Since the spring, Geoffrey Hinkson and I have been working on our tentatively titled yearlong saga, “The Chris Spendlove Chronicles.” It’s a title so new and tentative, Geoffrey doesn’t even know about it! Our main goal is to showcase a freshman attorney navigating year one under interesting circumstances.
Ultimately, we’ll have an article in the June 2024 issue of the Texas Bar Journal, along with our ongoing social media coverage, to cap off an attorney’s first year. We hope to show readers from next spring’s class of new lawyers how someone like them successfully met the challenges of work, home, and beyond. We hope they can identify with the highs and lows of the job, catch some things to look out for, learn about bar resources, and maybe even be more galvanized to kickstart their new career.
Meet in Waco
Our attorney is Chris Spendlove, who graciously is allowing us to follow him around for a year. At 33, Spendlove is married to Jorden and has two kids—Sophia, 6, and Joseph, 3, with either Scarlett or Jett on the way. Chris was originally in PR, working for ad agencies in Utah from 2017 to 2020. He breaks down his roles in that era in terms of Mad Men—he kept clients happy like Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove or did freelance copywriting like Paul Kinsey. After being let go from one agency, and taking on a few side gigs like driving for Uber or delivering for Amazon, Chris had a semi-forced period of deep reflection on his next move. He had a background in theater musicals and paid acting gigs. As a kid, he wanted to become a lawyer—a career that would incorporate his love for performance. So he switched gears to the law in the midst of raising a family and a global pandemic. Gutsy. The recent Baylor Law grad is now an assistant district attorney in McLennan County. When we met him in April, he had worked exactly one trial. Who we found was someone who is self-aware and eager to pursue justice in Waco.
We had already spoken to Chris on the phone so when we first met with him, we wanted it to be less of a Q&A and more of a fly-on-the-wall, mise-en-scéne in the field. This brought us from Austin to the McLennan County Courthouse in downtown Waco in April for a day of probation revocation hearings.
Built in 1901, the courthouse is a very impressive Beaux-Arts building of bright white limestone. Ladies Justice stand guard on the roof in front of a dome. Along the dome itself are statues of several eagles spanning their wings. The inside of it contains large star-shaped jewels in every shade of blue. Bishop-shaped columns with dark wood tops rail around the open floor for three stories.
We were with Chris and Judge Vikram “Vik” Deivanayagam in the judge’s chambers in County Court at Law No. 1. This is a largely misdemeanor court, a proving ground for young attorneys, where Chris has been an assistant district attorney since March. On one wall in the office is a bookcase with basketballs autographed by Baylor hoopers. Another hoists stained glass with religious icons. As the two talked about anything but law, there was a sense of a small community here. Judge Vik said the courthouse is the sort of place where civil and criminal court judges will ask if they can use each other’s courtrooms. In their downtime, other ADAs spectate on other hearings. There is a jury room here, though jurors get sent upstairs to deliberate. Chris didn’t seem to mind, saying he’s had no issues in the courtrooms here. He’s been eager to prove himself in trial.
“One of the reasons I took this job was I wanted to go to trial,” Chris told us. “I believe in the mission of prosecution and defense in the state. I never wanted to be the lawyer behind the desk.”
For the past couple months, Chris has prosecuted a bevy of cases here, largely probation violations. Hearings tend to not go to trial as often as he’d like—instead ending in plea deals. He described his disappointment with the one trial he did recently take on, which did not end how he expected. It was a Class C family assault case involving a father and daughter who got into a scuffle at home. Chris cross-examined the witness and thought he did a great voir dire. However, she ended up testifying for the defense. The jury’s verdict was not guilty.
“It was eye-opening,” he said.
Ahead of the start of today’s docket, Chris gave us the heads up that his part in each hearing would be very cut and dry: A one-sentence recommendation on behalf of the state. No witness examinations. No exhibits. No objections. No splashy closing statements.
Geoffrey’s phone was on the ready for a post-hearing presser; my hands for furiously scribbling details of every speck of dust and every word half-muttered in the room.
Judge Vik’s court has two rows of wooden benches with grey velvet cushioning for people to wait ahead of hearings, two more rows on the wings for jurors, and the actual court floor. The whole room is no larger than an average office floor. Along the walls are large, framed prints—some level, some crooked—of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Statue of Liberty, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and collages of jurists from other courts. The whole place is flanked by offices for Judge Vik, court reporters Kristi Thompson and Jennifer Murphy, and the private jury room.
Chris’ co-counsel, Jessica Washington, paced in and out of the court on her phone, talking to a clerk about a prior conviction they secured. Bailiffs and bored-looking attorney-spectators sat in the gallery. Chris took a break from reading through documents to give Geoffrey and me a primer on the hearings. There were eight probation revocation hearings on the docket—less than a handful were expected to happen. They would be uncontested: the judge will ask for the state’s recommendation, the defense will acknowledge, and they’ll all go from there, he said.
There was one self-represented defendant who works as a delivery truck driver. He was due in court recently but missed the date after he was caught in a snowstorm while delivering in Oklahoma days before. There was a young mother who had cut out smoking marijuana and was prepared to go to a job fair but needed loosened restrictions on her probation so she could travel to the job fair and also be able to drive her child to and from school. One man was confused by a bondsman and his attorney on when he needed to appear in court and ended up missing his date. Another mother requested a 180-day sentence on an electronic monitor and hoped she could also take her kids to and from school. Each time, it went down like Chris told us: he’d recommend X amount of days on an electronic monitor, the defense would agree to that, and Judge Vik would make it so.
The most interesting hearing on the docket was delayed by many moon cycles and many presidential administrations it seemed. A young man who had repeatedly failed drug tests wanted leg room to be able to work—he owns a construction business. He was supposed to provide Judge Vik with a urine sample but couldn’t. Perhaps out of nerves (he was supervised in the bathroom by his parole officer) or, as the judge hinted, because of “certain medication.” So for what seemed like 40 minutes, thumbs were twiddled, laughter rose and fell, and this editor/writer went through every hyper detail of the courtroom: The carpet was a grey twill twisting with threads of blue and purple, depending on the light. If you looked even closer, you’d find even more of the level picture frames on the walls slightly crooked.
I was curious how Chris, eager to just litigate, handled the mundane—the drawn out, non-active moments that make up most of a day. He was alone at the prosecutor’s desk, eyes affixed on court documents. Chris rarely looked up amid the chorus of cackling in the room. More focused on the next hearing, he wouldn’t chime in if the conversation had nothing to do with the docket. Instead, he left his desk only to update us. “We’re not going to sit around all day—but he is with a probation officer in the bathroom.” Then he told us a tip he learned: Bail bonds agents can be a good pressure point—if someone on probation is being squirrelly and not playing ball, the bonds agents can be contacted by an ADA to remind the client to get it together, Chris said.
Judge Vik called for recess. The banter in the gallery was now over “hot boxing”—a concept I never thought I’d hear a group of attorneys casually explain to a judge while shooting the breeze. It’s a new thing, Chris told us, for him—and probably a few of the others—to be able to walk in and out of the courtroom as they please. He’s no longer a law student/intern needing permission to come in. None of the others are either. When it’s slow, Chris said, the other ADAs in the building sometimes drop by to watch hearings and even contribute.
“You can always learn by observing even if I’m not the one at the [prosecutor’s] desk,” he said.
When the defendant finally arrived, his face was flush red; sweat percolated at his scalp. He clutched a cowboy hat and had an embarrassed look on his face. Expected. His recent violation, in his words, involved taking low-grade marijuana edibles to go to sleep. He “didn’t know” it actually contained THC, he told the judge. So he tested positive. Judge Vik, looking dumbfounded, asked if he had read the label on the bottle. Chris recommended 365 days on an electronic monitor and SCRAM device. The defendant was ordered to take weekly drug tests beginning in May, would need permission from a judge or healthcare group to leave the house, and would lose the right to obtain a driver’s license for a year. There would be jailtime if the defendant messed up again, and there would be no legroom to operate a business when there’s a solid chance the young man would be back on a violation.
Earlier in the day, Gabe Price approached Chris and asked about his swearing-in. Assuming they were talking about the upcoming New Lawyer Induction in Austin in May, I didn’t think much of it. Instead, Chris, who gave Geoffrey and me absolutely no heads up, was getting sworn-in as an ADA of McLennan County today. So the excitement of the day, aside from being able to witness Chris in action, was being there for this pivotal moment in his career. After the day’s docket was finished, Judge Vik and Chris chatted by the prosecutor desk. “Should we do it now?” Chris asked. Do what? I asked myself. Geoffrey had juststepped out and I was at my seat in the juror’s row ready to head back to Austin. In front of the judge’s bench, both men rose their right hands up. Oh, no, I thought to myself. I could not miss this. The gallery rushed to the front with their phones out. I quickly found my spot in front of them with my Nikon and snapped away. Judge Vik read the lawyer’s oath. Chris repeated it. And with no-frills, nestled into a fairly busy schedule, McLennan County’s newest assistant district attorney took his oath.