Being Mark Lanier
The Houston attorney’s talents include a strong work ethic, natural connection with juries, technological savvy, deep faith, photographic memory—and even acting chops
Published in 2018 Texas Super Lawyers magazine on September 6, 2018
Mark Lanier was having a week.
Within a 36-hour span, he would touch down in four cities—attending a pretrial conference in St. Louis for an asbestos case, sitting in on a hearing in Cleveland dealing with the opioid epidemic, then heading home to Houston for a morning meeting of The Lanier Law Firm’s section heads. That afternoon, he would fly to Nashville to moderate a panel at Lipscomb University, his undergrad alma mater, and attend a dinner honoring his former Greek professor.
The only thing remarkable about this schedule is how unremarkable it is—he does this all the time.
But he also needs downtime. Three nights later, Lanier would be back in Houston, sitting courtside at the Toyota Center to cheer on his beloved Houston Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors. His season tickets put him next to the scorer’s table and a few seats down from the visiting team’s bench—seats he’s occupied for more than a decade. He would be dressed as usual, in jeans and Rockets red—one of thousands of fans wearing T-shirts emblazoned “HOU”—and he planned to be relatively low-key, unlike at a 2009 matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, when an animated Lanier took advantage of his proximity to share his thoughts with Lakers Coach Phil Jackson. (Google “Houston Rockets fan Phil Jackson” for a visual.)
A former intramural guard at Lipscomb, Lanier jokes that he was “short and slow, so I had no future.” But he appreciates the skills required: “Those guys react so quickly. Within less than a fourth of a second, their body’s already passing the ball or making a pivot as quickly as it can be thought of in their brain. The neural synapses are that quick.”
Not so different from the mental processes required of a successful trial attorney. “You’re having to lodge an objection, you’re having to do something in front of the jury,” Lanier says. “You’ve got to react immediately, and generally you’re doing it when you’ve not had any sleep; when you’re not well-fed; when your brain is focused on three different plates, and not one of them can fall while you run over and grab something new. It’s a fast-paced world if you’re doing this on an intense level.”
The 57-year-old personal injury attorney ascended to this intense level most notably in August 2005, when his firm represented the widow of a man who died while taking prescription painkiller Vioxx. In Carol A. Ernst, et al. v. Merck & Co. Inc., the jury awarded Lanier’s client total damages of $253.5 million. This, says Lanier, “moved what I did to a different stage. I could mean ‘stage’ like a rocket, but I also mean ‘stage’ like a theater. It moved me to a national stage, a multidistrict litigation world that I’d never played in.”
It didn’t hurt that the next four cases involving Vioxx were lost by other lawyers. “The bad guys said the only reason I’d won is that I was trying [the case] in my own backyard,” Lanier says, “so I went to their backyard, and we won two in New Jersey.”
One of the most tangible results of the Vioxx win is the Lanier Theological Library, whose soaring windows and burnished, dark wood shelves are a nod to the design features at the University of Oxford. About 25 miles northwest of downtown Houston, the library spans 17,000 square feet on 10 acres and is part of the 35-acre Lanier estate. An architecture buff, Lanier had a hand in the design of every feature. The grounds include the Stone Chapel, a breathtaking reconstruction of a 500 A.D. Byzantine church; and an English village complete with train, cobblestone street and dining hall—where Lanier, a skilled baker, likes to whip up cookies, bagels, and bread for family and friends.
On a Friday morning in mid-May, an energetic Lanier preps for the firm’s section-head meeting in his “office away from the office” in the library. Dressed down in jeans, a blue Izod pullover, and dark loafers sans socks, Lanier sports a TAG Heuer watch, a Christmas gift from his wife, Becky, to her movie-loving husband. It is a replica of the timepiece worn by actor Steve McQueen during his racing days.
Surrounded by more than 100,000 volumes, Lanier, who majored in biblical languages, pulls a couple of books off a shelf. Unlike the library’s first-edition King James Bible (printed in 1611) or the three fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls displayed under glass, these books have more pedestrian titles like Stick Sketch School: Mastering the Art of the Stick Figure. These Amazon finds may, however, prove priceless: They represent the latest addition to Lanier’s toolkit, a way for him to up his already impressive game in the courtroom.
He’s been perfecting his stick figures: “I’m trying to learn how to draw not in the sense of Picasso or Rembrandt, but in the sense of, how do I get really good at Pictionary?”
Recently, Lanier has supplemented his legendary PowerPoint presentations with the ELMO document camera, which allows him to project images as he draws them.
Richard Arsenault, a personal injury attorney at Neblett, Beard & Arsenault in Louisiana, met Lanier about 20 years ago while chairing symposia for Bar associations throughout the nation. Lanier was one of the “rock stars” on his list of keynote speakers—lawyers, academicians and jurists revered by their peers.
Lanier’s honors through the years include an American Association for Justice Lifetime Achievement Award and, last year, admission into The National Trial Lawyers’ Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame.
“Trial lawyers usually don’t go around giving other trial lawyers these kinds of accolades unless they’re really accurate,” says Arsenault. “I’ve taught trial advocacy for years and got a bunch of accolades myself, but he’s in a different league. It’s reminiscent of when Eric Clapton saw Jimi Hendrix play and started crying. I’m not saying I’m Eric Clapton, but he said, ‘I’m pretty good, but I’ll never be that good. I don’t know how he does it.’”
Arsenault has worked with Lanier on trials and has attended his biblical literacy class, which Lanier has taught at Champion Forest Baptist Church for 18 years—and where he perfected his PowerPoint skills. Lanier hired Cliff Atkinson, author of Beyond Bullet Points, for tutoring. In later editions of the book, Atkinson mentions some cases in which Lanier used PowerPoint.
“Mark’s use of technology in general is cutting edge,” says Arsenault. “When his opponent is doing closing arguments, he’ll create a PowerPoint right then and there. In his rebuttal, he’ll use that PowerPoint. It’s stunning to watch.
“One of the lawyers that he was against went to the judge and said, ‘Somehow they must have stolen my closing argument, because nobody could do this in real time.’ The judge said, ‘Mr. Lanier, what do you have to say?’ He said, ‘I’ll do it again right now and show you how I did it.’”
Lanier’s toolkit also includes a photographic memory. According to his middle daughter (of five children), Rachel, 28, who joined the firm’s New York office as an associate in 2016, he can recall the specifics of documents he read six months earlier. Lanier combines all these skills in the courtroom, showcasing his talent as a master storyteller who can weave together scientific data and witness testimony with biblical references.
Dallas plaintiff’s litigator and forensic psychologist Lisa Blue has helped Lanier pick juries for nearly 30 years. She says she can walk into court at any point and know exactly where Lanier is in his argument because of his precision with language. “His trials are like a conversation,” she says. “Most lawyers use too many pronouns, but Mark’s careful not to do that.”
“Juries adore him,” says Blue. She thinks they want to please him. “He never asks for a specific number, but that’s how powerful his presentations are, that he can get those types of numbers without asking for a figure.”
On July 12, a St. Louis jury handed down the largest award in the U.S. so far this year after a six-week trial in which Lanier was the lead plaintiff’s attorney. Compensatory damages of $550 million and punitives of $4.14 billion were awarded to 22 women and their families who had sued Johnson & Johnson, claiming its talcum powder products contained asbestos that caused their ovarian cancer.
These days, opioid cases are front and center for Lanier. He describes the “innumerable plaintiffs” as including everyone from the federal government, states, counties and cities to insurance companies and third-party payers. As for the defendants, he says, “You’ve got the manufacturers of the drugs, the distributors, sometimes marketing arms that aren’t part of the manufacturers themselves, ultimately the retailers, and sometimes the prescribers.”
He and his firm are representing the city of Fort Worth in the federal MDL, and the cities of Dallas and Austin in state court. Trying to determine a mathematical formula for a settlement, says Lanier, is extremely problematic: “You’ve got a massive piece of litigation where almost uncountable numbers of lawyers spread throughout the court system are trying to deal with a national epidemic. It’s got great social need and great social opportunity to do good, but it is a Medusa: You cut off the head, and two more grow in that spot. You have trouble trying to get a hold of the beast.”
Like most successful people, Lanier has faced challenges. Earlier this year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court overturned a $502 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson and DePuy in a 2016 test trial concerning metal-on-metal hip implants. The three-member panel said that, although Lanier made a point to the jury that two of his team’s expert witnesses were unpaid—while J&J’s were paid—the father-and-son orthopedic surgeons later received thank-you checks from Lanier and his team.
“The payments to the doctors was not a premeditated event,” Lanier says. “It was a decision of the plaintiff’s committee in the MDL after the trial was over. I was one of the votes, but I had no idea at the time of trial that such events would transpire later.”
Also, before the trial, Lanier sent a check to one of the witness’ favorite charities. “Honestly, if I had told the jury, ‘When I met with Dr. Morrey, he wouldn’t agree to testify, but he gave me an entire day of his time and he wouldn’t take money for it, so instead, my wife and I gave $10,000 to a Christian school that he had gone through when he was a kid,’” Lanier says, “if I had said that to the jury, it would have helped me. It wouldn’t have hurt me.”
At press time, he had requested a new trial.
Once, when Lisa Blue asked Lanier how he dealt with stress, he pulled out his Bible and read her a passage from 1 Samuel relating to David and Goliath. Then he said, “Lisa, if the Israelites can go to war and survive this type of horrible trauma, then what I’ve gone through is absolutely nothing.”
Daughter Rachel says, “He has an inner sense of calm because he has faith that things are happening for a reason. It’s also why I think he’s so humble about his successes. He says, ‘This isn’t me. This is God working through me.’”
Back in the Lanier Theological Library on a sunny spring morning, Lanier sets his sights on the firm’s imminent docket meeting. Together with the section heads, he will evaluate the firm’s current and upcoming cases. “My life is happiest and best when I’m doing the things I’m supposed to be doing,” says Lanier. “There’s a great satisfaction from doing what you’re made to do.”
You might think Mark Lanier has seen it all, but when he stepped onto the set of the legal drama Puncture and saw a dressing room trailer with his name on it, he could hardly contain his excitement.
The film fan, who favors The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Godfather I and II, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Princess Bride, plays himself in Puncture, which premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Based on a true story, it stars Chris Evans as Mike Weiss, a cocaine-addicted plaintiff’s lawyer who died in 1999 while representing the inventor of the Safety Syringe in a case against a major health-supply corporation.
The film gives the backstory to the 2004 case, which Lanier settled for more than $150 million against Becton, Dickinson and Co., manufacturer of medical syringes and needles. Lanier is a natural, talking to reporters on the courthouse steps as Evans’ character observes, “He’s very good.” The lush grounds of Lanier’s home, his kitchen and the Lanier Theological Library’s scholar’s cottage make cameos, standing in for the defense attorney’s lavish spread. And (spoiler alert) Lanier even appears in the film’s final scene: He walks into the defense team’s conference room, smiles at his opponent as he flips through the settlement offer, and says, “You and me, we’re going to court on this one.” Call it art imitating life.