Executive Director's Perspective: A Trying Time - By Melissa J. Schank

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Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and, most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.

—Pele

The Tim Evans Texas Criminal Trial College (TCTC), made possible by funding from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is one of the most impactful seminars TCDLA puts on. Each year I enjoy watching the 80 students commit to a week to learning, transforming their trial skills. The event is a struggle for students, whether solo practioner or in firms, taking off an entire week—as it is as well for deans and faculty.

I will share a couple mistakes I have made and learned from at TCTC. First was the naming of the “Hostility Suite.” We started hosting a hospitality room in one of the hotel suites, sponsored by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Educational Institute (TCDLEI). Some of the best times were had there (and a few that should not be documented). My first mistake was sending the word “Hostility” instead of “Hospitality” to our communication director, who was new at the time and put exactly what I sent. It was spelled correctly, so spell checker did not pick up my error. The faculty and students got the biggest kick out of “hostility” and enjoyed lots of laughs at my expense! The following year I corrected the text and had the signs redone. The faculty changed the “hospitality” signs back to “hostility” with a black sharpie, and it has been that way for over 10 years.

This seemingly meaningless “mistake” taught me the importance of relationships established, beyond just the skills developed. From TCTC, you learn solid fundamentals and trial practices—but also develop lifetime friendships. The bonds that have been created over the years in the hostility suite (and during the course) have endured. So many who have attended TCTC have moved on to speak, serve on our board or as committee chairs, or become mentors and faculty at TCTC.

One other mistake I learned from is the time I asked Philip Wischkaemper to take me to the airport in Huntsville. I needed to fly to Houston at the last minute to fill in at a seminar. Philip asked me if I had a private plane, and I told him “no.” Then, he informed me, I didn’t have a flight. I assured him I had booked one from Huntsville. But then I looked at my flight details—and saw it was from Huntsville, Alabama!

With that being said, I asked our deans and some of our faculty and students to share with us their thoughts about TCTC.

Tim Evans, Dean Emeritus (“a week of learning, a lifetime of friendships”):

As we celebrate 43 years, Tim thinks about how he has been the dean for over 20 years. Tim was a founding member of the Trial College along with Past President Scrappy Holmes. The first group was small since no one had heard about the program yet or didn’t feel the need. The numbers began to swell to the point that the number of students had to be limited to 80. The TCDLA Board voted unanimously in December 2016 to name the Trial College after Tim Evans.

Lydia Clay-Jackson, Dean Emeritus:

This is one of the best things that have happened to the criminal defense bar. The program registration was initially $475 and allowed for 40 students. TCTC has since became very popular and found a home at the Sam Houston State University. The TCTC is the longest-standing group to use the school facilities. Lydia has served as a dean since 1992.

Kerri Anderson Donica, Dean:

I have loved Trial College since the first year that Tim and Lydia asked me to demonstrate a closing argument and serve as faculty. I developed amazing friendships with other faculty and with our “students”—the lawyers who were hungry to be better at representing citizens accused. As a solo practitioner, it’s hard to take a week off, but I proudly and joyfully do it every single year. Serving as Dean is truly one of the greatest privileges I’ve ever had. Lifelong friendships and colleagues to whom I can turn for ANY question are the primary reasons Trial College is quite simply a “Difference Maker” in both your practice and your life.

Lance Evans, Dean:

Lance Evans, who was lucky enough to participate as faculty early in his career, has enjoyed every minute of it. When asked to be a dean? “I felt like it was an enormous responsibility, and I felt like I had to work extra hard to live up to the example that Lydia and Tim have set.”

Attorneys feel a week is a lot of time to take off, but attorneys just starting out in criminal can have a difficult time finding a mentor, that’s why taking a week off is so important—you instantly have dozens of mentors. When you leave Trial College, you have a built-in network you can always ask for advice.

Clay Steadman, Faculty:

How is it different from when you were a student to now when you are on faculty? Why is it important to serve as a faculty for Trial College? Why is it important for attorneys to attend?

Trial College can be a very humbling experience. When I was a student, I had been licensed about 10 years and had a fair amount of criminal defense trial experience. I thought I was a good defense attorney, but what I learned during that week was that good criminal defense attorneys are always learning, adapting, and perfecting their trial skills. When I got back from Trial College as a student, I worked to get better using the information and feedback I received during that week. To me, one of the most important things to take away from Trial College is that you are always learning and developing your trial skills, whether you are a student or a faculty member. Attending Trial College as a student was one of the best experiences I have had during my career as a criminal defense attorney, and the same can be said for being a faculty member over the last several years.

I believe it is a privilege to be asked to serve as faculty at Trial College, and I am very grateful that I have been asked to serve on the faculty the last several years. It is a great feeling to help and advise the future generation of criminal defense attorneys. I had great instructors when I was at Trial College, and I know the impact that they had on me over 15 years ago, so I believe when we have the opportunity to “pay it forward,” so to speak, we should seize that opportunity and make the most of it. As a profession, we are only as good as the next generation that follows us, so from my perspective I want to do what I can to make sure that the next generation of criminal defense attorneys are skilled trial lawyers.

Trial College will help any lawyer, of any skill and experience level, become a more complete and accomplished criminal defense attorney. The friends you make at Trial College will become lasting relationships and people you can rely on in the future. Like I said before, even serving on the faculty now, I am still learning each time I attend Trial College. This program and its success speaks for itself, and it’s been producing some of the best criminal defense attorneys in Texas for the last 43 years. If you have the opportunity to attend Trial College, take it and embrace the experience. It is the best decision you will ever make for your career as a criminal defense attorney.

Sarah Roland, Faculty:

I asked Sarah to share with me her fondest memories of TCTC as a student and now a faculty member. I also asked why she attended as a student.

These aren’t really “lawyer” experiences, but they are the most memorable. In 2007, I was a student at Trial College. The Sunday morning before I started driving down to Huntsville, my now husband proposed to me! I learned a lot and made some great friends but was understandably distracted. Then, several years later I was on faculty at Trial College and found out I was pregnant with our daughter.

I was told by some well-respected veteran lawyers that attending Trial College was the thing to do. I could tell at the time it was valuable for building professional relationships and trial skills.

The exercises and the practice of doing the exercises with feedback are most valuable. I would say the trial college is for anyone who wants to get better. As a faculty member, I still get better every time I come. There is always something to learn or refine no matter how long you have been practicing. There is always room to improve.

Randy Wilson, Faculty:

What changes have you seen over the past twenty years?

I have seen a difference in the change of students—years ago, students did not put forth as much effort as the present students do. The student now who is not prepared is the exception. Honestly, most of the faculty members are putting forth additional effort to be prepared. The faculty can no longer come in and shoot from the hip, as the students are well prepared for each class. There has also been a major increase in the number of women who have become criminal defense attorneys and Trial College students.

We used to use VHS tapes and now we use high-tech digital DVDs. The hotel has changed from a dorm style to a hospitality hotel. My only regret is that 49 years ago the College was not in existence. It would have been a great help to me.

Further, the staff of TCDLA has improved in putting on the College. The College is much more organized, and delivers a much improved product for the students.

I also asked some of the attendees the following questions: Why did you choose to come to Trial College? Was it hard to take off a week? Why did you commit to taking off a week? How did you like trial college after a week, and did you feel it was beneficial?

Simone Bray, Attendee:

I came to Trial College to learn from the best. I was a little scared that everyone would know a lot more than I did, but I knew the program would be beneficial and I knew I would receive a lot of great help to become a better trial lawyer. Taking the week off was hectic with managing my intake calls and court docket, but I knew that I owed it to my clients to attend and become a better trial lawyer. Trial College was immensely beneficial. I learned how to sharpen and perfect my craft, I saw amazing demonstrations from the most talented attorneys, and I was able to fellowship with people who have the same passion as I do.

Loura Proske, Attendee:

I applied to Trial College at the suggestion of our district judge. I have only been licensed since last May, so I am quite a bit less experienced than the other lawyers who practice out in our area. I had two goals for Trial College. One was to learn more about the trial process. The second was to observe and try out different lawyering styles to see what techniques I could adapt and make my own.

It is always hard to be away from work, but being gone for a full week is particularly tough. Thankfully, I am part of a three-person public defender team, and our office has great support staff. Everyone was understanding about stepping in to tend to my clients and to cover the dockets I missed. Even though it was difficult, I think it was worth it. I learned something new each day, and knowing that the program was a full week made it easier for me to set aside my day-to-day work and truly focus on what I was trying to accomplish at Trial College.

Trial College was an excellent learning experience. First, the instructors and my peers offered criticism that was both supportive and effective. Second, we got to see other lawyers employ a variety of style and strategy choices, and we were given a chance to try them out in a relatively low-risk environment. Lastly, there were many opportunities to make meaningful connections with both lawyers who are established in the profession and lawyers who are on the same experience level. Building professional relationships is important, and it was nice to be reminded that there is a whole community of people out there who share my passion for this work.

Tony Sun, Attendee:

The first thing I learned around the courthouse was that prosecutors give better deals to people represented by good trial lawyers. And when a prosecutor gives a bad plea offer to our client, our client’s only right is to say no and request a jury trial. And that’s why I went to Trial College—to learn how to do things the right way from the best criminal defense lawyers in our state. More importantly, feedback is so important when learning how to do something. But when you’re at your local courthouse, there’s no one to give you constructive feedback on what you’re doing wrong. So I knew coming to Trial College was the only place I would be able to learn trial skills, without practicing on actual clients.

In one week, I gained five years of trial experience—because we learned how to do things the right way, from the right people. So I came the first year I could. And it impacted me so strongly that I came again the next year. Now, when I step into my local courtroom, I am confident that my client is getting the best defense they can get with me as their lawyer.

I was hesitant to take a week off because of the cost of being gone from the office and possibly losing out on new clients. But I realized that in order to get a good reputation as a lawyer, you have to win trials. So I couldn’t afford not to take a week off to learn from the best lawyers how to win trials.

Scott Thompson, Attendee:

I came to trial college to practice trying cases against other lawyers and watch some very experienced lawyers do the same. It was very difficult for me to take off a week, and I’ve been working seven days a week since then to catch up. (I also have a new baby, which added a layer of difficulty for my family.) That said, it was worth it. The Trial College was the best CLE I’ve ever attended.

The Tim Evans Texas Criminal Trial College is a hands-on learning environment for lawyers at all levels. It would not be possible without our faculty, who serve as leaders for the next generation of criminal defense lawyers. Students attending this stellar event can reap the benefits through their initiative and hard work!

We are already taking applications for next year’s TCTC—March 29 through April 3, 2020. The application is available online under CLE/Events. If you have any questions or would like additional information, feel free to contact me. We also have sample vacation letters and can assist with scholarships or travel assistance.