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It wasn’t just another obligatory holiday party, the kind of law-related seasonal gathering made necessary by business development and made bearable by hard liquor. There was no alcohol at W. Mark Lanier’s Christmas party — never has been in the 13 years he’s been throwing them. And most of the guests who arrived — “I invited about 8,000 of my closest friends,” says Lanier — didn’t come because they felt obliged to; they came because they wanted to. A mild, sunny December day made the schlep to Lanier’s 25-acre wooded estate, located 30 miles northwest of downtown Houston, all the more enticing. Guests were encouraged to bring their children and their children’s children, who seemed to outnumber the lawyers, judges and legislators in attendance. Arriving by the busload, guests could engage in a barbecue, fajita and funnel cake gorgefest, watch Santa make his entrance by helicopter and listen to the vocal stylings of Dolly Parton. Perhaps some attorneys might have felt obliged to attend out of respect to Lanier, who broke new ground for the plaintiffs bar by scoring a huge lick against pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co Inc. In August, an Angleton jury returned a $253.5 million verdict on behalf of Lanier’s client in the first suit involving the painkiller Vioxx. Lanier, founder of Houston’s The Lanier Law Firm, was anything if not accommodating to the media, granting behind-the-scenes access to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and leaving himself open to criticism of self-promotion. The verdict rocked Wall Street and raised public awareness about allegations of drug company deception and U.S. Food and Drug Administration ineptness. Daily press accounts of the trial vaulted the 45-year-old Lanier into national prominence. Yet as he stood with his wife Becky at the front gate of their home and graciously greeted their many guests, his humility felt almost palpable. “Hey, how are you?” asked one new arrival with a smile. “Better than I deserve to be,” Lanier replied. The dress at Lanier’s party was blue jean-casual, though Lanier kicked it up a notch in black slacks and a cardigan sweater. Apart from two days worth of fashionable scruff on his face, he looked like every mother’s son — a physical asset that plays well with jurors. The party was enormous but in no way ostentatious, evoking the feel of a county fair. Candy-cane balloons lined a walking path, a towering food tent could feed 2,000 faces at a time, and a train chugged around the property picking up passengers at a large red-brick train station. Kids could also busy themselves with bounce houses, pony rides, climbing walls and a petting zoo. Working the crowd, Lanier joked with some old law school buddies from Texas Tech University School of Law, class of ’84. Bear hugs and back slaps all around. His alma mater named Lanier the recipient of its 2005 Distinguished Alumnus Award. “We gave him that honor because he has established himself as one of the best trial lawyers in the nation,” says Dean Walt Huffman, a veteran Lanier partygoer. Lanier also distinguished himself by giving the law school $6 million to help build a state-of-the-art professional development center. “He is unwaveringly supportive of our school,” Huffman says. Checking his watch, Lanier excused himself, trying to make his way to the entertainment tent, where he would introduce Dolly Parton to 5,000 eager fans. But the minute he removed himself from one conversation, he was drawn into another. A Harris County district judge asked Lanier about his new Manhattan office, and Lanier told him how he had hired a crane operator to hoist a large painting he had purchased up through a sixth-floor window. “We tried to get it up the elevator shaft,” Lanier said. “But I spent $15,000 friggin’ dollars framing the thing, so I wasn’t about to unframe it.” “Friggin” is as close as Lanier gets to any public expression of profanity — “gosh” and “golly” being more likely expletives. Being the son of a minister and a part-time minister himself, he comes by his clean-cut image naturally. Even during the heat of the Vioxx trial, he preached to his devoted Sunday school class, with more than 250 members in attendance. No doubt, being a conservative “family values” Republican has made him something of an anomaly in the decidedly Democratic plaintiffs bar — and a tort reformer’s worst nightmare. “He is certainly different from the stereotype that Karl Rove would have us believe about trial lawyers,” Huffman says. In 2004, Lanier began the Christian Trial Lawyers Association, as a response to the indifferent treatment he received during the 2003 legislative session when he lobbied against H.B. 4. “I began the group to show that we weren’t greedy pagans,” he says. “There are tons of lawyers who seek to uphold justice for the widow and the orphan and value human life.” No doubt, his preaching skills have helped him in the courtroom. A compelling storyteller who hones a consistent theme, a relentless cross-examiner who looks for what he calls “Perry Mason moments,” an effective communicator who educates the jury through visual presentation, Lanier was the subject of a March 2004 profile in The American Lawyer titled “Is Mark Lanier America’s Next Great Trial Lawyer?” But the impact of the Vioxx verdict elevated his reputation beyond the legal community. His rapid rise to fame, however, may have engendered some jealousy among the trial bar. “Although many trial lawyers have deep religious convictions, they are not as out-front about it as Mark is,” says friend Tommy Fibich, a partner in Houston’s Fibich, Hampton & Leebron, which is handling a high volume of Vioxx cases. “Mark doesn’t drink and that excludes him from a lot of trial lawyer camaraderie. Mark doesn’t curse and that alone may put him in a minority of one in Texas.” Lawyers may have to set aside their jealousy, particularly if they have any Vioxx cases in the litigation pipeline. In the more than 7,000 Vioxx suits pending nationwide, nearly half of which were filed after Lanier’s verdict, plaintiffs contend that drug manufacturer Merck hid from the public the dangers of Vioxx, which allegedly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke in people who take it. But in November, Merck won Vioxx 2 on its home turf in a New Jersey state court. And on Dec. 12, a Houston jury failed to reach a verdict in the first case to arise out of the Vioxx federal multidistrict litigation (MDL), forcing the judge to declare a mistrial. Although Merck spokesman Kent Jarrell says the company declines to comment for this story, Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck has consistently maintained it has always acted responsibly and is sticking to its litigation strategy of trying each case, one after the next. But that tactic seems unlikely to continue, as the first several jury verdicts will establish settlement values for the different categories of cases. With a win, a loss and a draw, the plaintiffs bar is again focused on Lanier, who is scheduled to try the next Vioxx suit in February in a New Jersey state court. At the Dec. 11 party, all eyes also were focused on Lanier as he stood on stage to introduce Parton and welcome 8,000 guests to his home. FINESSING THE CROWD “I was talking to Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who is one tough grandma,” says Lanier warming up the crowd. “And I said, ‘Comptroller, I am not going to be able to introduce any elected officials, because there are too many here.’ And she said, ‘Fine.’ She was too embarrassed to be introduced anyway, which shows great character, because no public official I’ve ever met was ever too embarrassed to get introduced.” In one brief remark, Lanier was able to introduce Strayhorn — a Republican gubernatorial candidate whom he supports — without introducing her, and placate 50 elected officials who might otherwise have felt slighted by not being recognized. Such is Lanier’s ability to finesse an audience. That ability first showed itself at age 13, when he began teaching Bible study classes at the Broadway Church of Christ in Lubbock. It continued when he attended Lipscomb College in Nashville and received an undergraduate degree in Bible studies, and it presented itself again in law school, when he was singled out as the best oral advocate during the national moot court competition. Just as the Bible teaches in stories, says Lanier, he uses stories to chronicle his case to a jury. “The human brain thinks better with stories, which bypass our natural defense mechanisms,” Lanier says. “I try to find a narrative that runs through each case.” The jury in Vioxx 1 — Carol A. Ernst, et al. v. Merck & Co. Inc. — was far too young, conservative and Republican for Dallas jury psychologist and attorney Lisa Blue, who helped Lanier during the trial. “It was one of the most unfavorable plaintiffs juries I have ever seen,” she says. So Lanier turned his tort case into a “dadgum criminal case,” he says, figuring these same jurors would be tough on crime. “I gave them CSI Angleton,” he says. “I told them there was Bob Ernst [the plaintiff's deceased husband], and they had to figure out who killed him. I offered the motive, which was money, and the weapon, which was Vioxx, and then went through Merck’s alibis, which I eliminated one by one. What was left was a hanging jury.” “What jurors get about Mark is that there is not one minute’s worth of fake in him,” Blue says. “In the courtroom, all eyes are on him.” Lanier essentially tried the case backward, first bloodying Merck by proving up what he alleged were the company’s bad acts of deception and corporate greed. He then worked through marginal scientific testimony that only established causation after Lanier presented the opinion testimony of the medical examiner as to cause of death that was far different from her autopsy report findings, upon which Merck had premised its entire defense. Merck hollered ambush, but gained little relief from the trial court. The company plans on re-urging the issue on appeal. But for Lanier, it was just one of those rich “Perry Mason moments” that he strives for in his cases. During discovery in the first several Vioxx cases, Merck had produced more than 7 million documents, many of them damaging internal e-mails, which allegedly showed that the company had prior knowledge of the drug’s dangers before Vioxx was placed on the market. “It’s difficult enough getting 7 million documents out of a company,” says Charles Kirklin, the founder of Friendswood’s The Kirklin Law Firm, which has filed more than 100 Vioxx suits for plaintiffs. “But then refining those documents and figuring out which are meaningful to the presentation of your case, well, that is part of Mark’s genius.” Part of Lanier’s presentation was his 253-slide storyboard, which he employed with great effect in his opening statement. “We used PowerPoint to tell a story as opposed to itemize a shopping list,” Lanier says. “Instead of just saying that Merck marketing overpowers obstacles, I put up a picture of a steamroller and then said it. We don’t expect our children to learn simply by listening. Why should we expect it of jurors?” Lanier has taken his act on the road, giving legal seminars around the country on his presentational style. “Some lawyers are stuck in an old form, and I want to kick them into overdrive,” he says. “Am I worried I am going to lose an edge to other lawyers? Nah, I’m just getting warmed up.” What Lanier did for the Vioxx litigation, says Kirklin, was give “the world a blueprint on how to try these cases. As I go about trying mine, I can rely heavily on that blueprint — and so can everyone else.” So what happened in Vioxx 2? Merck maintained that the jury, by its verdict in Humeston v. Merck & Co., had vindicated the company’s position that it had acted responsibly. Did the plaintiff in New Jersey avail itself of the Lanier blueprint? Lanier says, not really: The plaintiff’s lawyer led his case with a causation expert rather than going to its strength by attacking Merck’s marketing tactics. “You lead with your trump card — that way the jury can see the way Merck was marketing is the same way they are conducting the trial: by playing science shell games, by discrediting doctors who disagreed with them.” Chris Seeger, a partner in SeegerWeiss in New York City who represented the plaintiff in Humeston, did not return a telephone call seeking comment before presstime on Dec. 15. Lanier feels he has made a big contribution by bringing these marketing tactics into public consciousness. “The case [Ernst] focused national attention on the problems within the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA,” says Lanier. “ The New York Times ran it front page. All major media outlets were running it daily.” Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” ran a five-minute segment, he says. As a result of the exposure, Lanier has become something of a legal talking head. “I’m on CNBC’s ‘Squawk Box’ a lot. I’ve had a gas doing the show.” Turns out, ABC television was shooting footage at Lanier’s Christmas party — just as background for a news program that will feature Lanier as one of its “legal gladiators,” he says. Parton didn’t seem to mind: For the party, she had loosened her standard prohibition against taking photographs during her performance. Lanier thought he was going to introduce Parton, but one of her handlers figured the show would have more spontaneity if she just made her usual entrance. No problem for Lanier, who sat down next to his wife after telling the crowd how much he was honored by its presence. Parton did not disappoint: Her rhinestone dress lit up the stage like a Christmas tree. Her voice was strong, her connection with the audience immediate, her repertoire countrified but diverse. “Isn’t this the damnedest party you have ever seen?” asks Parton, looking all Dollied up for the occasion. “They have paid a lot of money to have me here; you will not believe how much it costs to make somebody look this cheap.” THE PARTY’S OVER With the party behind him, it’s back to work for Lanier who must get ready for what may likely be Vioxx 4 — Cona v. Merck & Co. — this time in Atlantic City. There are those who suggest that his Bible-banging folksiness might not play well in New Jersey, but Lanier says “the truth plays well anywhere.” He also plans to speak in short sentences. “Not many people know this, but I lived in New York from the third to the seventh grade,” he says. He says Merck will contest causation — alleging that other risk factors and not Vioxx caused the plaintiff’s illness: His client is male and had elevated levels of cholesterol. “They claim he was one pork chop short of a heart attack,” Lanier says. But Lanier feels comfortable in state court, where, if he gets his way, he plans on trying most of his Vioxx cases. In October, Lanier participated in something of a Vioxx coup, pulling his cases out of the federal MDL and helping recruit what he calls “a dream team” of 350 lawyers in a dozen states who have banded together to fight Merck in state court. “I wouldn’t call it an act of defiance,” he says. “I just wasn’t comfortable letting the plaintiffs’ steering committee for the MDL call the shots. These are my cases, and I want to play with my own toys.” Lanier adds that he has 20,000 new toys just waiting to be filed in New Jersey alone. He claims that, for him, the Vioxx litigation is not about the money or the fame, although he says, “I enjoy the money and the fame.” But to leave his wife and children for six weeks at a stretch is not something he does haphazardly. “I love to try cases,” he says. “Outside of my family and my church, it’s my favorite thing to do.”

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