President's Message: On the Shoulders of Giants - By Samuel E. Bassett

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Thursday, July 9th, 2015

As I write this, my first column as President of TCDLA, it is Memorial Day in a rainy Austin, Texas. It is on these occasions that I am reminded of how fortunate I am to live in a country where we are, for the most part, a free people. I am also reminded of the importance of continued vigilance against the erosion of our individual liberties. Each of you plays a role in that vigilance on a daily basis. Thank you.

Today, I choose to discuss the notion of mentorship. Specifically, the notion that we move along faster and deeper in the practice of law when we are brought along by older, more experienced lawyers who teach us a few things about the practice of criminal law. For me, this topic is personal as I have benefited from strong and successful mentors throughout my career. My mentors have helped me to become a better lawyer and, more importantly, to learn how to be a better person.

About two weeks ago, I lost an important mentor, Bill White. Bill and his partner, Bill Allison, hired me as a law clerk in 1986. In the same week that Bill White passed, Bill Allison had his retirement ceremony at the U.T. Law School. Bill White was a fiery, intelligent, and incredibly creative personality. Bill Allison was more scholarly and less extroverted by nature. They were a good team together, though their partnership eventually dissolved and they went their separate ways in the early ’90s. During my time with them as a clerk, they tried State v. Michael Morton in Williamson County. I recall watching the trial from start to finish. I remember picking up the crime scene photos from the DA’s office in my Volkswagen Rabbit. This was my first jury trial to work on and watch in person. I simply couldn’t understand how the jury could convict on the evidence presented, but for the strong emotions involved. A lasting memory is the sight of Michael’s knees locking and watching him almost faint when the guilty verdict was announced. Just a few months ago, I saw him shortly after his release and gave him a big hug. It was a surreal moment. I would have never had that experience but for the opportunity that Bill and Bill gave me to work for them.

In 2000, I was asked to become partners with Roy Q. Minton, the legendary Austin lawyer who had defended all of the “A List” politicians and many others since the 1960s. We tried six jury trials together. Roy challenged me to make sure the case was scrupulously prepared, asking me questions along the way that would inevitably expose my lack of thoroughness. In working with Roy, I learned to trust my mind in the courtroom. Specifically, he taught me that with experience and preparation, you didn’t need to rely so much on outlines, notes, and scripts. He prepared cases verbally. We would sit and talk for hours in the days before trial about the evidence, witnesses, and prospective jurors. He took few notes. Roy taught me intuitive cross-examination skills as well. When I say “intuitive cross-examination,” I mean listening intently to each witness for openings that the answers provide and exploiting those opportunities. This cannot be scripted. Also, I learned the art of a closing argument from one of the greatest. In the courtroom, Roy could turn a phrase like no one else. I don’t recall him using a note in his closing arguments, which sometimes lasted over an hour. One time, he looked over at me, in front of the jury, and asked, “Did I leave anything out?” His sense of humor and intuition were two of his most powerful weapons in the court. I carry those lessons with me today.

If you are a young lawyer reading this, I urge you to seek out a mentor or two as soon as you start your practice. Why? Mentors accelerate your learning curve, provide you with perspective, and give you peace of mind. One time, after my client got a lengthy sentence in a bad case, Roy told me: “Come on son, we’ve got work to do here. You don’t get to try the easy ones.”

Finally, a mentor gives you an idea of “what not to do” when you have a dozen different strategies you’re debating inside your inexperienced brain. Where do you get a mentor? For many, mentorship occurs by working in a prosecutor’s office. For others, you join with an existing firm as an associate. However, it is more common today that young lawyers hang their own shingles, and finding a mentor can be more difficult. Get involved in TCDLA or a local criminal defense association. I think you’ll find lawyers willing and able to help you in your first few years.

For the experienced lawyers, please open your schedule and your mind to the idea of helping younger lawyers. Demonstrate patience and generosity, and it will be paid back to you in multiples. Become a leader in TCDLA or a criminal defense-related legal association. Ultimately, I think you’ll find that you receive more than you give when you help out a new lawyer. After all, you can’t do this forever, can you?