The Lawyer with Solid Gold Intuition

Charla Aldous finds her way to big-money cases by listening to her heart

Published in 2005 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2005

Charla Aldous bursts into her Dallas office at Baron and Budd — an inviting den-like room packed with colorful trinkets and mementos from clients — with a mile-wide grin on her face. Just this morning, the National Law Journal called to tell her she has been profiled in its annual feature on the nation’s most successful lawyers.

“You think that matters to my teenagers?” she quips. “They just want to know what Mom’s making for dinner.” Aldous is thrilled about her latest honor, but she’s getting used to such recognition. She has been selected four times by D Magazine as one of the “Best Lawyers in Dallas” and has resided on the Super Lawyer list of both the Top 100 attorneys and Top 50 female lawyers statewide. In the past five years she’s garnered verdicts and settlements worth more than $675 million.

Not bad for someone who was never expected even to attend college. She grew up in the small town of Sherman, the daughter of a preacher. While Aldous was always drawn to law, her small-town upbringing was “not very career-oriented.” Even in high school she was let out of classes at noon to go to work as part of a vocational office program. She explains that “in the culture where I grew up it wasn’t expected that I go to college.” She adds, “It was expected that I get married at 19, which I did.”

But she was determined to follow through with her professional goal. She worked full-time all the way through school, starting out at Grayson Community College, transferring with a scholarship to Austin College, and going on to get her law degree from Southern Methodist University (SMU). Putting herself through so many years of school was no easy feat, especially when she was making the two-and-a-half-hour round-trip commute from Sherman to Dallas every day, going to classes at SMU and working full-time at a downtown white-collar criminal defense firm (where she sometimes assisted Bill Hill — now the Dallas County District Attorney). “Sometimes I’d be so tired on my way home that I would just have to pull over to the side of the road and sleep.”

Her persistence paid off, with some unexpected benefits. “Having worked all my life has made me able to relate to people on a very basic level, and relate to all socioeconomic levels because I’ve been there. Plus,” she adds, “it definitely built character.”

While Aldous was always told she had the heart of a plaintiff’s attorney, she spent the first 14 years of her career on the defense side, primarily representing insurance companies in medical malpractice. It wasn’t until 1997 that she got to try her first plaintiff’s case. She represented 178 North Carolina trailer park residents in their suit against Conoco claiming that gas leaks were polluting their well water. On the second day of trial, the residents presented her with a gold guardian angel lapel pin that they had all chipped in to purchase. She remembers thinking, “Man, I’m representing real people who really need me. It wasn’t like doctors who have insurance carriers who can hire great lawyers for them. I felt like I was their voice and they needed me to fight for them.” And fight she did. The trial went on for a month before it was settled while the jury was out deliberating on punitive damages. Conoco reportedly ended up paying $36 million to the residents, including $9.5 million in medical monitoring.

Following her heart into plaintiff’s work has been so fulfilling that sometimes Aldous wishes she had made the switch earlier. But she says, “I represented some really fine folks and generally feel good about the work I did on the defense side.” Since moving to the other side of the docket, she’s often asked how she gets along with defense lawyers now. The answer, she says, is simple: “The ones I got along with and trusted when I was on the defense side I get along with and trust now that I’m on the plaintiff’s side. The ones I didn’t trust when I was on the defense side, I don’t trust on the plaintiff’s side.”

No matter whom she’s fighting for, Aldous feels at home in front of a jury. She remembers her first time in trial: “I hadn’t ever found my place in life, not in school, not in the church I grew up in, not socially, but the first time I stood up in front of a jury it was the most wonderful feeling. I felt like it was where I belonged.”

While she doesn’t get nervous during trial, Aldous confesses that once the jury is out, she’s “a basket case.” There’s even a running joke in her family about an infamous condition known as “jury-out.” “Once when I had a jury out for two days, my youngest son, Hank (at the time about 6), came in to ask me something. I said, ‘Hank, I’ve got a jury out. You can’t bother Mom right now.’ The next morning he came running into my room and asked, ‘Mommy, are you still sick with jury-out?’”

“I decided from the very beginning that when I meet with people to talk about their cases,” Aldous says, “I want to make sure it’s not just about the money, and if it is just about the money, I don’t want to represent them. Period.” Instead, what Aldous hopes to achieve are policy changes and a sense of vindication or closure for her clients — objectives that provide a much more powerful fuel for her fire than chasing dollar signs. It has led her to wins like the case of Rachael Martin, a $268.6 million medical malpractice suit which found creative ways around Texas’ punitive awards cap and made Lawyers Weekly USA’s top 10 verdicts list in 2000. The case involved a 13-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, Rachael Martin, who was admitted to Medical City Dallas Hospital for a routine operation in 1998. The surgery was successful, but through a series of mistakes, starting with Martin’s being administered four times the appropriate dose of the wrong post-operation medication, she died in the hospital two-and-a-half days later.

Aldous attributes the remarkable verdict in the Martin case to the strength of the facts as well as to the arrogance of the hospital in not taking responsibility for its mistakes. But the amount of heart that Aldous put into the case clearly played a huge role. As a mother of four children, ages 12 to 18, Aldous feels particularly strong about cases involving the loss of a child. She told the jury in the Martin case that “if you lose a spouse you’re a widow or a widower. If you lose your parents you’re an orphan. But the loss of a child is so profound that there is not a word in the English language to describe you.”

Even more gratifying for her than the large dollar amount of the verdict — “I never dreamt that would happen” — was the message the jury wanted to send with the awards. “For Rachael’s pain and mental anguish,” Aldous explains, “they choose $51,600,000. When I visited with the jury after the case and asked them why that particular number, they told me, ‘Rachael died at 5:16 in the morning. We wanted to make a statement about all of her suffering so that this corporation would always remember that she was important.’”

Another way Aldous gauges the success of the Martin case is by the relief it provided for Rachael’s parents, Wayne and Brenda Martin. The couple told Aldous that “after the verdict and the vindication they got, they could begin to celebrate the wonderful 13-and-a-half years they had with Rachael as opposed to mourning the two-and-a-half days it took her to die in the hospital.” Aldous continues to keep in touch with the Martins. She even carries a gift from the couple, a little amber angel, whenever she goes to trial. She calls it her “Rachael Angel.”

While the Martin case is a clear heart-wrencher, sometimes those in need come in a less obvious package. Take the case of  Dr. Lawrence Poliner, a cardiologist whom Aldous represented in 2004. When she was first offered to try the case — a lawsuit against Presbyterian Hospital and three doctors who had joined forces to suspend Dr. Poliner’s privileges to perform heart catheterizations — Aldous immediately refused. After seeing her share of medical malpractice cases where disciplinary action against a doctor was crucial, the moral value of the case sounded unconvincing. But when Aldous took a glance at some video depositions that the cardiologist had sent her, she remembers “getting angrier and angrier.” With Dr. Poliner’s perfect 30-year record, Aldous found it “really obvious that what had happened to him was not about medicine, it was about politics and the good-old-boy network.” So despite the concerns of her partner, Cary McDougal, she followed her gut and jumped into the case.

 She took the case on contingency, thinking there was not much of a chance they would win. “In medicine, there’s so much immunity that surrounds the peer review process that this kind of case usually doesn’t even make it to trial.” When she told McDougal she’d taken it, she remembers him shaking his head and saying, “You’re crazy. We don’t have time for this.” But Dr. Poliner’s cause lined up perfectly with Aldous’ sense of fairness. She explains that “he didn’t do it for the money; he wanted accountability and he wanted his name cleared.” In a perfect synopsis of the case, she posed this question to the jury: “What is your reputation worth?”

For most, the answer to that question is probably “priceless.” That’s why Dr. Poliner was willing to invest vast amounts of money to fund his case over a six-year period. Fortunately for Poliner, the remuneration that Aldous was most interested in was relatively affordable — his belt. Yes, his belt. While that belt — which now sits behind glass in a frame on Aldous’ wall — looks modest, it has a $366 million story to tell. Aldous explains, “Dr. Poliner had lost so much weight over the six years that the case had been pending that he kept hammering more holes in his belt. While the jury was out I said, ‘Larry, you know we’re probably going to lose this case and my partner is going to be mad at me for wasting two months of our practice and you’re going to be in debt for tons of attorney fees, but win, lose or draw, I want your belt.’” She got the belt, along with a $366 million verdict. The win put Aldous on Lawyers Weekly USA’s 2004 top 10 verdict list — a list she had hit just four years earlier with the Martin case. But most gratifying for Aldous was the effect she feels the case had on the medical profession. “When I’ve spoken at health law seminars since the case, I’ve been told that the win has helped move the peer review process toward strictly being about medicine as opposed to politics or the good-old-boy network.”

Aldous is not fond of the politics that can turn up in her own profession, either. This aversion made her particularly cautious about her decision to move to a large firm like Baron and Budd. “I don’t care how much you like the partners,” she says, “if there’s more than two of you, in my opinion it’s going to get political to some extent and I just want to practice law.” But after meeting with some of the attorneys at Baron and Budd and collaborating with the firm on an asbestos case earlier this year, Aldous was convinced that it was a perfect fit. Since joining as special counsel in April, she has been ecstatic. She describes the firm as being “completely client-centered” and a “cooperative team where everyone’s important — the phone roster is even by first name.” She calls it “one of the most wonderful environments I’ve ever worked in.”

There’s a fanciful statuette of a lady that sits on Aldous’ desk with a plaque below it reading “Drama Queen” (a gift from fellow attorney and friend Paula Sweeney). “DQ” is a name she earned during the Poliner case. Laughing, she recalls how “the judge took us all back into his chambers and said he didn’t want me to look at the jury, he didn’t want me to gasp with the jury, he wanted me to settle myself down. And I said, ‘I don’t think I was doing all that.’ He told me, ‘Charla, I was on the bench and I could hear you.’” After the verdict, the judge nicknamed Aldous “DQ.” “It may seem like drama,” she contends good-naturedly, “but I really feel it.”

Not surprisingly, Aldous has often been told she gets too emotionally involved in her cases. Her response? “There’s no question that I get emotionally involved, but I’ve decided that it’s when I’m not emotionally involved with my cases that I need to find a new profession.” Her philosophy of caring is not just confined to work. Even going about her daily life, Aldous feels that “if I ever pass a homeless person and something in me doesn’t catch, then I’ve lost my sense of values.” She describes the typical scene when she does encounter someone living on the streets. “My kids say, ‘Oh, great, here she goes’ and then as I go to give [the homeless person] money I hear, ‘Mom, they’re just going to spend it on alcohol.’ My reply is ‘You know what, if it numbs their pain a little bit, if I can help them, then that’s fine. I don’t care. There are those who’ve had a tougher row to hoe than we have, and we need to help them.”

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