Executive Director's Perspective: Things We Take for Granted - By Melissa J. Schank

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Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.”

—Zig Ziglar

Working with a new vendor, hotel, or supplier is very difficult at times. Recently we moved to a higher-end resort-style venue for our September quarterly seminar and board meetings. (A review of many of our attendees’ evaluations showed this is what they wanted.) It was challenging not to have the flexibility we have had with the venues we’ve built relationships with in the past. I walked by on the way to dinner, and they had set up the room incorrectly. By chance I was able to correct this—otherwise there wouldn’t have been anywhere for the 70-plus board members to eat. We had a meeting before the event and provided a diagram for the setup of our board meeting, but a hollow square was new to them, it not being their norm. I had to dispute a $250 reset fee when we provided a diagram. We were new customers, and they were not guaranteed we would come back. We had our food discounted 75%, which staff had never seen before. We tried to increase our room block, but because of UT football we couldn’t. We felt this impacted our attendance.

In a way, I can relate this to changeover in personnel. When you have someone who is a good employee in an ever-changing environment, you must provide some incentive to keep that employee. That means not only offering a competitive salary but also a good work environment and benefits—all of which increase expenses each year. The alternative is losing excellent staff and having to retrain over and again.

When someone leaves who has been with your company for many years, you find that it’s those little duties they perform that are not well known, as well as their ability to get along with everyone in-house, that create a positive work environment and—most importantly—facilitate communication with your members. With today’s ever-tightening economy, particularly in a university city, the competition for qualified workers is challenging. Staff members may leave for various reasons—for some it may be the drive, for others a higher salary, lunch provided daily, happy hours, or just more flexibility. In the end, it is a gamble how long any one individual will stay.

Endless opportunities seem to arise for the skilled employee. The question for them is what proves to be the best fit. When I have someone approach me asking what to do, I selfishly want to say never leave us. But I get out a piece of paper and list the positives and negatives: What is the drive time during work hours, are the hours flexible, what is the 401k contribution, what is offered in time off, where would you sit (are there windows?), do they feed you, what benefits do they provide, and for health insurance what is the co-pay, be it an HMO or PPO? I secretly hope our overall package is more attractive and they will choose to stay. Why do you want to leave? What do they have that you were offered?

What is it that creates loyalty? Does it exist? I often question myself what happened to the work ethic I grew up with? How do we get that back?

These are some of the questions that weighed heavily on me as we prepared for the latest seminar. Our TCDLA Board and Executive and CDLP committees met this past Saturday, September 15, 2018. We had a devoted group of criminal defense attorneys who traveled in and out while surrounded by tropical storms and nonstop rain. Staff members traveled over an hour in low visibility to participate and take part in TCDLA business. Here are some of the highlights from the meetings:

The Criminal Defense Lawyers Project committee discussed the theme for their first road show, “Come and Take It,” which launched September 21st in Corpus Christi. Visit our website for the themed events near you. We are also promoting the Forensics seminar, where criminal defense lawyers, students, and faculty come together to learn about science, the law, and how to avoid a charge of ineffective counsel. The committee is also working to ensure speakers have quality papers and PowerPoints by offering peer review.

TCDLA will also work with NACDL on two upcoming projects. The first is a police accountability database, which has the potential to significantly enhance the capability of defense to investigate, record, and retrieve prior bad acts of police officers and, ultimately, hold them accountable. TCDLA will work with NACDL to create a “Cop Accountability Project” database for Texas, much as NACDL and the Legal Aid Society of New York have done to share with city defenders and nonprofits such as the Innocence Project.

A second project concerns a NACDL report on trial penalties, “The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It” (available at www.nacdl.org/trialpenalty). The “trial penalty” refers to the major difference between the sentence offered prior to trial versus that received after trial. Accused persons must surrender many fundamental rights essential to a fair justice system to avoid it. Studies show that innocent people routinely plead guilty and accept plea offers rather than face this penalty. As NACDL launches this major reform effort, TCDLA will partner to produce similar reports.

TCDLA committees in general are very active now. We heard several reports, for instance, on how crucial members find our ethics hotline. We encourage all to call the ethics hot­line if you have any questions or concerns—before you post anything on the listserve or social media. We also heard reports from the DWI, Amicus, Strike Force, Corrections and Parole, Technology, Budget, Legislative, and Membership committees on their ongoing business. The Membership Committee for one discussed some innovative tools and resources they’d like to make available to all members. The committee is aggressively working on retaining our current members and attracting new membership. We encourage any feedback you may have, any new member benefits you would like to see instituted.

Prior to the seminar, our staff attended a sexual harassment training that was customized for TCDLA board members, committee members, staff, and volunteers as well. The law firm recorded the training, and all board members will be required to watch it prior to the December board meeting. The training also incorporates TCDLA’s Code of Conduct, which all board members are required to sign annually. TCDLA is in the forefront of non­profits in taking the initiative to protect all those connected with TCDLA.

The most important thing I took from the training is that while I personally may not be offended by the comments or actions of others, the person next to me may be—and also may not say anything until the damage is irreversible. I need to be more conscious of my actions and those of others—and then take initiative to personally sidebar that person because more times than not it was not intended to be a malicious remark or action. When you bring it to their attention and make them aware of the situation, you can prevent future such occurrences. In today’s political climate, there are so many “rules,” making it impossible to be perfect. But I can strive to do my best to be open to criticism and to offer my support or advice to the next person, even if it may be something they do not want to hear.

A perfect example is when someone close to me is preparing to leave my house but I know they should not be driving. Am I more worried about them being upset with me if I say something, or would it be worse if I don’t say anything and something happens to them? This might also apply to other sensitive issues. Often I hear the comments, “It is none of my business,” or, “They’re not going to listen,” but I feel we must stand up because that one time may make a difference and head off something that might negatively affect that person and/or his family. As part of a TCDLA community, I challenge everyone to step out of the box this month and offer your support and empower another individual you normally may not interact with. I hope next time I see you there will be great stories to share on how you made a difference in someone’s life.

And finally, in other news, this year we are changing audit firms to one that performs audits for other CCA grantees and other similar organizations. Staff will start working on preparing items for audit as well as tax returns. TCDLA strives to be very transparent financially. Financial reports are sent out to the board monthly and the audit report annually. Staff is always available to answer any questions you may have, including on finances.