“I am a CLEO Fellow and I’m very proud of it,” U.S. District Court Judge John Houston told the CLEO Summer Institute Scholars from TJSL who visited his courtroom on Friday, June 8. “I have a soft spot for CLEO.”
Judge Houston is at once a commanding presence, as well as a warm, smiling and friendly person. He instantly made the CLEO Scholars feel welcome and at ease as he told them about how the federal court system is structured.
Before he met with them, Judge Houston allowed the scholars to sit in on an actual sentencing hearing that was before him that morning – a taste of the justice system in action.
Also in the courtroom were several special guests the judge invited to speak to the CLEO scholars – speakers who in one way or another had walked the same path the students will soon walk as law students from under-represented groups in the legal profession. CLEO, the Council on Legal Education Opportunity, is sponsoring a six-week “boot camp” held at TJSL for the scholars before they begin law school.
“I didn’t have the benefit of CLEO before I went to law school,” said product liability lawyer Vickie Turner. “CLEO is an incredible opportunity for you.
“I shouldn’t be here,” attorney Duane Bennett told the scholars. “Many of my friends are either dead or in prison.” Bennett was raised in South Central Los Angeles, went on to become a prosecutor, and is now the general counsel for the San Diego Port District. His career advice? “If you are African-American people may underestimate you. People may see you differently than you see yourself. You have to adapt to your environment. I don’t care if people (in court) see me as a ‘twit’ if, in the end, I come out with a $4-million check.”
TJSL alumnus and California Deputy Attorney General Peter Quon ‘77 said there were only a few Asian attorneys around when he went into practice 30 years ago. An important bit of advice he gave the CLEO Scholars about succeeding was: “One thing that will stop an opponent or a judge from making the wrong decision is case authority,” he said. “If you know your case authority, it can turn the tide for you.”
Among the many speakers was CLEO alumnus Dennis Dawson, a former California Deputy Attorney General. “CLEO gave me my sea legs so I could hit the ground running when I went to law school,” Dawson told the scholars.
He gave them quite a bit of advice on how they can succeed in law school and one of his most important piece of advice was “never fall behind in your studies. Seek out serious minded students like yourself and form a study group.”
Dawson also gave them invaluable advice about the practice of law in the courtroom. “Make sure everything you say resounds in the law,” he said. “If you know the rules of evidence, you can ‘out lawyer’ your opponent.”
The group also got to hear from federal prosecutor Alana Wong-Robinson, who is in charge of the unit that investigates and prosecutes narcotics trafficking, including the drug cartels. "You are already way ahead of where I was at this time in my career," Wong Robinson told the CLEO group. "Find a mentor so you can learn from people who have gone before you."
“It was a unique opportunity to speak to the judge and hear everyone’s experiences,” said CLEO Scholar Laura Pulido.
“It is a great opportunity,” agreed CLEO Scholar Amanda Butler Jones. “It was especially valuable to hear from lawyers with so many different backgrounds.”
“I’m enjoying learning a lot about the profession, said CLEO Scholar David Beverly.
Judge Houston wrapped up the visit with the story of his rise in the profession and he shared one of the most important lessons he learned in his career: “Your integrity is your currency.”