Godwin’s 16-year history of defending Halliburton and related companies is rooted in his relationship with Cornelison, the Halliburton general counsel who moved from head of litigation at Plano-based EDS to Dallas-based Dresser Industries in 1994. The two worked together for four years and, when Halliburton bought Dresser, Cornelison introduced Godwin to Dave Lesar, Halliburton’s president and CEO.
“They said they had over 30,000 asbestos cases [inherited from the Dresser purchase] in Texas, and they needed me to take it over and get them out of this asbestos morass,” Godwin recalls. “I started hiring more lawyers and took over all of the Texas cases and got involved in national cases.”
Godwin’s firm, then called Godwin Carlton, doubled its lawyer count to 60, but the asbestos cases were multiplying like rabbits. With 380,000 nationwide cases in January 2002, Godwin served as sole negotiator. That year he and an accountant flew six or seven days a week on a private jet, sometimes visiting two cities a day. The first 30 days were rough, Godwin says, but once he gained momentum, he settled all of the cases by mid-December 2002, to the tune of more than $4 billion.
“There was no vacation, no time off, just working,” he says. “In February 2002 [our law firm] had just moved into these beautiful offices [in Renaissance Tower] and I would come in for two hours, get a few shirts, and go back out. I loved it. I like the adrenaline rush; the more pressure the better.”
The resolution was bittersweet for Godwin. The asbestos settlements were the largest in history, and allowed two of Halliburton’s business units to move ahead with their plans for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. But many of Godwin’s people lost their jobs as the cases wound down as well. “It would have been easy to not settle those cases and kept all those people employed, but the right thing was to settle those cases and take care of the client’s problem,” he says.
Godwin conveys a pinch-me attitude when he talks about the pivotal moments in his life. Growing up in Wilmington, N.C., the oldest son of a farmer-turned-car salesman and his wife, there wasn’t enough money for Don to attend college. So while his friends headed off to higher institutions of learning, Godwin stayed behind and worked as a grocery stocker and cashier at Winn-Dixie, a job he’d held since turning 16.
“I grew up in a family where we didn’t have a lot of privileges,” he said. “I really enjoyed what I was doing there [at Winn-Dixie] and, as much as I dreamed of going to college, my goal was to one day run the Winn-Dixie store.”
A grocery-store supervisor saw something in Godwin, however, and suggested the young man apply for a company-sponsored scholarship. Godwin parlayed the all-expenses-paid gift into an accounting degree from the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, and continued to work at Winn-Dixie on nights and weekends. The UNC-Wilmington accounting department chairman thought Godwin would make a fine CPA and suggested graduate school, resulting in another scholarship, this time to Memphis State University.
Next came a suggestion to become a tax lawyer, and the Memphis accounting department chairman hooked Godwin up with a board member from Southern Methodist University’s School of Law, and still another scholarship. “I never dreamed of going to law school,” Godwin says. “I had never been to Dallas, Texas, and, until I went to Memphis, I had never been on an airplane.”
While in law school, Godwin was introduced to Jimmy Rodgers, the nephew of Woodall Rodgers, and others, who “overpaid” him to work weekends at Dallas-based Turner, Rodgers, Winn, Scurlock and Sailers law firm.
“Things like that in my life have always happened,” he says. “Somebody was there with a helping hand when I needed it most.”
Godwin graduated in 1973 and began working as a tax lawyer. Nine months later, a senior partner invited him to help with a tax litigation case. Godwin’s energetic, aggressive and eager-to-learn attitude—not to mention his gift for memorizing names and numbers—propelled his career as a trial lawyer.
In 1977 he joined the prestigious Dallas trial and labor firm of Seay, Gwinn, Crawford, Mebus and Blakeney. He became a partner after two years and received $10,000, the biggest bonus of his career at that point. He took the money and bought his new wife, Carmen, a mink coat, and put a down payment on a Cadillac Seville for her. He continued driving his used Buick.
Just six years out of law school and grabbing every trial case he could, Godwin became board-certified around the same time in civil trial law. Such a feat is difficult for young lawyers, but Godwin was trying 10 to 15 jury verdict cases a year, every year. “I was trying anything that came in the front door,” he says. “I love trial work and being at the courthouse. Anything that would get me in front of a jury is what I wanted to do.”
Part of Godwin’s success stems from his ability to read people, his friends and associates say. He knows his courtroom prowess depends on his ability to relate to juries, which he still hand-picks for every case. “If you can pick that jury right and relate to them, you can convey your message,” says Godwin, who clearly out-earns most jurors, commanding $675 to $750 an hour on most cases. “If they like you, the rest will take care of itself.”
After years of watching good trial lawyers and taking a “few dings here and there,” Godwin says he’s picked up some tricks of his own. For one, he’s learned not to express emotion at unfavorable rulings, because he doesn’t want judges and juries to see that he’s unhappy. “I take unfavorable rulings and use those as a motivational tool and decide I’m going to do something about that,” he says. “You can’t ever let ’em see you sweat.”
Godwin launched his own law practice in 1980 with partners Jim Maxwell, now retired, and George Carlton, who still works at the firm. His client roster has included Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys; Michael Irvin; the late Norman Brinker of Brinker International; Ray Hunt; and Ross Perot Sr., who also is Godwin’s Dallas neighbor on Strait Lane.
“Norman Brinker and I were close friends, and that’s how we got together,” Perot recalls. “I call Don [to help] people who have complicated problems. He gets all of his facts straight and goes in on the matter of principle and things that are obviously illegal, and gets the job done. He’s a great communicator.”
Godwin remembers receiving a call from Brinker at his home one Sunday in late 1989. The two had never met, but Brinker said the company had a difficult case in Los Angeles and needed his help. Godwin flew to L.A. the next day and within three weeks the case was ended—with no damages paid. Brinker and Brinker International board member Ray Hunt of Hunt Oil found the news “unbelievable” and continued both a professional relationship and friendship.
Godwin also counts Barry Andrews, CEO of Dallas-based Andrews Distributing, among his clients. “The thing I have always liked about Don is he’s committed 110 percent to whatever project he’s on,” Andrews says. “He’s completely focused and passionate about what he does, and he’s as tough as they come.”
Remembering his parents’ struggles is what’s driven him to succeed all these years, Godwin says. “I knew I was away more than what a lot of men and women were away from their families. But I was always afraid of having to go back to North Carolina,” he says. “Every day for many, many years, I woke up every morning afraid I wouldn’t be successful enough to continue doing what I’m doing.”
With the Halliburton case ramping up, Godwin and his firm partner Marcos Ronquillo plan to add about a dozen lawyers to the 43 already working in their Dallas and Houston offices. And, characteristically, he’s relishing his role in the fight.
“In North Carolina, as an 11-year-old boy pushing a lawnmower [to earn money], never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d find myself in a courtroom in New Orleans as lead lawyer for Halliburton in the largest litigation in the world, defending against the largest environmental loss ever,” Godwin says. “You couldn’t have mapped that out.”