While many Latinos of his generation were the first in their families to attend college, Erik Garza was not. In fact, his parents, who were both the first in their respective families to attend four-year universities, have a total of four university degrees between them. Garza’s mother has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education; his father started his career as a pharmacist and later went to medical school. They placed a premium on education while Garza was growing up in South Texas and their journeys inspired him to pursue an advanced degree: after graduating from Texas A&M University, he earned a JD from Seton Hall University School of Law. Today, Garza is vice president and general counsel at ABS Group of Companies Inc. (ABS Group).
ABS Group provides the technical services that marine and offshore oil, gas, chemical, industrial, and government clients rely on to assess and verify the quality, safety, and efficiency of their most critical assets and operations. It is a subsidiary of the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), one of the world’s oldest and largest classification societies. ABS is a not-for-profit technical society that produces rules, standards, and specifications for ships, vessels, and other marine and offshore assets.
Leading the legal department of ABS Group, the for-profit consulting subsidiary of ABS, is an important job that requires specialty expertise, which Garza has developed over more than two decades of practicing law. Prior to making a move to go in-house at ABS, he spent twelve years in private practice at two Houston firms—the first of which remains one of the oldest firms in Texas and one of the most prominent maritime law firms on the Gulf coast.
That firm’s expertise grew after one of the biggest industrial disasters in US history: In 1947, two ships loaded with ammonium nitrate exploded, injuring 3,500 people and killing 581. The firm’s named founders handled many of the resulting lawsuits for the shipowner. The many complex marine litigation cases handled by Garza throughout his years in private practice serve to underscore the unusual legal issues that arise in the niche admiralty and maritime area.
Garza became more interested in the subject matter, becoming a Proctor in Admiralty and key part of the small legal community devoted to admiralty laws governing marine matters. In addition to serving as a past president of the local Federal Bar Association chapter , Garza has served as skipper of the Houston Mariners Club, a director of the Southeastern Admiralty Law Institute and Houston International Seafarers Center, and is a standing member of the Houston Marine & Energy Insurance Conference Planning Committee.
Garza’s work over the years has covered a myriad of incidents and activities that occur on the seas and oceans, including the handling of cases involving ship allisions and collisions, pollution, cargo, personal injury, ship finance, chartering, and even stowaways. “It’s fascinating work that requires one to delve deep in a unique area, and I enjoy it most because the lawyers practicing maritime law are an honorable and close-knit group,” Garza says.
While he enjoys being a member of the maritime bar, Garza is also a proud member of another important group—Hispanic lawyers. “Houston is one of the most diverse cities in America and seeing the success of other minorities has been an inspiration because it’s shown me what is achievable as I advance in my own career,” he says, adding that he’s grateful for the mentorship Judge David Medina has given him, beginning when Medina was a state district court judge and Garza was a summer associate. Medina later served as general counsel to then-governor Rick Perry and also sat on the Texas Supreme Court.
Throughout his private practice career, Garza developed other close personal and professional relationships with attorneys like Johnny Garza, who is now a partner at Adame Garza. “I have known Erik for twenty years, since he was a young associate at a prestigious law firm. He is a true professional with excellent communication skills,” Johnny Garza says. “Erik quickly analyzed legal issues and maneuvered his cases with superb intellect. His work ethic and leadership allowed him to rise in the legal field and today, Erik has become a true leader in the industry. I am proud to know him and be his colleague.”
After building maritime experience at his first firm, Garza joined a boutique firm focused on complex energy and insurance litigation, where he gained key exposure to new industries and insurance markets in both New York and London. That exposure, combined with his advancing maritime practice, made him the perfect fit for ABS, and Garza joined as associate general counsel in 2014.
ABS hired Garza to support its Classification operations for the Americas, including assisting with company litigation. He later added oversight to other areas, including risk management, before taking on the enterprise-wide insurance function for both ABS and ABS Group. In 2021, Garza was promoted to general counsel of ABS Group. He’s now leading a full-service and high-volume department that supports its risk management consulting operations around the globe and handles a wide variety of transactional matters, including client, vendor, employee, and supplier agreements, as well as leases worldwide. Garza’s team also advises internal clients, oversees litigation matters, supports human resources, and engages with Group’s marketing and communications department.
After more than twenty years, Garza is still passionate about the work he does. “I continue to find maritime law supremely interesting,” he says. “ABS Group is the right place for me because I can see how my work makes an impact supporting a safer world, as safety, risk, and integrity management are at the core of the services we provide.”
ABS Group is a global provider of technical services that better enables its clients to operate safely, reliably, efficiently, and in compliance with applicable regulations and standards. The company also values safety internally and, as of this writing, has gone more than 2,300 days without a lost time incident. While COVID-19 and other events had a major impact on the marine and energy industries in 2021, shipbuilding is rebounding as cleaner fuels and sustainability push further into the mainstream and major energy projects are coming back online as the price of oil continues to increase, and Garza says his team is ready for big things in 2022 and beyond.