Profile of Cathy Givens, Assistant Criminal District Attorney
The Samuel N. Hecsh Window on the Working World of Law
Intro: Do you ever watch those Law & Order type programs? Well, here is the story of a real Assistant Criminal District Attorney. Unlike those glitzy TV attorneys, though, this one has the additional challenge of vision loss, but she still does her job.
The Story: In a midsize northwestern Texas town, I work in the civil division of the District Attorney's office, where I am employed as an Assistant Criminal District Attorney. There are five other attorneys who work in my division, along with two wonderful legal assistants. The cases I handle are those that are governed by civil law, but overlap with criminal cases. Some examples are protective orders in domestic violence cases, mental health commitments under both criminal and civil law, and all matters relating to bail bonds and the bail bond business. Besides handling these cases, I also advise elected county officials regarding legal and procedural matters.
Although my work is very paper intensive, I spend a great deal of time communicating by phone, e-mail, or in person with various private and governmental agencies, private attorneys, law enforcement, court personnel and the public. Court appearances are a common occurrence as all of my cases require either a hearing or negotiation of an agreement with the other party. Negotiation skills are equally as important as trial skills.
My days often start out with a bang. That is, as soon as I get to work, I find that I have several calls and e-mails to return, and sometimes, I am met at the door by people with problems hoping that I have an answer to their predicament. One thing is for sure—there is no lag time in our office!
While busily preparing cases for hearings, I frequently stop to answer many calls throughout the day from people in the community regarding a variety of legal issues. Sometimes I can help them and sometimes I cannot. Additionally, many people stop by the office, which necessitates me stopping the paperwork in order to address their problems. Organizational skills are imperative in this job. Fortunately, I work with a group of people in my division who make a great team. We are all available to lend a hand to each other when one of us becomes overwhelmed. I am also fortunate to have several college student volunteers at my disposal who donate their time to assist me while gaining experience of their own.
In my life before law, I taught school. For several reasons, one of which was that my vision was getting progressively worse, I decided to make a midlife career change. With the help of the Texas Commission for the Blind, I finished law school, even though because of three eye procedures during law school, I had to add on an extra semester. After graduation, I had one more eye procedure and then went job hunting. I found a notice at school making a request for volunteer law students to come work at the District Attorney's office. I volunteered for two years before applying for a paid position in the criminal division. It took three times before I was hired. During that two year period, I worked briefly for a legal services organization as a domestic violence attorney, but still returned to volunteer with the District Attorney's office. The female attorney with whom I volunteered was a tremendous mentor. She taught me how to be a lawyer. About five months after I was hired to work as a filing attorney in the criminal division, my mentor quit and moved on to another job. The District Attorney offered her position to me. Persistence and patience paid off!
My experience as a teacher has served me well. Teachers tend to be detail oriented, which is very helpful with a job like this one that focuses on detail. Also, many of the skills needed for practicing law are the same ones used in a teaching career—organization, good communication, negotiation, patience, endurance and supervisory capabilities.
My vision has changed greatly since I began working as a volunteer eleven years ago. At first, I used only a closed-circuit television. Later, I upgraded to a CCTV that would split screen with my computer. I also used enlarging software and flipped the colors to a dark background. During the last two and a half years I have had twelve additional eye procedures. My visual acuity fluctuated up and down depending on the particular problem with any given procedure. After a procedure last December, I was unable to read anything or move about safely by myself in unfamiliar or crowded surroundings. This is not a compatible situation in any circumstance, and it sure did not work in my legal environment of paperwork or getting around the courthouse. I looked for a solution and found that learning how to use a cane for orientation and mobility and speech software programs for computer access, made the most significant positive difference. I also solicited the assistance of college student volunteers.
Two procedures later, I no longer needed the cane and rarely have to use the speech software. I cannot say that working in the legal community with impaired vision does not have its difficulties—it does. However, I do love a challenge.
Although my job is quite demanding, I enjoy the challenge of studying, understanding, and arguing the law. As a teacher I was able to help mold the minds of children. Nowadays, the people that I deal with are usually in the midst of traumatic, life altering circumstances. If there is a downside to this job, it is that there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything I would like.
I encourage anyone aspiring to practice law to look for opportunities to volunteer with a law firm or governmental agency in order to gain a reasonable perspective of what is involved in such a career. Hard work, commitment, and determination will lead to success. The practice of law is stressful, but it also has its rewards. Those who want to go down this path should keep an open mind about where the road may lead them. I am proud to be a member of a profession that holds in high esteem the ideals of equality of justice and service to others.
The Contact: Cathy Givens
The American Foundation for the Blind is pleased to present "The Samuel N. Hecsh Window on the Working World of Law," funded by the Samuel N. Hecsh Fund at the American Foundation for the Blind. A new article in memory of Mr. Hecsh appears annually.
After losing his vision, Mr. Hecsh attended law school—with some help from a scholarship from AFB—and had a satisfying career. Feeling he could not continue his previous employment, he met with many lawyers who were blind and attributed his success as a blind attorney in part to his encouragement from these mentors. We thank his wife, Muriel O'Reilly, and daughters, Janet and Caitlin Hecsh, for choosing to honor his memory in this special way. The Samuel N. Hecsh Window on the Working World of Law is designed to encourage other people experiencing vision loss to choose to enter the field of law.