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Legal Legends

Legal Legends Share Wisdom, Stories With VS Team

Varghese Summersett was honored to host two legal legends – retired Judge Louis Sturns and renowned Defense Attorney Mike Heiskell – to commemorate Black History Month during the firm’s weekly training session.

“You are all in for a treat,” VS Partner Tiffany Burks told the firm’s attorneys and staff as she introduced her distinguished guests. “You are sitting in a room with greatness and history.”

Greatness and history, indeed! Sturns and Heiskell have left a lasting impact on the Tarrant County legal community and beyond. They’ve accomplished numerous “firsts” in their careers, which Burks touted during their introductions.

The Honorable Judge Louis Sturns

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First African American Criminal Court Judge in Tarrant County

First African American Judge to Serve on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

First African American President of the Tarrant
County Bar Association

Defense Attorney Mike Heiskell

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First African American President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

First President of the Tarrant County Black Bar Association

First African American to Graduate Baylor
Law School

After sharing their long list of achievements and accolades, Burks turned the floor over to Sturns and Heiskell, who candidly shared their advice, wisdom, and stories with the audience. They spoke about the challenges they faced as minority attorneys in a predominately white legal profession and how they overcame obstacles with determination, hard work, and professionalism.

Judge Sturns came to Fort Worth in 1976 after serving three years as a captain in the United States Army Judge Advocate General Corps. He started a private practice with legal and civil rights legend L. Clifford Davis in the “heart of the hood” and represented poor people in all aspects of law – criminal, civil, and probate.

“We basically took everything that came through the door,” Sturns said.

Sturns said he learned a lot in those early years working alongside Davis, who taught him to treat everybody in the courtroom fairly, from the client and the judge to the bailiffs and clerks – advice that he has carried through his career and has served him well including when he was later on the bench.

“I can tell you that I have seen a lot of things in the last 50-plus years,” he said.

Some of the experiences that stand out, he said, include not having a single minority on any of his juries from 1976 to 1986 because prosecutors used their preemptory strike to dismiss minority jurors – a practice now unconstitutional thanks in part to the Batson v. Kentucky decision.

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Heiskell – who started a law practice in Fort Worth in 1984 after working as an Assistant United States Attorney in Dallas – recalled how people were often surprised when they first met him; they assumed he was white because of his German last name.

“I would routinely have people come to my office, thinking I was a white guy and, when they found out I was a black guy, they turned around to leave,” he said.

Heiskell recalled a family who retained him for a high-profile murder case but then later changed their mind and went with a white attorney because the judge, victim, and prosecutor on the case were all white.

“As an African American attorney, you have to go through those things, and you have to overcome those things,” he said. “If you keep your eye on the Northstar and nose to the grindstone, you will overcome…Later, as time passed, people from all different racial groups began to come to me.”

Heiskell also talked about the importance of professionalism, civility, and preparation – something all lawyers should strive for. He said he finds something to truly care about with each and every case and always gives his client the best possible representation, regardless of the circumstances.

“My mantra is, ‘If you care, you prepare,’” he said.

Heiskell and Sturns also shared their most memorable moments, leadership styles, and what they think of the current judiciary and district attorney’s office. It was a candid, insightful, and inspiring conversation that left the VS team with a wealth of knowledge and motivation.

Managing Partner Benson Varghese thanked these true legal legends for accepting attorney Tiffany Burks’ invitation to speak to the firm during Black History Month and participate in the firm’s “Workshop Wednesday” training sessions.

“These men are not just pillars of the community because they talk the talk,” Varghese said. “They walk the walk…It’s up to us to continue the legacy that these legends have created.”

Watch the Video Here

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