A Young Man in an Old Boys’ Club

Raul Leal gets to play J. Beresford Tipton to Texas landowners

Published in 2009 Texas Rising Stars — April 2009

Many people dream of winning the lottery. But in deep-South Texas, locals dream of winning a different kind of gamble: the oil and natural gas game. Raul Leal has seen it happen, again and again. A modest family living on an old Spanish land-grant ranch opens their land for drilling, and then ... jackpot. Millionaires overnight.

Leal takes pride in helping families get there. An attorney at Person, Whitworth, Borchers & Morales in Laredo, he specializes in oil and gas law, working with landowners—and only landowners—to secure leases with oil and gas companies. "Most firms that do this work represent the big-money players, the oil companies, and we don't," he says.

Leal himself comes from modest roots, having spent the first eight years of his life in Nuevo Laredo, just across the Mexico border. His mother helped run a mom-and-pop hardware store, while his father crossed the border to work at a community college in Laredo. The family spoke Spanish at home, which Leal uses often today. "One thing I take pride in is helping everybody that asks me," he says. "I can be meeting with someone who has five acres and then have a meeting an hour later with someone who has 50,000 acres. The experience that I get [with big clients] I also share with smaller clients."

Leal spends much of his time negotiating and drafting leases, which means keeping up with everything from new laws and competitive pricing to energy issues in the news. And that's exactly what he loves about his job. "It's got a lot of things that are very important to Texas," he says. "It has some history, and it has the energy side of it, and ranching and hunting. Hunting is real big here, so all of our leases address what you can and can't do during hunting season."

Leal didn't know much about these things when he started at the law firm in 2001. But he learned quickly under the tutelage of George Person, who has worked in the field for more than three decades. That mentorship has proved key to Leal's success because the high-stakes world of Texas oil and gas law is something of an old boys' club. Leal, at 33, is one of the youngest attorneys in the state to be board-certified in it, which leaves him picking up the reins in a field with a median age of 54. Part of the reason for the lack of young attorneys, he believes, is how difficult it is to break into.

"It's pretty hard to get clients to trust you," Leal says. "Their minerals are their most valuable asset. [The land] was inherited, in some cases, over hundreds of years." But that's also where the fun comes in. Leal gets to work closely with landowners—whom he fondly describes as "characters"—over the course of many years, not just for a fleeting partnership surrounding a piece of litigation.

There's also the thrill that comes with working in an area that frequently makes headlines. Although high gas prices were a common complaint in 2008, they've been a boon for Leal in some ways. He gets more business when prices rise, as companies scout for resources. "That's one of the reasons why I think my career has been able to take off—not only because I'm trying to do the best I can, but because the timing has been perfect for me," he says. "I started in 2001, and it gave me about two to three years to get ready for '04-'05, when prices shot up."

While Leal may have one eye on what's in the ground, he also has one on the future, as he helps to usher in a new era of wind farms. "Clients of ours started being approached [by companies] about two years ago, and instead of referring them, I decided it was closely related to the oil and gas industry in many ways, so I threw myself in there," he says. "Now I've negotiated about 10 wind leases for some clients in this area."

Back on terra firma, Leal is also looking forward to his own future. His home life just got a lot busier. He and his wife moved into a new home in September and, a few days later, welcomed their first child, Miranda.

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