Lessons and impressions from 50 years of practicing law

By James Boanerges

When I was attending Lamar High School in Houston, a lawyer and an accountant came to campus one day to address the student body. The first speaker, famous criminal defense attorney Percy Foreman, made a huge impression with his booming voice and engaging smile. The accountant, a mild-mannered, nondescript fellow, simply could not compete. Several years later, working as an attorney, I was taking a tour of students around the courthouse. While we were waiting for the elevators in the basement of the criminal courts building, Foreman walked up. I proudly introduced him to the group, and he graciously beamed out to the kids as he had to me. One of those students may have written his or her account of becoming a lawyer as a result of that experience.

In the summer of 1962, I had three years of college, no LSAT, no degree. Only the idea of becoming a lawyer. My new bride and I visited law schools in Texas, all of which turned me down and told me to come back with a degree—except for Baylor. I found out that the process of making lawyers was similar to selecting a jury; only about a third stick around. This truth was built into the design of the classrooms, with each year’s class size getting progressively smaller as more students gave up or were not allowed to return. Because I had no undergraduate degree and had a wife and child, I had no alternative but to study and pass. I was licensed in 1964 at age 22.

I got a job with a personal injury defense firm, and my mentor was Henry Giessel. Hank, as he likes to be called, is the most intelligent, eloquent, and charming man I have ever met. I slipped out of the office at every opportunity to watch him in court. Once, at the conclusion of his argument, the courtroom was so spellbound that total silence persisted for several minutes before the judge asked Hank’s opponent, “Counsel, do you wish to respond?” The poor fellow cleared his throat and asked, “Judge, can I get a drink of water?” I was as hooked as when I heard Foreman speak back in high school.

Fifty years has flown by. Jesus was right—each day has had problems of its own. There isn’t room for error. There is always another lawyer looking over your shoulder and a judge to grade your papers. Ultimately, the jury gets to decide.

My lesson has been that the best form of government ever devised is the jury system. I have seen our society improve because of lawyers and jury verdicts—cars are safer, government officials are more honest, businesses are more law-abiding. As long as we have juries, we will be safe. And as long as we have juries, we will need good lawyers.

Crash course on jury duty for high school seniors

Many people dread jury duty, which is associated with detouring from our all-too-comfortable daily routines. High school seniors are no different, and with a multitude of enticing alternate options for how to spend their time, they likely are more susceptible to developing jury duty apathy.

On Nov. 7, a program of the Houston Bar Association will bring together 10 Harris County judges to teach Houston high school seniors about the importance of jury duty, as well as how juries are selected. Each judge works on humanizing the jury process for the students and dispelling common jury duty myths. The judge leads its class through mock questioning, treating the students as if they were potential jurors, and then selects a jury panel and discusses what made those students appropriate choices.

HBA created the Voir Dire Program in 2000 during a period of low juror turnout in Harris County. It seeks to increase the number of people who show up for jury duty in order to create a large, diverse jury pool for efficient administration of justice.

“Jury duty is not only a civic duty but a privilege,” said Judge Paula Goodhart of the Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 1. “And the less intimidating and more informative we can make it for young adults, the more likely they will respond when called to duty.”