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At the Round Table with Oil & Gas Expert, John Hughett

November 6, 2023

In this episode…

Adaptability and the ability to communicate complex technical topics in a digestible manner are keys to a successful engagement as an engineering expert. Whether across state lines or continents Mr. Hughett’s clients rely not only on his expertise but his client-first approach. He states,  “One of the things that I try to get through is I’m here to help you, not the other way around.”

Mr. Hughett recommends that attorneys bring in experts early in the process to get the most out of an engagement to avoid missed opportunities, as he points out, “The disadvantage from their side is this: I could have helped them during the deposition by framing questions for them, which I do very regularly.”

Episode Transcript:

Note:  Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Host:  Noah Bolmer, Round Table Group

Guest: John Hughett, Founder at Hughett Engineering

Noah Bolmer: Welcome to Discussions at the Round Table. I’m your host, Noah Bolmer, and today I’m excited to welcome John Hughett to the show. Now, Mr. Hughett is the founder of Hughett Engineering, an industry-leading full-service consulting firm for the upstream oil and gas industries, which has been in operation since about 1990. Additionally, he maintains robust expert witness practice with over 30 years of experience. Mr. Hughett, thank you for joining me here today.

John Hughett: Well, thank you for having me.

Noah Bolmer: Let’s jump into it. You started Hughett Engineering around 1990. How did you get started in the oil industry? How has the industry changed throughout your tenure?

John Hughett: The oil and gas industries have evolved tremendously in the nearly 50 years that I have been in it. That seems like a long time when you say it out loud. I have degrees in mechanical engineering and petroleum engineering, but I only practice as a petroleum engineer. At one point I decided that I was going to be a metallurgist, which is a materials guy in mechanical engineering. Then I got kind of hooked on petroleum. So that is how I got over to that side. I went to work for a large Fortune 20 oil and gas company and that got me started.

Noah Bolmer: In an ever-changing industry, you said there have been many changes over the years. How do you remain an expert? What does it mean to you and your industry to be an expert? It is a broad topic.

John Hughett: It is. I am in the upstream of oil and gas, as you pointed out and what we do is design completions and drilling for oil and gas wells and manage operations. That has evolved tremendously. For about 18 years I ran a contract drilling company and a bunch of oil and gas companies for a family. They owned all of them. They were getting older and so we were sold assets, and I worked my way out of a job because of that. This company was started by accident. I am well-known in the industry and the day after I stopped off in the family offices the phone started ringing with people. “I have stuff I want.” “Can you do this?” “Can you do that?” A year later, I told my wife, “I guess we are in the consulting engineering business.” I have been too busy looking for a job.

Noah Bolmer: I guess that is a natural shift right into expert witnessing. You are already consulting on it. You have already shown yourself to be an expert. You said your phone started ringing often. Was that just for consulting or did that also include attorneys who want to bring you on as an expert?

John Hughett: That did not start. I have always done a little expert work. The first case I did was I think in 1980. It was an attorney who was in the same building that we were in and needed some help with the matter. I wound up helping him. About a year or two later, I did another case for a friend of mine, who was running a large company. They had a large piece of litigation, and they needed somebody to help manage the technical side of that litigation. We had several experts, and I was the lead expert. When I started this company. I had done a couple of cases, maybe every 8-9 months or once a year. Then I was retained at the behest of a large company involved in one of the largest pieces of commercial litigation in United States history. They needed someone to help with that, so I got involved and because of the size of the case and the fact we got out with zero, they received billions of dollars, and we got out with zero. Then the phone started ringing for the experts The experts so that drove down and it was taking on a life of its own, so to speak.

Noah Bolmer: You talked about working with some of these large multinational companies. I know that you have done work with Pemex and other large multinationals across borders and continents at times. What is that vetting process like? How well do you have to understand the legislative framework and all the rules and regulations of all the different places that these companies exist? How do you navigate all of that?

John Hughett: That is a slippery slope. Our little company has worked in more than 80 foreign countries.

Noah Bolmer: Wow, 80!

John Hughett: Again, word of mouth. Yes. Word of mouth only. People call us and so we have worked in most of the countries in Europe. We have worked in Italy, Bulgaria, and Romania. We have worked in the North Sea, Scotland, England, onshore and offshore. Then we worked in Africa. Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and South America. You do have to do your homework to be able to do that successfully. Much of that was engineering work only, which is simpler. We also have done expert witnessing in a number of these countries and each country has different ways that they manage their judicial system.

Noah Bolmer: Right.

John Hughett: Some of the cases that I have done internationally have been arbitrations. One I did was in Vienna, Austria and then I did another one that was on the other side of the world. Those are like doing arbitration in the United States. You have an arbitrator, and they were single arbitrators. Both of them. They were using international Chamber of Commerce rules. They had the same rules as those rules we use even here in the United States, so there were not any changes to those.

Noah Bolmer: Is that the case when you operate over a similar framework and do not have to do additional research for an international case or even in part of the United States where you do not know all the rules and regulations? Do you have to do some heavy footwork from time to time?

John Hughett: The international ones can be different, but as you point out, there are differences from state to state. One state that comes to mind is Louisiana, which uses Napoleonic law. It is the only place that does and so it is quirky. The law side is not what people hire me for, but you must understand what you can do and what you cannot. That is different when you get in some of these environments. That is when you need to get some counsel from the attorney that is retained. You make sure you are not doing something that would be inappropriate in that particular venue.

Noah Bolmer: Let’s talk about the vetting process. When you are contacted by an attorney or an attorney’s representative, what questions do they ask you to see if you are a good fit? At this point, I am sure that your reputation proceeds enough that they probably do not have to ask tons of questions. Maybe early in your career or in areas you are not as familiar with. What sorts of questions do they ask? How do you decide if you are a good fit for them?

John Hughett: I look at it from my side. What can I bring to the matter or to the case? Is this something that I am interested in or is it something I am not interested in? If I am not interested and I turn it down because it is not fun. If I am interested in it then I want to know. One of the first things I always ask on a preliminary call and we do quite a number of those. In their preliminary call, I want to know if they have a scheduling order. I want to know what that looks like. I prefer to get retained before there is a scheduling order in the case because I think I can aid the attorneys. The earlier they can retain the better the outcome.

Noah Bolmer: That is interesting. Do you turn down a significant number of engagements?

John Hughett: 15% to maybe 20%.

Noah Bolmer: So, some but not half.

John Hughett: No, and there are a variety of reasons. Timewise, attorneys hate me saying this, but it is true. Some of them do not plan. They know they are going to use an expert and they do not get me involved until they are far down the road. They have taken depositions and that sort of thing. I think the mindset is well, we can save some money by not having me working. The disadvantage to their side is I could have helped them during the deposition by framing questions for them, which I do regularly. Quite often I listen in on depositions. Sometimes I am present, and when I am not present I I listen in, so I can feed them questions in real time in a position that turns out to be helpful.

Noah Bolmer: So, you think attorneys often are not bringing on experts as early in the process as they should to benefit their case? How proactive are you, and how proactive should expert witnesses be in helping an attorney? As you said, let’s start with their case.

John Hughett: Once they decide to retain, one of the things that I try to get through to them is I am here to help you and not the other way around. There will be things that I have to rely on the attorney to give me information. I would rather have too much information than not enough. Some attorneys will try to spoon-feed information to experts because they are trying to keep the cost down. They do not want you reviewing things, but sometimes they do not know that something could be valuable to someone like me, particularly in an engineering matter. They will not give you something and later you find out that it was the case for a long time. It would have helped you write a report or whatever.

Noah Bolmer: That is interesting. Let’s dig into a couple of the things that you said. Some of that is preparation. The information they give you at the outset. What you hear on those initial phone calls. What are the preparation techniques that work for you? Do you do mock cross-examinations or mock depositions? When they are preparing you for a case? What are the things that help you as an expert be the most effective?

John Hughett: Before a deposition, I have an idea of what the other side is going to ask me because I do both defense and plaintiff work. I have a good idea of what the other side is going to ask. I know what they do not like so I take the do not likes and try to reduce that into questions that might be asked. Then I go over it with the attorney and because they have been listening to other depositions, they have an idea of what they might ask me. I like going over that in a more casual format but going through it in depth to try and do a good job on the deposition. Then at trial, it is a little different so, because much of my testimony is technical, which is a real snooze fest for a jury my job is to educate the jury on the technical matters. Often, I will write a script for trial of questions for the attorney. It gives them the answers that I plan on giving. It can be used as a broad guideline for the attorney at trial.

Noah Bolmer: Okay. That is interesting. I have heard many experts say the other is additionally true where attorneys provide a script on occasion, especially for reporting. Sometimes they give a script to the experts, which of course has some ethical Implications. You mentioned that sometimes attorneys try to spoon-feed the right information to the experts. How do you navigate that in a way that you are not saying things that you do not believe or agree with, or imply something you might not believe is true?

John Hughett: If you were to talk to attorneys I have worked with in court, they would tell you I am a little stubborn. I have my opinions and they are my opinions. They are not the opinions of the attorney, and I have told them that. I said, “If you want to get up and testify that is fine, but you are paying me to do a job, and I am not going out on a limb.” The worst thing you can do as an expert, and I think one of the big pitfalls. Is to let an attorney try to drive your testimony the way they would like it to go. Quite often that will get you in trouble.

Noah Bolmer: Have you any advice for attorneys on how they frame these things so that it is less of an issue?

John Hughett: The attorneys I work closely with me, and it works out well. Sometimes you get an attorney who wants to be in charge. A trial attorney by nature is a take-charge type of person. They want to be in charge, which is fine except they are not conversant in my area of expertise. They need to leave that to my side, and I try to tell them that. If I can get something in, I will try to get it in. However, there is a small window when testifying and I cannot get too far afield, or I get shut down. Sometimes you have a window at trial where you can volunteer something and slip it in. That comes with experience. Most of the time you cannot do that, so you do not want to be too cute and try to do that. That will get you in trouble.

Noah Bolmer: You mentioned that much of the technical stuff can be a real snooze for the jury, do you have any specific techniques that you employ to get around that and make it either more digestible or interesting for the jury?

John Hughett: Yes, I use many pictures and animations. I also use models and sometimes I use actual equipment. I have done some patent cases and have got a couple of clients there. They were happy. One of them in particular, they were a steady client. When you are doing a patent case, it is even more of a snooze. It is like compounding this problem so, I like using models. We did one earlier this year that was quite involved. I had to cut the tools apart. I then color-coded and painted them so the jury could see each component. Another little trick that I use Is to try to get out of the witness box and get right in front of the jury. If I have a demonstration on a table in front of the jury, a couple of feet from them I can look them in the eye and that also helps with bringing that home to them. I can point out the different pieces and why something is one way or not another. That works well.

Noah Bolmer: Do you have any stories for us where your role as an expert was either pivotal to the case or changed the way that you approach expert witnessing, for instance?

John Hughett: I do. Everybody in the business has quirky things that happen and are funny. One of the cases I did some time ago was I was a fact witness and an expert witness. We had done some engineering work for a company, and they wound up in litigation, so they retained us for the litigation. When I got deposed, the opposing counsel produced our engagement letter and said, “Well, you work for these guys.” I said “Yes.” I guess technically I had [done] engineering work for them. So, that went okay. He did not examine anymore. Then at trial, the same attorney was examining me. He said, “Well, you are an employee of that company.” I said, “No, I have never been an employee of the company,” He said, “Yes, you were. I deposed you.  I know who you are, and I have got this.” He produced it and gave it to me to read. He said, “In fact, you are an employee.” I said, “No, I am a consultant. My company is a consultant. Have you read the document?” The jury is already chuckling a little. He got frustrated and cut his examination of me. That was kind of fun.

Noah Bolmer: The lesson I guess is to make sure that you have read your documents thoroughly before presenting them to a jury.

John Hughett: Yeah, and if you can get the jury chuckling favorably on your side, you are making your point. I had another fun one. I testified at a two-week trial, and I was on the plaintiff’s side. I testified and I came back to Dallas where I live. There was no need to hang out anymore. A week or so later I got a call from the attorney, and he said, “Can you be in a trial in federal court? Can you be in trial tomorrow morning?” I said, “Maybe, what do you need?” “Well, to rebut their expert.” What their expert said when he said something was so preposterous that it was just unbelievable. I said, “Sure.” In that particular case, I built a model of a drilling rig. I did not build the whole thing because it did not need the whole thing, just the parts to explain the matter to the jury. I get in there and I am waiting for the trial to start, and the guy’s head almost comes off his shoulders. He was sitting there because he knew I had not been there. I got up and stood by the model in front of the jury and he said, “This accident could not have happened. You did not build this model with all the other parts because you were trying to hide the fact this accident could never happen. The accident did not happen.” And I was thinking this guy was injured badly enough that he was care-flighted by helicopter from the location to a hospital. They thought it was bad enough. Then they put him in a fixed wing and took him to another hospital where they got him stabilized. Then, they care-flighted him to yet a nice hospital for those particular injuries. I thought to myself, “Well, are these doctors crazy or what?” Can you explain why you did not build the rest of this model? It took me aback, but I thought about it, and I said, “Well, I did not think anyone would make such a stupid argument.” The jury cracked up, and that was the largest verdict in that particular state, by the way.

Noah Bolmer: That is good. It is like if there is a flat tire, you do not need a model of the entire automobile, right? Before we wrap up, I have a question that I ask all of my interviewees and that is how important is winning to you? Is winnability a factor when you decide whether or not to accept an engagement?

John Hughett: Yes, I am no different than that trial attorney I was talking about a moment ago. I will have an ego. I guess I have an ego. I think I am good at what I do. So, I like to win. Yes.

Noah Bolmer: Do you stay abreast of the progress of a case even after your specific part of the engagement is over? Do you keep in touch with the attorney and find out who wins? I guess if it is important to you, then you must be checking up on it.

John Hughett: I almost always check up on the case. Another thing that I do that I think is beneficial to someone who has not done expert work. If you are in a jury trial, ask the attorney if they will poll the jury, and see how you did. I want to know how I did. Win or lose. Was my testimony believable and credible?

Noah Bolmer: That is interesting. In what form do you receive that feedback?

John Hughett: In most of the trials that I do, there is a jury consultant involved who does the polling. Sometimes it is an individual attorney. For example, in a patent case that we won, and won large, we were happy with the win and polled the jury afterward. The attorneys were pleased because the jurors unanimously said, “Mr. Hughett won the case for you.” It makes me feel good when I get something like that.

Noah Bolmer: I bet word of mouth also helps you get future engagements. You said earlier that you do not advertise, is that accurate?

John Hughett: That is accurate. We get work primarily from word of mouth. Attorneys will call and we always try to find out why they are calling. Particularly, you get these international things, where do they get us? We are a small company here in Texas. When they call, we try to figure that out. Sometimes they do not want to tell you that, which is fine, but they got our name somewhere. Maybe an attorney we worked with. Once we get into a matter, sometimes they will say, “I talked to so and so and they were happy with your work.”

Noah Bolmer: Sure. I would like to sneak in one last question about billing. Are you a project rate guy or do you prefer to take a retainer? How do you prefer to bill?

John Hughett: Typically, we do not take a retainer. We do occasionally take them if there is something sketchy and that is my call and not one of my employees. If it is somebody that we know like a large law firm, we typically do not take a retainer. It does not help much. It shows good faith, but it does not help. We do have an engagement letter that we use with attorneys because they’re attorneys. They like to use their form, which is equally okay with us. We do have certain things that I particularly like to see in them. One provision I did not have in the engagement letter until a few years ago states that if you do not pay your bill on time. If you do not, you are subject to interest. That helps because then you can bludgeon and when the clock is running, at least you get paid. You may waive the interest, which I have done, but at least you get paid.

Noah Bolmer: Absolutely. Do you have any advice for newer experts or attorneys who use experts?

John Hughett: Yes. This is a team sport, so you are part of a team, and you need to work together. The expert should be helpful throughout the case to the attorney. For the attorney and client’s side, it does cost money to win, and your expert does not make any errors. We did in that multi-billion-dollar case. They spent a large amount of money getting there, but that was a drop in the bucket compared to what it could have been. That was because everybody was working together. I do have regular attorneys who do not take cases without running them by me individually. They will call me and say, “I am thinking about taking this case. What do you think?” That works out well. We will get to work if they decide to, but I do not tell them to take it. I do not need to work, but again the objective is to get the “w” at the end of the day.

Noah Bolmer: Thank you, Mr. Hughett, for joining me today and for all the sage advice.

John Hughett: I do not know how sage it is.

Noah Bolmer: I am confident that it was sage. Thank you to our listeners for joining us here for another discussion at the Round Table. Cheers.

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After a quarter century helping litigators find the right expert witnesses, Round Table Group’s network contains some of the world’s greatest experts. On the Discussions at the Round Table podcast, we talk to some of them about what’s new in their field of study and their experience as expert witnesses.

John Hughett, President, Hughett Engineering, Inc.

John Hughett is the founder of Hughett Engineering, Inc., a full-service consulting firm for the oil and gas industry. HTI has been in operation for over thirty years and maintains a worldwide client base, including some of the world’s largest petroleum companies. Mr. Hughett has over thirty years of industry expertise and is a sought-after expert witness.