Michael Sheppard discusses his civil litigation practice as well as his work as a district attorney.
Name: Michael A. Sheppard
Firm: Crain and Sheppard
Practice Areas: Commericial Litigation, Oil and Gas Litigation, and Probate Litigation
Location: Cuero, TX
Law School: J.D. University of Houston School of Law, 1985
Undergraduate: B.A. Southwestern University, 1982
Quotable, on favorite part of trial process: "My favorite part is preparing to close and closing. The hard work is done by this point and all the emotion that has been building inside me during trial now has a chance to come out in a, hopefully, persuasive argument. I tend to get emotionally invested in all my cases, civil and criminal, and closing is a great outlet."
Lawdragon: Do you recall when you first wanted to be a lawyer, and what triggered this interest?
Michael A. Sheppard: My dad was a lawyer and all my life I just assumed I would be a lawyer. I never really thought about being anything else.
LD: Was there a course, professor or experience at the University of Houston Law School, or during your undergrad years, that stands out has having an impact on the course of your career?
MS: In law school I participated in every mock trial and moot court competition that there was. It was great early training because Houston is full of outstanding trial lawyers and many of them generously gave of their time to come and critique those of us competing. I especially remember Lee Ware and Dan Fontaine. It confirmed in my mind that the courtroom was where I wanted to make my living. Professors Blakely and Hippard, who taught me evidence and procedure respectively, also were a strong influence.
LD: What about once your career started – did you have a mentor or someone you modeled your career after?
MS: My father was very much my mentor but he was an office practitioner. He taught me many valuable lessons about the law and how to be a lawyer. He had one of the finest legal minds that I have encountered to this day. When it came to the courtroom, however, I relied on what I learned at the University of Houston Law Center and just jumped in the deep end.
LD: Please talk a little bit about your civil practice. How would you describe the mix of cases your firm handles?
MS: We are focusing very heavily on oil and gas currently because of the Eagle Ford development which we are located right in the middle of. We represent landowners. I am involved in litigating oil and gas disputes, probates disputes, commercial disputes, fiduciary litigation, partnership disputes, and personal injury.
LD: What led to your interest in becoming the district attorney for the 24th judicial district? Was this something you had envisioned doing in law school?
MS: It is challenging and rewarding work. To help victims of crime achieve some measure of justice is very fulfilling and I get to be in a courtroom as much as any lawyer could want. I really did not envision being a district attorney when I was in law school. That idea came after I had practiced for a while.
LD: Many of our readers will have spent some time in Houston or San Antonio but not in the surrounding or in-between areas. What type of place is Dewitt County, and what type of cases do you tend to prosecute? I assume it runs the gamut, but are certain types of cases more common?
MS: I am the district attorney for a three county district so, in addition to DeWitt County, I also prosecute in Goliad and Refugio Counties. DeWitt County is great place to live. It used to be a somewhat quiet place but it is now thriving with oil field activity (even after the decline in oil prices). Unfortunately crime is not a stranger to any of these three counties. In my time as district attorney I have prosecuted everything you can imagine including death penalty cases, rape, robbery, burglary, white collar crimes and countless assaults against children.
LD: I saw the “Cold Case” TV episode that featured the Pam Shelley case as well as your article on it called “Lukewarm Justice.” For our readers, how would you summarize your experience being involved in that TV show? What advice would you give attorneys who have a case that may be the subject of a documentary or news program?
MS: I enjoyed being a part of that program. Basically, we had a cold case in DeWitt County and the sheriff’s office solicited the help of the show. In 2001, a woman was shot in the head. Her death had been written off as a suicide. The lead investigator for the sheriff’s office was never comfortable with that determination. With the help of the show the sheriff’s office made a murder case. In 2011, I presented a case to the grand jury and they indicted the deceased’s boyfriend for her murder. Coincidentally, and somewhat unfortunately, the show aired the week before I had to pick a jury in that very case. As you know from the article I wrote, we could not pick a jury because most people on the venire had seen the show. The defendant was ultimately convicted but we had to overcome some difficulties. The only advice I can give attorneys regarding this experience is to remind them that timing is everything. Had I gotten the case tried a bit quicker it would have saved us some problems.
LD: Can you describe another case you have prosecuted that tends to stand out in your memory, either for being especially gratifying or frustrating?
MS: The criminal cases are almost all gratifying. Trying any case involving a child victim is an especially moving experience. Children who are the victims of sexual assaults, for example, have to go through so much misery to see their abuser brought to justice. To go through a trial and see a child’s face after a jury has vindicated her by finding the defendant guilty is an incredibly rewarding experience. Unfortunately, I have had to have this experience almost more times than I can count.
On the civil side I had the pleasure of representing a large number of clients. One case that stands out is a lawsuit I brought on behalf of a client against two of the largest corporations in America for, among other things, breaching their fiduciary duty to him. After a month and half trial the jury brought in a verdict of over $40 million and were deliberating punitive damages when the defendants finally settled with us. I was proud of my client for standing his ground and prevailing against very long odds and against companies that had unlimited resources.
LD: Whether it’s a civil case or criminal case, do you have a favorite part of the trial process? Do you have any special routines or superstitions before or during trials?
MS: My favorite part is preparing to close and closing. The hard work is done by this point and all the emotion that has been building inside me during trial now has a chance to come out in a, hopefully, persuasive argument. I tend to get emotionally invested in all my cases, civil and criminal, and closing is a great outlet. The hardest part is voir dire. That is pure, grueling work but vitally important and I work very hard at it. I have no superstitions really but I basically try to eliminate all distractions immediately before and during trial, eat light but healthy, and try to get some sleep which is not always easy to do when one is trying a high stakes case.
LD: How long do you hope to serve as the district attorney? Do you have any other plans for the future, in terms of anything else you want to do career-wise or for enjoyment and retirement?
MS: My long term goals are to continue trying cases. I love trial work and it is what I am best at. I am unsure how long I will continue as district attorney but I intend to be trying civil lawsuits for many years into the future. I can’t see myself fully retired from the law. When I have free time I like to bird hunt and fly fish. I’m always game to do more of that.