Interview with Justice Countiss, First Court of Appeals
by Jill Schumacher, Daniels & Tredennick, LLP
1. What made you decide to attend law school? Do the same things or different things motivate you to continue serving as a lawyer?
When I was growing up I loved going to the courthouse with my Dad. He was a state district court judge in the 1970s in Spearman, Texas and a justice on the court of appeals in Amarillo in the 1980s. So, my exposure to the legal field at a young age certainly had an influence in my career choice. But my experience as a Teach for America Corps member (’93-’95) motivated me to use my law degree to serve the public. I’m most fulfilled when I have a sense of purpose and can use my strengths and talents toward the greater good.
2. Tell us about your career as a lawyer. What has been most important to you?
For much of my career I was a single mom. Like most lawyer moms, single or not, I struggled with balancing it all–especially early in my career. I remember feeling like I was halfway doing each job with mediocre results. It was a tough time because the legal profession is not forward-thinking about work/life balance. So, I made a few career moves based entirely on whether I could have flexibility in my schedule. As my children reached middle and high school I moved back into full-time law practice with an insurance defense firm for a few years and I eventually landed at the Harris County Attorney’s Office.
My years as an assistant county attorney shaped me the most as a lawyer because I worked on so many different types of cases and learned from a talented team of colleagues. As public servants, we don’t pick and choose which cases to take. Some of my cases were difficult to defend. But those were often the cases that tested my advocacy skills the most and deepened my knowledge of the law.
3. What personal or professional accomplishment of yours brings you the greatest source of happiness and/or pride?
Through the organization Kids in Need of Defense I took on several pro bono cases representing unaccompanied minors from Honduras and El Salvador. I helped my young clients obtain their special immigrant visas which can lead to obtaining permanent residency in certain cases. My 21-year-old daughter speaks fluent Spanish and she acted as my translator with each client. My first client with KIND was barely 15 years old when she arrived here alone to reunite with her mother. Since then, she has learned English, graduated from high school and recently she was granted permanent residency. When we learned that her application had been granted we cried over the phone together–it was my happiest professional win.
4. Who have been your strongest mentors? What did you learn from their example?
Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, is an influential role model of mine. From Wendy’s example I learned how to relentlessly pursue results. First in the classroom and later in the courtroom. Thanks to TFA alumni, corps members and staff, I remain committed to pursuing equity, strengthening community, achieving impact, choosing courage, acting with humility, demonstrating resilience and learning continuously. These core values of TFA guide me in my daily work.
From my mom I learned how to be a mother and juggle other things I choose to do while still being true to myself. Mom ran the household and gave us beautiful family dinners, memorable Christmases, perfectly decorated homes and still managed to be her own woman.
5. What has surprised you the most about your new role? What has been exactly as you expected?
I am pleasantly surprised in how smooth the transition has been. A record number of new justices were elected in November and bringing us all on board could have been messy. Instead, Chief Justice Radack, Justice Keyes, Justice Higley and Justice Lloyd welcomed us warmly as did the First Court staff and Clerk Chris Prine. We jumped right in, thanks to their support.
I expected this work to be challenging, intriguing and gratifying. My expectation was spot-on.
6. In your opinion, what distinguishes an effective appellate brief from one that is not? Do you have any suggestions about how attorneys can improve their written work product in the court of appeals?
Clarity, accuracy and brevity are typically the distinguishing characteristics of an effective brief.
Attorneys can improve their written work product by editing more thoroughly. Removing unnecessary words and eliminating legalese will make the brief easier to follow.
7. Which aspect of judging do you enjoy the most?
I’m fascinated with the variety of cases on my docket. Continuously learning is most enjoyable to me. I also love to write but it’s harder to write as a judge than as an advocate. Nevertheless, I enjoy the challenge.
8. What do you like to do in your free time?
When it’s not baseball season, I play the piano, read all sorts of books and magazines, and cook/entertain with my husband. I also enjoy yoga, swimming and visiting my daughter in Chicago. Soon I’ll be traveling to see my son after he leaves for college this year. But during baseball season it’s all about the Astros!