Ask Allison: May 25, 2016

Dear Allison,

What should I wear to court?

Always Yours,

Sartorially Stymied

 

 

My Dearest, Darling SS,

Have you ever heard of Alexandre Dumas? Of course you have. He wrote “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” As you might have guessed by the sheer fightiness of both of those books (or movies, as you like, Best Beloved) Dumas was a swordsman. Or at least enough of a gentleman to demand satisfaction when insulted. What does this have to do with your question? Everything. Stay with me.

One day, while wearing an arguably foppish cape (though your dearest Allison might gently suggest that all capes are foppish, objectively), he became incensed when a scoundrel began to insult his drapey grandeur (and with a name like “Dumas,” the insults kind of write themselves, eh?).

Jumping to his feet, he challenged the fellow to a duel. The fellow accepted, and shortly thereafter they found themselves facing off in the local duel-spot, long since lost to history, probably. Removing his cape and jacket, Dumas also loosened his suspenders which, due to a defect in his belt buckle and lack of the modern zipper, caused his pants to hurtle to the ground, leaving him in just his doubtlessly lacy underoos, at quite a disadvantage for the duel.

The lesson from this story is to dress for the occasion, and to anticipate that sometimes, when you go out for coffee, it might turn into a swordfight.

You leave me no clue, Sartorial, whether you are male or female, defender or defendant, and so I will provide guidance for anyone appearing before the Court.

  1. Wear a suit. If you have a conservative black or navy suit, wear it. No matter your gender, no matter your role, conservative suits will never be inappropriate. This is the top tier. Most formally, suits are worn with a white, collared shirt or white shell blouse, and a red tie for men.

    If the suit has a skirt rather than pants, the skirt should be about knee-length, no shorter.  Pantyhose used to be mandatory with a skirt, but the salad days are here, ladies, and I would say that they are now firmly rooted in the “optional” column.

    In the most traditional of settings, the only jewelry that was appropriate for ladies was a pearl necklace and a wedding/engagement ring.  There is no appropriate jewelry for men, which your Darling Allison still believes fervently (ask her to tell you about her breakup over a pinky ring sometime when she has had some wine), with the exception of a watch and wedding ring.

    Most courts, though, are not quite so unforgivingly formal and will overlook a gauche tie or gaudy bauble. In fact, most Courts are somewhat woefully lax in their enforcement of attorney dress codes, especially, and your Favorite Correspondent has been shocked to see parades of lawyers wearing sundresses, motorcycling jackets, velour ball gowns (really), and everything short of a bathing suit in court. Sweet friend, let’s not be that lawyer. You are advocating for someone.  Now is not the time for creative expression in clothing if it will draw attention from your most excellent advocacy.

    If you are a lawyer, there is no reason you don’t have a suit, so stop here. If you are a defendant without a suit, go on to number 2.

  2. If you have no suit, which is understandable but regrettable in this modern day, wear what you have that is decent. Defendants should think “Sunday Best.” Pants, never shorts.  Skirts should be knee-length. Shirts with sleeves, preferably long sleeves, and preferably button-up shirts.  Uniforms of any type (even school and military) should be avoided unless you have previously consulted an attorney about wearing them. Shirts with images should not be worn, most especially (I beseech you!!) not shirts with marijuana leaves, middle fingers, alcohol, or any type of good time emblazoned on them. Don’t lie to your dearest Allison. That is not your only shirt. I practiced law in a developing country where people routinely showed up to court without a pair of shoes to their name, but still managed to find a clean, inoffensive shirt to wear.

And now a general word or two on footwear: closed-toed. No matter what. It’s amazing to see the number of people clomping around the courthouse in clear acrylic mules with their crooked toes splayed and spilling out of the fronts of their shoes, to say nothing of their cracked and nasty heels hanging over the back.  We will not even go into the obscenity that is the courthouse flip-flop wearer.  No one wants to see (or smell!) your hoofs, no matter how shiny the polish. Open-toed shoes are fun for summer picnics, and fine for running to the grocery store, but not for court.  I will make only the briefest of exceptions for the most modest of peep-toes. Be mindful it’s just a peep, though, and not a full-on eyesore.

Another common concern has to do with visible tattoos. Tattoos are more and more common these days, and for a standard courtroom appearance (read: not a trial), I would not concern myself too much with covering them up, unless they depict something questionable. I would err on the side of covering any tattoos at trial.

Should you want to cover up a tattoo, there is a little ritual that I was turned on to (oh, don’t look surprised, your Darling Allison wasn’t always such a stickler) by a young woman who danced at a classy establishment that would not allow the dancers to have tattoos: layer the tattoo with a creamy foundation makeup, then, using a blow-dryer (set to “cool”), dry the makeup well. Repeat with another two to three layers of foundation, and set it with a bit of translucent powder. Voila!

Those of you who know me in real life may be questioning my ability to pronounce such edicts as I have in this column. All I can say is that even the best of us often fall short of our exacting standards.

I think back on Dumas’ duel. Once he scrambled to pull up his breeches in the frosty air, the duel proceeded, and Dumas quickly scratched the icy blade of his sword into the shoulder of his opponent. The wound was a tiny scrape, but the freezing steel (or perhaps residual laughter?) caused his foe to stumble, and then trip over a root and fall, disarming himself. Dumas was declared the winner, without having to strike a blow.

Sometimes, Dear Friend, we can turn The Day My Pants Fell Down into The Day I Won A Duel, and certainly, we should strive to achieve such greatness. But most of the time, our efforts are lacking, and everyone will just think of you as the guy in the cape with no pants. Don’t be that guy. You’re not as cool as Dumas. Wear a suit- or at least some khakis and a polo shirt- and make sure your belt buckle works.

In Solidarity,

 

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: May 18, 2016

Dear Allison,

I got a stupid jury summons in the stupid mail. There’s no legitimate reason I couldn’t go- I’m not a student, I don’t care for a child or disabled person, in fact, I don’t even have a job right now, I just don’t want to go. Do I have to?

Desperately Yours,

Jaded (Hopefully Non-)Juror

 

 

Dear Jaded,

It’s not that your darling Allison doesn’t sympathize with you, she truly does. Sometimes the mere thought of having to traverse the labyrinthine cluster that is Downtown Houston is enough to send her diving back beneath her comforter, pressing the snooze button and damning all the consequences. But you should still suck it up and go.

Technically, the District Clerk’s Office does not send jury summonses via certified mail. Technically, there’s no way anyone can prove that you ever even got that booger. Technically, if you don’t show up, as approximately two-thirds of people in Harris County who are summoned for jury duty don’t, there’s probably not a whole heck of a lot anyone can or will do about it.

What the judiciary could do is wait until you skip jury duty and then they could send you a summons via real, actual, certified mail. This would cost them approximately $4 for each certified letter. They’d have proof that you got that summons, and they could enforce it. The summons would require you to go down to the courthouse and explain to a judge, on penalty of contempt of court charges, why you didn’t go to jury duty when you were called.

It doesn’t seem like they are currently doing this. That $4 a letter adds up fast when you have such massive non-compliance. One can only hope, JJ, that the paltry 30% of summoned jurors who show up are not the same 30% of Americans who can’t find the Pacific Ocean on a map or believe that Jesus rode a dinosaur to school.

And maybe, best beloved, that’s why you should go. Because I know you are not the type to beat the drums of patriotism and wear one of those boss Texas-flag collared shirts that I’ve seen guys named Duke wear at every backwater icehouse I’ve ever been to (and you know that’s more than a few), but you are the type to complain about how stupid everyone is, and how broken everything is, and how the system doesn’t work.

There are plenty of reasons to not want to go to jury duty — not the least of which is the self-important hack of a District Clerk, Chris Daniel, who recently made the news for ham-fistedly booking a group of police officers and K9s to talk to potential jurors about how great cops are and how police dogs are awesome at finding drugs (actually, police dogs are not great at finding drugs, but are really good at pleasing police officers by “alerting” that there are drugs — perhaps they and Mr. Daniel have this butt-sniffing need to please in common? I digress…).

So, aside from the chance to maybe get to pet a police dog and end up on Chris Daniel’s Snapchat for the day, don’t you feel some little pull towards just seeing what this system we constantly badmouth is about?

Years ago, a Favorite Correspondent of yours was a swollen-footed diner waitress. Living in the furthest reaches of Harris County, she did not respond to (or maybe did not even receive) a jury summons, and soldiered onward serving watery coffee and slimy eggs to the masses, not giving the summons much thought. Years later, she became an attorney and wished, very much, that she would have had the chance to serve on a jury, to see what it would have been like, to hold the fate, however small, of someone in her hands.

That, and to tell everyone and their dog (even police dogs) about jury nullification. What’s that? You don’t know about jury nullification?

In brief, jury nullification is when a jury refuses to convict someone of something even though they think the defendant is guilty, because the jury thinks it shouldn’t be against the law in the first place, or because it thinks the punishment for the crime is too severe.

An example of this is Bushell’s Case, which hails from London in 1670. William Penn (yes, the same one who founded Pennsylvania) and William Mead were accused of illegal street preaching to a crowd, which they were definitely doing. The jury refused to convict them, even when the judge threw the jury in prison and denied them food and water for two days. After the jury rendered a full acquittal, the judge fined them all and several of them remained in prison for months while they paid off their fines. Bushell was one of the jurors. He refused to pay his fine, filed a writ of habeas corpus alleging that it was totally improper to punish juries for their verdicts, and won.

Jury nullification has played a huge part in our history. Northern juries frequently refused to convict people for helping slaves escape, or for violating the Fugitive Slave Act. Juries in the 1920’s often refused to convict people charged with alcohol violations during Prohibition. During the 1960’s and 70’s, juries sometimes acquitted people dodging the draft or aiding others in dodging the draft. We see jury nullification in modern courtrooms (not often enough if you Ask Allison, which you are) predominantly in drug offenses, especially for drugs like marijuana, where the jury may feel that it shouldn’t be illegal in the first place, or shouldn’t be a jailable offense.

But the problem, which you will understand, Jaded, is that lawyers are largely prevented from telling juries that they have this awesome power. The result is that some juries know they can do this, and some juries don’t. That means that in two similar cases, you could easily have two opposite results. That is the very definition, dear reader, of injustice.

So take your summons in your hot little hand and ride the Metro for free down to the courthouse complex. Go to the Jury Assembly Plaza and tell everyone who will listen about jury nullification. Bring a snack. Do your civic duty. Hope to get picked for an interesting case. Donate your $6 a day of juror pay to one of these several victim’s rights groups pre-selected by the county (and notice that there aren’t any organizations to prevent wrongful convictions, to help rehabilitate or train released offenders, or provide funding to hardworking public defense programs).  And let me know as soon as possible, gentle friend, if they let you pet the police dog.

In Solidarity,

 

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: May 11, 2016

Dear Allison,

Hi! I’m 23, and just graduated from undergrad where I majored in Political Science.  I’ve thought for a while now that I’d like to be an attorney, and so I took the LSAT and have been applying to schools. My LSAT score is not great- think mid-140’s (and this was my third time taking it)- but my undergrad GPA is decent- about a 3.0. I haven’t been able to get into any Texas schools yet (fingers crossed, I did make the wait list at one!), but I’m really excited to have gotten into a few out-of-state schools, though they are 4th tier. I know I want to practice in Texas, and I’d love to do some kind of criminal work. What should I be doing to prepare?

Signed,

Wanna-Be 1-L

 

 

Dear Sweet Wanna-Be,

To slightly alter the inimitable Dorothy Parker, if you have any young friends who want to be lawyers, the second biggest favor you can do for them is to give them a copy of the Blue Book Citation Manual and the first biggest favor you can do for them is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

No, no. I kid. I kid. I promised myself when I started practicing law that I wasn’t going to become one of those lawyers who tells young people, “Whatever you do, don’t become a lawyer.” I hate that. I feel like there’s enough of that out there. And it’s not fair or true. We DO need lawyers, just not as many as are being minted. And so that’s what my advice to you is, Wanna-Be. Think about why you want to do this and about what kind of lawyer you want to be before you invest any more time and money into this whole crazy thing. Please, please consider:

Law school is horrible. It is an interminable slog that has been made all the more difficult by the placement of pointless and countless impediments in your way. The reasons for many of the things that have become institutionalized in law schools have long been forgotten, and you are forced to go through arcane hazing rituals just because your professors had to go through them, too, back before the invention of time. Your professors, while often successful practitioners in their own right, often have little to no pedagogical training and don’t know how to teach, so they just rely on the tried-and-true method of embarrassing students for their own enjoyment or telling inapplicable war stories about their years of practice. Your peers are cutthroat snitches who very literally benefit if you fail and will take every possible chance they have to try and intimidate or annihilate you. Much of your time is spent wallowing in fear, despair, and depression.

Imagine this: as your darling Allison walked out of her first semester exams, she sat in her beat-up car in the cold night and laid her tired head on the steering wheel, weeping from exhaustion and the release of being done and the horror of only being one semester deep into a three year commitment and the crippling realization of the amount of debt she had and would continue to accrue, and she sobbed a prayer to the gods of the underworld with all her might, “Please let me fail so I never have to come back to this terrible, terrible place.” Alas, Dear Reader, that is not what happened, because the gods of the underworld are fickle, and here we are.

And there is something to be said for things that don’t kill you making you stronger. And there is something to be said for fortitude. And there is something to be said for the amazing amounts of useful knowledge law school teaches you about conducting your own personal affairs. And there is a huge amount of satisfaction in telling people all the things that are wrong with their favorite crime dramas. And yet…

I will tell you a lot of things you don’t wanna hear, Woeful Wanna-Be, and that your non-lawyer friends and family are not going to tell you. Going to school out of the state you’re most likely to practice in is a mistake. Yes, you can do it. Yes, people do it. No, you shouldn’t if you can avoid it. The Texas Bar is a beast and not being able to take Texas-specific classes throughout law school is a bad start. Not only that, but you won’t have the networking and alumni connections that you would have had in Texas.

The LSAT isn’t necessarily a great predictor of how well you will do in law school, but you already know your score is a problem that’s probably been keeping you from getting into Texas schools. There is a reason that schools don’t take scores that low. Law schools don’t make money by turning people away, unless the people they turn away are likely to negatively affect their bar pass and employment rates. If you’ve taken the test three times already, you really need to consider how you are going to be able to perform in an environment where a single exam is your entire semester grade.

And what kind of lawyer do you want to be, gentle correspondent? If you look up some starting salaries and salivate, consider the number again but reduced by several hundred dollars a month in student loan payments in perpe-goddamn-tuity. You should consider whether you would still want to be a lawyer if you knew you would be firmly planted in the middle strata of the middle class for the rest of your life, and maybe not even. Expect the worst and hope to be surprised.

There are a thousand reasons that you should not do this. There are only two that you should. The two that you should are as follows: 1) that your parent is an accomplished lawyer who has promised to set you up in their practice and you have no problem with intense and sustained nepotism; (2) that you would be a superlative attorney.

Let me be clear about No. 2- I don’t mean that your friends and parents have always told you that you’re good at arguing, so you should be a lawyer. I mean that you really think you have unique and formidable skills, and that your reach isn’t beyond your grasp here.

I don’t mean to make that sound all breathless and romantic. Ask yourself, seriously, if there’s anything else you can see yourself doing. Consider your strengths, and consider your abilities. Consider how hard you want to fight to get a job, and consider what disadvantages you already have to deal with. Dear, young, friend. There is nothing wrong with this not being right for you. You need to ask what it is that you can contribute. Don’t get into this because you want recognition. Get into this because you want to offer something to someone who doesn’t have it but needs it. If you don’t have what people need in the legal arena, think about what you have that would help fill a need somewhere else.

Consider the words of Caesar Augustus: “The graveyards are full of middling swordsmen. It is better to be no swordsman at all.”

Sweet friend, I do not suggest an answer, but I hope you will find one.

In Solidarity,

 

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: May 04, 2016

Dear Allison:

My brother is in jail on a felony charge. Our family can’t afford to bail him out, and he has a court-appointed attorney. We can’t stand this lawyer. She is rude, won’t communicate with us or my brother, and only sees him on his court dates, when she resets the case and then leaves. It’s been three months and he’s still in jail with no end of this in sight.  We want to fire her. What can I do to get her off of the case and get a new lawyer for my brother? We’ve heard a lot about a specific lawyer we like, can we request that the judge appoint him?

Signed,

Frustrated Family

 

 

Dear Frustrated,

Oh gosh. That can’t be a good feeling. Short answer: your brother has a right to an attorney, but he doesn’t have a right to a specific attorney. Read: you’re likely stuck with who you got if you can’t hire someone. Let’s think through this a bit and try to work with what we have, though.

This is your brother’s attorney. Not yours. I know you’re close. I know you grew up together. I know he’s flesh-of-your-flesh, etc. But technically, under the law, it’s not your case, and it’s not your lawyer. You can’t do anything to get her off of the case, that’s all on your brother. Is he as dissatisfied with her as you are? Are there things he’s not telling you about what’s going on?

As an attorney, she has a duty to keep her communications with your brother confidential, and unless he’s given her permission to talk to you about the case, she can’t talk to you about it. Period. Is it possible brother dearest doesn’t want you knowing the details of his case?

I know this case is so important to your family. I feel for you. I’ve had relatives facing serious charges, sitting in jail, wondering what will happen, and everyone is on pins and needles. It’s all anyone can talk about, and it’s easy to get caught up with speculation and dark thoughts. That said, as an attorney, it can be frustrating when four different members of a client’s family call me three times a day to find out if there are any updates. Usually there aren’t. The wheels of justice turn incredibly, maddeningly slowly and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it most of the time. I also have more than just one client, and while your family is (hopefully) dealing with just one case, sometimes it takes me a while to return calls, especially if I need to pull the file and look through it to remind myself what is going on before I talk to you.

I would suggest that you nominate ONE member of the family to start making contact with the attorney. Ask her, “Is there a time that’s best for me to call to get an update? Maybe Friday afternoon?” Make an appointment to talk with her on the phone, and then make sure you’re available to keep it.

There is also a good chance that she is working on the case outside of court, and is making progress on it, but it’s hard to see from the outside. Some lawyers are really great at showing their clients what they are doing each step of the way, and encouraging them that progress is being made on the case, but some are not-so-great. That doesn’t mean she isn’t working on it.

But, sweet sister, maybe none of what I’ve said is what’s going on in your brother’s case. Many, if not most, court-appointed lawyers range from good to excellent.  Some of them are experienced, world-class private practitioners who take court-appointments as a way of giving back to the community, and their private fee would have been tens of thousands of dollars. Some of them are bright young lawyers looking for a place to cut their teeth and develop a good reputation. Some of them are somewhere in-between. And a few of them are people who, if we are speaking kindly, were better cut out for different work.

If your brother is uncomfortable with her representation, he needs to talk to her. If she still won’t come and see him, he needs to write her a letter outlining what is bothering him in a clear, polite manner. He should think about the questions he wants to ask her before they meet and have a list that he can go through with her, preferably taking notes if he’s able to. He should ask her when he can expect to see her again, and when she might know more about how quickly his case is going to be resolved.

It’s such a peculiar situation to find oneself in. It’s difficult to put your trust in a stranger, especially a stranger you are already not overly fond of, and especially when it’s something as important as your brother’s freedom. And yet, here we are. I sincerely hope, Frustrated, that your brother’s attorney turns out to be worthy of that trust.

In Solidarity,

 

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: April 27, 2016

Dear Allison:

 I’m a criminal defense attorney who has been in private practice for the last couple of years. Most of the time, I am really proud of my ability to connect with my clients. I have one guy, though, that I just can’t deal with. I’m court-appointed to his case, and I frankly can’t stand him. He constantly tells me that I’m wrong about the law, argues with me, and tells me what to do and say. I am ready to withdraw, but I feel like a failure and I’m not sure the judge would even let me. What do I put on the motion to withdraw, even? “Client is an ass?” (just kidding- I would never do that). But, seriously, I feel like I talk to other lawyers and they just say, “Yeah, some clients are jerks.” That’s not an answer. What should I do?

Yours,

Discouraged Defender

Dear Discouraged,

Ok. Step back.  Deep breath.  Let’s think through a few things.

Your client is in jail. It is possible he will have to stay in jail because of the charges he is facing. The only thing between him and continued incarceration is you. His reality is that the Government is trying to keep him in a box and you are paid by the Government. If he doesn’t stand up for himself, he doesn’t think you will. That’s a problem. Let’s note that all of these things are real to him. They are all, in fact, true so far. What he needs is more information. He needs to know that you are a competent attorney who is going to handle his case- the most important thing in his life right now- well.

I would give him another visit. Go in with enough time before the next court setting that he’s not feeling anxious about being hauled over to court in the imminent future. Sit down and Lean In.

Oh, haven’t I told you about the Patented (not really) Allison Jackson Lean-In? Listen and attend, sweet friend, because this will serve you well in life: when you sit across from someone that you want to develop a connection with (a client, a friend, a date, even), soften your shoulders and your eyes. Lean your shoulders forward (as much as the attorney visiting booth might allow- and if you’re in person not so much that it looks like you’re trying to kiss them, that’s too far! The distance you want is just a little further than if you were going to whisper conspiratorially to them) and speak casually, in a level, even voice. Make eye contact (but not creepily, just sincerely), and speak from the heart. Usually, the first sentence starts with a confessional-sounding, “Hey” or sometimes “Look.” As in, “Look, I know we haven’t gotten along very well so far. I know you’re going through a lot of stress right now, and that you’re facing some really huge decisions. I want you to feel like I am working for you, and I’d really like us to start over.”

This is not to say that you need to just roll over and let him push you around.  In fact, my dear DD, I think maybe you’ve been doing that too much already. Your client needs to see that you have some grit and fortitude. If he can argue with you and tell you the law is wrong and you back down and walk away, he’s thinking you’re doing the exact same thing when you’re talking to prosecutors. I would respond to his next challenge with something like, “Ok.  I know you’re anxious to get your case resolved and get out of here, and I want to help you with that, but what you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me as an attorney. I want you to participate in your own defense, and I understand you’re concerned, so I am glad to point out the section in the law that I’m talking about if you’d like. I can make a copy and send it to you along with a few notes about why this works the way it does. For now, though, we need to move on.”

Then, best beloved, you have to follow through.  Print out the provision of the code you referenced, write a couple of notes on it about what you mean, and mail it off in an envelope marked “Attorney-Client Privilege.” It probably wouldn’t hurt to print out a couple of crossword puzzles as well and send those, too, because jail is boring and because you want him to have something to do in there other than think of ways to harass you and his family.  And who doesn’t love mail?

I think sometimes we forget that we work for the clients, even when we’re court-appointed.  It’s easy to be a hot dog and feel like this is “your” case, but don’t lose the fact that you are providing a service.

I don’t think you’re at the withdrawal point. Not yet. If you get to where your personal feelings about the guy compromise your ability to represent him zealously, I think that’s when you really need to go ahead and withdraw. Or if the communication breakdown is so bad that you realize you’re not doing this guy any favors and that he’s not going to participate in his defense if you’re his lawyer, you need to withdraw.

Right now, I think you need to consider the effect your withdrawal would have on your client. Would he be in jail longer waiting for the disposition of this case because another lawyer would have to start over with him? Would another lawyer likely have the exact same problems you’re having? Is it possible his attitude is the result of undiagnosed mental health problems or drug withdrawal? How much do you really have to “like” your client to effectively represent them against the onslaught of the State? These are questions only you can answer.

If, my darling DD, you do get to the point where you feel a withdrawal is necessary, you need to be extremely cognizant of the fact that the withdrawal will be in the court file, accessible to prying eyes. The phrase I would use is “irrevocable breakdown of communication.” Keep it short. Give no details. Place no blame. If you are pressed for details by the judge, say that they are privileged, because they are. But for now, keep swimming. Go down to the jail and try to convince this poor guy that you are on his side, because you are.

In Solidarity,

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.