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Meet Crystal Washington ’14: From TV News Desk to Legal Clinics Classroom

Home Law School News Meet Crystal Washington ’14: From TV News Desk to Legal Clinics Classroom

When Crystal Washington ’14 graduated from Sam Houston State University in 2006 with a journalism degree focused on radio/TV, she believed her future was in media.

She landed a job as a TV reporter in Grand Junction, Colo., working there two years before becoming a reporter and weekend anchor in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Her favorite part of the work was not to draw an audience; it was to give people a voice. She often covered crimes committed against families, which were heartbreaking, but she also got to tell happy stories about families.

“As a reporter, I got to articulate the stories about members of our community and help bring our community together,” Washington said. But after two years of reporting in Corpus Christi, she was ready to move home to Houston and put down roots.

Washington took the LSAT and handled contract promotions projects for the City of Missouri City Television while waiting on her score. She was familiar with law school, as her mom, Helen Jenkins, was a popular professor and associate dean at STCL Houston.

When Washington was accepted at South Texas College of Law Houston, she knew she wanted to make her own way. She also knew she would not be a typical law student.

“Law school is different when you’re married and growing your family,” she said. “You can’t stay up all night and study. You need to make sure people are fed and cared for; they need your time.”

Washington struggled her first year but didn’t give up. “I was not an awesome student, but my experience helps me connect to students today. When they are down and worried, I tell them that it’s not how you start — it’s how you finish. It’s OK not to be the best. If you cross the finish line, you can still become a great attorney and represent people well.”

Washington graduated with her J.D. in December 2014 while four months pregnant. She took the bar exam in February, was licensed in April, and had her son in May. While keeping up with a 4-year-old daughter and an infant, she gained experience at Ostrom Morris, PLLC, for nearly a year, working on probate, guardianships, estate planning and more.

“I was so busy that first year — a trial by fire — and I learned so much about probate, trials, which arguments to make, burdens of proof, client interviews, different counties, different judges — everything,” she said.

To spend more time at home, she left the law firm and took an adjunct professor position at the University of Houston Law Center for the summer. It was her first experience teaching.

“When I taught The People’s Law School at the University of Houston in front of 80 attendees, I realized I really liked to lecture,” Washington said. “I worked in the consumer clinic while there, mostly helping people avoid evictions and getting taken advantage of under deceptive practices.”

Needing to return to full-time work, Washington saw an opening for a staff attorney with the Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics at her law school alma mater. She interviewed, earned the job, and has been in the role since August 2016.

Washington teaches two classes in the fall and spring in the area of Elder Law: Probate, which helps grieving clients settle the estate of a deceased loved one, and Guardianships, which assists applicants in gaining decision-making power over their children with special needs. “We handle real cases for real clients in real court,” she said.

Each class has an eight-student maximum, and each student takes on one client case. Washington oversees all the cases, as a licensed attorney. The goal is for students to learn what clients are trying to accomplish, and to provide the needed deliverables by the end of the semester — for example, a probated will and judge’s order.

The Sorrels Legal Clinics serve as a no-cost law firm for low-income members of the community, and Washington typically has about 40-50 active cases – of which 10-12 are being managed by students. Students attend lectures to learn the relevant statues and case law and to understand needed procedures.

The students conduct client interviews, research the case, prepare any needed documents, and take the case to court, under supervision, if needed. She said 98 percent of the time, the students get the clients the result they are seeking.

“By the time the students go to court, they have their bar cards and are ready; also, I am in the room,” Washington said. “I prep them to the point where they feel comfortable; we work on what questions to ask and what questions to expect. They will go to court all the time as a lawyer so it’s great for them to start getting that experience. They can make their mistakes here, where they have back-up. I’m not pushy, but I push them. If they keep waiting for the right time to go in front of a judge, that time will never come.”

After a student is successful for a client in court, Washington said they are thrilled, and the experience boosts their confidence. “They’ll say, ‘I can’t believe that just happened. I can’t believe I just went to court, made the arguments — and the judge ruled in my favor!’ ”

Washington believes it’s a privilege to get to help students understand how to carry out probate and guardianship matters and to serve low-income individuals who cannot afford attorneys.

“Professionally, it is so satisfying to see my clinic students gain confidence in their future as lawyers because they have made a real difference in one person’s life,” she said. “And for me, the feeling is priceless when we can help a client. We get used to the process, but what’s always brand new to us is the reactions from clients. Some hug us. Some cry. Some are speechless, and others want to stay in touch and send cards. I love the feeling that we have helped someone. As a Christian, I also believe my work, according to James 1:27, is to care for the widow and the orphan — so I feel like we’re doing God’s work.” 

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