This content was originally published by Authority Magazine.
“The other best words of advice I got were from my mom. She said, ‘Always do your best.’ Admittedly, it’s pretty standard mom advice, but I truly took it to heart, and it’s been one of my defining characteristics, and the source of whatever success I’ve had. I confess, though, that it’s also a burden sometimes. Every once in awhile, it would be nice to be able to phone something in. But it’s just not in my DNA.”
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chrysta Castañeda.
Chrysta is a Dallas-based oil and gas lawyer, co-author of the recently published book The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens, and a candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees Texas’ lucrative oil and gas industry. She has spent most of her career in the male-dominated energy industry, and her work has earned her recognition and, for her clients, some excellent results. Her $146 million win for T. Boone Pickens (detailed in her book) was recognized as one of the largest verdicts in 2016 in the country by The National Law Journal and earned her a spot as one of the NLJ’s Elite Trial Lawyers of 2018, as well as induction into Texas Lawyer‘s Texas Verdicts Hall of Fame.
Chrysta began her career as an engineer, but soon decided she was better suited to the practice of law. After working at some of the country’s largest law firms (and taking time to work in crisis communications and run for Congress), Chrysta founded The Castañeda Firm, which focuses on “high-energy litigation for the energy industry and beyond.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in a suburb of Wichita, Kansas, the daughter of an aeronautical engineer dad and a teacher mom, who went on to become a banker. So mine was a practical, data-driven childhood. I was quite studious and spent the first two years of my college career at Harvard. But family economics intervened, and I finished up at Kansas State University, where I earned a degree in industrial engineering. After a few years as an engineer, though, I realized that work wasn’t scratching my problem-solving itch, so I went to law school. Now, I’m using both my math/science background as well as my law degree working for clients in the energy industry. It’s literally and figuratively a volatile field that’s impacted by the economy, politics, climate, and now, with the pandemic, public health concerns. I’ve always loved a challenge, so it feels like my entire life has been building to this moment right now.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
I don’t know of many women — particularly in the energy field — who have been the lead attorney on a case the size of the one I won. But, as I’ll be the first to admit, I probably wouldn’t have been hired to handle that case if my client, T. Boone Pickens, had known it was going to end up being a major piece of litigation. I was hired to handle “a small contract matter,” and while working on that, I discovered documents indicating it was anything but. I don’t think our opponents — or, frankly, even my client, — knew what they had gotten themselves into. Turns out, Boone hired the right woman to help him get justice.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
This could be because he was the most recent person to make such a huge difference in my life, but I have to say T. Boone Pickens was an influential mentor. His work ethic, his courage, his willingness to take smart risks and not worry about whether everybody loved him — all of those things made him one of the most disruptive influences in the oil and gas industry. He and I weren’t on the same side of the political fence, but I definitely respected him and learned a lot from him. He also unintentionally taught me the value of standing up for what I know is right, even when it would be so, so much easier to let the other person have their way. The first chapter of my book, The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens, relates a scene where Boone and I got crosswise, to say the least. But I stood my ground. I think that was a transformative moment for both of us, and for the trial. It kept us from making a serious strategic mistake, and it showed him that I had even more backbone than he thought. Strong people respect strong people. I knew I risked pissing off my most important client in the middle of the most important trial of my life, but I also knew I was right and I needed to stick to my guns.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
One of my role models is Jerry Clements, a lawyer I’ve worked with here in Dallas. She always said that you have to get “out on the skinny branches” — take risks and embrace every challenge — if you wanted to get ahead, especially if you’re a woman. The secret to success is saying yes to the opportunity first, then figuring out how to accomplish the task after committing. I channeled her when I first started my law firm. I said “yes” to every matter that came my way, because I needed to prove myself. I had been a lawyer long enough to know that, even if I hadn’t handled that specific issue before, I had the experience and the network to figure it out. And both of those things are critical. None of us gets where we are alone. Don’t ever forget those people who helped you in the beginning, and never stop helping those coming behind you.
The other best words of advice I got were from my mom. She said, “Always do your best.” Admittedly, it’s pretty standard mom advice, but I truly took it to heart, and it’s been one of my defining characteristics, and the source of whatever success I’ve had. I confess, though, that it’s also a burden sometimes. Every once in awhile, it would be nice to be able to phone something in. But it’s just not in my DNA.
Finally, Boone used to say “Never, never, never give up.” Also, not all that original, but as a driving motivator, it sure worked for him, and it served us well as a team. It’s so easy to get knocked down, and it happens to everybody. But the magic is in the getting up, and the staying up. And in the getting up again when, inevitably, you get knocked down again. You won’t stop getting knocked down, but the getting up gets a little easier once you’ve done it a few times and you realize that every setback isn’t failure, and every loss isn’t necessarily permanent.
How are you going to shake things up next?
I’m running for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission. I’ve got a runoff in July to get the Democratic nomination, and then, assuming I win the runoff, I’ll face all the voters in Texas in November. The Railroad Commission has an archaic name, because it has nothing to do with Railroads. It oversees Texas’ oil and gas industry, so it’s really one of the most consequential and powerful bodies in the country, given the size of our state’s oil and gas industry and its outsize influence in our nation’s energy, economic, and environmental policies. I’ve worked in this industry for decades, and now I’m ready to influence it at a higher level than I have thus far as a lawyer. The main issue I’m focusing on is flaring, which is the intentional lighting of natural gas from wells. It’s allowed by law for a few weeks after the well comes online, but companies routinely file for — and are almost always granted — exemptions that allow them to continue flaring for much longer. The result is both wasted energy — enough to power the city of Houston — and an unconscionable level of carbon emissions, the main contributor to climate change. The current Commissioners don’t seem to have any issue with flaring, so my goal is to get on the board and do everything I can to get them to enforce the current law, which will save our resources, curb carbon emissions, and help clean our air. That will have a major impact far beyond the Texas borders, because those are just lines on a map. Pollution from Texas travels across the globe. So, when I say, as I often do, that the Texas Railroad Commission race is the most environmentally consequential race in the country, I’m not exaggerating one iota.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Perhaps it’s just the times we’re in, but I keep going back to my memories of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series. He predicted so much in the 1950s that seems appropriate to today’s events, such as responding to the threat of infection through ironclad border controls and conducting all of our personal affairs from home via teleconferencing. He concluded that science and religion both had a role in shepherding humankind to a better future, albeit one that would take tens of thousands of years to achieve. I have always been a voracious reader, and I spend a lot of time thinking about the arc of human history and our place along that arc.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would very much like to see the reinvestment of our faith in our institutions and shared knowledge. Right now, our need to elevate ourselves as individuals has undermined that which protects us all: our shared knowledge and experience as captured in our institutions. While those institutions must continue to evolve to reflect what we learn, we cannot undermine them at their roots. We need journalistic integrity, institutional knowledge, and experts. Knowledge and experience are how I led the trial team to win the Pickens case, and it is what we need right now to guide us through the pandemic.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Boone said something during litigation that has really stuck with me. We had just received a settlement offer that was wildly insufficient. The other side thought they had us on the ropes because of some initial rulings that helped their argument. But we knew the fundamentals of the case hadn’t changed. When I told Boone their offer, he said, “Don’t rush the monkey. If you wait awhile, you’ll see a better show.”
The expression referred to old-time street musicians who cranked barrel organs while their trained monkeys performed tricks to draw an audience. If you were patient and stuck around until the end of the act, you’d see all the monkey’s tricks for the same money. It was his folksy way of saying our case was far from over and there was no reason to rush a settlement.
I try to keep that in mind in non-litigation settings. The most important decisions we have to make aren’t emergencies. We all make better decisions when we don’t let emotion override our good judgment. Maybe it’s just an hour or a few days, but I have found that letting things ride and not rushing important decisions has served me well.