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“Committed to ‘Paying It Forward’: A Q&A With Appellate Lawyer Katherine Ring

“Committed to ‘Paying It Forward’: A Q&A With Appellate Lawyer Katherine Ring

Fewer than 20% of U.S. appellate lawyers who argue high-dollar civil cases are female, according to a 2021 report from the American Bar Association. At Hicks Johnson, we’re proud to field a majority-women appellate team with an exceptional track record of success.

Senior counsel Katherine Ring has played a key role in our appellate practice since the firm was founded in 2007. Over the past 15 years, she and her colleagues, Marc Tabolsky and Penny Nicholson, have argued highly significant legal issues before federal courts and handled appeals involving hundreds of millions of dollars. Drawing on her federal clerkship experience, which provided crucial insights into judicial proceedings from the other side of the bench, Kate writes and argues motions for summary judgment, preserves appellate error during trial, drafts jury charges and post-trial motions, and prepares appellate briefs on behalf of parties and amicus organizations.

We sat down with Kate to discuss her background, most interesting cases, and commitment to female mentorship in the profession.

You have a rare credit on your resume: four years of clerkship experience with two different federal judges. How did that happen?

After law school, I moved to Houston and clerked for two years for Judge Ewing Werlein, Jr. of the Southern District of Texas. Judge Werlein was a legendary litigator in Texas before he took the bench, and I was his first law clerk. He introduced me to several senior partners at Vinson & Elkins, where I ended up working after my clerkship ended.

A few years later, after I’d had my first child, I left Vinson & Elkins and moved to Georgia to be closer to family. I wasn’t sure about the next step; I was trying to raise a family, but I also wanted to keep my career moving forward. Ultimately, I realized that another clerkship would be the perfect intermediary position. It’s extremely intellectually rigorous—involving a lot of thinking and writing, which are my favorite things to do—but also has a regular, predictable schedule.

I took a two-year clerkship with Judge Gerrilyn G. Brill of the Northern District of Georgia. That was a very different experience than my first clerkship. Judge Brill was looking for an experienced lawyer who could write strong opinions without any training, which was a uniquely rewarding opportunity. From my first day in her chambers, I was off to the races.

What made you decide to join Hicks Johnson?

In 2007, I connected with Adam Schiffer , a partner I worked with at V&E, asking if I wanted to do some contract work for a new litigation boutique he had just co-founded. At this point, I had three young children, so freelancing was ideal for me.

Because Adam knew me from V&E, he and the other partners trusted me to take assignments and run with them. I had so much flexibility as a contract employee, but I also got to work on sophisticated matters with people I really liked. I started off with one-off assignments, and, as my children got older, eventually transitioned to handling the entire life cycle of a case. I became a full-time employee of the firm in 2019.

You’ve been working remotely for Hicks Johnson for more than 15 years. What has that experience been like?

The partners at Hicks Johnson have always been great about letting me do my thing while also keeping me in the loop. Since day one, Andy Hicks, the managing partner, has made a tremendous effort to ensure I’m included in key discussions. The firm also facilitates my travel to Houston several times a year for important meetings and firm social events, and encourages me to participate in training the young associates. I still can’t get over how accommodating Hicks Johnson has been while I’ve raised my family. I think it’s an integral part of the firm culture, though—we all genuinely want to see each other thrive.

Do you have any favorite cases you’ve worked on to date?

At Hicks Johnson, we handle such a wide variety of commercial disputes. One case I’ve worked on recently is a products liability suit by more than 60 Texas vineyards and grape processors against Monsanto and BASF. We represent the plaintiffs, who claim that a dicamba-resistant seed system sold by defendants is causing damage to their crops. I drafted the initial briefs on the venue and jurisdictional issues, and hope to continue to be involved once the case reaches the summary judgment stage.

Hicks Johnson also routinely handles complex oil and gas disputes with significant amounts in controversy. One really interesting case I worked on is set for trial this fall, involving the effect of an administrative order to shut down a major pipeline that sends gas from North Dakota to the Gulf Coast. A jury will decide who has to pay the cost of finding alternative transportation for the producers’ oil during the time the shutdown order was in effect.

Some of my favorite cases to work on have been ones where I’m the primary lawyer handling an appeal or petition for relief. I have two such cases right now: a mandamus petition in the Texas Supreme Court addressing the application of the parental immunity doctrine to a claim of comparative fault, and a direct appeal in a trespass suit involving the migration of saltwater that was injected into the ground as part of an oil and gas operation. I’m very fortunate that Hicks Johnson places so much trust in me to handle these matters largely on my own.

You and Hicks Johnson partner Penny Nicholson are longtime colleagues. When did you first meet?

Penny and I have known each other for almost 30 years. When I joined V&E in 1994, she was a senior attorney in the firm’s appellate section along with Marie Yeates, one of the top appellate lawyers in the country. Getting to practice appellate law under an all-women leadership team—and in a majority women practice, no less—was an experience I’ll always cherish. It was practically unheard of in the 90s to have so many women lawyers handling complex, high-stakes appellate cases.

Penny has always been a role model for me. She has an incredible mind, and her knowledge of appellate law and procedure is unparalleled. She’s also an excellent writer and a wonderful person to brainstorm with.

You’ve had several female mentors throughout your career. How did those relationships impact you?

I wouldn’t be where I am today without Judge Brill, Penny, Marie, and my other female colleagues at V&E. They didn’t just teach me about the practice of law; they taught me how to build my confidence, balance my personal and professional lives, and assert myself in a male-dominated profession.

That’s why I’m so committed to “paying it forward” by getting involved with Hicks Johnson’s associate training programs. I’m excited to help our associates learn and grow—and to see how the firm continues to expand its ranks of talented female lawyers.