Judge Carole Clark took the long road to law school, which is common for people who pursue a J.D. as part of a career change. But once she started law school, Clark’s living arrangement was anything but common.
After graduating from Texas Christian University in 1973 with a degree in elementary and special education, Clark moved to Tyler with her new husband, who had just graduated from Baylor Law School and joined his family’s law practice.
But Clark ran into a career problem in the Rose Capital of Texas: Nobody in Tyler was hiring teachers. However, the state of Texas was hiring Child Protective Services (CPS) case workers. So she interviewed with CPS and got the job.
“I had no clue what CPS did. And when I interviewed, I just about had a heart attack. People get their children taken away? Oh my God!” Clark recalls.
“I was with CPS for six-and-half years. The shelf life then was about three years,” Clark says of the high-stress job. She started a master’s degree program while working as a CPS case worker, but Clark concluded there wasn’t much room for advancement for social workers in Tyler.
“I married into a family full of lawyers. And one day I decided to go to law school,” Clark says. She was accepted at Baylor, the same school her husband had graduated from years earlier. So Clark commuted to Waco during the week and chose one of the most economical living situations possible while attending law school.
“I lived in a 28-foot camping trailer for two-and-a-half years in a trailer park. And then I came back to Tyler” on the weekends, Clark says.
After earning her law degree in 1981, Clark joined her husband and father-in-law’s firm, Clark & Clark, where she did real estate and banking work. When the Texas economy crashed in the mid-1980s, Clark switched to a practice she was familiar with because of her previous employment: CPS cases and juvenile law.
In 1998, the judge of the 321st District Court decided to retire. Clark ran for the bench as a Republican, which she saw as a perfect fit because the court primarily handles family law cases, “and I’m a social worker at heart,” Clark says. She won.
When Clark is off the bench and has time, she likes to engage in the early-American art form of quilting. Those who want to get a closer look at Clark’s stitch work need look no further than behind her bench, where a quilt featuring an eagle hangs that Clark made with her own two hands.
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who was birthed by a hard-core quilter and has a fantastic mom-made wedding-ring quilt in his possession to prove it, e-mailed Clark some questions to ponder. Here are her answers, edited for length and style.
Judge Carole Clark
321st District Court
Elected to the bench: 1998
Texas Lawyer: How can lawyers make your life easier?
Judge Carole Clark: Read the local rules and follow them. My No. 1 problem with lawyers is their lack of preparedness. They don’t bring their Family Code and their Rules of Civil Procedure, which should be in their briefcase at all times. They are unable to artfully articulate what relief they want. They don’t bring the information required by the local rules. Too many lawyers just show up with their client. The client often hasn’t been prepared as to what the purpose of the hearing is, what will happen and how the judge may look at their issues. In all hearings, time limits will be imposed. The client needs to be prepared for that reality. Don’t play hide-the-ball with discovery. In family law cases, everyone knows most items are discoverable according to the rules and case law. Good preparation is 80 percent of the work and court is the other 20 percent — not the other way around.
TL: What’s the most common mistake family lawyers make in your court?
Clark: Not being professional. Family law in the courtroom has unfortunately disintegrated into who can have the poorest manners and exhibit the most drama. This behavior is a substitute for being prepared and good old-fashioned lawyering. If that is all you have, you probably won’t fare very well.
TL: Do you usually send divorce cases to mediation?
TL: What do all lawyers need to tell their clients before entering your courtroom?
Clark: What do you want, why do you want it and is it fair? Yes, you are mad and angry, but the bottom line for children is what is in their best interest, and for property, what is fair. As to children, my philosophy is based on all the scientific research I can find. The research of Dr. Bruce Perry tells us trauma is bad for children’s emotional and physical development. Dr. Judith Wallerstein’s 40-plus years of research into outcomes for children of litigious divorces shows the results are longstanding and not good. Yes, I see parents on drugs and with various and sundry mental issues. If drugs are a problem, I will want an assessment to describe what the person needs. Not all people on drugs need inpatient services as I have learned from my drug court. Whatever they need, the lawyer should counsel them to get what they need to make them a productive parent. Children need two parents if at all possible. If, all being equal, they are simply engaged in a power struggle, the research will show defusing that power struggle is essential. Win-lose is not an acceptable scenario for optimum children’s emotional and physical development. There are those rare cases where one parent’s behavior is such that win-lose is necessary, but generally it is not acceptable because it builds in more fight. The best outcome in a power struggle case is 2-2-5-5. One parent has Monday and Tuesday, one has Wednesday and Thursday, and they rotate five-day weekends. It works well. In highly emotional cases, the parents can expect me to rule they have no communication with each other absent an emergency for a time. Less time to fight. They can expect the children to see a counselor. I am a big fan of Dr. Karyn Purvis at Texas Christian University. She has written a book called “The Connected Child.” She is an attachment-disorder specialist. We know from her research with children of failed Russian adoptions and others that stress and trauma make the body produce chemicals that can rewire the brain. The end results, left unchecked, can result in aggression and lack of bonding. Our prisons are full of the end result. I have two counselors I prefer who have been to special training by Purvis. As to property and money, the lawyers know that there is a presumption at the beginning that all is community. The money will be shared with the major bills getting paid and everyone having food, clothing and shelter. Credit cards won’t get paid, generally speaking. Selfish doesn’t work very well with me. At the end, please identify all the assets, characterize them and have a proposed property division. The local rules require it. Tell your client, if you have a problem, put it on the table along with what you are going to do to fix it. Making the court identify the problem and the solution doesn’t help your case. If the court thinks you have a problem, you have a problem. I want all the lawyers to get paid. One side shouldn’t want to beat the other side up for lack of legal representation. If one side has a lawyer, figure out how to get the other side a lawyer. Trying to “out lawyer” the other side doesn’t sit well with me. Too many lawyers these days are looking for an unfair advantage to win their case. Especially where children are involved, that doesn’t fit my definition of “best interest.” If you need an unfair advantage to win, your case probably isn’t very good. Don’t have hearings to run up fees. Courts don’t have time to relitigate and relitigate points. If a lawyer is asking for something they know they won’t get, it is probably fee-generating. The lawyer’s wallet may improve, but the case probably won’t.
TL: Are there any courtroom formalities you are particularly strict about?
Clark: Yes. Men should tuck in their shirttails, and all cell phones are off or on vibrate. Further, no talking in the courtroom.
TL: What do you now know about being a judge that you didn’t know while in private practice?
Clark: Lawyers go to court unprepared for their matter. They either don’t prepare their client or they build up their client’s expectations and then blame the poor result on the judge. I am constantly dismayed at the lack of civility, lack of knowledge of the law and lack of accepting blame for a poor outcome.
TL: Do you have any rules about how an attorney should examine a witness?
Clark: Just the standard Rules of Civil Procedure.
TL: What’s your best advice to attorneys on how to get a quick ruling in your court?
Clark: Show up prepared; put on your case simply, efficiently; know the law that applies and provide it, if necessary; and I will rule right then.
TL: If an attorney disagrees with a ruling, what’s the best way to convince you to change your mind?
Clark: Argue in a rehearing how the law was not applied to the facts.
TL: What’s your best advice for how to survive in a 28-foot camping trailer for two-and-a-half years?
Clark: Don’t be claustrophobic!
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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