The Accidental Lawyer
Ophelia Camiña entered law school on a lark, but her success has been far from a fluke
Published in 2011 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 12, 2011
Updated on March 11, 2021
“I tell people I’m the accidental lawyer,” says Ophelia Camiña of Susman Godfrey in Dallas.
As a senior theology major at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., Camiña had been admitted to divinity school but discovered that scholarship money was unavailable. When a friend mentioned that she was taking the LSAT exam that weekend and suggested Camiña come along, she figured, “Why not?” Camiña did well enough to receive full scholarships to several law schools and eventually enrolled at the University of Notre Dame.
Her success as a litigator is far from coincidental. A partner at Susman Godfrey since 1991, Camiña has earned a reputation as a go-to lawyer for clients involved in complex commercial litigation. Last year, Camiña’s more than $239 million jury verdict representing Dillard’s Inc. in a high-stakes fraud case was named among the top 10 verdicts in the United States. Her name regularly appears on regional and national lists recognizing top lawyers. While Camiña’s decision to attend law school may have seemed arbitrary, clearly her success as a trial lawyer has been anything but.
Stepping off the elevator and into the reception area of Susman Godfrey’s Dallas office is almost as soothing as entering a spa. Perched on the 51st floor of the Bank of America Plaza, the law firm’s offices and conference rooms enjoy a wraparound view of downtown. Meeting rooms are named after islands. Tranquil neutrals bathe the walls while the entrance’s dramatic red ceiling offers a powerful pop of color. Camiña played a key role in the renovation and design of the space when the firm decided to move from a lower floor several years ago. “We really wanted to design something that did not look like every other lawyer office in town,” she says. That means no dark woods, leather furniture or harsh lines.
Sitting in one of Susman Godfrey’s negotiation rooms (“Tasmania”), the petite 55-year-old recalls her law school experience. “I discovered that I really liked the law because, unlike a lot of things, the law is mostly gray. If it’s black or white, we don’t argue about it because we know what the answer is. But most of the world is in the gray part,” says Camiña, who minored in philosophy as an undergraduate. “That’s where we really serve our clients: in how we take that gray and we present it.”
Born and raised in San Antonio, Camiña was the first person in her family to go to college. Her parents, Armando and Carmen, grew up during the Depression and did not have the opportunity to finish high school. They instilled in Ophelia and her older brother, Armando Jr., the belief that education was the “great equalizer.”
Professor James Seckinger taught Camiña trial advocacy during her second year at Notre Dame and foresaw her future success. “Ophelia stood out because she’s small and kind of quiet, but when she does something, she’s very, very effective. Those types sneak up on you, and then when they bite, boy, the bite is really effective,” says Seckinger.
But it was her year as a clerk for Judge Jerry Buchmeyer, appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter, that really convinced Camiña to become a trial lawyer. “He could interject a story with humor and with passion, but he was also a big believer in the big dream of the law, that we use the law to be able to right wrongs,” Camiña says of the judge who presided over a Dallas housing discrimination case in the mid-1980s that is credited with helping to desegregate public housing in the city. From there, Camiña joined Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
By 1988 Camiña had moved to Susman Godfrey’s Dallas office, recently opened by Terry Oxford and Barry Barnett. In the early 1990s, Camiña worked on Sunrise Systems, Inc. v. Xerox, a breach of contract case and her first “big-time” trial. “It had the perfect dichotomy of big and little,” says Camiña of the case, which pitted Sunrise, a group of former Xerox employees, against the company after Xerox canceled its contract with Sunrise to develop portable computers. Susman Godfrey took the case on a contingency because Sunrise was in bankruptcy. “We had to keep everything lean. I went to trial with one Redweld of paper and came out of that with a $38 million verdict,” recalls Camiña, who still prefers to follow the “one box” rule and enjoys methodically sifting through the exhibits and documents and arranging them thematically to present to a jury.
“It was Ophelia who really shaped the case in pretrial effort,” says George Bowles, who was opposing counsel on the case for Locke Purnell Rain Harrell (now Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell). Bowles also remembers Camiña’s persuasiveness in front of the jury. “Juries tend to be skeptical of lawyers; you have to earn their trust. Ophelia is someone who is effective without being overly dramatic or theatrical.”
Camiña says women have more opportunity to be creative in the courtroom because juries don’t expect—or want—women to conform to the stereotype of the brash, overbearing trial lawyer. “One of the great arts of being a trial lawyer is knowing how to cross-examine a person,” she says. “What you want to do is to gut them, but you want to do it as quickly and as elegantly as possible. And sometimes you have to know when to stop.”
And sometimes, says Camiña, the jury does want to see some blood, as in Dillard’s, Inc. v. i2 Technologies, Inc. “I knew,” says Camiña of her cross of a particular witness, “the jury just wanted me to gut the guy.”
In the case, which currently is on appeal, the national department store chain alleged that i2 Technologies, a software manufacturing company, failed to fulfill its contract to provide functioning software to help Dillard’s make replenishment decisions. This wasn’t Susman Godfrey’s first case against i2 Technologies. A few years earlier, the firm had represented Kmart in a similar suit. Although that case was settled out of court, Camiña had seen enough evidence to suggest that Kmart’s and Dillard’s experiences were “business as usual” for i2 Technologies.
“The Dillard’s case was the most pervasive, the most outrageous fraud scheme I had ever seen a company do. The evidence was overwhelming,” says Camiña of documents like internal email messages between i2 Technologies employees that suggested they were aware of their products’ flaws. Says Terry Oxford, who partnered with Camiña on the case, “Once the trial started and the evidence went in, I felt pretty strongly we were going to win. The question was, how much?”
After deliberating for more than two days, the jury awarded Dillard’s $150 million in punitive damages and more than $76 million in benefit-of-the-bargain damages. It was the eighth largest verdict in the nation last year, according to The National Law Journal.
But for Camiña the victory was bittersweet. During the trial’s second week, her 88-year-old father suffered a brain aneurysm. Camiña flew to San Antonio immediately and was with him when he died a few days later. A decorated World War II veteran, Armando Camiña was his daughter’s first role model, a humble man who rarely spoke about his war experiences. “He taught me that you can have a dispute with somebody, but you don’t have to be discourteous. You can have courage and confidence, but you don’t have to beat up on people. You don’t have to be tough to be respected,” says Camiña.
Camiña buried her father in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery over Memorial Day weekend and was back at the Dallas County Courthouse the following Tuesday. As the trial came to a close, the opposing counsel delivered their closing and Camiña prepared to give the rebuttal. “She did something that I hadn’t seen before,” recalls Oxford, who had given the closing for Susman Godfrey. A day or two earlier, Camiña had written on index cards all of the arguments the opposing side might make and what her response would be to each. “Normally in a rebuttal argument you don’t really know what you’re going to say,” says Oxford, “but Ophelia had the bulk of it done. All she had to do was pull out the right cards, put them in order, and there was her rebuttal.”
Getting dressed for court that morning, Camiña had thought about the rebuttal and about the various life lessons her father had impressed upon her. Once in the courtroom, says Camiña, “I talked about emotional things like doing the right thing, which was something that my dad taught me. I didn’t cry, but I felt like my dad was there.”
“It was controlled passion,” Oxford recalls. “As methodical and organized as it may have been, it was inspiring but not over-the-top. She was very much in control and yet, she was very inspiring.”
Months before her father’s death, Camiña took stock, in a way, of her own legacy. In late 2009 she invited a number of successful female lawyers to form a networking group dubbed Act III in recognition that Camiña was entering the “third act” of her life. “It was like something out of a movie,” recalls Maricela Siewczynski, a partner at Farrow-Gillespie & Heath, of Camiña’s cryptic invitation to meet at a local hotel. “But when you are invited to something by Ophelia, of course you say yes.”
Once there, the invited guests mingled in a private room as servers passed out glasses of wine and carried trays of appetizers. The group of about 20 women represented different firms and disciplines including commercial litigation, estate law, real estate law, and so on. Eventually the group took seats around a long conference table, with Camiña at the head. She began to explain the concept of Act III as a monthly get-together that could encompass networking and mentoring, that it wasn’t about soliciting one another for business or about grabbing clients. “She really was specific in who she selected. She wanted to make sure that we didn’t overlap [in practice areas] so that there would be a benefit,” says Siewczynski, who specializes in labor and employment cases.
“It happens to be all women, but it’s really just about successful lawyers who enjoy each other’s company,” says Monica Wiseman Latin, chair of the business litigation practice group for Carrington Coleman. “That’s a tribute to Ophelia and the other women who came before us that we don’t have to think of Act III as a women’s organization. It’s just a group of interesting, successful lawyers.”
Camiña still remembers the advice that the dean of the Notre Dame Law School gave at her commencement, challenging her and her fellow graduates to be daughters and sons, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers first—and lawyers second. To that end, Camiña struggles to carve out time for her family, which includes her husband, trial lawyer Jim Flegle, and their 13-year-old twins, Alexandra and James. And it is a struggle, she says. “There is no such thing as balance. I’ve never felt balanced.” Yet Camiña tries to keep up with her children’s assigned reading so that they can discuss books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and she likes talking to them about their interpretations. “It helps me be a better trial lawyer if I can understand how they approach something,” she says.
“Ophelia defeats the stereotype that in order to be a successful trial lawyer, you have to sacrifice your family life. It’s because she’s so well-rounded that she’s such a good lawyer,” says Siewczynski.
“We’re breaking the mold and we’re showing people that you don’t have to be like that,” says Camiña. “That was then. This is now.”