Smith Carves Out a Niche with Appellate Practice

{Editor’s Note: In 2006, D. Todd Smith left a large international law firm to open a solo appellate practice in Austin. Since then, his practice has grown to three full-time lawyers and has expanded into the Rio Grande Valley. The firm—now Smith Law Group, P.C.—recently launched a new website, which can be found at www.appealsplus.com.}

Tell us about your practice.JCC2799-Smith, D. Todd

For an appellate lawyer, my practice is pretty varied. I handle appeals and write briefs, as you would expect, but I also do a lot of consulting work for trial lawyers and am often brought in as part of a trial team. In that role, I focus on legal issues and strategy, dispositive motions, and jury charges, always thinking ahead to what an appeal might look like. Getting involved early allows me to shape a case before it reaches the appellate stage and therefore put the client in a better position to prevail at the next level.

Given current trends in the legal industry, why is this practice area important?

All lawyers are professional writers, but that is especially true in appellate practice. Most appeals turn on a few key issues and are won or lost on the briefs. A skilled appellate lawyer knows how to cut through what happened at trial, get to the points the appellate court will likely find important to its decision, and argue those points persuasively and concisely. Given the appellate courts’ heavy workload and ongoing budgetary issues limiting their manpower, a big part of appellate counsel’s job is to make it as easy as possible for the court to decide the case favorably to the client.

Recent developments have elevated the importance of a lawyer’s written work product in trial courts as well. Trial courts are less hesitant to grant summary judgment than they were just a few years ago. Also, trial attorneys have a new tool in their arsenal for disposing of cases early in the litigation process: a Rule 91a motion to dismiss. Courts generally take these kinds of matters under advisement after any oral argument and study the motions and responses before rendering a decision. Appellate lawyers are well positioned to help put the client’s best foot forward when dealing with dispositive motions or other legal issues in trial courts.

Why did you become a lawyer?

My father wasn’t a lawyer, but he spent his career in public service and encouraged me to do the same. I studied criminal justice through graduate school and went to law school thinking I would become a prosecutor, first as an assistant district attorney and eventually in a U.S. Attorney’s office. During law school, I discovered the civil side of the law and later clerked at the Texas Supreme Court, which has exclusively civil jurisdiction. That experience shifted my career path toward civil practice, and I’ve had some success in that area. I’m content practicing civil appellate law and enjoy building my firm, but public service is still something I’m interested in when the time and opportunity are right.

Who was your biggest influence?

Aside from my father, I would say former Texas Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez. I spent two years clerking for Justice Gonzalez and attribute much of the success I’ve had to what I learned while working for him. Seeing how the Court operates from the inside was a profound experience for a young lawyer, and it was during my clerkship that I decided I wanted to pursue a career in appellate law. Justice Gonzalez is a man of principle and faith, and I’ve tried to carry what I learned from him into my law practice and life.


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