BUSINESS:

Seeking to 'follow the rock,' law firm plants its roots in shale

To guide its growth, one law firm has adopted a motto that's been the rallying cry of wildcatters for decades: "Follow the rock."

The strategy has transformed Burleson LLP from a tiny Houston law shop to a 135-attorney firm with five offices across three states and at least four major U.S. shale plays -- the "rock" the firm has tailed for the last eight years.

"I was looking around, and I said if we are in Houston, Texas, and we're not striving to be the best energy firm in Houston, in Texas or the country, then why are we here?" Burleson founder Rick Burleson said of his thinking on energy law.

Unlike in other law firms, however, Burleson's oil and gas work doesn't fall to one particular department -- it's the work of the entire firm.

Starting with its Houston office in 2005, Burleson quickly branched out across the United States into the regions where producers were just beginning to unlock shale oil and gas resources. The firm established offices in Pittsburgh in 2009, San Antonio in 2010, Denver in 2011 and Midland, Texas, last year. It now represents some of the most important large and small companies operating in every major shale formation in the continental United States.

According to figures from its 2012 year-end report, 98 percent of Burleson's attorneys serve energy clients, and 22 percent of the firm's legal staff hails from in-house positions at oil and gas firms like BP PLC (EnergyWire, Dec. 19, 2012).

Burleson landed on the cover of The National Law Journal last year and was recently featured in the publication's "Midsize Hot List," a ranking of 20 firms the journal says possess a "keen business strategy" and "forward-thinking attorneys."

Miriam Westmoreland, Burleson's director of marketing and recruiting, attributed the firm's success to its founder's foresight.

"A lot of people want to be at the right place at the right time," she said. "A lot of people sit around after and say, 'Where was I?' In this case, Rick was at the right place at the right time."

Burleson's roots

Rick Burleson, a 1980 graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, began his career as a corporate finance transactional lawyer, but he quickly shifted his sights to energy, an industry that was all around him in Texas.

While working for Jackson Walker LLP, one of the oldest and largest law firms in Texas, Burleson approached the firm's management with a plan to build a robust energy practice. He secured approval, achieved his goal, then left Jackson Walker to pave his own way under the same business plan.

"It's hard to build an empire within a large firm," he said of leaving.

Together with his now-retired business partner, Claude Cooke, Burleson founded Burleson Cooke LLP in 2005. Just four years later, the firm began its hopscotch into new territory with the opening of its Pittsburgh office in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale.

Because Pennsylvania was not traditionally a major player in the oil and gas industry, Burleson said he figured the region would have few experienced energy lawyers and the firm would not face a lot of competition.

He tapped Kevin Colosimo, a commercial lawyer in Pennsylvania, to lead the Pittsburgh office, hire new counsel and immerse them in the world of energy law.

It's a strategy the firm has brought to every one of its branches ever since.

"The whole local thing is important because it says to the lawyers who have brought their careers here and the legal community and the clients -- our investment to our clients is here in this basin and not once removed," Colosimo said.

As an attorney who has practiced in western Pennsylvania for 15 years, "I am part of the fabric of the legal community, the business community here," he added.

While each of Burleson LLP's offices has steadily grown, its Denver branch, which services the Niobrara and Bakken shales, has been the breakout story. Earlier this year, the office absorbed Denver-based McGloin, Davenport, Severson & Snow PC, bringing in nine attorneys and marking Burleson's first group acquisition (EnergyWire, March 20).

Jack Luellen, managing partner of Burleson's Denver office, said the firm's local approach to hiring is an asset to oil and gas clients who are looking for counsel with knowledge of the myriad regional factors that affect energy development.

Local expertise is especially handy in the case of oil and gas title work, Burleson's bread-and-butter business. Title rendering, the first step in the drilling process, identifies landowners and ensures they are paid for any energy produced from their property.

In more rural areas, where land ownership is not always well-documented, that work can be challenging, Westmoreland said.

Landmen and attorneys who try to carry those skills to new geographic areas often find it's "not an apples-to-apples transition," she said.

The 'cardiac specialist' of energy law

Burleson's local energy work has won the firm fans in the oil and gas world. Clients like Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., which mostly focuses on natural gas development in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale and Texas' Eagle Ford Shale, say they've found value in Burleson's concentration.

"If you have a heart problem, would you rather go to the [general practitioner] or the cardiac specialist?" asked Cabot general counsel Kevin Cunningham. "I'd rather go to the specialist."

Through his work with Cabot and an earlier position with Chesapeake Energy Corp., Cunningham has maintained a professional relationship with Burleson for about five years, but he's known the firm's founder for much longer.

Cunningham and Rick Burleson attended the University of Texas together and met in English class during their freshman year. In those days, Burleson played for the university's football team -- he was drafted as a defensive end for the Kansas City Chiefs before he decided to go to law school -- and he was known for being a "personable guy," a quality that has carried into his legal career, Cunningham said.

"It takes vision and energy to lead a larger law firm like his, especially one that's so spread out," Cunningham said. "He always has time for the personal touch."

Where other firms might be thinly staffed in their oil and gas law groups, Burleson has a full team of attorneys who are not only immersed in those issues on a daily basis, but more often than not hail from the regions in which they are practicing, Cunningham said.

"It sets them apart from firms in Dallas that want to help you in Pittsburgh," he said.

Castleton Commodities Upstream LLC Managing Director Charlie Chambers, who recently worked with Burleson LLP to acquire acreage in Tuscaloosa County, Ala., said he was impressed with the firm's dedication to energy work.

"They know their business, and they know everyone in the business," Chambers said.

Following the industry poses challenges

Within the field of energy law as a whole, Rick Burleson said he's noticed the hiring market tightening, with attorneys moving away from firm jobs into in-house positions with oil and gas companies as a way to get closer to the action. Burleson, however, has demonstrated a pattern of plucking counsel from big-name energy firms.

The challenges that come with that model of recruiting include building up a stable of clients for the new hire, he said. Because firms rarely bring in new senior staff without an established platform of work, attorneys coming from in-house posts can sometimes find themselves with few potential clients other than their former employers.

Burleson said the firm's focus on oil and gas is helpful in that respect. Because its attorneys have a specific expertise, it is easier for them to target and draw in clients.

The firm has also faced some minor stumbling blocks with the addition of its newest office in Midland.

The problems it has seen are similar to those other businesses have faced when setting up shop near a major shale play, like Midland's Permian Basin. Lacking office space, housing and other critical resources, support industries can sometimes struggle to stand up next to the oil and gas business (EnergyWire, July 17, 2012).

"We're batting almost a thousand in terms of the clients receiving us well, but it has been harder than we expected to do the basic things like get an office, get housing for our employees, hire local attorneys," Burleson said.

The biggest risk the firm faces in Midland is staffing -- not necessarily in finding the right people for the job, but finding places for them to stay.

"Everything is in short supply in Midland," Burleson said.

Though he has no current plans to open another office, Burleson said future locations could include Calgary, Alberta; Mexico; or Illinois -- if production in the Prairie State's New Albany Shale ever takes off.

"If something were to happen in that play, we wouldn't hesitate to get ourselves in that play," he said.

It won't happen anytime soon, he added, but "it's nice to dream."

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