September 01, 2015

Caught in Traffic: Learning Judgment on the Fly

What a young lawyer learned when his firm assigned him to work traffic court one day a week.

Eliot Turner

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Last year, the law firm I work for asked me to do something that might seem unusual for those familiar with Big Law. I was told to take one day a week off for nearly half a year and forget about billable hours. This wasn’t some radical plan to change my work-life balance: I had been volunteered as a prosecutor for the City of Houston.

I am not the first to have done this at my firm, nor will I be the last. For the past 10 years, scores of young lawyers from Houston’s largest firms have been sent to the City Attorney’s office to help prosecute Class C misdemeanors, which range from speeding tickets to violations of garbage collection ordinances and carry a fine of no more than $500. The City gets extra lawyers without extra cost, the law firms meet a civic duty, and the volunteers get the chance to hone skills seldom used.

The diverse Class C misdemeanor violations in Houston come with one thing in common: the right to a jury trial. Even the Seventh Amendment seems bigger in Texas. Actually, it’s not the Seventh Amendment but the Texas Constitution that provides “[i]n all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have a speedy public trial by an impartial jury.” Tex. Const., art. I, § 10. But unlike any other state of which I’m aware, only Texas guarantees a right to a jury trial for speeding tickets.

My firm’s hope—and I assume this is shared by the others—is that, in the era of the vanishing jury trial, a lawyer’s stint as a volunteer prosecutor will bestow experience and judgment that tort reform has taken away.

But what does a young(ish) lawyer learn from trials that take less than an afternoon, other than that the lawyer isn’t the second coming of Clarence Darrow? The short answer is a lot. The lesson comes from doing the task, not from the time it takes to complete it.

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