Lawyer Limelight: Erica Harris

Remember those personality tests from high school that guided you toward your most aptitude-worthy career?  Like figuring out what folds to make from a picture of an unconstructed box could tell if you could be President.

Erica Harris dreamed of becoming CEO of Chanel. Admittedly, she is meticulous and detail-oriented, but the test’s guidance was still a heartbreaker: “It said I should be a tax auditor. How cruel is that? What does that say about your personality that you should be an IRS tax auditor?”

Lucky for us all, she became a lawyer.

No-nonsense, efficient and passionate, Harris thrives on the investigative puzzles of commercial and IP litigation and dives head-first into every matter she takes on. One of the elite trial corps at Susman Godfrey from its Houston office, she got her law degree from the University of Texas Law School, and thought she’d become a law professor.

The studied sentiment was understandable. Her parents, Walter and Sandra Worth, were immigrants from  Germany and Canada, who instilled in their children a deep appreciation for the freedoms the U.S. affords. Her father was a widely respected environmental engineer who studied greenhouse gasses, while her mother is an award-winning author of historical novels, including “The Rose of York: Love and War.”

Her clients love her, saying she is “the best damn lawyer in Houston.” She excels at brainy puzzles that play out in court, and takes great pleasure in the clients she helps. She also leads recruiting for the firm, which routinely hires a higher percentage of U.S. Supreme Court clerks than any other firm. Currently, she is the lead attorney for Chevron in a wide array of matters, including the closely-watched climate change litigation making its way through state and federal courts.

Lawdragon: Susman Godfrey is a pioneer in terms of alternative fee structures, and nurturing attorneys who excel at risk-based fees. Will you tell us a bit about your personal approach?

Erica Harris: I have regular work from large corporate clients, on either a fixed fee or hourly basis, and then I supplement that docket with cases where we’re swinging for the fences. Those cases often include a contingency component and are particularly fun, because, oftentimes, the client needs your help for something that's their baby. They've spent their lifetime on it. You see it in patent cases and with companies that people have built up over 30, 40 years.

I handled one case recently for a small company run by a female CEO, who was the number one distributer for a very large supplier of goods. She had a dispute with the distributor that had been going on for years, and finally she said, "Well, we need to actually pull the trigger. I'm going to have to pick a fight with this supplier, whom I've had a long-term relationship with, and it's going to be public, and it's going to be ugly." So she came here, and we had the filing out within a few months. Within six months of that, we had the case settled. Very favorably.

LD: Congratulations!

EH: In our practice, helping clients salvage something to which they have devoted their lives is the most rewarding work. I had lunch the other day with a colleague and one of his former clients. And the client was telling me how 20 years ago, the Susman partner had achieved a great success for her. She remembers every minute of it. Those clients. . .  they never forget you.

LD: You also handled some pro bono work recently for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

EH: I did, and I was grateful for the opportunity to support our veterans. I represented the IAVA, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, writing an amicus brief in a case where the petitioner was suing one of the government agencies that was sitting on the application to grow marijuana for a scientific study. Huge numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD, and PTSD is correlated with the high suicide rate among veterans. This clinician had seen these vets self-medicating with marijuana, and it was helping them. She wanted to do a larger study, but ran into difficulties because marijuana is classified at the federal level as a Class 1 drug and the only product available for legal clinical studies was of very poor quality.

She put in an application to grow marijuana for a proper study. She’d received DEA approval, and National Institute of Health approval, and there were two other agencies from which she had to get approval, and everybody approved. She got the final application into the federal government in October or November of 2016. Well, guess what happened in November of 2016? We had an election, and the new administration – even though the law says they have to process the application in 90 days – sat on it for years.

I wrote an amicus brief for IAVA, seeking an order that the federal agency process the application. The case was totally different from what I normally do because I wasn't researching the legal standards for approving the applications. The petitioner already had that case law in the main petition. Instead, I wrote about all the scientific literature on veterans' suicide, and PTSD, and the link between PTSD symptoms and suicide.

LD: What an amazing project. I know another big focus of yours in recent years has been climate change litigation. Will you walk us through the current cases you’re handling in that space?

EH: The climate change cases have been fascinating. I’m representing Chevron in 10 lawsuits pending against them right now. These are climate change cases where the allegation is that by selling fossil fuels, the defendants created a public nuisance, so should be held liable for the effects of climate change as a result.  Some are on appeal, some are stayed and some are proceeding.

There are a number of interesting questions in those cases. The first question is: which court should it be in? A New York court and a California court said federal courts.  A Rhode Island and California court said state courts.  All of those decisions are on appeal.

In the Ninth Circuit, there were something like seven cases filed. Some of them we won, and they were dismissed. Another group of them in front of another judge were remanded to the state courts, so they never reached the merits because of a jurisdictional issue. Defendants appealed that jurisdictional decision. Plaintiffs appealed the substantive merits loss. All of those appeals are consolidated before the Ninth Circuit.

The next question is: does this state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)?

The other question is jurisdictional. For example, in Rhode Island, it's my understanding that none of the defendants produce fossil fuels in Rhode Island. I expect that every defendant will file an objection to the jurisdiction of the state court in Rhode Island, because they don’t produce fossil fuels there.

LD: It seems just organizing the various cases and their status is a huge challenge. And they are interesting legal questions.

EH: They really are interesting legal questions. On the jurisdictional issue the question is: if you accept plaintiffs' allegations that they're seeking redress for the harm of climate change in Rhode Island, can you sue those defendants basically in any state in the nation? Because if you say that there's jurisdiction over the defendants because they produced in Texas, and the effects were felt in Rhode Island, then that means really you can sue these defendants anywhere in the United States for climate change. It doesn't matter if they've ever even visited Hawaii or whatever the place is. But if you say no, what it means is you can only sue those defendants and any other company that contributed to climate change in their home state.

LD: That's not an easy legal issue.

EH: Well, I don't think it would be fair for defendants to be sued everywhere, but most of these questions are argued to be novel. Even the question on federal court versus state court, Chevron and the other defendants say, "You've had climate change-related cases like this before and, in those cases you recognized that climate change is a global problem where the heart of the case is worldwide emissions, so that the cases belong in federal court."

But the plaintiffs are saying, "Nope. This is a different case. Now we're not talking about emissions. Even though we're seeking redress for the harms for climate change, what we're complaining about is the way that you advertised, lobbied against climate change, promoted products." And defendants say, "No, because you can't have climate change without emissions. My pulling the fossil fuel out of the ground doesn’t cause climate change. It's only when people use and emit. So it really is an emissions case, and so it falls under the settled category of law.”

The plaintiffs are trying to come up with a novel theory.

LD: How did you end up being a lawyer?

EH: I had a middle school teacher, who taught me in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. She was the best teacher ever, has stayed a friend, and is now a neighbor of mine.

Our class acted out the screenplay, “12 Angry Men.” I was one of the jurors, and, afterwards, my teacher said, "You should be a lawyer." She felt like I was so natural in the role of arguing, and saw that I totally got into it. I was like, "Whatever." I was going to be CEO of Chanel.

So I went to Wharton at University of Pennsylvania. And I hated finance. Hated it! I transferred to Rice University, and I didn't know what I wanted to do, I was totally lost. I took all these different classes, and one of the classes I took was an upper level economics class called Economic Analysis of the Law, based on [Richard] Posner's book. Loved it. It was the first time I loved reading school work. It was like, "Okay. My middle school teacher was right. I should be a lawyer.”

LD: Remind me where you grew up?

EH: Pretty much Houston. I moved here when I was eight. Before that, we were constantly moving.  We were living in Saudi Arabia immediately prior.

LD: Did you parents impart any life philosophies that you carry with you still?

EH: My parents were immigrants, and my father in particular always had this attitude, I remember him saying many times, "You come to America, and you work hard, and you provide for your family, and the government leaves you alone, and you live in peace." Most Americans are so accustomed to that,  they just take it for granted. Whereas for me growing up, you were always appreciative of the fact that you could work hard, be rewarded, and be left alone to live in peace.

As a result, I was not the type of person who felt the grass was greener somewhere else. I remember one time a professor was really outraged because I wanted to be articles editor, and I didn't get articles editor, and it turns out the reason I didn't get articles editor was because of another student’s personal issue. And the professor was outraged. Whereas my attitude was, "That's okay. I got to be associate editor.” I was happy to have received the alternate  position!

I think that if you have that perspective, then when you meet adversity, you think, "I'm still able to work hard, make a good living, and live in peace. And so I'm going to keep going, rather than focusing on a bit of  bad luck or what disadvantage I have."

Another thing that I think comes from that background is, I can get along with a lot of people. I had these parents that were not from the same culture, and they just had to get along. We encounter a lot of different personalities and internal politics doing the work we do. When people don’t get along, there’s this reaction of "Wow, they're so difficult!" But the truth is, they're just different people, with a different perspective.

Then of course, my dad was German, so I'm very efficient. People are like, "How do you do it?" and I say, "I'm just very efficient."