Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with Judge Craig Smith to discuss his career in the law. Smith was elected to the 192nd District Court in November 2006, following the retirement of Judge Merrill Hartman. He took office January 2007.
AALM: How did you transition from your career as an attorney to your career as a judge? What prompted the change?
Smith: I was a trial lawyer for over 26 years. Whatever success I achieved in private practice provided me the opportunity to look beyond just the next case and allowed me to focus on how I could give back to a community that had been so good to me. I have been a late bloomer when it comes to public service, but I am doing my best to catch up. I thank my lucky stars for the ability to serve.
AALM: Do you have any mentors? What are some of the most important lessons they taught you?
Smith: As a rule, I believe it is difficult to improve when you have only yourself to copy. I have had many mentors over my legal career and believe each has been invaluable in my growth as an attorney, as a judge and as a human being.
Judge Merrill Hartman, my predecessor in the 192nd, had a particularly large impact on my life in the legal profession. He taught me the importance of giving – of being relevant – of making a difference. What we can give as lawyers is almost unlimited. We have a license and the knowledge to change people’s world. All we need is the desire.
AALM: Describe your style in the courtroom.
Smith: I am a bit less formal than some of my colleagues. I like to think I am a pretty practical judge who focuses on getting things done and resolving conflicts. Of all the Rules of Civil Procedure, I am particularly invested in Rule 1 – The Objective of Rules. The proper objective of rules of civil procedure is to obtain a just, fair, equitable and impartial adjudication of the rights of litigants under established principles of substantive law. To the end that this objective may be attained with as great expedition and dispatch and at the least expense both to the litigants and to the state as may be practicable, these rules shall be given a liberal construction. Also, I like the rule that the trial judge is vested with broad discretion – kinda fits me.
AALM: Describe your relationship with your staff.
Smith: It is so important that lawyers understand the close relationship between judge and staff. As a team, my staff is invaluable to the smooth operation of the 192nd. Bertha, Tenesa and Jorge all work diligently to ensure that matters get set and are heard timely. They also help make sure jurors have a positive experience.
AALM: Do you have any advice for attorneys trying a case before your bench?
Smith: Professionalism and civility are so very important to good and persuasive advocacy. Also, respect the jury with your presentation and use of time.
A positive public perception of what we do at the courthouse is vital for the system’s survival. Our civil justice system cannot survive without the public’s support and confidence. We want our jurors to leave the court knowing that their time was well spent and that they contributed positively to our great civil justice system – truly unique and the best in the world.
AALM: What do you believe is the biggest difference between practicing law and presiding as a judge?
Smith: The obvious differences are perspective and responsibilities. As an attorney, you are an advocate for your client. A judge is an advocate for the system, trying to ensure that the rules are followed so that justice under our system is achieved, and that jurors leave with an understanding of how valuable their service is.
Job stress is also certainly different for a trial judge and a trial lawyer. Both jobs create stress, but there is far less stress on the judge. When I finish a case from the bench – my workday is over. I am not returning to my office to work on other files, return phone calls, or deal with all the business of running a law office. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night worrying about missed deadlines, witness preparation or overhead. I do understand what it takes to practice as a trial lawyer – hopefully that shows in how I conduct my court.
AALM: Are there any challenges that you believe need to be corrected in the legal community?
Smith: Access to our civil justice system is under continued stress and attack. Civil jury trials have declined dramatically over the last 30 years. Tort reform and mandatory arbitration, especially in consumer and employment matters, are obviously responsible for much of this decline. However, my 13 years on the bench have convinced me that the cost of litigation is preventing many valid disputes from ever getting to the courthouse. We in the legal community have to do better to find ways to lower the cost of litigation or the courthouse will be effectively closed to all but the very wealthy.
AALM: Are there any changes in the legal community that you are excited about?
Smith: I am very excited to have the University of North Texas School of Law just down the street from the George Allen Courthouse. I have taught many classes at the law school over the last four years, including trial advocacy, ADR, professionalism and a basket of other subjects. Our community’s legal needs have evolved. It is exciting to see how legal teaching is changing to meet these needs and witness firsthand a passion for social justice. Critical thinking skills are still emphasized, but the increase in clinics and obtaining hands-on training has tremendous value. Our entire legal community is going to be changed – for the better – with the membership of these new lawyers.
I also have a very personal investment in the future of our profession. Looks like all my children are going to be lawyers and practice in Dallas. Austin (JD 2016) is a civil trial lawyer at Thompson Knight. Taylor (JD 2018) is practicing family law at Koons Fuller. And Jackson (2020) will spend his first year as a lawyer working as a law clerk to the Honorable Jane Boyle. I can’t tell you how proud I am that these three wonderful people have chosen to be a part of and serve this community. Thank goodness they have a strong, smart and loving mother!