July-August 2011

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

Patrick M. Wilson, County & District ­Attorney in Ellis County

Over the course of my last two years in law school, I was employed as a clerk in the appellate division of the Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney’s Office. I simultaneously spent one summer interning in the trial division, and I got to know the staff well. Frank Webb was the homicide prosecutor at the time, and to say that Frank had a droll sense of humor would be an understate-ment. On my desk, holding my pens and pencils, still sits his gift of a coffee mug that reads: “Lubbock County Homicide: Our Day Begins When Yours Ends.”

    I have never forgotten Frank’s three words of advice for an aspiring prosecutor: Document, document, document! He might have been kidding when he said them, but time and again during my career those words have proven to be the best advice I ever received.

Kaylynn Williford, Assistant District ­Attorney in Harris County

These are two pieces of advice I live with. One, find the weakest link in your case and figure out how to present a “worse case scenario” in voir dire. When you present this evidence in your case in chief, the jury will have already heard facts worse than the evidence you have, they will be prepared for it, and they won’t see it as a problem. And two, always tell “the good, the bad, and the ugly” when presenting a case. You want to bring this information out first to your jury. It will establish credibility with jurors, and they will believe and trust you.

Lisa L. Peterson, County Attorney in Nolan County

Decades ago, Tom Bridges, the former DA in Aransas and Seguin Counties, was speaking at a seminar, and he made a comment that an effective county attorney listens to and tries to accomodate county commissioners. Each of them represents one-fourth of the county, and they are generally more in tune with the needs of the county than an official representing all of it (such as the county attorney). If they think that their precinct really needs something, it probably does and the best that the county attorney can do for the public is to help make it happen.

Geoffrey Puryear, Assistant District ­Attorney in Travis County

The best advice I ever received was from Williamson County Court-at-Law Judge Suzanne Brooks, a former Harris and Williamson County Assistant DA. She was the first judge I tried a case in front of as a misdemeanor prosecutor. After my first trial, a theft case, she advised me to make a trial notebook and update it after every trial. This notebook, she explained, should of course contain the facts of the case and the outcome. Most important, though, was to include a mistake you made during the trial and what you learned from it. This forces you as an advocate to examine your trial performance critically and improve those skills. I took her advice and still update my notebook after every trial. I won’t say it has entirely eliminated repeat mistakes, but it certainly has been valuable in helping me become a better trial attorney.

Mikhal Gongora ­Abou-Sayed, Assistant District ­Attorney in Harris County

My aunt taught me at a very young age that it is better to admit your mistakes early, ask for help to clean up messes, and to ask questions rather than to guess. She worked as the office manager of her husband’s law firm. They had me start out my summers in high school as a receptionist and moved me over the years through all of the different positions in the office. I was able to see that not heeding her advice could lead to bigger complications, especially in a law firm. While it is hard to admit when we are wrong, it is better to clean up a small mess rather than a mudslide, and it is always more efficient to ask how to do something rather than to do it wrong. I have appreciated her advice, both professionally and personally.

Willie Mae Williams, PL, Office Manager and ­Professional Victim ­Assistance Coordinator in ­Colorado County

I could not just choose one piece of advice because so many shaped my life. My mother, Hertha Lee Katherine Perrino Axel, told me, “God made only one puzzle piece like you, so seek your place to fit into His puzzle, and the rewards granted will be unimaginable. Remember, my dear diamond in the rough, to always do what is right, even if you have to stand alone, because when you do God will fight your battle. Then that is when you will realize you were never alone, that God was always there.”

    My first grade teacher, Ethel Taylor, recited this poem to us daily:
    Good, better, best
    Never let it rest,
    Until your good is better
    And your better is best!
    God should not receive
    Anything less, than your
    Good when it’s better
    And your better is your best!

    My grandmother, Florence Axel, told me to never marry a man with children unless I love those children as much as I loved that man. Don’t ask him to choose between them or you, she said, because ultimately you lose.

    And my daddy, Willie James Axel, told me, “You can do and be anything you prepare yourself for. Believe in the abilities God has blessed you with.”

Barry Saucier, Investigator in the Harris ­County District ­Attorney’s Office

I had a field training officer when I first started who told me, “Temper your justice with mercy.” I didn’t really understand that quote until later in my career. I learned that oftentimes a police officer can have a much more positive interaction with a citizen when he’s given the benefit of the doubt every once in a while and when appropriate.

Ted Hake, Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in Hidalgo County

The best advice I ever received was given to me by a more experienced prosecutor when I began my career over 30 years ago.

    When I, like a lot of other young attorneys, talked about wins and losses in cases, he told me that one of the most difficult things about being an prosecutor was that you cannot judge your performance by wins and losses, as there are many things that can affect the outcome which are simply out of your control. Examples of such matters include the facts of the case, how the indictment is drafted, the missing or unavailable witness, the witness who does not testify as expected, the way the case was indicted, the jury panel assigned to that case, the attorney on the other side, what that attorney does or does not do, the particular court to which the case is assigned, the particular judge who tries the case, rulings made by that judge, and changes in the law. As that experienced attorney then explained, the inability to control these and other factors which might affect the result of the case require a prosecutor to have enough self-confidence to realize that he had done his best in handling the case, regardless of the outcome.

    Like other prosecutors, I have experienced the unpredictability of the outcome of cases at both the trial and the appellate level many times. Thus, over the years, I have seen many examples of the wisdom of the advice I received when I was beginning my career as a prosecutor.

Brody Burks, Assistant District ­Attorney in Limestone County

Professor Bob Destro was a polarizing figure for my ConLaw class in law school, partly because his politics were a mismatch for the student body. His lessons made no sense at the time but struck you later when you were trying to break through some thorny issue. He was prone to speaking in unintentionally profound and cryptic phrases, such as the only real advice that he gave for his assignments: “Work the facts.” To a first-year law student neck-deep in hornbooks, this did not seem particularly useful. He also gave me the best advice I’ve ever been given.

    “Is that what you want to do? Then do it.”

    You could easily dismiss that as nothing more than mere trope, and for two years, I did. It was the corny saying of someone who had worked a career full of exciting jobs and now had tenure. It was difficult to see how it applied to a struggling law student looking at a disintegrating legal job market. I had gone to law school in Washington D.C. and knew that I wanted to come back to Texas and work as a prosecutor. I wanted to be in court, represent the State, and contribute my skills to a side of the legal profession that does more work and gets less glory than anyone else. I logged onto the TDCAA job bank, sent out résumés, and spoke with every professor. Once again, Professor Destro gave the same advice. “Is that what you want to do? Then do it.”

    I put that thought aside and interviewed, and interviewed, and interviewed. I interviewed at Hood County, Potter County, Hunt County, El Paso County, Houston County, the City of Bryan, Midland County, Guadalupe County, and Wichita County. After each interview and call back, a thin reject letter came in the mail and I was ready to give up. I had decided to stop interviewing and just hang my shingle to do defense work, but I was not at all happy about it.

    The day I reached that decision, Delma Rios-Salazar in Kleberg County called to offer me a job as an assistant county attorney. The job was nine hours from my home and I would be the only assistant—yet it was exactly what I wanted to do. (Professor Destro’s advice came floating back to me.) So I did it. And I haven’t regretted a moment of it since.