Slack Davis Sanger could not be more proud of Paula Sweeney. She has been named “Trial Lawyer of the Year” by the Dallas Bar Association (DBA). Even though the award’s official presentation is not until September, we had to share the cover story from the July 2013 issue of Headnotes, the DBA’s monthly newsletter. Congratulations, Paula!
Paula Sweeney: Trial Lawyer of the Year
By Lea Dearing
Headnotes, July 2013, cover story
Paula Fisette Sweeney is a smart, compelling trial lawyer, renown for her meticulous attention to detail and trial preparation. Paula has been blazing a trail through the Texas legal community since she was licensed at the age of 23, a time when she was so young that a skeptical judge asked to see her bar card at her first trial. Six short years later, Paula was the youngest Texas lawyer to sit for, and pass, the Board Certification exam in Personal Injury Trial Law.
The reasons for Paula’s success are obvious. She is bright, articulate and makes her audience instantly at ease. She works tirelessly, she never makes excuses, and after 30+ years of practice she has seen and heard it all. For her years of dedication to the craft of trying cases and promoting the right to the jury trial, Paula has earned many awards, been invited to sit on many prestigious committees and elected to numerous leadership positions in her field. Among them:
- A “Legend of Trial Law” by the DBA
- Past President of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association , the Dallas Trial Lawyers Association and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA)-Dallas
- Former Governor of the American Association for Justice
- Former Director of the State Bar of Texas
- Appointed to the Supreme Court Rules Advisory Committee Supreme Court Task Force on Medical Malpractice Discovery and the Jury Charge
- “Defender of Democracy Award” awarded by the Common Cause, Texas (2003)
- Gene Cavin Award for lifetime achievement in supporting CLE in Texas (2009)
- “Best Lawyers in Dallas” by D Magazine and Texas Super Lawyers, Texas Monthly
- Top 100 Lawyers; Top 50 Women Lawyers, Texas Monthly Magazine
- She is featured in the publications Best Lawyers in America, Who’s Who in American Law, The Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers and in the Million Dollar Arguments audiotape series.
Paula also taught trial advocacy at Southern Methodist University School of Law from 1987-1990, sat as a faculty member at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, Southwestern Region from 1988-1990, and is a regular author and lecturer.
Paula was destined for the courtroom, and fortuitous encounters with the right people at the right time catapulted her down that path. As a student at the University of Dallas Paula was contemplating paralegal school until Gail Thomas stopped her in the hallway one afternoon and planted the seed of heading to law school. Even then Paula knew she wanted to dedicate her life to helping combat the injustices in the world, and studying the law appealed to her; she enrolled at SMU.
In law school, Paula had the good fortune to partner with Mark Hasse in Moot Court. In addition to being a great co-counselor, Mark was interning with Windle Turley and introduced Paula to the Turley Law Firm. Paula was looking for experience, a broke law student, and Windle’s firm was close enough to campus so she could maximize her work hours. The shoe fit. Paula was hired as an intern and she worked her way through law school under the tutelage of Sylvia Demarest.
Sylvia recalls a trial where the process server could not get a trial subpoena served on a key witness. Sylvia sent her tenacious young intern instead, and it was no surprise that Paula returned to the courthouse with the witness in tow, only moments before Sylvia was going to be forced to rest her case without him. Sylvia’s description of Paula resonates with everyone who has had the pleasure of meeting her: “Paula has all the tools to be a good lawyer—smart, great speaker, great personality, but she also has the unrelenting determination and drive and that makes her a great trial lawyer.”
Mr. Turley recalls that even as a law student, Paula stood out. “She was always outgoing and smiling which made clients comfortable, she was really smart and could put all the pieces of a case together, and she truly loved helping people.” It was no surprise Paula was hired to work in the firm’s medical malpractice group as soon as she passed the bar.
In 1995, Paula joined forces with John Howie, to form Howie & Sweeney, with whom she practiced until John passed away in 2002. Paula is now teaming up with another great group of trial lawyers at Slack Davis Sanger and continues her crusade for the “little guy:” advocating for those suffering injuries from defective medical devices, prescription drugs, product failures and aviation accidents.
In 2012, Paula partnered with Ladd Sanger, and then Mark Pierce and Mike Davis on two separate cases that both made the 2012 Top Texas Verdicts list. The plaintiffs were awarded verdicts of $2.5 million in an aviation accident dispute and $3.7 million in a motor vehicle accident case. Paula reflects that the camaraderie of a great, single-minded trial team has been one of the greatest take-aways from her relationship with Slack Davis Sanger. In Paula’s words, she is “having a ball.
Paula admits there is a fine line between genius and insanity when it comes to trying cases, especially in regard to a lawyer’s approach to cross examination—an area where Paula is universally praised for her skill. Paula cautions young lawyers to remember that they have to win each little point for the case to add up, but to never lose sight of the forest for all the trees.
Helping the underdog, righting wrongs and getting in front of a jury keep Paula as determined and dedicated today as she was in her first few years of practice. Paula believes deeply in the value of a jury system and a panel’s ability to get it right, even if occasionally that means they do not rule in her client’s favor. Through her work with ABOTA, Paula works to do more than just “protect” the jury trial, she is striving to enhance it through common sense reforms like giving jurors easier access to the courthouse through reduced parking and transportation costs, among other initiatives.
Judge Craig Smith,who worked with Paula in her Turley days, emphasized that while Paula has all the tools, “what really sets her apart is that she is truly, truly prepared. Paula knows her subject, her case and her clients, as well as her opposition. She is a true professional.”
Paula is a fearless advocate, a champion of the jury system, and, just in case, she always carries her bar card. Congratulations to Paula on this well-deserved award. The award will be presented at the Bench Bar Conference, held September 26-28 at the Horseshoe Bay Resort Marriott.
Lea Dearing is an associate at Munsch Hardt and is Co-Chair of the DBA Publications Committee.