Judge Wade Birdwell of the 342nd District Court traces much of his success as a lawyer to verbal battles in public speaking competitions in high school.
He competed on a forensic team with fellow students from Forest Park High School in Beaumont. They faced down other high school teams in debate, oratory, extemporaneous speaking and dramatic-speaking competitions. Birdwell earned the top honor, the “Double Ruby,” from the National Forensic League, a speech and debate honor society.
The experience in public speaking prepped Birdwell for life as a lawyer, he says.
“In competing in those areas, I became very familiar with political and legal issues of the day and enjoyed doing research, enjoyed taking positions and trying to defend those positions,” explains Birdwell.
For example, in the mid-1970s when oil prices were sky high and the oil embargo was in the news, Birdwell participated in a tournament that required competitors to present propositions for a new energy policy.
“You had to come up with a proposal for a policy that would impact the energy-shortage issue we were suffering at that point,” he explains. “My partner and I were running a methanol plan. . . . [W]e proposed changing all transportation over from gasoline to methanol, to save on energy and to decrease our dependency on foreign oil.”
The plan had “definite holes,” Birdwell recalls, but the point was to research the issue, present the plan and attack the ideas of opposing teams while promoting your plan.
“You had to hit as many points as you could, and you were talking as quickly as you could,” Birdwell says, noting his presentation sounded like a fast-talking television commercial.
But that technique changed dramatically when he advanced to another level of public speaking in law school. After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from The University of Texas at Austin in 1983, Birdwell earned a J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center in 1989.
He was on a moot court team in law school, and he remembers, “[T]he first thing my coach did was just totally destroy my debating technique. Debating in high school is totally different than legal argument. . . . With the law, you are trying to be persuasive” — as opposed to talking as fast as possible.
After earning his law degree, Birdwell became an associate with Cantey Hanger in Fort Worth from 1989 to 1995, practicing mostly medical-malpractice defense. Birdwell then joined Shannon, Gracey, Ratliff & Miller in Fort Worth as an associate from 1995 to 2000. From 2000 to 2010, he was of counsel at Wallach & Moore in Fort Worth, which is now called Wallach & Andrews.
Gov. Rick Perry in July 2010 appointed Birdwell to preside over the vacant 342nd District Court when its judge retired mid-term. Because there was a pending general election, Birdwell had to run, and he won election to complete that term in 2010. In 2012 he won election for a full term.
“It’s kind of a natural progression, going from being the persuader to being the decider,” Birdwell says about becoming a judge. “It’s always something I wanted to do.”
While practicing appellate law before taking the bench, Birdwell says he argued cases before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Texas Supreme Court and the state’s intermediate appellate courts. He says his public-speaking background was invaluable.
“The ability to express yourself coherently, and do so in front of a lot of people, is really a unique gift,” Birdwell says.
Texas Lawyer reporter Angela Morris emailed Birdwell some questions about practicing in his courtroom. Here are his answers, edited for style and length.
Judge Wade Birdwell
342nd District Court in
First elected to the bench: 2010
Texas Lawyer: Tell us about a courtroom moment where you thought, “Wow, I never thought I’d see that happen.”
Judge Wade Birdwell, 342nd District Court, Fort Worth: During a recent hearing, counsel offered to introduce into evidence a male autoerotic device that somewhat resembled a miniature medieval Iron Maiden. Given that pictures of the same device were already in the clerk’s record for the hearing, I declined the offer.
TL: If a lawyer were practicing in your jurisdiction for the first time, what would he need to know about your court’s internal operating procedures to ensure his case progressed efficiently?
Birdwell: Counsel should be familiar with and comply with the Local Rules of Court for Tarrant County, Texas. Otherwise, the court is fairly flexible in accommodating the needs of counsel in prosecuting and defending cases on the docket. Due diligence, nevertheless, remains a requirement. The court coordinator routinely reviews the docket to identify cases that appear to be inactive without cause. Such cases are placed upon a show-cause docket to determine whether they should be retained on the court’s docket or dismissed. Usually, a simple phone call or letter providing a reasonable explanation for the inactivity will result in its removal from the docket, but counsel should not assume that any excuse is a reasonable excuse.
TL: Do you have any courtroom formalities that you prefer to follow exactly?
Birdwell: I always stand upon the entry into the court of either the venire or the jury. I expect everyone present in the courtroom to join me in so rising.
TL: What are the sneakiest tricks you have seen lawyers try to commit in your courtroom?
Birdwell: Counsel should always check any exhibits offered into evidence for inadmissible content, even, perhaps especially, if their admissibility is agreed. Usually, counsel successfully redact, as an example, all references to insurance in a police report or a medical record or bill. When they do not, it is awfully difficult to distinguish genuine mistakes from intentional tricks. If I have excluded certain evidence from the jury’s consideration, counsel should adhere strictly to my ruling. I do not mind counsel asking me to reconsider my ruling, even multiple times, but I do not tolerate attempts to circumvent my ruling when I consider the circumvention to be intentional.
TL: What was the most effective technique you saw an attorney use in your courtroom?
Birdwell: Surprisingly, perhaps the best opening statement I’ve seen involved male counsel tearing up when describing the very personal injuries inflicted upon his young female client. Tears can be very effective, if sincere. They can also be disastrous, if considered crocodilian.
TL: Considering lessons you’ve learned after talking with juries post-trial, what lesson is the most important for lawyers to know?
Birdwell: Credibility is everything. Period. Do not overstate your claim or defense. Do not present theories of liability or defense that strain credulity. If there is credible evidence contradicting your theory, address it as best you can. At the very least, you enhance your credibility with the jury by acknowledging a weakness your silence may render more credible.
TL: What do you know now about being a judge that you didn’t know before?
Birdwell: I have a much greater appreciation for the difficulty a judge may experience in following precedent with which he or she may personally disagree.
TL: After being a judge, how would you change your practice if you were to become a working attorney again?
Birdwell: I would focus more on what alternative remedies may be available to the court under the circumstances. An all-or-nothing approach, even if justified by the evidence or case law, does not always best guide the discretion of the court.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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