BigLaw partner investigated in boat crash on eve of firm retreat

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Douglas E. McWilliams profile.

Douglas E. McWilliams is a Houston partner in the Vinson & Elkins law firm.

A practice group leader at Vinson & Elkins is under investigation by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department after crashing a boat carrying five of his partners, leaving the scene to get help, and then disappearing for about five hours.

The lawyer under investigation is Douglas E. McWilliams, head of the equity capital markets practice at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, report the Wall Street Journal, the Austin American-Statesman and the American Lawyer.

A judge signed a felony arrest warrant on June 21, but recalled it a day later after McWilliams’ lawyer asked for time to persuade Travis County, Texas, prosecutors that charges aren’t warranted. McWilliams has provided affidavits from 17 people supporting his story.

The incident occurred on May 10, at McWilliams’ home overlooking Lake Travis outside Austin, according to the articles. A firm retreat was scheduled for the next day, and a group of Vinson & Elkins lawyers were at the home. They learned after 10 p.m. that the shuttle bus that was supposed to take them to the hotel had broken down, so McWilliams offered to take five of the partners to the hotel in his boat.

The boat crashed into a peninsula. According to McWilliams, he dislocated his shoulder when he was thrown from the boat and he left the scene to get help. The pain from his shoulder and the shock of the incident apparently caused him to faint or pass out, he said. He didn’t know how much time had passed when he rang the buzzer of a nearby estate at 4 a.m.

A helicopter had been called to the scene to take two of McWilliams’ partners to the hospital, but it first searched for McWilliams. Also arriving on the scene were searchers in another helicopter, rescue boats and police cars.

One lawyer in the boat broke her collarbone, ribs and a tooth, while another broke facial bones, ribs and vertebrae, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Though alcohol was served that evening, McWilliams was not drunk, according to the 17 affidavits filed on McWilliams’ behalf. McWilliams said in his affidavit that he didn’t have more than two or three drinks.

McWilliams issued this statement to the American-Statesman: “I was not hiding from anyone as I had nothing to hide. I was not intoxicated when the wreck occurred, or for that matter, at any time during the night, and it’s ridiculous and insulting to me to suggest that I’d run and hide while my colleagues were suffering in an attempt to avoid responsibility for anything.”

McWilliams’ lawyer, Brian Roark, told the American Lawyer in a statement that it’s not illegal to leave the scene of an accident to get help. The game warden tried “to get a warrant for something that is not an offense in Texas and made misleading statements in an effort to do so,” Roark said. A more professional review by the district attorney will clear McWilliams, Roark said.

Vinson & Elkins also issued a statement. “The facts as we understand them do not support this attempt by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to obtain an arrest warrant,” the statement said. “Fortunately, that warrant has been recalled. We are fully supporting Doug and all of our attorneys involved in this unfortunate accident.”

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