Evidence of a prof's legacy: a real courtroom, a legal studies scholarship
The Harris County District Clerk's Office reports that in 2019, on average, just 22% of the people summoned actually appeared for jury duty. Some people submitted exemptions, but ultimately, 46% of the people failed to appear.
This, says Associate Professor Emeritus of Legal Studies Jim Benson, is unacceptable.
"I read a report about this problem, and I decided my goal was to get students to stop claiming 'student status' as a reason to waive jury duty," he said.
Benson, who taught in the Legal Studies program at University of Houston-Clear Lake for 40 years till his retirement in 2017, was also a practicing attorney in the Clear Lake area, specializing in probate and guardianship law. He decided to find ways to inspire students to become more engaged with the legal processes they were studying.
UH-Clear Lake students go to court
"[The report] said universities needed to get involved in civic education. I took the report around the university and said we needed to do this, and I was in a position to make it happen," he said. "Students need to take the opportunity to learn about the legal system, so I decided to create two courses, open to any student at UHCL- one called American System of Trial By Jury, which is a prerequisite to another course called Mock Trial."
Creating these classes, explained Benson, would help increase engagement. Through the program, students participate in the mock trial as attorneys, witnesses, and jury members, completing the entire process. "This experience is a differentiator for students in many ways, but especially if they want to go to law school," he said.
"I know of two legal studies students who received full scholarships to law school because of their mock trial experience at UHCL," he said. "Law schools are competing for students. When they find someone who already learned what goes on in a trial setting, often they're grabbed immediately."
Adjunct Professor of Legal Studies Win Weber is also a practicing local attorney and directs the Mock Trial. "Lawyers, police officers and students at other schools can't believe we have a program like this for undergraduates," she said. "Usually, you don't encounter a mock trial opportunity until the second year of law school. Our students have something very few have- it's empowering and it really gives them an edge."
Weber said the mock trial was a place to practice arguing and to learn the often-complex process of trying criminal cases in court. Students work from an offense report, similar to what an attorney would receive. "I try to pick topics that I see a lot at the courthouse myself- centering on mental health, family violence, distracted driving, or credit card fraud," she said. "It's a fictitious case, but it's based in reality. Students draft an indictment and take it from there. An actual, presiding judge handles the proceedings."
Weber said there was so much for students to gain from the experience. "We talk about believing in an ideal and turning it into reality," she said. "There is a real courtroom in the Bayou Building because of Dr. Benson's belief in the importance of students having a real-life experience to prepare them for a career in law."
Building a courtroom from the ground up
Initially, Benson faced obstacles. His request to fund courtroom furniture was denied, so he reached out to local county commissioners for donations. Only the County Clerk's Office in Fort Bend County responded.
He was told that there were three courtrooms about to be torn down, so he drove over to have a look at them. "It was the 15th District Court- a full-scale courtroom. I wanted all the physical pieces and the furniture. They said they wanted $1,000 for it, and I just about fell down," he said. "To purchase these kinds of furnishings from a company would have cost around $140,000. I couldn't believe it. I got the money from the provost and was given a classroom for the courtroom."
Over the course of that summer, Benson and a work crew dismantled the entire Fort Bend courtroom and brought it over in trucks, piece by piece, and reassembled it.
Since then, Benson said, students have been able to have an absolute, true-to-life courtroom experience. "It's like any courtroom downtown, with students needing to learn to operate the computer equipment and do everything any lawyer would have to do in a courtroom setting. It's the real deal."
Weber said this courtroom sets UHCL apart from other legal studies programs in Texas. "What an example Dr. Benson has set for us, and for students, with his passion for teaching law," she said. "This program and this experience have changed students' lives."
Creating a legacy
Benson created one legacy by building the Mock Trial program, and another by endowing a legal studies scholarship. "Many years ago, when I was a student at Sam Houston State University, a faculty member gave money to all the master's and doctoral students for tuition, without having to apply for anything," he said. "I was back from Vietnam- broke. That money meant the world to me, and I'll never forget that incident. I finally had enough money to do it here, so that's why my wife Susan and I created the Legal Studies Scholarship."
Aubrey May is the recipient of the Bensons' Legal Studies Scholarship and said the endowment was helping her pay tuition. Her short-term career goal is to become a paralegal.
"Dr. Benson is so passionate about everything in his career," she said. "Through UHCL, I received an internship as a paralegal now, and many of the lawyers I work for had him as a professor. Almost everyone at the Hegwood Law Group has a connection to UHCL."
May added she'd moved to Houston from Virginia to attend UHCL. "It's harder, but it was worth it," she said. "I know of a lot of students who have participated in mock trial and are using it for their law school applications."
For years to come, Benson's legacy and influence at UHCL will continue to train the next generation of legal professionals and give them a uniquely realistic glimpse into the inner workings of the court. Learn more about the UHCL Legal Studies program online. To leave your own legacy at UHCL, contact University Advancement online.