Lawyer Limelight: Darren Nicholson

One trait common among top trial lawyers is a fascination with a wide array of complex subjects – what Darren Nicholson calls “the learning bug.” For the Burns Charest partner, the love of being in court regardless of the topic goes hand-in-hand with the satisfaction of becoming a critical problem solver for his clients. Nicholson’s undergraduate degrees – he earned both a B.S. in mathematics and a B.A. in psychology from the University of Texas before law school – reflects the intellectual curiosity that has served him well in and out of the courtroom. The 2001 Georgetown Law graduate practiced at global firm Arnold & Porter before joining Dallas litigation boutique Sayles Werbner in 2008. He joined Burns Charest in 2019.

Lawdragon: Can you give me a description of the mix of work you do in your practice?

Darren Nicholson: Well, complex commercial litigation is the bulk of my practice, but I’ve spent most of my career in the old-school-trial-lawyer way of doing things – meaning, I believe I can try any kind of case. Over the span of my career, I've tried criminal cases, copyright cases, patent cases and complex commercial cases, which is kind of a catch-all for a variety of business disputes. That can be anything from breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, business breakups, divorces and those types of claims.

LD: How is it that you became interested in developing this type of practice? Was this something you had been interested in from the very beginning of your career?

DN: From the start of my career, I wanted to go to court and try cases. But we live in an era when fewer cases go to trial, so if you want to go to trial with any regularity, especially as a young lawyer, you’ve got to be flexible. So my practice really grew out of the desire to find cases that would give me opportunities to go to trial, especially cases that I found significant and meaningful, with some impact on the community and for the clients.

LD: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?

DN: First, it accelerated the adoption of new technologies by our courts. For a variety of reasons, some budgetary and some institutional, courts have always been the last to embrace new technologies. These are systems that still use fax machines. So the pandemic forced the adoption of video conferencing and other technologies that would have taken a decade or more to gain widespread acceptance, and even then some judges would have never adopted it. But now that it’s here, there is no turning back, and that’s a positive development. It makes the entire system more accessible and more efficient. A status conference can now happen in 15 minutes over Zoom, as opposed to half a day to meet in person. Second, just as video conferencing changes our personal interactions, it changes the way we advocate to judges and juries in ways lawyers are still figuring out. Whether we like it or not, persuading through a screen is a different animal than persuading in person.

LD: Thinking back to the beginning of the pandemic, are there any trends you’ve seen in your practice in terms of the types of cases keeping you busy?

DN: It hasn't really changed the types of matters. I'm still seeing commercial disputes. I'm still heavily involved in the ongoing opioid litigation, representing hospitals across the country. So I really haven’t seen a change in the client makeup or the makeup of the matters I deal with. But it has created an incredible backlog of cases and trials that we will be dealing with for quite a while.

LD: Looking back over the years, is there a specific case that really stands out to you or looms large in your memory?

DN: Sure. I represented two little girls whose father was electrocuted in an oil rig out in West Texas. One girl was two; the other was a week old when he died. It was an unusually complicated case, with workers’ compensation issues, OSHA violations, multiple defendants and a host of what appeared to be altered safety documents. Cases can sometimes take over your life, and this was definitely one of those. Of course, you can’t replace a father, but we were ultimately able to settle and put the girls in a position where they could be taken care of, from private school to camps to college and all of those things. I still get updates from the family, and as I look back on my career, that's one of the things I’ll be most proud of.

LD: Is there a certain approach you take whenever you find yourself in front of a judge or jury?

DN: One of the hardest things to learn and come to grips with is that judges and juries can spot a phony a mile away, so you cannot be anybody but yourself. Some lawyers have presence and can fill up a room. Others can use humor and spontaneity to their advantage. But if you try to take on a persona that is not true to who you are, you can’t get away with it, at least not for very long. So when people ask me about my approach, the first thing I tell them is that I don't change, fundamentally, anything about who I am, my personality or how I present. What you see when you meet me is how I present. You have to be yourself.

LD: Looking at all the matters you’re involved in, what is it about this type of work that keeps you excited?

DN: To do trial work, you have to love learning, because every case is different. I'm always learning about a new business, a new area of the law, delving into different areas of science or patents or technology. You can’t become a lawyer without going through a steep learning curve, but to be successful as a litigator and a trial lawyer, you really never let go of the learning bug. I'm constantly picking up and learning new things, which is one of the reasons I love what I do. The other thing is that while I'm in the business of conflict – people only come to me when there is a fight brewing with someone or some company – I'm also in the business of solving people’s problems. So typically, the only reason clients are in my office is because something has gone wrong, and I’m the person they ask to try and fix it. That’s the way I view myself in this profession. I’m trying to solve their problems, whatever those may be.

LD: What was it that convinced you to pursue a career in law in the first place? Was there any part of your undergraduate work that maybe pushed you in that direction?

DN: I always enjoyed speech and debate, both in high school and college. The old joke amongst trial lawyers is that we’re all frustrated actors, and there's definitely a performance aspect I enjoy. So I’ve always been interested in the art of persuasion, but I also love science and technology. In college, I straddled the line between science on one hand and liberal arts on the other. I got two degrees, a B.S. in mathematics and a B.A. in psychology. I think I wanted a job that incorporated aspects of both, and that’s really what I have now. I take problems that often involve complicated economic issues with businesses or complicated science and technology issues, like a patent dispute, and I’m able to understand those issues and then communicate them in a persuasive, articulate and understandable way.

LD: You went to Georgetown University Law Center. Is there a specific reason you chose that school over another? Was there something in particular you liked about it?

DN: I loved that Georgetown was in D.C. I was fortunate in that the law center is right near Capitol Hill. I lived right there, and on my way to classes each morning, I would walk across the steps of the United States Supreme Court and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. In fact, when I finished my first-semester examination on constitutional law, I walked to Congress, waited in line and watched part of the impeachment trial of President Clinton. Washington, D.C., really is a lawyer's dream, because you are in the center of all that action.

LD: While you were in law school, did you always envision having the type of practice you have today, or did you have a different idea back then?

DN: Originally, I wanted to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office and try cases as an AUSA, but you cannot do that right out of law school. So I started in private practice, tried a few criminal cases as a young lawyer and became enamored with the variety of cases I could work on in private practice as a trial lawyer.

LD: What would be your advice for current law school students?

DN: One of the big issues facing people going to law school, and really everyone going to college, is that the cost of tuition has increased astronomically. And a lot of times, students are faced with these tough decisions about where to go, what it’s going to cost and how they’re going to pay for it. If you graduate with a mountain of debt, that is definitely going to limit your career options. While it’s true some law schools are better than others, there’s more to being a good and successful lawyer than the piece of paper that you hang on the wall in your office. A contract is still a contract wherever you went to law school. You’re still being taught the same things. So the best advice I could give anyone going to law school is, you can be successful wherever you go if you’re willing to do the work. It’s the preparation, not the degree, that wins the case.

LD: Tell me a little bit about your current position at Burns Charest, where you're a partner. Are you also in a management role?

DN: I’m one of seven partners, and each of us is involved in the management of the firm. Before coming here, I spent 11 years at Sayles Werbner, where I was a partner trying a variety of complex commercial cases. Warren [Burns], who is a longtime friend of mine, and I saw an opportunity, and I decided to come over here in 2019.

LD: How has firm management changed since the start of your career? Are there things you notice you’re dealing with more today that you didn’t back then?

DN: That's a great question. There are big-picture changes in the practice of law that anyone who is observing our business can see. You have this continuing trend of stratification. You see these mega-firms that started cropping up that seem to be getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And then you have these smaller boutique specialist firms, like Burns Charest. And while these firms have developed and grown, you’ve seen these midsize firms just get demolished. And I hate to use that term, but 20 or 30 years ago, you had a lot of midsize and regional firms, and they've kind of struggled as the years have gone on. So the nature of the practice has changed.

On a personal level, I’ve been involved in different management structures because of the types of firms I’ve worked for. I began my career at Arnold & Porter, which is a large white-shoe firm based in Washington, D.C., that employs over 900 lawyers. It had a corporate environment with a hierarchical structure. Then I left to join Sayles Werbner, which was a 10-lawyer firm managed by two chiefs who gave the other lawyers opportunities to try cases and those kinds of things. So those were radically different practice environments. At Burns Charest, all seven partners participate in the decision-making and have a say in the trajectory of the firm. It's more of an egalitarian system. So those are three completely different ways of practicing and running a business.

LD: You talked about the three firms you’ve worked at and how they were run. Is there one way that suits you better, or do you see them all as having their strengths?

DN: The management system is often dictated by the size more than anything. A thousand-person organization has to have systems in place in order to function that a small shop does not. I’m very happy with the model I’m in right now, with a collaborative team of decision-makers. If you believe all of us are smarter than one of us, then harnessing the brainpower of seven partners who are all accomplished, smart, sophisticated lawyers usually ends up in making the best decisions for the firm.

LD: What do you enjoy doing outside the office?

DN: I love to go hiking and traveling with the family. We spent the last year touring different national parks and going hiking and exploring. We took the kids to Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and then to Big Bend.

LD: Plenty of hiking space out there.

DN: Yes. Hiking and camping for sure. Those are high on my list.

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what do you think you would be doing right now? You mentioned having a degree in psychology. Is that something you ever entertained?

DN: No, I never thought about being a psychologist or psychotherapist. I got into psychology because I wanted a liberal arts degree and thought it was interesting. If I weren't a lawyer, I would probably be in academia somewhere where I could continue with the performance aspect of teaching and presenting but also continue learning.

LD: Do you have a favorite law-related piece of media? A book or movie or TV show?

DN: I’ve helped coach the Woodrow Wilson High School Mock Trial team the past couple of years, and I always have the kids watch “My Cousin Vinny.” Apart from being a great movie, it has some of the best examples of what an excellent cross-examination looks like. It’s engaging, funny, insightful, to the point – and wickedly effective. If you can do all those things, you’ll be very successful in the courtroom.