If there’s any doubt that summer internships have a big impact on law students, Dallas County Court-at-Law No. 2 Judge King Fifer is proof that they can and do.
In the early 1990s, Fifer was home in Dallas for the summer while attending the University of Tulsa College of Law. His mother convinced him to volunteer for Merrill Hartman, then-judge of Dallas County’s 192nd District Court.
“His family and my family went to church together. My mother convinced me that volunteering for Judge Hartman would be a good thing,” Fifer says. “And at that point in time, I saw a whole new world — a world of civil litigation. And that’s when I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Fifer had received a government and politics degree from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1987 and worked in retail for a while before he went to law school and earned his J.D. in 1992.
He landed a job at Dallas’ Fisk & Fielder, where he practiced construction law, but he ultimately wanted to follow in Hartman’s footsteps. So in 2006, when Dallas County Democratic Party officials approached him about running for Dallas County Court-at-Law No. 2, he entered the race. He won — along with 41 other Democratic candidates who took every contested trial bench away from Republicans during the 2006 general election.
Fifer chose to run for a county bench instead of a district bench because historically, jurists start there before moving up, he says. “Little did I know that it wouldn’t matter where I ran,” he says.
Fifer has adjusted well to life on the bench over the past three years — or at least the Dallas chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates thinks so: It named Fifer Trial Judge of the Year for 2009. “I’m very honored,” Fifer says of the award.
For those who may wonder, “King” is Fifer’s real name, given to him by his parents.
“Actually my full name is Timothy King Fifer. And King is my mother’s maiden name,” Fifer says. “And when I was born they just started calling me King. And I’ve been King ever since.”
Fifer says he constantly tries to create the perfect play list on his iPod. He says the first five songs on that list would include: “Corrina, Corrina” by Bob Dylan; “Steal Your Love” by Lucinda Williams; “Hallelujah” by Ryan Adams; “Give Back the Key to My Heart” by Uncle Tupelo; and “You and I” by Wilco.
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who has seen Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and Wilco perform live, e-mailed Fifer some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.
Judge King Fifer
Dallas County Court-at-Law No. 2
First Elected to the Bench: 2006
Texas Lawyer: What is the best way a lawyer can get on your good side?
Judge King Fifer: Be on time.
TL: Are there any advantages to filing a case in a Dallas county court instead of a district court, since the civil jurisdictional limits are almost the same?
Fifer: That’s probably a question best for the lawyers. Because there are considerably fewer (five) county courts than district courts, I suppose it is easier to become familiar with the county courts and their staffs.
TL: What is the wrong way to handle filing a motion in your court?
Fifer: Filing a motion without an adequate conference with opposing counsel.
TL: What is the best way to get a quick pretrial ruling in your court?
Fifer: File a motion requesting an expedited hearing and explaining the need for an expedited ruling. Call my court coordinator, and she will find a time for the hearing; we can do it by telephone if necessary. . . .
TL: Do you have any rules lawyers should know about how they should handle the examination of witnesses during a trial?
Fifer: Don’t repeat questions. Don’t argue with a witness. Make your point and move on.
TL: What do you worry about more: issuing quick, fair rulings or getting reversed by Dallas’ 5th Court of Appeals?
Fifer: I worry about getting it right; most litigants can’t afford an appeal.
TL: What is the most frustrating aspect of your job?
Fifer: A lack of respect for the jurors’ time. Jurors are the only people in the courtroom not there by choice; the litigants, lawyers and I all made the choice to try the case, so the least we can do is manage the case efficiently in consideration of their service. . . .
TL: What lesson did you learn from retired Judge Merrill Hartman that you use every day?
Fifer: Judge Hartman taught me to look beyond the lawyer and see the client. Before long, the lawyer will be back in the courtroom arguing on someone else’s behalf, but it may be the client’s only exposure to the courts. Win or lose, they need to see that justice is occurring and have confidence in our system.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.