BA in English Lit Univ of Oklahoma 1970; OU Law 1974; Licensed in OK, TX, CO.
What led you to OU Law?
OU Law has been part of my family since the 1920s. My great uncle was Dr. Maurice Merrill, a 1922 graduate of OU Law who then earned a Doctorate in Law from Harvard University in 1925. Merrill taught at OU Law for 30 years, published numerous seminal works in oil and gas law, constitutional law, administrative law and the law of Notice. While still in his twenties, Merrill published the seminal treatise Implied Covenants in Oil and Gas Law, which has been a cornerstone of my cases. In law school, I lived with Uncle Maurice and marveled at his longhand scrawl which was literally final copy in its first draft form. In my mind, he will always be ten times the lawyer that I ever became.
Uncle Maurice’s wife, Orpha, graduated from OU Law in 1954 and became well known for her contributions to Oklahoma municipal law. My uncle, former Oklahoma Chief Justice Don Barnes, graduated from OU Law in 1949. Three of my cousins are lawyers: Ron Merrill Barnes (OU Law 1980), the Honorable Debbie Barnes and Brenda Barnes (OU Law 1999 and now a Professor there). The tradition continued when Grayson Merrill Barnes graduated from OU Law in 2013.
I lived at the Merrill house in the months leading up to my entry into law school where I helped care for Aunt Orpha during her last illness. After she passed away I stayed on with Uncle Maurice as “chief cook and bottle washer” until I graduated in Spring 1974.
What are your favorite memories from OU Law?
Uncle Maurice and I would have dinner every night, and he would politely choke down the uninspired meals I prepared. We had long talks about the law, which became extra tutoring for me. We became somewhat inseparable and enjoyed trying to out-pun each other. For the last few years of his life, Uncle Maurice was “of counsel” at my first law firm in Oklahoma City – Stack & Barnes PC.
Tell us about starting your career.
Having lived in France and Algeria before law school, I planned to use my law degree working overseas in international business. But first, I needed to pay off significant student loans, so I worked in the oil business as a field landman. In a little more than a year my student loans were paid off and I was ready to leave for Europe.
However, my uncles, Justice Barnes and Professor Merrill, suggested I at least try practicing law for a year or so. I reluctantly agreed. They found a job for me in Tulsa with a great trial lawyer, Dick Gibbon, who specialized in insurance defense.
I discovered I really liked practicing law and had a knack for it. Observing Dick in the courtroom and doing his appellate work was a great learning experience. Unfortunately, Dick thought the work experience he provided was just as valuable as a salary, so I only got paid $500 a month. His idea was that I would spend half my time working for him and the other half of my time I could spend developing my own business. It soon became clear there wasn’t a lot of walk-in business on the fifth floor of Tulsa’s Beacon Building. However, Dick did offer me a perk: I got paid an extra $10 for every deposition I took. In about a year and a half, I took over 175 depositions and sent detailed written summaries to Dick’s clients. Throughout my career, I have been able to use that intensive trial work and deposition time to my benefit.
After 18 months with Dick Gibbon, I took a job with Texas Oil and Gas Corp (TXO), the biggest operator of wells in Texas and Oklahoma. The oil industry was expanding rapidly, and I was soon hired as general counsel and vice president of Land for Texas International Petroleum Corp (TIPCO). After working as a lawyer for only 4 years, I became president of Carson Petroleum Corp (CPC) in Oklahoma City. The oil boom soon ended and in 1982 we sold the company to Devon Oil just as the oil business was collapsing.
I then went into private practice with Mike Stack, establishing Stack & Barnes in 1982. Mike did oil and gas corporation commission work and I did oil and gas title work and litigation for large, independent oil companies operating in the Mid-Continent area. Over time, the firm grew so that I did much less title work and much more litigation.
In 1985, our firm hired an intern who was one of OU Law’s top students: Patti Lewis. Patti ultimately became my law partner and remains so today under the firm name of Barnes & Lewis LLP. In the late 1980s, we continued to represent various oil companies but also began litigating oil field pollution cases on behalf of landowners. In 2000, our practice morphed into mineral owner contingent fee class action cases which still consume the majority of our time.
What’s the secret to your success in your career?
I loved practicing law. I would eat, drink and sleep the law to the exclusion of all other things. At age 42, I had a mild heart attack which was quite a wakeup call. I finally realized that everyone needs to have life balance. The law has remained important, but secondary to family and health.
What were your favorite cases that you tried in your career?
In 1987, I tried a case in federal court called Marshall vs. El Paso which became a lead case nationally on oil and gas field pollution. It was one of the first major oilfield pollution cases that went through jury trial and was affirmed on appeal. The ultimate recovery for the Marshall family was $6.5 million.
In 2001, after four years of discovery and several hundred depositions, we conducted a six-week jury trial in Guymon, OK. Our client was the representative of thousands of royalty owners in an action to recover underpaid royalties. Bridenstine vs Kaiser-Francis was the first such class action successfully tried to a jury in the oil and gas industry and resulted in a Plaintiff’s verdict that was affirmed on appeal. The ultimate recovery for the royalty owner class from the various defendants was $110 million. Also involved in that case was the firm of Burns & Stowers and our local counsel, Jamie Kee. Since that time, Barnes & Lewis has been lead counsel for Plaintiffs in numerous oil field class actions with cumulative recoveries exceeding an additional $650 million.
What is your advice for current students and recent graduates?
Within the practice of law, there are so many different disciplines. Hopefully, you can find a discipline that you love as much as I love trial work. The law was, and still is, a passion for me. I really, truly loved the law, it’s intricacies and the thought process that is required. Law school teaches us to think in a different way, which is helpful in law, in business and in life.
Robert N Barnes, 1967 graduate of Norman High School, University of Oklahoma 1970 (BA Eng Lit), OU Law 1974. Licensed in OK, TX, CO and various federal courts. Practice specialization: oil & gas law; complex litigation; environmental law. Principal office in Oklahoma City under firm name of Barnes & Lewis LLP.
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