Illuminating Pathways to Criminal Defense Practice: An Update from TCDLA’s Law School Committee

The TCDLA Law School Committee has begun several projects aimed at forging stronger bonds between the association and law students interested in criminal law. These students are the future of TCDLA, therefore it is imperative that we foster their career development and introduce them early to everything the association has to offer them, both now as students, and in the future. The pinnacle of support for a law student interested in criminal defense comes with TCDLA’s student membership: For $20, the student gets access to the listserve, the members’ website, with the all-new student tab that will feature clerkship and job opportunities, postings about upcoming trials the students can view and help with, copies of the Voice, free attendance at CLEs, and use of the TCDLA app. But to involve the students in this level of support, we must first meet them.

Therefore, the first goal of the committee, started last year and completed this year, was to recruit at least one criminal law faculty member from each Texas law school. This internal faculty member will serve as a liaison between TCDLA and the law school and help promote TCDLA events for students and student membership in TCDLA. Committee members split up the Texas law schools and have committed to work with the law school internal liaisons by providing information about TCDLA events. These events include scheduled seminars where law students are invited, such as the annual Innocence/Forensics seminar scheduled for October 6-8, 2021, in Fort Worth, and encourage speaker lunches or virtual presentations at the law school. We are always interested in expanding our connections within the law schools. If any of our members have connections within any of the Texas law schools, or have suggestions as to how we can better connect with students at a law school, please reach out to the respective TCDLA liaison to that law school. The TCDLA liaisons and their contact information is as follows:

The second goal of this year’s committee is to develop a student portal within the TCDLA website. With the goal of marketing what TCDLA has to offer students. It will be open to all law students, regardless of whether they are student members in TCDLA. There will be TCDLA member testimonials on key subjects that impact law students and their career development. Law students will be able to submit questions, and there will be a “frequently asked questions” section with TCDLA member answers to questions submitted by law students. TCDLA merchandise will be available for students to purchase through the website. There will be teasers to other material that is available only for TCDLA student members, with the goal of encouraging joining TCDLA. There will be job, intern and upcoming trial notices posted on the student member section. There will be resources such as trial skill simulations by TCDLA members, and practical articles on skills every new defense lawyer needs to know.

The third objective this year is to create a webinar, open to all law students, entitled Career Pathways to Criminal Defense Practice. Working with 3L law students in a criminal defense clinical program, we often hear students lament that there are so few job opportunities in criminal defense, that most defense attorneys are lone wolves and do not hire, that it is hard to get court appointments right out of law school, and if they do get court appointments, there’s no way they can survive on the fees. While there are kernels of truth in these statements, they are exaggerated and overstep the viable pathways many defense attorneys have taken to get to where they are. Our goal is to shine light on these.

The event will consist of a panel presentation of TCDLA lawyers with a moderated chat for law student questions, an hour of ethics and wellness, and conclude with virtual networking break-out rooms which will be organized by geographical practice location and practice focus areas.

The panel presentation will cover different pathways that criminal defense lawyers have taken. These include:

  • Working for a district attorney’s office, with a focus on advantages and disadvantages;
  • Working for a public defender’s office, a Texas Rural Legal Aid office working in criminal defense, or RDPO, with a focus on how to find these positions, advantages and disadvantages;
  • Starting out as a criminal defense solo practitioner with a focus on what kind of income they can expect, sources of income, how they got business and different options to consider in terms of supplementing income;
  • Building a practice seeking court appointments, with a focus on how they navigated the wheel, multiple county practice to maximize appointments, income that can be expected from appointments and tips on how they supplemented income from court appointments;
  • Working in an established criminal defense firm in an urban area, with a focus on how they obtained the position, what advice they would give to law students about making the connections to obtain such a position;
  • Working for a rural law firm that takes all cases, including criminal defense, with a focus on how they found this employment arrangement, whether they were seeking the position in order to primarily practice criminal defense or did they start practicing criminal defense as part of the firm’s case load;
  • Working for a general law firm that also handles criminal defense, with a focus on how they found the position, whether they signed on primarily for the criminal defense opportunities, or did they start practicing in criminal defense as part of the firm’s case load; and
  • Serving as a briefing or staff attorney at the Court of Criminal Appeals, an intermediate court of appeals or federal court.

Speakers will also address ethical questions and issues soon-to-be criminal defense lawyers should give thought to, and be aware of: The question of whether criminal defense work is right for you; with a focus on feelings or beliefs about representing clients in all types of cases; personal baggage that can interfere with zealously representing the client; work/life balance issues; professional stressors and triggers; worries about being subjected to vicarious trauma; resources such as TLAP and membership in supportive professional associations such as TCDLA and its affiliates; as well as ethical ways to market and set fees; and introduction to IOLTA accounts and a primer on how the grievance process works.

The event will conclude with break-out rooms where law students can meet criminal defense lawyers from the counties where they hope to practice, or who practice in specific areas of criminal defense the student is interested in, such as: indigent defense, juvenile law, appellate, post-conviction/innocence, capital murder, DWI, domestic violence and sexual assault.

To make the event successful and meaningful for the law student participants, we are seeking your help in volunteering for either the panel or break-out sessions. If you have an idea for another pathway to criminal defense work and/or wish to participate in this event, please contact us via either Melissa Schank at or Law School Committee Chair Anne Burnham at .

TCDLA
TCDLA
Anne Burnham
Anne Burnham
Anne Burnham is a Clinical Professor of Law in the Criminal Justice Clinical program at St. Mary’s University School of Law. In 2000, she opened her own criminal defense firm where she practiced at the trial and appellate levels in both state and federal court. She is a Fellow of both the American Bar Foundation and Texas Bar Foundation. Burnham is licensed to practice law in Texas, the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court. She can be reached at or 210-431-5753.
Stephanie Stevens
Stephanie Stevens
Stephanie Stevens teaches Juvenile Law, Texas Criminal Procedure and is a Clinical Professor of Law in the Criminal Justice Clinic at St. Mary’s University School of Law. In the past, Stephanie won the Distinguished Law Faculty Award. She is board certified in criminal law. Additionally, she is a past president of the San Antonio Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association. She can be reached or 210-431-5710.

Anne Burnham is a Clinical Professor of Law in the Criminal Justice Clinical program at St. Mary’s University School of Law. In 2000, she opened her own criminal defense firm where she practiced at the trial and appellate levels in both state and federal court. She is a Fellow of both the American Bar Foundation and Texas Bar Foundation. Burnham is licensed to practice law in Texas, the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court. She can be reached at or 210-431-5753.

Stephanie Stevens teaches Juvenile Law, Texas Criminal Procedure and is a Clinical Professor of Law in the Criminal Justice Clinic at St. Mary’s University School of Law. In the past, Stephanie won the Distinguished Law Faculty Award. She is board certified in criminal law. Additionally, she is a past president of the San Antonio Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association. She can be reached or 210-431-5710.

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