Ethics and the Law: Jim Skelton on Trial Experience


This is an article written by Jim Skelton in 1985 with some very good information for us all. Jim left this world March 8, 2017. Jim had been the Significant Decisions Editor for the Voice and a longtime participant in the TCDLA Huntsville Trial College. Jim helped many lawyers and helped me come up with the idea for the Ethics Committee and hotline to help lawyers. In Jim’s honor, this will be the Ethics article for this issue. (Note: Judge McKay, from East Texas, was a Harris County judge for many years.)

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I always marvel at the expectations of trial judges. Everyone from the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court on down complains bitterly about the ignorance of the trial bar. A lot of what they say is true—but what solutions do they offer?

It doesn’t take a great deal of sense to complain. Most folks have that down pat. The hard part is to offer an alternative or come up with a workable solution. It does little good to complain that your blind date is a stringy woman wearing off-brand jeans and a halter top that reveals a midriff with two moles and a fresh abrasion. The key is getting through the evening without killing yourself. Bitching won’t solve the the problem.

A lawyer fresh from law school is much like an ugly blind date, moles and all. But given time and experience, all that can change. Let’s talk a bit about converting moles to “beauty spots.”

The first problem that faces young lawyers is getting experience. They all want trial experience. It’s a Catch-22 problem. You have to have clients to get experience, and you have to have experience to get clients. That’s how the story goes, but I don’t think that is being far-sighted.

A successful trial lawyer is basically a person who has the ability to talk and listen to people, and you don’t have to wait for a trial to get this experience. It should be a daily practice. After all, the people who you meet daily are the ones who make up juries. The only difference is that they are packaged differently. They come in singles in your daily life, whereas they come in panels of thirty-six in your lawyer life. And if you don’t practice relating to them individually, how in the hell can you expect to relate to them when they come in gaggles of thirty-six?

This then is “experience rule” number one. Practice daily the fine art of talking to people. When you go out to eat, always make eye contact with the waitress and have something to say to her other than how you want to torture your stomach. When you buy gas, spend a minute of your time visiting with the gas attendant. See if you can get him to smile or laugh, or if time permits, get him to talk about himself. When you’re shopping, talk to the clerks and get them to talk to you. Remember, a good trial lawyer never meets strangers, just prospective jurors.

Experience rule number two should start with a mirror. Take a good look at yourself. If you’re perceptive you will notice that nature has given you only one mouth and on the other hand has given you two ears. The way most lawyers function, this should be different. We should have three mouths and probably no ears. Why did nature design your head in such a fashion? The answer is simple. You should do twice as much listening as talking. So when you talk to people, listen very carefully to what they say in return because they are telling you about themselves. And if you have sense enough to listen, you will learn a whole bunch about people. Jurors are the same way. If you can get them to talk to you and if you bother to listen to what they have to say, they will tell you a lot about how they think and feel. This comes in very handy if you want to win cases.

My third suggestion is to join an organization that permits you to get some experience in public speaking. You could try your hand at Toastmasters or something similar. Read the Sunday paper. It is full of information about upcoming seminars and places that afford the opportunity for you to practice running your chops. Don’t be proud. I would even speak at a clown convention, if given the opportunity, because every shot at public speaking makes jury trials a bit easier.

My next suggestion is to exploit Class C misdemeanors. Try every one of them, especially those in municipal court. How can you lose? The most that can happen is a $200 fine, so why can’t you use this as a vehicle to get trial experience? The same can be said for JP court. Take these cases to trial. If you want more such trials, go to some of the older lawyers and ask them to send you their traffic cases and those involving municipal and JP courts.

My final suggestion is to take some time off, hang around the courthouse, and watch jury trials. Don’t wait for the so-called “stars” to perform because you may never see a trial. You can also ask some of the more active trial lawyers if they would mind if you sat in with them when they are in trial. Most such lawyers would welcome you if you express an interest. Along the same line—spend some time with some of our more experienced trial judges. Get them to tell you about some of their trial experiences. Whenever I have a moment, I love to visit with Judge McKay. He has a wealth of stories about East Texas lawyers and some of the characters he has met in his trial days. I have never wasted a minute in the time that I have listened to him. I think that it should be required that every young trial lawyer spend some time with Judge McKay. He has a lot of experience, and he’s about half smart too.

Remember, plain old likability makes up for a world of experience. This trait does not come from 10,000 jury trials; it comes from daily living and daily habits. Keep in mind that a musician who practiced only at concerts would soon be out of the music business, and if you are sitting around waiting for jury trials to get “experience,” then you will not be long in the trial business. And I really hope to see you around for a while.

Robert Pelton
Robert Pelton
Robert Pelton is the former President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (HCCLA), Associate Director for TCDLA, and Feature Articles Editor of the Voice, as well as serving as editor and assistant editor of Docket Call. Among his many honors, Robert was named by H Texas magazine as one of the top criminal lawyers in Harris County (2004–2010) and one of Houston’s Top Lawyers for the People in criminal law (2004–2010), and he is listed in the Martindale Hubbell Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. Robert has offices in Abilene and Houston.
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