The Organizational Genius of Dara Hegar
The young Houston lawyer’s trial-prep proficiency landed her the role of managing attorney for the firm’s national asbestos practice
Published in 2013 Texas Rising Stars magazine
By Beth Taylor on March 8, 2013
Q: I understand you had an interesting experience shortly after coming to work at The Lanier Law Firm.
A: I had been working here for three weeks. My first year out of law school, I [had] clerked at the Court of Appeals. Literally, [this] was my second year of working, but my first real “lawyer job,” so to speak. I happened to be at the receptionist desk when Mark [Lanier] and another one of the lawyers at our firm were walking out. He said, “Hey, you”—because he didn’t know my name yet. He goes, “Have you ever seen a voir dire?” I said, “No, sir.” He goes, “Well, come with me. I’m getting ready to do one.” We went down to the Harris County Courthouse. I was really there just to observe. The plan was for Mark just to do voir dire for [trial lawyer] John O’Quinn because John was sick at the time.
At some point early in the afternoon, the defense lawyer managed to tick Mark off. John O’Quinn had been begging Mark, “Hey, Mark, you’ve got try this case for me.” Mark’s like, “No, John, there are hundreds of depositions, there are a ton of witnesses; it’s going to be an eight-week trial. I don’t know anything about it and opening statement’s tomorrow; I can’t do it.”
Once this other lawyer decided to tweak Mark a little bit, Mark turned to John and said, “All right, I’ll do it.” … Mark gathered one other lawyer from our firm and me, and he said, “OK, I don’t care what you’re doing for the next couple months: We’re going to trial. Get everyone to the office tonight at five o’clock. … I thought, “Wow, I don’t remember learning about this in law school.” It was a fast and furious couple of months, but it was an amazing experience. We literally were in trial for the next eight weeks.
Q: That first night must have been a long one.
A: We don’t sleep much during trial, anyway. But on that one, we really did not sleep at all. It was a lot of fun and it was an incredible learning experience.
Q: And a success?
A: We won … was it $7 million? … against Exxon. It was a benzene-contamination case, and Exxon—well, one of its predecessors—had an oil well that had a blowout in the aquifer. And the benzene from the blowout had leaked down the aquifer and into the water wells of the subdivision. We had several clients with cancer and different infections.
Q: How did you become interested in personal injury law?
A: I sort of just fell into it. I really wanted to do appellate law. I got out of law school and I went to clerk at the Court of Appeals. I really enjoyed it. It was a nice mix of civil and criminal, and it was very interesting. Of course, your clerkship ends and you need to go out and make a little bit more money because you’re just kind of on the heels of graduating from law school.
I fell into this position, and at the time, I was the ninth attorney at our law firm. I was hired on to do asbestos work; and, literally, that story that I told you about that Exxon trial … changed the direction of even where I was going in the firm, because I started doing that trial work. It turns out that Mark and I, and another one of the lawyers, Bob [Leone], just really work well together.
After that, we all became part of the trial team and I got to … start working on all of Mark’s cases. I basically became his right-hand associate. I fell into this amazing position and got to work with one of the best trial lawyers in the country.
Q: And you’re involved with the asbestos cases?
A: I am. Obviously, we’ve done several mesothelioma trials throughout the 13 years that I’ve been here. It’s a very large job and one I’m very honored to have. We have almost a thousand mesothelioma cases. I’m managing attorney for the two Houston offices in the asbestos department. We have asbestos lawyers in New York, here in Houston and in Los Angeles. … What I’m really excited about is where we’re going with our asbestos department. We’ve developed several trial teams. We’ll be able to be in trial at multiple locations across the nation.
Q: Is asbestos litigation the majority of your firm’s work?
A: It’s definitely the largest practice area. We have a very large pharmaceutical practice as well.
Q: You worked on the nation’s first Vioxx case?
A: Vioxx was amazing—you know, being involved with … our big three cases. The first one was the largest one, that made the most news, the $253 million verdict. I had just come back from maternity leave, having my first child. I’d been back three weeks when we started that trial. It was actually a very big turning point for our firm in general, because it was … the first Vioxx case, so it garnered a ton of media attention.
It’s a case where we did things decidedly different in terms of presentation: utilizing technology, and PowerPoint, in different ways that went on to make a lot of news. Frankly, when you go up against a pharmaceutical company, your defendant is very different. It’s a big powerhouse, and they can go at you multiple ways, not just in a courtroom but in the media. … It was really a war on many fronts, and it was phenomenal to be involved, obviously, with such a successful outcome.
The second Vioxx trial was about 10 weeks long and the third one was 12 weeks long, and we tried those in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with successful results. It was a wonderful experience to be part of such a historic litigation.
Mark’s PowerPoint in that first Vioxx trial … told a story. It was set in a storyboard format versus the traditional bullet-point format. There were more pictures, and it was a development instead of lists. Not one, two, and three. To be able to pull the jury in and tell them a story versus giving them a recitation of facts really was fantastic. It really revolutionized the way we do cases.
Q: The way your firm does cases or other firms as well?
A: Definitely at our firm, and I’ve seen that now a lot more [at other firms] since the Vioxx case. Over the last, particularly, the last four years, you’ve seen people really broaden their technology scope in trials and in presentations.
Q: What was your role in that first Vioxx case?
A: The same thing I’m doing now for Mark in trial: second-chairing … coordinating all the documents, helping prepare, giving Mark what he needs—the ammo he needs for his examinations—making sure all the legal ends are tied up, and making sure everyone else is working on teams.
Q: I understand that you also serve as treasurer for your husband, state Sen. Glenn Hegar. Is there ever any conflict of opinions over your husband’s political positions as a conservative politician and yours as a trial attorney?
A: What I try to keep in mind is that the constituents have elected my husband and not me. That helps me keep things in perspective. Luckily, I am one of his constituents, and I do voice my opinion. It counts as one constituent, just like everybody else, and so there are times that he’s voted in ways that I may have not voted the same. But I’m not the elected official, he is.
Q: Do you generally try to avoid those touchy topics?
A: Oh no, no, no. We don’t avoid them; we talk about them, and he knows where I stand on some issues. Sometimes it makes for lively discussion. I think he’s fabulous at what he does.
Q: Did the big tort reform bill in 2004 affect your practice, or not too much?
A: For all intents and purposes, medical malpractice is basically dead in Texas. Although we didn’t have a ton of those cases, we did have some. And we still get a lot of phone calls about medical malpractice issues, but now we’re just unable to take those cases.
Q: You also have three kids—do you have more hours in your day than other people?
A: I am surrounded by wonderful people, and I’m kind of an organizational nut, so that helps. It’s funny, my oldest daughter … was born right before the first Vioxx case. She turned 1 right at the beginning of our second Vioxx case, and she turned 2 right after our third Vioxx case. She lived through the Vioxx wars; luckily, she doesn’t remember mom being gone a little bit during that time.
Q: If you have spare time, what do you like to do?
A: On those rare occasions, we do enjoy traveling very much. … In my younger days I’ve been lucky enough to travel out of the country. I’ve been to Russia, which is incredibly interesting. I was in a leadership program in high school, and the nationwide program picked certain people to go on basically an ambassadorship-type program. The Soviet Union fell about three weeks after I came home.
It was one of those moments I look back on my life and say … it was a pivotal moment where I was changed.
Q: What made it so memorable?
A: To be an 18-year-old kid who’s just come out of high school, you realized the sheltered view that you had on the world. It really helped me [to] not take things for granted, and to be very thankful for everything that I had, but [also] what our country has. It also taught me that there is a whole different culture and a whole different way that people live, and to appreciate those differences.
Q: Are you originally from Texas?
A: I was born in the Houston area. I grew up here.
Q: What do you love about Houston?
A: The big draw is family, because most of my family is here, as well as my husband’s now. I’ve always loved Houston. It’s a very friendly place and, doing as much traveling as I have, there are not that many places that are as friendly as Houston.
Q: Any early influences and mentors?
A: Obviously, Mark is number one and [has been] instrumental in everything that I’ve done in the law. So much of everything that I do and what I have has come from what Mark has enabled me to do. Another one is Dr. Robert Leone, another lawyer here and a dear friend of mine.
Q: What do you like best about your job?
A: Every case is different; every factual situation is different. I love going to trial. It doesn’t get any more exciting than that. I love being able to work with so many of the lawyers in our office, and the different cases and the different practice areas, because it kind of gives me a sneak peek into all the different areas. I am never bored.
Q: Sounds like a fascinating practice.
A: I tell you what: It is amazing. I look back on it and just realize how lucky I am to have been in the right place at the right time, standing at the receptionist desk way back when.
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