The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens: Chapter 8, “The Chainsaw”

My Dad and me, after I won the Beechcraft Scholarship, c. 1980

(The following is an excerpt from The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens by Stoney Creek Publishing. Copyright 2020 Chrysta Castañeda and Loren Steffy.)

I didn’t set out to be a lawyer. Growing up in the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, I liked math and science. I came by my interests honestly. My dad was an aeronautical engineer who worked for decades at Beech Aircraft, which was later bought by Raytheon and is now known as Hawker Beechcraft. My sisters, Cathy and Cheryl, and my little brother, David, also studied engineering, and most of us married engineers. Law wasn’t in my DNA.

My parents were the first in their families to graduate from college. My mother became an elementary school teacher, dissuaded from the sciences like most women of her generation. Later, she became a banker. She told me that she hoped each of us would, at the least, graduate from a two-year college. Education was important to her. Yet, I don’t recall her ever telling me to do my homework, or monitoring my grades, or being overly involved in my schooling. She was not a helicopter parent by nature. And besides, she had four children to raise in addition to her job. She simply didn’t have time to hover that closely.

Left largely to my own imagination and resources, I learned an early lesson that guided my adult thinking, including my preparation for the Pickens case. In fifth grade, our teacher told us to create a commercial about something—I don’t recall what. I threw myself into the assignment. Perhaps the future engineer was excited by the chance to build something, or perhaps the future lawyer didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I worked for five hours that night crafting a miniature stage and figurines and wrote a script. I was surprised that none of the other kids had done as much work. Most were content just to get by. I knew that wasn’t me. I had too much energy and a penchant for polishing my work until I liked it enough to show to others.

By high school, I was making straight As, I had good scores on my college entrance exams, and I participated in almost every extracurricular activity the school offered—track, softball, cheerleading, drum major for the marching band, mathlete, orchestra, and some clubs. Most schools don’t have varsity cheerleaders who are mathletes, but my senior squad had three. For a town of less than fifteen thousand people and a high school graduating class of four hundred, that wasn’t bad.

When it came time for college, I applied to Kansas State and Texas A&M and got accepted at both. Then, a Harvard recruiter came to our campus. I applied, and I was accepted there too. Harvard seemed like a bigger challenge and that appealed to me, so I set off for Cambridge in the fall of 1981.

I decided to study engineering because I knew I could get a good-paying job. I didn’t really understand what my dad did. His work was classified, and he’s a man of few words, unless the subject is sports. But I had participated in an engineering summer camp for high school girls at Notre Dame in 1978 and had some idea of what I was getting into. I liked that engineering, unlike social sciences, involved correct answers—you solved the problem, or you didn’t. There was no subjective view. Plus, I discovered that I could learn math and physics just as well from textbooks as I could the odd assortment of lecturers who taught us as freshmen. That was a bonus: I could attend about every third class and still get good grades. Professors didn’t take attendance in those days. You passed or failed based on your own efforts. I think it was easier to be a kid back then.

In the early 1980s, Harvard didn’t offer a true engineering degree. To get one, I’d have to commute to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in my junior and senior years. It would be complicated, but I could do it. Then, everything changed. One February morning during my sophomore year, my parents called and told me that they couldn’t keep paying for Harvard. I’d won grants and scholarships and worked a series of part-time jobs delivering newspapers, washing dishes in the cafeteria, and tending pigeons in a psychology lab, but my education was still costing twice as much as their monthly mortgage payment. Plus, my sister, Cathy, was about to graduate from high school and would also need college tuition. They simply didn’t have the money. I loved my time at Harvard, but I didn’t relish the idea of taking on a load of debt. After all, I’d been accepted into other good schools. I felt confident I could get a degree somewhere else and still earn a living. My pragmatism beat out Harvard prestige.

I transferred to Kansas State with a full scholarship. Having finished most of my fundamental courses in Cambridge, I decided to specialize in industrial engineering, which is basically a math degree. It also had the least amount of lab time. I hated labs. Lab courses required me to stand around for hours waiting for chemical reactions or other physical processes to happen. It felt like too much wasted time. I had a lot of things I wanted to get done.

There was another factor in my choice of Kansas State. My high school boyfriend was an engineering student there. We got married the summer before I graduated, which wasn’t all that young if you lived in Kansas in the 1980s.

I had a number of job offers when I graduated, but my husband had landed his dream position working in robotics for the General Dynamics aircraft plant in Fort Worth, which made F-16 fighter jets. We moved to North Texas in December 1985, and I began looking for engineering work.

On the morning of January 28, 1986, I was sitting in a Sonic drive-in on Forest Lane in Dallas. I’d just finished an interview and had been offered a job at Electronic Data Systems, the computer services company down the street. I liked the idea of cutting-edge technology and solving other companies’ software problems. I’d just ordered a cheeseburger when I heard on the car radio that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded after liftoff. I recall thinking that the miracle of technology can some- times also result in the shared heartache of national tragedy.

EDS hired me to investigate and document the client’s business processes that we were automating with software. The first step in designing software is determining what it should be doing. Companies’ business procedures often evolve over time and they aren’t always logical or efficient. Many firms justify certain procedures by saying “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” EDS hired industrial engineers like me to figure out how to do it better before automating those processes.

I worked on some interesting projects at EDS, including one at the Minneapolis headquarters of Northwest Airlines (which was later acquired by Delta Air Lines). It had no automation at the time. None of the carrier’s business processes, such as crew and aircraft scheduling, were automated. Instead, clerks wrote schedules for each pilot, flight attendant, and aircraft on thousands of cards that they filed in long drawers. The drawers filled up several rooms and required dozens of clerks to keep track of them. Mind you, this was 1986, not the 1930s, but the company’s owner had resisted installing computers, fearing that workers would watch television on their monitors even though this was decades before broadband internet service or video streaming and none of the monitors could receive a broadcast signal. I thought it seemed crazy at the time, but decades later it’s something employers worry about.

Arthur Andersen, an EDS rival, lured me away about a year later. In 1986 they put me to work on the project for Pickens’ Mesa, helping prepare its computer systems to handle the records of the company’s new partnership structure. The job market for software engineers was far hotter at the time than anything having to do with energy. A couple of years earlier, the oil industry had entered one of the worst busts in its history. In fact, because of that bust, I’d turned down one of the first jobs I was offered out of college, with a pipeline company that’s now part of ConocoPhillips.

Despite the career potential, I realized the day-to-day job of computer programming wasn’t enough excitement for me. I loved the problems I was trying to solve but I really hated sit- ting for hours writing lines of computer code. I wanted to work on bigger projects at a higher level, and I didn’t see software development helping me achieve those ambitions. I was only twenty-four, but I felt like I needed to reboot my career.

I thought an advanced degree would help, but business school seemed boring. I opted instead for law school, figuring that as a lawyer, I could solve business problems without ever having to write another line of code.

I’d already missed the law school application deadline for 1988. Not wanting to wait an entire year, I applied anyway—to Harvard, the University of Texas, and Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Harvard put me on a wait list, but UT and SMU accepted me. UT had the better law school at the time, but SMU offered me a full scholarship. Free, after all, was free—and I didn’t have to move.

I liked law school and did well at it. It was less difficult than engineering, although the anxiety level was a lot higher and it was far more competitive. In law school, the only thing that matters—in terms of future prospects for employment—is graduating at the top of the class. Because I had good grades, I was offered a summer clerkship with a premiere law firm. I was pregnant when I started it, and my son Scott was born on what was supposed to be my last day at the position. Since I was at the hospital, in labor, the law firm only paid me for four days that week. I got an early lesson about being a working mom.

A month after Scott was born, I was diagnosed with invasive melanoma. I was twenty-eight years old, with a newborn, and suddenly I didn’t know if I would survive to see him walk. I was told I had an 80 percent chance of living five years, but that 20 percent seemed like an enormous risk. I slowly came to terms with the idea that I might, in fact, die young. Such a realization radically changes your outlook. Obviously, I survived. But I learned to put risks in perspective. The turmoil of emotions also probably contributed to my divorce from my first husband. No business risk can compare with these sorts of personal trials. Once you stare death and divorce in the face, everything else seems pretty harmless.

I graduated and went to work for the same law firm that docked me a day’s pay for going into labor with my son. It had a unique group of smart lawyers and let me work part-time in exchange for reduced pay. Three days after I got my law license, I argued my first appeal. My supervising partner, David Godbey, who’s now a federal judge, had me write the brief. At the last minute, the argument in the court of appeals was reinstated after a stay from bankruptcy and the client wasn’t paying the bills. A nonpaying client meant opportunity for me. The firm would write off the bill regardless of the outcome. My time was cheaper than a senior partner’s, which meant the loss was less for the firm. I would benefit by gaining valuable experience. So, I stayed up all night and gave my first oral argument the next day. I was terrible, but I learned to jump in and do my best on whatever preparation I had. And, like my fifth-grade experience, I learned that the more you prepare, the better you will do.

I moved around and practiced law for several large firms over the years, focusing on cases that required engineering expertise, such as products liability, medical device litigation, and oil and gas contracts. I particularly liked those. They usually involved larger-than-life people and the stakes were always high. And, I must admit, I enjoyed the surprised looks from the men who didn’t think a “blond girl” could ask intelligent questions.

I took every litigation case I was offered, remembering advice from a woman law partner about getting “out on the skinny branches.” She’d meant that you have to take risks and embrace every challenge if you wanted to get ahead—especially if you were a woman. The secret to success was saying yes to the opportunity first, then figuring out how to accomplish the task after committing.

It goes without saying if you’re going to be a woman in the male-dominated world of trial lawyers, you have to be tough. I got used to walking into a conference room, prepared to cross-examine the witness in a deposition, and being asked if I was the court reporter. I also got used to older male lawyers protesting my objections in depositions in ways they wouldn’t if I were a man. Once, the opposing counsel stood up and yelled, “Don’t you tell me how to practice law, little missy!” Another time, after making what I considered a persuasive argument to a judge in Fort Worth, he said, “I like your earrings,” accompanied by a creepy stare. But after ten years, I learned to view condescension and chauvinism as background noise. You never get comfortable with it, but you learn to get past it.

I had a good client who sent me a variety of cases over the years. He called me “The Chainsaw.” I pondered what to make of the title at the time, and I still do. I didn’t really think I was that fierce, but apparently, he did. I readily admit that I can be hardheaded, although I’d like to think I have a pleasant demeanor to offset my tenacity. After considering it for a while, I decided that he called me that because a chainsaw is effective at what it does. Not much stops a chainsaw.

I’d taken on a particularly difficult, emotionally charged case in 2011. It culminated in a nine-week trial late in the year. I wound up losing. Even worse, during the proceedings, we were under intense media scrutiny every day. We not only lost the case in court, we also lost the battle for public support, which can often be won by communicating the right message at the right time. I knew that there was more to practicing law than what happened in the courtroom, and I also knew that as the lead lawyer, I could not wage the public relations fight all on my own. I vowed to find a PR firm that would support my clients the next time I had a case like that.

But I was also exhausted after that trial. I realized I’d grown disenchanted with Big Law. I had been a partner in a large law firm for more than a decade and I felt as if my career was stagnating. While I was doing well, the firm wasn’t giving me the financial recognition I felt I deserved. I’d just settled a case that resulted in a $5 million fee for my firm, but little of it was shared with me—less, I still believe, than a male partner would have received. And, I had to completely rebuild my practice and client base after the trial. Under the best of circumstances, even if you win, a big trial is like a tsunami that runs backwards: First, the ocean rushes in and you are absolutely swamped. Then, it all runs back out again. Sometimes you wonder whether the surf—the next client engagement—will return. It always does, but it takes a while. Trial lawyers call it “refilling the pipeline.” Maybe they just say that in Texas because we are so dominated by oil.

I was frustrated by not receiving equal pay for the work I was doing. Big Law’s only real currency is, well, currency. The worth of each lawyer is measured in cash. Women lawyers would joke that a Y-chromosome added 30 percent to your salary and bonus. No matter how much business I brought in, the male partners always seemed to come out ahead in the compensation battle, which is the only measure of success in Big Law.

As I ended my trial in 2011, a new congressional district was formed in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I had no previous plans to run for Congress, but I’d been working as an organizer for a couple of decades to encourage more women to run for public office. I’d donated to their campaigns and supported Democratic politics at all levels. I firmly believed we needed more women in Congress, and it didn’t appear any women were planning to run.

The Texas Legislature, which sets the boundaries of congressional districts, drew new districts based on the results of the 2010 Census. Lawsuits immediately followed. Republicans have controlled the state government since the early 1990s, and they have engaged in numerous geographical contortions to ensure that Democrats dominate as few districts as possible.

They designed the 33rd Congressional District as a Democratic concession, but its boundaries demonstrated the absurdity that redistricting had become. The new lines scooped out the center of Dallas and the poor, predominately African-American neighborhoods south of downtown. The district wound up with an arm that stretched west, through central Irving, across northern Grand Prairie and Arlington—where many residents worked at the General Motors assembly plant, aircraft factories, and other blue-collar jobs—into the heart of Fort Worth’s poorest neighborhoods. The area not only stretched across two counties, it looked like two separate districts strung together by a thread of Democratic voters that spanned the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. The whole idea was to pack as many Democrats as possible into just one district, keeping as much of the surrounding area as possible safe for Republicans.

The litigation over the district boundaries threatened to drag on past the candidate filing deadline, so party leaders agreed to an interim compromise establishing the borders of the 33rd in early 2012. The last-minute deal left candidates only a few weeks to declare their intention to run. Eventually, ten men and one other woman signed up. My campaign theme was that if you want something done, elect a woman to do it.

When the primary results came in, I was in the middle of the field of eleven candidates. Marc Veasey won the seat that year and still holds it. One of the male candidates spent $4 million of his personal fortune and came in fourth. The other woman in the race, whom the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported had just forty-two dollars in her campaign fund but had served on city council, came in third and got six times as many votes as I did. I was largely unknown to most of the voters, and because of the timing, the election cycle was short. I learned that in politics, name recognition matters a lot and that you can’t build it quickly.

However, Veasey’s campaign consultant complimented me for a well-run campaign, and I felt good that I made the attempt.

Part of me was relieved that I didn’t win. It would have required an even bigger personal sacrifice than campaigning had been, and I would have had to give up my law practice entirely. Here’s the truth about public service: done right, it’s a huge personal sacrifice. It requires relinquishing your career, your free time, and your anonymity.

Plus, my husband, John, hadn’t wanted to move to Washington. John is a fellow lawyer. We met through our respective law practices, and we shared a Harvard education (he finished law school there) and the love of ideas. The real glue in our relationship is that he’s wicked smart and invariably makes me laugh out loud. We married in 1995, making our two identically aged sons, Scott and Joseph, stepbrothers. John also has a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in public policy, and he’s acutely interested in politics. But when it came to running for office, he left that up to me.

The end of my congressional campaign didn’t make me any more eager to return to Big Law. But what else was I going to do? One thing had stuck with me from the case I’d lost in 2011: I needed to learn how to protect future clients in a public relations war. As it happened, I ran into one of my former paralegals, Tim Fortenberry, who was working as the office manager for the Dallas branch of the Brunswick Group, an international PR firm. Tim connected me with one of the partners, who told me the firm had several high-stakes litigation clients. The executives appreciated my legal background, and the more I talked with them, the more I became intrigued by the possibilities of learning the PR business myself. Instead of using them as my service provider, I signed on to be a partner.

I didn’t exactly know where the public relations stint would take me, and I wasn’t completely settled on the idea of never practicing law again. But I came to think of the new job as a trial separation from my legal work.

The PR firm put out a high-quality publication called The Review. It covered topics related to corporate reputation management, such as how to handle crises, how to talk about social change, and how to reach different stakeholders. When the call went out to the partners to pitch ideas for the next quarter’s issue, I suggested an interview with T. Boone Pickens. I knew that the senior partner in the PR firm, a former Wall Street Journal financial reporter, would love the idea of interviewing Pickens. I also felt that Pickens’ general counsel, Sandy Camp- bell, would help me get the interview.

Back when I was still a partner at the law firm, I’d crossed paths with Pickens once again, this time more directly than I had decades earlier working as a software programmer. In about 2007, Campbell had hired my firm to represent Pickens in an oil and gas lease dispute. The senior partner on the account wasn’t able to take on the case right then, so it fell to me to handle. It was another example of how taking every opportunity pays off, because the case established my client relationship with Pickens and ultimately led to the Red Bull case years later. Pickens had invested with a company drilling in the Barnett Shale, northwest of Fort Worth, where the fracking boom began. The driller had its hands on a big lease in what was supposed to be the best remaining acreage in the whole play. The company was negotiating with the landowner to extend the lease but at the last minute, Chesapeake Energy, an aggressive independent producer out of Oklahoma City, swooped in and “top leased” the acreage. This cut off the rights for anyone else, including Pickens, to drill.

I filed a lawsuit asking for the court to decree that the Pickens lease was the controlling one and that landowners had breached it when they signed with Chesapeake. The court agreed with me, which is unusual for a state court in Texas, where a plaintiff doesn’t often win on summary judgment. As it turned out, the defendants moved for reconsideration after hiring a local lawyer, who managed to undo the judgment.

Still, as a result of that case, Sandy Campbell and I had developed a good relationship. I asked him to set up the inter- view with Pickens for the piece in The Review. Pickens has always been great about knowing the value of publicity. His communications chief, Jay Rosser, saw to it that Pickens was regularly featured in the press on such favorite topics as natural gas powered vehicles, the “Pickens Plan” for energy independence, “Booneisms” (a collection of aphorisms that Pickens perfected over the years), wide-ranging financial issues, and philanthropy. Philanthropy was a big PR theme for Pickens, who had given away billions of dollars by then. His money basically built Oklahoma State’s football team. He attended almost every home game in the stadium that bears his name.

On the day of the interview, my firm’s senior PR partner and I were ushered into Pickens’ enormous Dallas office. We gathered around a smaller table in the corner of the room.

I expected Pickens would give us twenty or thirty minutes, but we spent more than two hours there. We intended to focus on Pickens’ shareholder activism days, viewed from the lens of the ensuing thirty years. But we covered so much more, including many of those Booneisms. Time and again, Pickens would call in his long-time assistant, Sally Geymuller, to remind him of people and places. He had an amazing memory, but Sally would fill in the smaller details if they slipped his mind. She had worked for Pickens for so long she usually knew what he was going to say before he said it.

I was surprised by the attention Pickens gave us during the interview. Most CEOs don’t allow anyone to occupy that much of their time. When Pickens walked me out of the office, he said, “Let’s look for our next big case together. We will have another big case together.” Mentally, I pulled up short, thinking that he had become confused about who I was and what I was doing there.

“Mr. Pickens, I’m no longer practicing law,” I said. “I’m a partner in this PR firm and I’m focusing on international crises.” I wasn’t sure he heard me, because he looked at me and said again, “Chrysta, we will have another big case together.”

I didn’t know what to say. I wondered if perhaps he was mixed up, but the moment stuck with me. Looking back, it still gives me chills. Maybe that sort of prescience is how he made so much money in the markets. When I reminded him of it several years later, he dismissed the incident as nonsense.

After a year or so in the PR business, I began to miss the courtroom. Public relations was fun and I got to travel all over the world, but I wasn’t getting any traction of my own. Plus, I wanted two things again: to lead the high-stakes commercial cases I had handled before I left Big Law and to offer opportunities to other women. I knew that my first objective would be easier to accomplish if I went back to a big firm, but I also knew that the second wouldn’t happen if I did. I decided to go it alone, starting The Castañeda Firm in July 2014. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

One of the first things I did after opening my doors was schedule a lunch meeting with Sandy Campbell at a restaurant near Pickens’ office. I told him about my plans and how I was trying to build my own law firm from the ground up. He was encouraging, and he mentioned that Pickens might have “a small contract matter” that they could have me evaluate. He planned to meet the potential adversary a few weeks later, and they would know for sure whether or not it would head to litigation. It involved a drilling prospect in West Texas known as the Red Bull.