In-House for the County

Mary Katherine Vigness grew up in Fort Worth, Texas.  She earned a B.A. in History/Liberal Arts Honors and Theatre and Dance from The University of Texas at Austin.  She is currently the Publications Editor for the German Law Journal.  This summer, she is clerking for a full-service corporate law firm as well as the Civil Division of the District Attorney’s Office in Dallas/Fort Worth.  She returns to W&L in the fall for her final year.

My second clerkship is with the Civil Division of the District Attorney’s Office.  Perhaps the most appropriate description of the Civil Division is “in-house counsel for the county.”  The division’s attorneys practice civil law and represent the various entities funded by the county, such as the criminal side of the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office.  The division also represents the Hospital District and works with the county hospital, although this practice has decreased since tort reform occurred in Texas a number of years ago.

The division operates like a small law firm.  Each Assistant District Attorney (ADA) works with a licensed paralegal on a variety of cases in legal areas including but not limited to employment, personal injury, medical malpractice and eminent domain.  Unlike the criminal side of the D.A.’s office, where prosecutors try criminal cases, the ADAs in the Civil Division oversee the internal operations of the county and provide counsel for the civil matters that arise.  The ADAs represent the county when the county is sued and sometimes a county official if the official is sued in his or her official capacity.  If the issue is extremely complex, the county will hire outside counsel to assist in the efforts.

The office works closely with the commissioners’ court, which in this county is comprised of a presiding county judge elected countywide and four commissioners, each elected from one of the four county precincts.  The court acts as a governing body with legislative power to accomplish duties such as setting the tax rate and maintaining the county’s roads and bridges.  The court relies on the ADAs to ensure that the court’s activity complies with local government statutes.

As a law clerk, I have worked on a variety of projects.  I have drafted a memorandum on civil procedure issues in response to a plaintiff’s motion, a trial brief on an employment issue, and a motion to retrieve evidence.  I also have accompanied ADAs to hearings and meetings with various county officials.

This experience has been beneficial for many reasons.  First, the clerkship has provided unique insight into government work, which is inherently political, as many of the officials important to the process are elected.  The political nature of the work requires consideration of local politics and attention to current affairs.  Second, I am improving my legal writing with every memorandum.  Lastly, I am in close proximity to the courts, as ADAs work closely with the judiciary and other government officials.  Therefore, I am becoming more acquainted with the different courts and judges and am learning about basic procedure that will be useful in any practice.

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