Ophelia Camiña learned early in her career to prioritize results over tasks – one of the many lessons she absorbed as a protégé of the legendary Steve Susman. “He taught us all to work very smart, fast and strategic,” says Camiña, “that was his motto. It's not about pushing paper or meeting deadlines, it’s about the steps that will get us closer to the goal.”
Over 30 trials later, working deftly on both sides of the V, Camiña has made it her mission to pass the wisdom she accumulated in her own highly successful career to a future generation of attorneys.
Alongside all her career wins, Camiña has been a longtime organizer, mentor and advocate for inclusiveness in the legal field. The first in her family to attend law school, she credits her scholarship and the mentorship of her professors at Notre Dame with helping her reach the finish line. Now she’s focused on passing on that help. “Mentoring is a responsibility, an investment in the future,” she says. “I consider my work helping advance the careers of women and people of color to be my most important legacy.”
Camiña is a partner at Susman Godfrey, a former member of the Executive Committee, and one of the Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Financial Lawyers. Among many successes in her career, she secured a $239M jury verdict for department store Dillard’s to recoup losses from a faulty software sale, and won a hard-fought $15M jury verdict for software maker GlobeRanger over a trade secret dispute.
Susman was a pioneer in the art of handling commercial cases on a contingency fee basis, and Camiña has taken up that torch. She believes that thorough preparation is essential, whether she’s defending a client or pursuing a case for them. “I cut my teeth on plaintiffs’ contingent fee work,” she says, “where you need to keep things lean and agile. I’ve found that works well for a defendant, too.”
Camiña charts out her plaintiff cases early with lots of document review and informal interviews, finding the facts and determining which depositions and witnesses she’ll need. She learned to use the same method in her defense work.
“This helps me get in front of the plaintiffs’ lawyers” when working for the defense, she says. “I can often uncover a treasure trove of evidence that can help turn a case completely around.”
In one shining incident of this prowess, she was able to secure a take-nothing award for a mortgage loan company that was being sued under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for over a billion dollars.
“The Act is really just an anti-hacking statute,” says Camiña, “but it carries statutory damages for each access.” Meaning those damages add up, fast.
While many of Camiña’s cases have gone to trial and she always prepares as if they will, the big wins often come before that point. Her client – which we won’t name here for confidentiality reasons – had been accused of copying the plaintiff’s software system when creating a competing system. Both systems stored pertinent information for their mortgage loan business, such as the names, addresses, employers and income of prospective borrowers.
Camiña’s first step was to interview the developers of her client’s software.
“I became convinced of two things,” she says. “First, that our client had written their system from scratch, in what's called the clean room environment, which meant they did it on their own. And second, that any similarities between our system and the plaintiff's system were solely due to their purpose.”
The key difference between the sets of software was that the client’s used a superior method of storing information, which made it inherently more valuable.
I can often uncover a treasure trove of evidence that can help turn a case completely around.
The case was filed in Federal Court, and in a “rare move,” says Camiña, the judge entered a temporary injunction, preventing her client from using its software system in the interim.
“This was before we had access to the underlying evidence, so we had our hands tied behind our back,” she says. “We had to act fast and work smart.”
Luckily, that’s a sweet spot for Camiña. Facing $1B damage claim, a lot of firms would recommend working toward a settlement. But Camiña and her team forged ahead in preparation for trial.
She hired Dr. Michael Stonebraker, a highly respected computer scientist specializing in database systems. An adjunct professor at MIT, Stonebraker’s research has been essential to the development of many relational databases. He also founded several successful database companies and received a Turing Award for his database work.
“He was the absolute authority on relational databases,” says Camiña. Still, “we were venturing outside the box. He was not a professional expert, had never testified before. And he certainly didn’t need the money.” He wasn’t even aware of the lawsuit before Camiña approached him.
She flew to Massachusetts, explained the facts of the case to him, and told him how his testimony could make all the difference. He accepted the challenge.
“We could have hired any number of experts on database systems and they would've been persuasive,” says Camiña, “but nobody can outclass the inventor in his knowledge of the technology.”
They were ultimately able to prove that the software was sufficiently different. They got attorney’s fees covered in the process.
Teaching Facts and Taking Names
Many of Camiña’s cases involve complex technology, and while she doesn’t have any formal tech training, she considers that a strength. “If I can learn it,” she says, “then I can break it down and teach it to the jury, or to the judge.”
She strives to be seen as a “trusted teacher” in the courtroom, which she achieves by focusing on the most important issues, not wasting time on minutiae, and “never, never overselling my case,” she says. In this way, she builds trust and credibility.
“If I’ve done my job during trial,” says Camiña, “then I have the credibility by closing to paint the picture for the judge or jury, because they’re more open to listening to how I think they should decide the dispute.”
She credits Susman with instilling in her that preparation and organized efficiency are essential to winning.
“He had a saying,” Camiña recalls: “‘One riot, one ranger,’ which boiled down to being lean, focused and efficient.” She still organizes her trials the way he laid out, with a formal task list including dedicated assignments and deadlines, so everyone has their marching orders and is held accountable – and celebrated – for their part in the work.
One of her other crucial mentors was the Hon. Judge Jerry Buchmeyer, whom she clerked for in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.
“Judge Jerry taught me so many lessons,” says Camiña, “about the art of storytelling and levity, and about how the legal profession demands hard work and dedication. But first and foremost, he taught me to never lose sight of myself. Today we would call it being well-grounded.”
As influential as these mentors were, Camiña has naturally developed methods and a style that is all her own. “I have one associate who told me he always knew when I was going in for the kill on cross examination because, he said, ‘I could always hear that mommy voice coming out.’”
Sounds about right – she is endlessly patient, warm and kind, but knows when to unequivocally lay down the law.
All those traits were called on in a case she handled for a leading independent U.S. biomedical research center (another client which shall go unnamed here because the details of the case, which settled before trial, are not public).
The nonprofit research center had patented an important advancement in the field of immunotherapy and had licensed that patent to a major pharmaceutical company, which in turn developed a blockbuster drug. The pharma company stopped paying the center royalties under its reading of the license agreement. “We read the license agreement much differently,” says Camiña, to the tune of “a big damage number with many, many zeros.”
The center was at a critical juncture, as it had just gotten a rare certification for cancer research and was in the process of a major capital campaign to build a new cancer research site.
Camiña and her team were in somewhat new legal territory, but “we took what law there was and built our arguments,” which had to do with overlapping patents in different jurisdictions, around it.
The nature of the dispute required a pre-suit mediation. “We chose a mediator who was very cerebral, super smart, could grasp difficult patent concepts and felt comfortable navigating an area of the law that was not well defined,” says Camiña.
Steady and methodical, turning over every stone, they were able to reach a favorable settlement before filing suit. And the nonprofit research center was able to continue its work — which included contributing research to the mRNA vaccines for Covid-19.
Passing on the Knowledge
As part of her longtime work championing women and people of color in the legal industry, Camiña has formed two impactful leadership programs for women, Act III and WE LEAD, and served many years as a chair of the firm’s Diversity Committee.
Act III was created to help fill the gap between male and female rainmakers, which Camiña recognized came down to client attribution stemming from referrals.
I consider my work helping advance the careers of women and people of color to be my most important legacy.
“Men do a really good job of referring cases to one another,” says Camiña, “and for whatever reason, women just often aren’t programmed in the same way. I decided I wanted to change that pattern.” Act III brings together senior women lawyers from different firms and practice areas. Rather than simply a way to get ahead in their careers, the group’s purpose was to help one another. “The reorientation taps into the inner soul of women,” she says. “It just unleashed a dynamic force.”
WE LEAD, which operates in partnership with the Dallas Bar Association, is dedicated to empowering women to lead in the legal profession through a series of leadership seminars. The focus is on retention. “I observed that around the eight- to 15-year mark of a woman’s career, there’s a critical crossroads,” says Camiña. “Work and family obligations start to collide, with young kids at home and partnership possibilities at work, and a lot of women end up dropping out of the race.
“I knew that mentoring women at this juncture, reframing it as a temporary valley that we can get through together, would lead to them staying in the game and advancing their careers.”
The WE LEAD seminars include resiliency training, featuring lectures from scientists from the University of Texas Center for Brain Health discussing actionable ways to manage mental stress and overload.
They’re giving working mothers the tools to “have it all.” “You can do it all,” says Camiña, “but you don’t have to do it all at the same time.”
Camiña is also the chair of Susman Godfrey’s Training Committee – which holds its own set of challenges in the wake of two years of remote and hybrid working. The partner track at Susman is six years, which means that some associates have had a third of their careers thus far without any in-person training or work experience.
She’s spearheaded a number of training programs to help these associates get “dirt under their fingernails,” as she puts it, while still remaining sensitive to the ongoing realities of the pandemic. They’ve implemented “Office Hours,” where associates can get an hour of one-on-one time with partners (often on Zoom for now) to discuss anything from oral arguments to career goals.
Last year, they also started a program called War Story Nights, where senior partners impart hard-fought wisdom from their time in courtrooms.
“Most importantly,” says Camiña, “we are listening to the associates about what we can do to better advance their learning and reconnect them to the personal interactions that are so integral to our firm.”
The firm is also launching a session called “Finding Your Style,” which features diverse partners from the firm discussing how they found their individual footing in the field, and how that led to their success.
The program builds on the success of Camiña’s tenure on the Diversity Committee, where she launched important programs that addressed the need for a more diverse talent pool.
“For women, retention is the focus,” says Camiña. “But for other groups that I’m passionate about helping, such as Hispanics, it’s more of a pipeline issue: not enough of them are going to college and on to law school.”
She helped start a Diversity Fellowship for 1L students, which featured a paid summer internship for diverse students to learn the ropes of the field – and stay in touch with the firm. Several have gone on to become associates. She is also a founding member of the Dallas Hispanic Bar Foundation that raises scholarship money to ensure that Hispanic students can attend law school.
After all her success in and out of the courtroom, Camiña to this day gets butterflies on the eve of trial. “Steve [Susman] taught us that trial is really theater,” she says. “With everything we do, we have to think about the ultimate audience. You can never lose sight of who it is you’re trying to persuade.”