Friday, August 3, 2012


Mentors, I guess, are mostly heralded for the young, those seeking to start or beginning in a certain field of endeavor. You could be a doctor, a lawyer, a gunsmith, an auto mechanic and it doesn't matter, a mentor in your field is generally a good bet towards future success.

Likewise, many have academic mentors, and if you're (I think) an especially wise human, you end up with a mentor or two in life itself.

Like some, I'm blessed to have a father and mother who served as excellent life and career mentors. Many of the intangible things I picked up along the way, hanging out from childhood with my dad as a prosecutor and criminal defense/civil/marital law attorney pop up all the time as solutions to my issues.

As one former mentor of mine used to say, doing the right thing is easy, but sometimes the hard thing is figuring out what the right thing to do is.

Ironically, that former mentor from about 20 years ago got disbarred recently for neglecting the cases of his private practice clients. Such is life. Although that fellow had some excellent career directed advice that has indeed served me well over the past several decades, obviously his later career actions were not meant to be imitated. In his case, a long standing mental illness came to the forefront as he aged into middle age, and the medications that had been effective as a younger man ceased to function and my former mentor chose to self-medicate. His marriage and career went out the window as we watched, slowly over the years, and despite intervention efforts, there was no stopping his path into destructiveness.

Such is the case sometimes when human beings are involved in the vagaries of life. Despite his personal issues 10 years after he served as a mentor to me, his initial professional advice for prosecutors to always to do the right thing still rings true.

As a young prosecutor, one of my chief mentors was a defense attorney I'll call Matlock, simply because he possessed that same ability that Andy Griffith did to talk to juries. I tried, and lost, many of my first inital cases with Matlock, all DWI cases with no test evidence as to the level of alcohol in the defendant's body. These cases are what many prosecutors nationwide cut their teeth on. Like me, he had been a cop briefly before going to law school, and then had been practicing law since I was seven years old.

In those years that he practiced as a trial lawyer from the time I was seven until I was his adversary in court, Matlock picked up a few tricks of the trade. In addition to having a sparkling personality that folks liked despite his occupation, as a lawyer he was a storyteller extraordinaire. Although I had mentors that were prosecutors, many of my mentors over the past 3 decades have been defense attorneys, in terms of their trial skills and abilities.

The past few years, after relocating from "the big city" to a smaller area, I began having lunch with an interesting group of fellows who have become mentors to me. The three former district attorneys from our area are all still alive and are all friends. Two of them lunch together several times weekly at the same spot. Whenever possible, I take them up on kind invitations to join them.

None of this group ever ran against each other or was "unelected". They each served as DA until they were ready to quit and then did and another fellow took up the mantle.

Of course, the storytelling alone is worth the price of admission.
The most recent former DA is usually more interesting in his daily golfing at this point in his retirement, and I can't blame him at all. After years of homicides and crimes against children and violent, bloody cases, it's nice to think about more pleasant things in life such as golf or fishing. This fellow often has great advice for me, but again, he is scarce to find unless you're out on the links with him.

The elder of the former DA's is in his eighties, although you'd guess he was in his early sixties with his good physical and mental health. His name is Jimmy. He insists on being called Jimmy. When El Fisho Jr. joins us fr a meal, he insists that El Fisho Jr. address him as Jimmy instead of Mr. So and So. After serving in WWII in the final days, Jimmy went to college and law school and some sixty odd years ago became DA in our county.

I asked him one day why he quit being DA. He said he didn't want to enforce the then draconian laws against marijuana. Then, almost any amount including a seed, of marijuana was a felony in Texas. Prison time. With the advent of the sixties and seventies, more and more kids were getting caught in his area, and he didn't think that was an offense worth branding someone a felon or possibly having to send them to prison for if they violated their probation. So off to private practice he went, resigning after several decades of being the elected DA. That was an answer to my question that I didn't expect.

Next in line as DA was his then assistant, who I call Matlock Jr. Matlock Jr was not only Jimmy's successor in office but they are still friends and they are the two who I frequently join for lunch dates. Matlock Jr. introduced me to Jimmy, and told me he was a great storyteller with great stories. That was all he had to say to get me hooked.

Although Jimmy is still a name partner in the big firm in town, he rarely practices, and if he does, it's an office practice matter like some bigtime real estate deal or something. His protege, Matlock Jr., is another interesting fellow. He stutters and stammers to some degree in normal conversation. Prior to trying my first case against Matlock Jr. some years ago, I wondered how he would stumble through the trial. Not only did he at times stutter and stammer, he sometimes had difficulting focusing on being able to express ideas or stories others had related.

Well, all that disappears when Matlock Jr. gets in front of a jury. His thoughts become clear as ice, and all that stuttering and stammering disappears. He becomes, to paraphrase my Governer, a smooth talking Mo Fo.

Matlock Jr. and I did not have an instant friendship. He is one of the more experienced trial lawyers in town, and thus he and I have tried numerous serious cases like murders and child molestation and aggravated (with a gun) robbery cases together.

Early in our relationship, when we were not yet buddies, we were trying a serious case. I used a legal tactic that was standard practice where I came from, yet the judge and Matlock Jr. were unfamiliar with it. In fact, Matlock Jr. became so incensed that he proclaimed me the most unethical prosecutor he'd ever met in 40 some odd years of practicing law, and he did so in front of the jury. That's getting serious in my business.

The judge adjourned the court to call some other judges for some opinions on my tactics, as did Matlock Jr. Matlock Jr. called some top trial lawyer friends in big cities like Dallas and Houston. He found out that my actions were indeed standard in those areas and had been for decades. The judge found out the same.

Upon coming back into court and bringing the jury back into the room, Matlock Jr. first apologized to me in front of the jury, then began telling the jury how he was wrong on the issue and had been extremely wrong in his statements about me and my ethics. He profusely apologized to me and the jury.

After the trial was over, he went and apologized to my boss, who was unaware of the whole deal. He went on to say that in retrospect, he wished he had had someone like me working for him when he was district attorney. You can't ask for more than that in terms of an apology, particularly as a trial lawyer when something like this occurs in a heated trial. It generally never happens.

At that point, Matlock Jr. and I became good friends. I still try to send his violent clients to prison for as long as necessary, but we do have a mutual admiration society. Recently, Matlock Jr. encouraged me to run for judge, and even offered to pay the $1,500 filing fee. We've been threatening to write a book together, as we both have many good stories to tell about our profession and the lives that have come in and out of our professions during our careers.

Point is, even though I've been practicing law for several decades, sometimes it's nice to have an older, more experienced (in life and in law) sounding board for those most difficult cases or situations. Jimmy and Matlock Jr. are now my mentors, and I couldn't be in better hands. And neither could the citizenry.

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