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Margaret Hoffman

Major: Psychology
Year of Graduation: 1990  
Graduate School: Southern Methodist University School of Law, Dallas, TX - J.D. 1993
Current Job Title/Name of Organization: Judge - Dallas County Criminal Court No. 9

I am currently the elected Judge of a misdemeanor court in Dallas, TX.  I handle class A and class B misdemeanors from all over Dallas County.  These crimes carry penalties up to one year in the county jail and include cases such as driving while intoxicated, prostitution, burglary of a motor vehicle, criminal trespass, theft, public lewdness, resisting arrest and evading arrest. 

My court currently has 2500 active cases.  I preside over the jury trials, decide bench trials, rule on motions and other hearings, accept plea bargains and run the court docket.  I generally hold approximately 70 jury trials a year and dispose of approximately 4500 cases a year.  I am up for reelection every four years.

What path did you follow to arrive at your current job?
I attended law school right after college planning to use my law degree in business or in psychology.  I never intended to be a trial attorney or practice criminal law.  However, during my third year in law school, I participated in the criminal defense clinic where I was allowed to represent actual defendants charged with real crimes.  I represented two defendants in real jury trials.  Because of this experience, I knew that I wanted a career in criminal law as a trial attorney because I enjoyed working in the courtroom, negotiating with the opposite side and advocating for people.  I felt that this was a very exciting and interesting job.  I believed that this career would be a way to help people while doing something I enjoyed.  After law school, I became a prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney's Office where I ended up specializing in prosecuting child abusers.  After two and a half years, I decided to try something different and moved to New York and worked at a medical malpractice defense firm in midtown Manhattan.    After 10 months in this firm, I realized I missed the criminal law practice and trying cases so I accepted a job to prosecute for the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office.  I prosecuted general felony cases for two years and then moved to the homicide bureau where I prosecuted only homicides.  

After 7 years in NY, I moved back to Texas and opened my own criminal defense firm and defended all types of criminal cases.   I decided to run for election to this bench in 2005 and was elected in 2006.  I started my first term in Jan. 2007 and will be up for reelection in 2010.

What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career? 
Law schools accept students with various backgrounds.  Therefore, I would suggest that you study what really interests you in college and then if you find that a law career is for you, you most likely will be able to find a legal career which combines what you studied in college with the law. I was a psychology major in college and feel that I use what I learned in college almost every day.   

I would also suggest that students go to a court and watch some trials.  They are very different than on TV, but can be just as exciting.  Something intriguing is always happening in the criminal courthouse.  You will realize that anyone can be a prosecutor or defense attorney as long as you are passionate about being an advocate.  You don't have to be the best orator or most dramatic in the courtroom.  What is important is that you work hard, are organized, do your research and know your case. 

As a student, I would also take advantage of school breaks to experiment with different fields - even if you do not think a certain job is for you.  If I had not participated in the criminal defense clinic in law school, I would never have known that I would want to have a career in criminal law.  I would also recommend interning in a law firm to see if you like the environment.  I worked in a victim advocate section of a district attorney's office during one summer with the intention to further a career in psychology and possibly work with victims of crimes.  I believe that that experience stayed with me and steered me towards practicing criminal law.

What skills are important in your field?
There are several skill sets important for the job of being an attorney and more specifically to being a judge.   First, organization, the ability to delegate and patience are important to presiding over a court with 2500 cases.  One of my duties it to keep the docket moving towards disposition so that people with cases pending do not wait long for their day in court.  However, in that process, each case must be looked at with care to ensure that justice is done.  I delegate much of the day-to-day work to my staff.  We work together to ensure the court is organized and runs smoothly.  Each day brings many requests from attorneys for resets and rescheduling, etc.  I must balance each of these requests and be adamant when necessary to keep the cases moving through the justice system but also relent when needed to be sure that each case is handled in a just manner.

Listening and communicating effectively are also important skills.  Most of the arguments in our criminal courthouse are done orally and not in writing.  Each day brings several different issues for each case and I must be able to understand the issues and communicate my rulings.  Along with this is the ability to research issues that arise and make decisions.

The last and most important skill I is the ability to have compassion.  Most of the cases which are in my court are victimless crimes.   Many of the defendants commit the crimes because they are homeless and/or have a mental illness (i.e. criminal trespass and prostitution).  There are times when even though someone may be guilty of these low level crimes, they will not benefit from punishment in jail.  Although there are instances when someone deserves to be in jail and will be sentenced to jail, many times it is better for society as a whole to place these defendants on probation so they can have help in obtaining their medication, receive counseling for drug addictions and benefit overall from the resources available in our community.    

What is the most satisfying/rewarding part of your job? What's the most challenging?
There are many satisfying parts to my job.  However, the most satisfying is when a case is worked out in a manner where everyone involved is satisfied with the outcome - especially if it involves a guilty person who is rehabilitated.   As most of my cases do not involve victims, many times, the path to justice is to enable the defendant to return to society - whether it is to ensure they are given their medication or provide information regarding the available resources in our community to them while they are on probation.

In January, I am starting a divert court (in addition to my docket) to work solely with women charged with prostitution.   These defendants, who will be identified right after arrest and volunteer for the program, will go through a drug/mental health in patient treatment program.  During this time and then for 10 months after, these defendants will be required to appear before me one time a week for an update as to their progress.  There has been research which shows that judicial intervention and immediate punishment and rewards for behavior will help rehabilitate these defendants and reduce recidivism.  Unfortunately, women charged with prostitution don't just have drug problems, most also have mental illnesses and past traumatic events in their lives.  This program is to help them get on the appropriate medication, deal with issues that may just be surfacing and to help them to become productive members of society.  If the defendant succeeds in this program, then the case is dismissed.  A defendant is given many chances and the last option is termination from the program which then merely reinstates the original charge.  This program has taken the cooperation of the police department, district attorney's office, public defender's office and the various service providers throughout Dallas.   The Court is called PRIDE Court because my goal is for each woman to regain pride in being a woman, be proud of their lives and integrate back into society.  We will begin the court Jan. 7, 2009. I hope to eventually have 50 women in this program at a time.

What activities/experiences were helpful in preparation for this career?
There are several experiences from St. Ben's which I believe helped in my career.  By studying abroad in Salzburg, Austria for a semester, I learned about other cultures and to appreciate differences in the way people think and live.  I believe the strong academics at St. Ben's helped to prepare me for law school and gave me the resources I need to work as an attorney.  I have used my education in psychology from initially working with and advocating for victims of child abuse to defending people charged with horrendous crimes to now working with women in the justice system.   The teachers I had were always available and were supportive in all of my endeavors.   The religious atmosphere was extremely influential in developing a sense of compassion for people.  Now, each day as a judge, I strive to ensure not only that justice is done, but to also temper that with mercy. 

Lastly and most importantly, I believe that attending an all women's college gave me the desire to work with women who are charged with prostitution.  I want to give these women, who will be in my divert court, that same pride in being a women that St. Ben's gave to me.  I do not think I would have followed in this direction if it had not been for St. Ben's and the overall atmosphere that instilled leadership skills in me and a sense that every woman deserves to have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.