcy. For me, that meant surrounding myself with some of my favorite belongings from home, staying in touch with friends and family, reading what I usually read — things like that. Just doing what I could to make a home out of my hotel room, and settling in for the long haul.

Fast-forwarding to the verdict, I’m guessing that you must have felt pretty confident when the jury went into the deliberation room.

Jim: You know, waiting for a verdict, I always feel some sense of anxiety. You’ve worked so hard — you’ve done everything you can — and now the outcome is suddenly out of your hands. It can shred the nerves, for sure.

But in this case, we knew our defense was compelling, so yes, we were feeling confident. That said, we were also staying on high alert, preparing for the possibility that we’d have to file or respond to a post-trial motion.

And when the verdict came in …

Nick: Just thrilled — everyone. Look, the jury had been sitting there for two months, with damages claims of more than $100 million. For them to write in $0, I think it speaks not just to the strength of our case presentation, but to how well they paid attention throughout the extended trial.

Stephanie: We were feeling a lot of gratitude, too. Think about it from Aera’s perspective: When you’ve acted in good faith with your business partners for 20 years, and they lodge such serious allegations against you — that hurts.

If you were facing that situation, you would want to fight to clear your name, right? Anyone would. Aera is deeply grateful to have done exactly that, and we’re delighted to have played a vital role.

Meet Jim

Office: Houston

Law School: South Texas College of Law

Hometown: Born in New Orleans, Louisiana; raised in Houston, Texas

Some favorite activities outside of work: golf, international travel, cooking, and collecting French red wine

If I hadn’t become a lawyer, I would have been: a preacher

Meet Nick 

Office: Houston

Law School: University of Houston Law Center

Hometown: Scottsdale, Arizona

Some favorite activities outside of work: spending time with family, travelling, tennis, yoga, and hiking

If I hadn’t become a lawyer, I would have been: a travel agent

Meet Stephanie 

Office: Houston

Law School: Georgetown University Law Center

Hometown: Houston, Texas

Some favorite activities outside of work: hiking, live music, and baking pies

If I hadn’t become a lawyer, I would have been: a travel writer

Led by partners Jim Thompson, Nick Shum, and Stephanie Noble, the trial team included associates Leslie Mason, Brooke Noble, and Austin Turman and paralegal Tony Masington.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.