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Tuesday, September 27, 2022 — Houston, TX

Online only: Rice hosts annual law panel

By Cindy Dinh     11/4/10 7:00pm

Eight local lawyers, judges and law professors joined students Monday at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy for the annual Legal Career Panel hosted by Legalese - Rice's pre-law society, the Baker Institute Student Forum and LOVE 237: Introduction to Law course. The panel is hosted every year to give students some insight on various areas of law, what lawyers do, what a typical day is like and how they got their positions, Assistant District Attorney for Fort Bend County Rudy Ramirez (Lovett '01) said.

Ramirez, who was the moderator, has been organizing the legal career panel for the past five years through the Introduction to Law course, which he instructs.

What distinguishes the event this year from previous years is co-sponsorship with BISF that brought a policy perspective into the discussion, Legalese President Audra Herrera said.

"We talked a lot more about the policy implications, particularly with the two judges here tonight; the process of becoming a judge and the decisions [judges] face on the bench," Herrera, a McMurtry College junior, said.

Three of the eight panelists started their legal career at the district attorney's office or U.S. attorney's office. Having this type of experience early on in one's career is a great way to get courtroom experience, Charley Davidson, a partner from Locke, Lord, Bissell & Liddell said.

Jeffery Valden, who is first assistant U.S. attorney with the U.S. attorney's office, said he works on issues similar to those of the district attorney's office, with the exception of enforcing the law on a broader scale and doing narcotic prosecutions, national security and counter-terrorism cases.

"I went home each and every day knowing I helped somebody," Valden said.

Baker College senior David James asked Defense Attorney Christian Capitaine, a partner from Capitaine, Shellist, Warren & McAlister, L.L.P., how he chose which clients to represent.

"We only represent innocent people," Capitaine said to a room full of laughter.

The panel also included state and federal court judges. Justice Jane Bland from 1st Court of Appeals and U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison gave their perspectives on the politics and potential corruption of the judicial system.

Texas state judges must run for office, and campaign contributions to judges were discussed. At least 70 judges were running on the ballot in the general election this past Tuesday, Rojas said. This could raise issues of biases in court decisions when campaign finance is involved, she said.

Bland said her role as a judge on the state court of appeals is typically an elected position but can be appointed if there is a vacancy. She was appointed by then-Texas Governor George W. Bush in 2003 and was later elected to that same position in 2004 and 2006.

"Politicking when you should be worrying about your cases is not the best way the system should be run," Bland said. "Whether or not the judge is fair to you, just imagine explaining to yourself, how can I get a fair case when the other lawyer gave $500,000 to the judge?"

Ellison agreed that there's an uneasy tension when an opponent has contributed to the campaign that elected the presiding judge to a case.

On the other hand, federal court judges are appointed for life with nomination by the president and confirmation by the Senate. Senators from the home state who are in the same party as the president suggest names for federal court, Ellison said.

He dispelled the myth that appointed federal judges are apolitical as compared to Texas state judges, who must run for office. He mentioned how knowing the individuals who make the appointments may give others an advantage over the most qualified candidate.

"School's probably the closest thing to a meritocracy as you're going to get," Ellison said.

However, excelling in one area may allow individuals to be singled out in becoming a judge.

"By doing your very best work, you establish a reputation for excellence and meet other lawyers and judges who might mentor you," Bland said, noting that there is no clear path to becoming a judge.

Alternative legal pathways include teaching law, South Texas College of Law Professor Francesca Ortiz explained. She said compared to teaching at the undergraduate level, she has fewer classes to teach but just the same amount of workload.

"Law schools like to hire you when you have two to three years of legal practice under your belt," Ortiz said.

Preparation for these careers all starts with the pathway to law school. Two of the panelists agreed that they did not initially intend on going to law school. Capitaine said he considered it only after taking graduate courses in psychology and deciding to pursue law instead. Attorney Rachal Rojas from Matthews & Associates said she took a few years to work as a paralegal before applying to law school. Through her work looking at medical records as a paralegal and talking to doctors while in law school, she found her niche in pharmaceutical litigation.

"Two things I really enjoy are the law and medicine, and I found a way to best incorporate them together," Rojas said.

Martel College senior Page Robinson asked about how important the law school one attended was to future opportunities.

"The longer you've been out of law school, the less it matters," Valden, who claimed it was better to have a community of classmates and colleagues in the same city, said.

Ellison said that having a network of colleagues concentrated in one city is best if you wish to practice in that area, but going to a bigger-name law school means the alumni network is more spread out across the nation.

"It's what you learn, not where you learn it," Ellison said.

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