Gibbs & Bruns partner Barrett Reasoner was featured by Law 360 in a special Q&A series entitled “Trial Pros.”
Barrett focuses his practice on complex commercial litigation in a broad array of areas, including oil and gas, securities, legal and professional malpractice, construction, environmental and intellectual property law. Barrett has tried cases in state and federal courts as well as arbitration forums in Texas and elsewhere around the country for over 25 years. His clients include: Kinder Morgan, Uber Technologies, Texas Children’s Hospital, Waste Management, Venoco, SM Energy, Pioneer Natural Resources and Insperity. Barrett served as an Assistant District Attorney for Harris County (Houston), Texas, and then joined Gibbs & Bruns in 1992. Barrett was president of the Houston Bar Association and chairman of the board of the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program. He is a fellow in The International Academy of Trial Lawyers and The International Society of Barristers, a member of the American Law Institute and a board member of the University of Texas Law School Foundation.
Barrett’s Q&A profile ran on May 25, 2016 on Law 360.
Q: What’s the most interesting trial you’ve worked on and why?
A: This may sound hard to believe, but one of the most interesting cases I have tried involved a dispute about the pressure at which a gas gathering system was operated. Our client was obligated to buy all of the production from a particular gas field, and the lower the pressure was on the gathering system, the more gas that my client would be required to buy. The contractual purchase price was well above market. We contended that the contract required that a certain minimum level of pressure be maintained in the gathering system and that our opponent producer was causing the system to be operated at pressures that were impermissibly low. Making all of this accessible and even mildly interesting to the jury is the kind of thing that makes being a trial lawyer so challenging and consuming. We start the effort to make a case accessible as early as we can. I mapped out a voir dire with demonstratives involving an analogy to an apple orchard with all the apples committed to one buyer and an agreement regarding the periods of time in which you would pick apples. I remember describing the proposed voir dire to my mentor, Robin Gibbs, and initially, he wasn’t getting it. He said, “I trust you, and if you believe in it, go for it.” I was nervous about it, but it turned out to be one of those magical moments that you have as a trial lawyer. Most of the members the venire contributed to a lively discussion, and it provided a great opportunity for me to educate the group on our view of the case. We were able to set the tone for the trial, referring back to the voir dire themes from time to time, and the jury ultimately interpreted the contract our way, which was extremely important to our client. Taking a chance paid off in this case; the judge has even spoken favorably about this voir dire on a CLE panel. The case reinforced for me the importance of thinking hard and creatively about ways to bring your case to life and to trusting your gut.
Q: What’s the most unexpected or amusing thing you’ve experienced while working on a trial?
A: When I was a prosecutor, I was trying an assault case, and the victim “Bill” was on the stand being cross examined. Defense counsel asked young Bill about a previous incident in which he had apparently recklessly fired a gun and the bullet had ricocheted into a crowd. The pretrial investigation and my interviews with Bill in preparation for trial had revealed no such incident. As the jury and I listened with rapt attention to a story we were both hearing for the first time, defense counsel asked the victim Bill: “Who did the shot you fired hit?” Bill answered, pointing: “The defendant.” Next question: “Where did it hit him?” Bill’s answer: “His rear end.” Needless to say, redirect examination was a challenge! Though the jury convicted the defendant, the punishment handed out by the jury was somewhat reduced in light of this uncomfortable development.
Q: What does your trial prep routine consist of?
A: As you get close to trial, it is important to sit down by yourself or, if you are trying the case with others, as a team, to update your case themes. Inevitably, discovery and motion practice in the case will lead you to refine the themes you developed at the beginning. After that, my best preparation is done while holed up by myself with the deposition testimony and exhibits relevant to the witnesses I am taking. Strategizing as a team is important, but you have to log the time alone “in the books.” Knowing the testimony and exhibits very well allows you to be creative and react well to developments in trial. You always know you have that base level of knowledge to go back to during your examinations after you have detoured to things that come up on the fly.
Q: If you could give just one piece of advice to a lawyer on the eve of their first trial, what would it be?
A: It is a cliche, but only because it is so true: be yourself in trial and be comfortable with that. Over the course of your career, you’ll see great lawyers have mediocre moments and mediocre lawyers have great moments. Juries aren’t looking for perfection, and there aren’t any lawyers out there who achieve it. Juries just want you to present your case honestly, passionately and in as interesting and straightforward a way as you can. No matter how long you have been at it, there is always room to improve. Even when you’re young, however, you can know your case and present it in an honest way that shows that you and your client care about the outcome.
Q: Name a trial attorney, outside your own firm, who has impressed you and tell us why.
A: I have been fortunate over the years to watch a lot of outstanding trial lawyers with all kinds of amazing talents. One who I have had the unique opportunity to watch many times is my father, Harry Reasoner of Vinson & Elkins LLP, beginning at an age when I really did not know what I was watching. What impressed me most about watching him was his ability to conduct an incredible cross examination during which he was controlling the witness who clearly knew what he or she was up against without putting off the jury with arrogance. It is rare to find such a combination of being brilliant yet down to earth. While the brilliance part is hard to replicate, I have always tried to follow this example by being so prepared and ready for a witness that you have that control, but at the same time letting the jury know you don’t think you’re better than anyone else.