Dallas trial lawyer Donald E. Godwin was taking a rare Friday off from work to attend his first Kentucky Derby when he got the phone call from Halliburton.

It was May 1, 2010, about two weeks after the British Petroleum/Deepwater Horizon “Macondo” oil rig explosion that killed 11 men. Thousands of gallons of oil still were gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, and Halliburton had been responsible for cement work on the well.

Godwin, it turns out, is Halliburton’s go-to-man when things get sticky. Back in 2002, as the company’s lead counsel, he’d settled more than $4 billion in asbestos cases in a single year.

Stephanie Bragg, a former partner at Godwin’s Dallas law firm who now is Halliburton’s chief litigation counsel, was calling to say the giant energy products and services company needed him to take the lead once again. “There’s going to be lots of investigations,” Godwin recalls Bragg saying.

Godwin hopped a plane to Halliburton’s headquarters in Houston, and he’s been the lead trial lawyer and focal point for one of the world’s biggest litigation battles ever since.

British Petroleum, or BP, has set up a claims fund totaling $20 billion in anticipation of claims that are expected to exceed $50 billion. Numerous government entities are investigating the 5 million-barrel spill, including a special commission appointed by President Barack Obama. Also in the mix are hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of those affected by the Gulf Coast devastation.

Although much of the focus is on the actions of BP, rig owner Transocean, and Cameron International, which supplied the rig’s blowout preventer, Halliburton has been named in about 400 class-action lawsuits. Godwin and his team are facing a veritable who’s who of plantiffs’ attorneys in New Orleans, where all the cases have been centralized in a multi-district litigation court.

Godwin recounts with enthusiasm his countless flights to Louisiana, the numerous depositions and court hearings there, and his daily encounters with dozens—often hundreds—of plantiffs’ attorneys.

“I may be more excited now that I have been in a long, long time,” says Godwin, 63, in his smooth southern drawl. “I’ve never known a day in the practice of law that has not excited me. But I’m more energized now with the new Halliburton matter maybe more than I’ve ever been.”

Long Hours
After 37 years practicing law, Don Godwin still loves grueling schedules and jury trials. His colleagues use terms like force of nature, tenacious, single-minded, and relentless to describe his work ethic. When he’s not in court, he practices those skills in a mock courtroom at the offices of his law firm, Godwin Ronquillo, at Renaissance Tower in downtown Dallas.

The task ahead in the Halliburton litigation doesn’t seem to deter the fit, 5-feet-11-inch lawyer, who starts most days with a 5 a.m. run.

“This came along at a good time for Don,” says Bert Cornelison, executive vice president and general counsel at Halliburton, of the oil-spill litigation. “It has brought him a renewed energy and focus, and I absolutely think it’s the perfect case for him. It’s a large complex piece of litigation with high-level interests at stake in which all of the parties at the lawyer level will contest it pretty bitterly.

“There are few people that you would more want at your side if you have to have a fight in a dark alley then Don,” Cornelison says.

As the term “lead trial lawyer” suggests, Godwin is in charge of all litigation, depositions, and hearings on the class-action suits. That means he does all the talking. He’s working with a team of about 25 lawyers in his firm’s Dallas and Houston offices plus six paralegals and a dozen support staff, and with Bragg’s staff in Houston.

Although Godwin was able to wrap up 380,000 asbestos cases in one year, he expects it will take several years for the oil-spill litigation to play out.

“I think it would be unrealistic to expect we would get anything done where Halliburton would not be a part of it inside the next couple of years,” he says. “There will be some very large trials. Matter of fact, there are going to be a couple in New Orleans in early fall and some large trials in February 2012, where a judge has set aside four months of trial time for one case” to determine liability, allocation, and responsibility.

All the cases are centralized in the New Orleans multi-district litigation court before Judge Carl Barbier, while pleadings, hearings, depositions, and conferences are before special Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan. Halliburton’s Louisiana base is at the well-appointed Loews New Orleans Hotel, a block and a half from the federal courthouse. Despite TV-inspired images of cordial lunches and after-session happy hours, Godwin says that isn’t the case.

“I go to court and depositions” and back to the hotel, he says. “I don’t see them, they don’t see me.”

He’s referring to the more than 700 lawyers participating in the Louisiana hearings. Fifty of them are defense lawyers for Transocean, BP, Cameron, and Halliburton. All the rest are plaintiffs’ lawyers. “They are some of the finest plaintiffs’ lawyers in the United States, and all are opposed to us,” he says.

So far, Halliburton is conspicuously absent from a Justice Department lawsuit, filed last December, which named nine defendants including BP and Transocean. More defendants could be added at a later date, Justice Department officials say.

As a BP subcontractor, Halliburton has been accused by some of using an “unstable” cement mixture that may have contributed to the blowout of the Macondo well. A White House panel found that BP knew of the instability and failed to conduct additional tests. This isn’t the first time BP has had issues with Halliburton’s cementing capabilities. A 2007 BP audit showed Halliburton didn’t have the experience to evaluate data and performed incomplete testing reports, a presidential panel said in February 2011.

Halliburton says it did not conduct additional stability tests on the Gulf oil well, but points to BP’s well design as the culprit.

If Halliburton is deemed an “owner” or “operator” of the Macondo rig down the road, the legal battlefield could change, says Brendan Cummings, senior counsel for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed its own lawsuits relating to the spill.

However, “given the way most federal liability laws related to oil spills are structured, the biggest legal battle Halliburton is likely to face is not from the federal government or private parties claiming damages from the spill, but from BP, seeking to offset some or all of the money they will have to pay,” Cummings says. “So while DOJ v. BP is the most important case in Round One of the oil-spill litigation, Round Two will likely be BP v. Halliburton, and the outcome of that case could be devastating to Halliburton’s future.”

Exactly who’s to blame for what’s been called the worst offshore oil disaster in the nation’s history is still a matter of fierce public debate, of course. BP is first on the list, but the rig subcontractors are taking their share of the heat as well. Godwin acknowledges that fishermen, charter boat companies, hotel and land owners, and others who make their living on the Gulf—from Texas to Florida—are seeking their due for a lifestyle compromised by the spill.

But he says Halliburton is battling a reputation it doesn’t deserve. 

“I think Halliburton got a bad rap publicly about a lot of things that Halliburton didn’t do, so much as was done by KBR,” he says, referring to the former Halliburton subsidiary once known as Kellogg Brown & Root. “There were some things done by employees at KBR that damaged the solid reputation and image Halliburton had for so many years. It’s taken a lot of time for people to accept Halliburton for the very fine company it is.”

Halliburton sold its ownership in Houston-based KBR, which was one of the largest military contractors in Iraq, in 2007. In addition to billing problems that surfaced with the subsidiary’s work there, KBR’s Iraq contracts had been criticized for being politically influenced because then-Vice President Dick Cheney had previously served as Halliburton’s chairman and CEO. 

“A lot of people were against Halliburton because of Vice President Cheney, and they wanted to pin everything on Halliburton,” Godwin says. “It was a way of being angry over some events that had come about that led to the reputation being tarnished, if you will. But Halliburton is working hard with a lot of people all over the world to restore that image. I think it’s on the road to recovery and doing a fine job in that regard.”

Defend_02 The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion killed 11 men and sent 5 million barrels of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. photography courtesy of Newscom

Adrenaline Rush
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.

Scholarship Route
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.”

Private Practice
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.”