“I heard from one arbitrator with 55 years’ experience who said he had never arbitrated in a more comfortable environment than our courtroom.”
What looks like a courtroom and also happens to be one of the most popular arbitration venues in Houston?
It can be found on the 24th floor of Vinson & Elkin’s headquarters: a 5,500-square-foot space complete with a mock courtroom, smaller breakout rooms, a food service area, and a reception area.
The unique space, which also includes state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment, dates back to 1989.
“At the time, we thought it would be valuable for training, because you like to give new lawyers the experience of what it’s like to stand up in front of 12 people and try to persuade them of something,” recalled legendary V&E trial attorney Harry Reasoner, whose statue stands in the courtroom’s reception area.
The courtroom was designed by Morris Architects and features a judge’s bench, attorney’s tables and a portable witness stand, along with enough seating for 100 observers during mock trials. It originally included a jury platform, but V&E ultimately chose to remove it — though seats can still be arranged in a jury-like configuration — to allow for more flexibility as the room became more popular for arbitration proceedings.
“When we use it for arbitrations, the judge’s bench is moved and then the lawyer tables are used as arbitrators’ tables, facing each other,” explained Commercial & Business Litigation partner Pat Mizell.
“It’s so highly regarded that our opponents are willing to conduct the arbitration in our offices,” Reasoner added.
The room lends itself to arbitrations for a number of reasons, said Chris Popov, also a Commercial & Business Litigation partner.
“Having the breakout rooms and food catered, with all of our AV services being right there on site, just make hosting an arbitration a really seamless operation,” Popov said. “I heard from one arbitrator with 55 years’ experience who said he had never arbitrated in a more comfortable environment than our courtroom.”
V&E attorneys participating in arbitrations in the room also benefit from being just an elevator ride away from their own desks and support staff. “It’s immensely convenient to have your entire support staff just a few floors away in the event that you’ve got to generate a document, create a graph or just run back to your desk and tend to another matter promptly,” Popov said.
Hosting arbitrations at the V&E office, as opposed to a hotel or vendor’s space, also allows arbitration proceedings to run later into the day to accommodate witnesses’ and clients’ schedules. Popov took advantage of that during a recent two-week arbitration that included 13 witness examinations that sometimes ran past 7 p.m.
Popov and his team went on to win a complete defense verdict in that case, but the flexibility to conduct arbitrations well into the evening does come with one minor risk: snoozing witnesses.
“There was one expert for the other side during an examination that was going late into the day,” Popov recalled. “I remember him falling asleep on the witness stand. That was memorable.”
Of course, most visitors to the courtroom are far more energetic, especially summer associates, who are duly impressed by the setup.
“Summer associates who are seeing it for the first time will say things like, ‘Wow, it’s really cool,’ and then they want to know what we do there,” Popov said. “It’s a great opportunity to talk about trial training programs that happen in there, preliminary to mock trials, and then the arbitrations that happen in there as well.”
“When you’re experiencing big law for the first time,” he added, “you start to get a sense of the level of investment in excellence.”