It is widely acknowledged that challenges provide the greatest opportunities for growth. But when it comes to the law, most litigators would not wish to live that axiom through one of the highest-profile environmental disasters in American history. Frank Monago faced the most challenging period of his career as senior counsel for an international oil and gas company.
“This was a horrible accident that resulted in the unfortunate loss of life and damage to the environment, something that you would never wish on any person or company,” Monago explains. “But from a professional standpoint, you could not have been provided a better learning experience. It contained every type of legal proceeding that you could ever imagine.”
With the benefit of hindsight and some much-needed sleep, Monago—now senior counsel for litigation and compliance at SABIC—is able to reflect on the aftermath of the incident, a time when work/life balance meant nothing.
“It didn’t matter if it was a Tuesday or a Sunday,” Monago remembers. “There were 7:00 a.m. calls and 7:00 p.m. calls. There were meetings with people throughout the region who were affected by the incident, and the work just didn’t stop for a long time.”
However, as Monago mentions, the litigation provided him with a sort of tour of every conceivable legal interaction a lawyer could possibly have: civil litigation, criminal litigation, multiple federal regulatory agency interactions—even a maritime trial, which Monago didn’t know existed until it dropped on his desk.
Given his twelve years of experience in private practice and the ten-plus years he spent in-house with the international oil and gas company, it could be assumed that Monago had seen it all by the time he came to SABIC. Yet, he continues to encounter unique challenges at SABIC, a multinational chemical manufacturer. Headquartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the company was not very familiar with the nature of litigation in the United States.
“I think I’ve been able to bring a better global understanding and appreciation for the US legal system,” the senior counsel explains. “While litigation is a last resort, we will certainly vigorously protect the interests of the company.
“Within the company, I think I have helped to broaden the understanding that that there are times when litigation enables the company to stand up for itself,” Monago says. “Litigation is no longer perceived solely as a negative or a disadvantage, but a real option to find justice.”
A Change of Venue
As plaintiffs in a recent case in Louisiana, Monago and his team were able to successfully try a case during the pandemic with an in-person jury in November 2020. With COVID-19 restrictions near their apex, the precautions and peculiarities of the trial will likely stay with Monago for the remainder of his career.
“As plaintiffs, the desire is to get the case to trial as soon as possible,” he says. “In keeping with our focus on safety and in agreement with the court and all parties, we were able to conduct the trial in a convention center down the road from the courthouse. The judge was on a stage, the witness table and court reporters were six feet away from the jurors, and the jurors were six feet away from each other. Everyone wore a mask except when an individual lawyer was speaking. It was quite a sight.”
Processes like voir dire took extra time, as did providing special microphones for attorneys and the judge, as well as a large screen projection for jurors. The litigation team had a witness ready to testify from the United Kingdom via Zoom, but after six days in court, the case was ultimately settled. The mere fact that the trial was able to happen made news, and the attorney says he is proud of what his team was able to accomplish.
“It may have added a little more time to the proceedings, but I think everyone felt it was worth it in order to follow the necessary safety protocols,” Monago says.
The difficulties created by the COVID-19 pandemic are only the latest in the series of challenges that the senior counsel has faced during his career. But with all these experiences under his belt, Monago is more than ready to tackle whatever may come his way in future.
A Broader Vision
After an illustrious private practice career, what motivated Frank Monago to go in-house? He wanted to drive broader-ranging legal strategies for his clients.
“I wanted the opportunity to have a more complete picture of an entire company and more directly weigh in on the strategic decision-making in handling cases,” Monago explains. As in-house counsel, “you can see how one matter fits into everything else. It may not be all that significant by itself, but it has real meaning for the company.”
Frank’s willingness to work hand-in-hand with trial counsel throughout every step of litigation to develop and advance trial themes and legal arguments is unparalleled. He’s always a highly valuable member of the trial team.
Congratulations to Frank, from your friends at Hollingsworth LLP.