For Warren Harris, the legal system doesn’t stop at the courtroom door; he’s bringing it into Texas schools
Published in 2021 Texas Super Lawyers Magazine on September 15, 2021
Warren Harris leans over one of a half-dozen tables at which groups of seventh-graders are sorting sheets of paper. The sheets list the various courts of the Texas justice system, from municipal on up to the Supreme Court of Texas.
The appellate attorney addresses two boys in a sonorous, measured Texas tone: “Let’s see what this says: Cases from this court are appealed to the Court of Appeals.” He points to one sheet, then another above it. “OK, so we know this one goes from here to here. And it looks like this one goes here. Why don’t you check and see if that looks good and then see where you think these other ones go?”
The 2020 lesson, captured on video, is a scene from “Taming Texas,” a project of the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society designed to teach schoolchildren how the state’s court system works—and why they should care. It covers Texas law from pre-statehood days to the present, highlighting landmark cases and showing how various proceedings are handled.
It’s a project that Harris, a partner at Houston’s Bracewell LLP, conceived and helped create as a former president of the society. “We teach them about the third branch of government and really try to bring that to life so they can understand the courts and how they affect how we function and how we live,” he says.
Launched in partnership with the Houston Bar Association, the program sends working lawyers and judges into classrooms, using a curriculum designed by the historical society along with the State Bar of Texas’ education department. It has reached about 22,000 students.
For Harris, 58, the effort is personal: He knows few of these students are likely to have lawyers in their social circles, a situation that mirrors his own childhood in a blue-collar family in East Houston, where his Navy vet dad worked at the shipyards.
Harris says it’s not just the professionals’ expertise that’s important; it’s their nonthreatening presence.
“We go in with lawyers and judges so they can see who these people are,” he says. “Most of our students, the only interaction they have with lawyers or judges is either when someone in their family is criminally charged or when their parents get a divorce. Those are usually two unhappy situations, and we want to show them that the court system does a lot more than that.”
The effort is also a reflection of Harris’ passion for the judicial system.
“His career path, and the volunteer work that he’s done, has all been to further our system of justice,” says Lynne Liberato, senior counsel at Haynes and Boone’s Houston office, whom Harris counts among his closest advisers. “Warren’s interest is in furthering respect and understanding of that system.”
Harris, who lives in Houston with his wife, appellate attorney Lauren Beck Harris, and their four kids, ages 12 to 18, doesn’t recall what sparked his childhood interest in law. But on middle-school career report days, he would cold-call attorneys’ offices in his part of town and ask secretaries to put him through until he found one nice enough to spend a few minutes on the phone. He became the first person in his family to go to college.
He earned a business degree at the University of Houston with the help of a scholarship and a small entrepreneurial gig renting video games on the side. When it came time for law school, he never really thought about going anywhere else.
“The school had a good reputation, and I figured it would be easy to just move across campus,” he says. Besides, he had a good union job at Safeway as a checker and stocker, “and for doing what I was doing, I felt like I was making pretty good money. I was able to put myself through law school.”
He discovered an aptitude for appellate work during a clerkship for then-Texas Supreme Court Justice Eugene Cook, who was mounting a groundbreaking effort to develop a state lawyers’ professionalism creed. The project would both involve and influence Harris; much later, when he became president of the Houston Bar Association, he would lead a professionalism project there.
“Texas was the first [state] to adopt a statewide creed,” he says. “It’s guidance for lawyers about what they can and should be doing, and how they should interact with courts and clients.”
As Harris wrapped up his clerkship and entered his first year of practice at Houston’s Porter Hedges in 1989, Cook, then-president of the Houston Bar, appointed him to a committee overseeing publication of the Bar’s magazine. That’s how Harris met Liberato.
“I thought, ‘He’s pretty doggone smart for such a young kid, and he doesn’t mind speaking his mind,’” she remembers. “And honestly, I thought, ‘He has a lot of opinions for somebody so young.’ And then, not long after that, I thought, ‘Damn, his opinions are good.’”
At Porter Hedges, Harris began approaching partners about taking on their appeals, and, while he might have insinuated that he knew more than he really did at the time, “typically most litigators don’t like doing their own appeals, so they were happy to hand them off to someone,” he says.
Soon lawyers at other firms began hiring him to handle their appellate work, and in 1996, Cook, who by then had left the bench to practice law at Bracewell, recruited Harris to help build the firm’s appellate arm.
Harris likes the fact that appellate law allows him to wield a variety of skills. “You get to use your advocacy skills, to actually be in court and argue,” he says. “It’s not just writing and preparing briefs. And I’ve been blessed to have worked on some important cases, where I get to help shape the law.” Case in point: Frank’s Casing, a complex case involving an insurer’s right to reimbursement when a case has been settled but there is a later determination that there was no coverage.
One of Harris’ more gratifying cases took place several years ago, involving a Houston woman whose husband had died of a brain injury that she believed had been improperly diagnosed. She had sued and won, but an appellate court reversed the decision. Harris was brought in to represent the family as the malpractice case moved to the Texas Supreme Court.
“I was able to convince the court that the trial court [was correct] and that the appeals court erred in reversing that judgment,” Harris said. “For a young lady with children to have her husband die because of an alleged misdiagnosis and to have a jury find that she was right—and then to have that taken away, it was just a heart-wrenching situation to be in. So it was nice to do something for the family and see that justice was served.”
Harris is also a go-to appellate lawyer for infrastructure firm KBR, for whom a case that would become one of his most memorable was decided in 2015. A jury had handed down an $85 million judgment against KBR in a suit brought by National Guardsmen who had suffered chemical exposure in Iraq, where the company provided military engineering support.
Prevented from suing the military, the guardsmen instead sued KBR, filing suit in their home state of Oregon. Harris was brought on to handle the appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had a reputation for siding with plaintiffs.
KBR felt numerous errors had been made by the lower court, but Harris persuaded the team to narrow its arguments, emphasizing especially that the case should never have been tried in Oregon. Ultimately, the court would concur, dismissing the case and transferring it to Texas, where it was consolidated with other existing litigation. KBR ultimately prevailed in 2015.
“That was a very tough court to be representing the defendants in, with very sympathetic plaintiffs,” Harris says. “We felt very fortunate—the court did the right thing and applied the law.”
Mark Lowes, KBR’s senior vice president of litigation, said the case was classic Warren Harris: focusing on several key arguments and omitting others, in what some might consider a risky approach.
“As we sat down and talked things out, I was convinced Warren was right,” Lowes says. “The safe thing would have been to throw in more. But the effective thing was to decide what your winners were.”
Longtime Houston trial lawyer Fred Hagans, who met Harris while co-chairing former Justice Cook’s professionalism committee and has teamed with Harris over the years, says Harris’ experience, ability to listen and commitment to preparation set him apart.
“One thing that lawyers have is a tendency to believe they can do more tasks within a specified time, and to believe the amount of time a task will take will be less,” Hagans says. “Warren learned those lessons early and is good at making sure that his allotted time is sufficient. Lawyers often think of a deadline as a goal as opposed to a deadline, and Warren just doesn’t do that.”
Harris has long had an interest in history, so he didn’t hesitate when Liberato, then a board member at the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society, invited him to help edit the organization’s journal. Before long, he’d joined the board. Soon after, he became president.
“One of the things that stands out about Warren is that he rises to the top of every organization he’s involved in,” Liberato says. “That’s no accident. He identifies problems and opportunities and he makes things happen.”
Harris stepped into the role just as the society prepared to release its first updated history in a century, The Texas Supreme Court: A Narrative History, 1836-1986 by Jim Haley. The book was officially presented to the court at a ceremony in the Capitol’s historic Supreme Court Courtroom, used from 1888 until 1959. Harris recalls saying, as he delivered his presidential remarks, “that it would be a shame if the book just sits on lawyers’ shelves.”
Eventually, he would propose Taming Texas, a book for schoolchildren, and after meeting with educators, he decided 7th-graders were the ideal audience. The resulting book, with a preface by Harris, was the first in a series to fill what Harris believes is a significant gap in civics education.
“If you look at the usual Texas schools’ curriculum, students get three years of state history—and almost none of that deals with law or the courts,” Harris says. “I’m not kidding—you might have a 400-page book and maybe one page dealing with the legal system.”
Harris still chairs the statewide project: “It’s something I’m very passionate and excited about.”
Liberato says, “The things he’s done have enhanced the administration of justice. That is his gift.”
On the Grapevine
In 1989, when Warren Harris returned to his native Houston to join Porter Hedges out of law school, he worked as a volunteer for a local theater, where he became board president. One of his duties was to oversee the theater’s annual charity wine auction, at the time the largest annual auction in Houston.
“I had to learn a lot about wine, and I kind of got the bug,” he says. Houston has an active wine scene, with associations devoted entirely to, say, Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, including occasional dinners at which bottles and knowledge are shared.
Before long, Harris had accumulated a solid collection and amateur expertise, learning about how aging affects wine, the differences between various varietals and so on. “Whether it’s beer or wine or cocktails or cigars, you get into the nuances,” he says. “For me, it’s seeing how wines develop and evolve, what different producers can make with the same grapes, and exploring new regions.”
Mark Lowes, senior vice president of litigation at KBR, says Harris has a near-photographic memory about all things wine.
“If you want to know about the wineries on the left and right banks in Bordeaux, and the differences in who the winemakers were, he can probably regurgitate more of that stuff than I could ever remember,” Lowes says.
By the early 2000s, Harris had actively begun collecting Australian wines, and while he’s moved on to other regions, he still has many of those now-matured bottles. “So we’re drinking a lot of Australian wine that I bought 20 years ago,” he says. “Which is great fun because—well, that bottle isn’t maybe what I thought it was going to be, or this one is just, wow.”
In March, Harris showed up at a dinner with one of those 20-year-old wow bottles.
“Just seeing that experience,” he says, “seeing people who had never had that wine or that age of wine before—it was a shiraz, and it was big and beautiful, and drinking just perfectly right then.”
The lesson? “If Warren ever invites you to a wine dinner,” Lowes says, “your answer oughta be yes.”