Attorneys are competitive by nature, and many like to brag about their worthwhile contributions and hard-earned accomplishments. Many can say they’ve won a major case or landed a big client. Some can point to a multi-million-dollar judgment. Although Zach Hughes can claim several kudos on that list, he’s also done something few other lawyers have done: he’s stared down a five-time Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star.
Hughes, who was raised in Houston, attended Vanderbilt University, where he studied speech communication and pitched for the Vanderbilt Commodores. The first batter he faced in the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament during his freshman season was none other than the University of Tennessee’s Todd Helton, who went on to enjoy a seventeen-year career with the Colorado Rockies with a career batting average of .316, including a National League batting title in 2000.
Hughes never made the big leagues, although he jokes that his earned run average (ERA) was twice as high as his GPA, but he enjoyed toeing the rubber across from the best competitors in college sports. “I’m grateful that I got to pitch in front of big crowds and face future major leaguers,” he reflects. Even though a long career in baseball wasn’t in the cards, Hughes loved just being a part of the game—and that’s something he’s carried into his work as a lawyer.
ERA jokes aside, illness and injury contributed to the end of Hughes’s MLB dreams. He applied to law school, attended the University of Notre Dame, and returned to Houston as an associate in the Baker Botts litigation group in 2001.
Back at Vanderbilt, Hughes wasn’t a scholarship athlete or a recruited player. After being accepted and enrolling as a student at Vanderbilt, he went to an open tryout, talked his way onto the team, and let his performance earn him playing time. He took the same approach at Baker Botts.
Hughes just wanted to be in the game, which for him meant he wanted to try cases. So, he volunteered early and often to take low value cases on an insurance defense docket—mostly car wreck cases. After a year on the job, he was already in the courtroom as a second chair. By his third year, he was trying $500,000 cases as a first-chair attorney. All told, Hughes tried about a dozen cases during his first eight years at Baker Botts.
In 2007, Hughes joined the firm’s pharmaceutical products liability practice group, where he put that valuable courtroom experience to use for larger clients. Before he made partner, he was deposing plaintiffs, working with experts, and playing a significant role in high stakes wrongful death cases regarding Merck’s Vioxx. Hughes developed a niche area in pharma products liability, made partner, and moved to New York to help the firm build its litigation practice in that office.
Ultimately, Hughes was ready for a new challenge and wanted to move his family back to Texas. That’s when he heard about a “large energy company” looking to hire a litigator in Houston. At first, Hughes dismissed the opportunity citing his lack of experience in the oil and gas industry. But when he decided to learn more about the job, he discovered that the company, Chevron, wasn’t looking for an oil and gas law expert and instead wanted someone with real courtroom experience in high-stakes litigation. It was a perfect fit, and Hughes joined Chevron in 2013 as part of the team that manages domestic upstream litigation.
Today, Hughes operates as a player-manager. Most of his time is spent directing strategy and working with talented legal professionals at a variety of outside law firms. Together, they take cases as far as they need to go. “We settle when we need to settle, but we’re not afraid to try a case,” he says.
Recently, Hughes and his team worked on cases related to historic operations of Chevron and its legacy companies across Louisiana. He defended Chevron against landowners suing multiple operators for alleged environmental damage. These are often high stakes cases after the Louisiana Supreme Court’s 2003 Corbello decision affirmed a multi-million-dollar environmental award for the plaintiff against Shell.
Hughes says his team relies heavily on scientific experts to determine the environmental condition of these properties and the impact of Chevron’s historical operations. The legal team utilizes that information in its litigation risk analysis for each case.
“Sometimes remediation needs to happen, and Chevron accepts responsibility for that,” he explains. “But we’re not going to pay millions of dollars to plaintiffs when Chevron is not responsible for the alleged damage and/or when we do not believe claimed remediation damages are necessary or will actually be used by plaintiffs to clean up the property.” That was the case in 2021, when Hughes’s team tried a case in Plaquemines Parish that resulted in a unanimous jury verdict awarding no damages to the plaintiff landowner beyond Chevron’s proposed remediation plan that state regulators had already approved, and Chevron had already agreed to pay for.
Although his successes as both a baseball player and a lawyer have most often been on defense, Hughes does occasionally enjoy playing offense. In 2016, Chevron—along with Shell and BP—obtained a $100 million judgment against the US government for reimbursement of remediation costs incurred by oil companies at the McColl Site near Fullerton, California. That judgment was later affirmed by the Federal Circuit, along with a subsequent judgment for $2 million in additional reimbursable costs.
In 2022, Hughes led the Chevron effort in a bench trial that resulted in a 30 percent Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act allocation of past and future remediation costs to the US government arising from its ownership of land in and around the Questa Mine in northern New Mexico, as well as its activities that contributed to the development of the mine and the subsequent placement of the waste rock piles.
“Zach Hughes is in the top-tier of all in-house legal counsel with whom I work. He is incredibly smart and perceptive, but being book smart only gets you in the door,” says Brian Melton, partner at Susman Godfrey LLP. “Zach is able to digest extremely complex information and boil it down to what really matters.”
Melton continues, “Zach possesses the unique ability to stay intimately familiar with the details of our cases, yet still be able to step back ten thousand feet and look at the situation from the perspective of his boss, Chevron’s executives, and Chevron’s shareholders. Zach also cares deeply about each person who reports to him. Their respect shows in their interpersonal interactions, and they are motivated to work hard alongside him. He is the ultimate leader as well as a true team player.”
These days, Hughes iscoaching his kids’ baseball teams. The experience has taught him something about how to work with his internal and external attorneys. “You can’t have nine shortstops and no pitchers if you want to win baseball games,” he says. At Chevron, he looks to find out what each person on his team does well and then put that person in the right position to maximize his or her success.
Hughes’s litigation teams are protecting Chevron and accomplishing its goals. And while Hughes manages a large docket of cases and doesn’t get to argue much in court anymore, he still loves working a case up for trial with his team and seeing it all the way through. “What can I say? I love being part of the action,” he says. Like many former pitchers, Hughes just can’t walk away from the game.
Susman Godfrey is America’s premier litigation boutique. We have been named the #1 Litigation Boutique in the nation for twelve consecutive years by Vault. In 2022, Benchmark Litigation named us Trial Firm of the Year and Texas Lawyer named us Mid-Size Firm of the Year. Our talented group of lawyers handle high-stakes litigation for both plaintiffs and defendants nationwide. We work on both sides of the docket so we know what our opposing counsel is thinking. With more than 150 trial lawyers in 4 offices from coast to coast, we handle the most challenging cases throughout the country. We offer a broad range of creative, flexible-fee structures, which align our and our clients’ interests. Because we often share risk with our clients, evaluating cases accurately is crucial, and we do it early and often.