Gaining an insider's perspective on the federal court system - The University of Tulsa
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Gaining an insider’s perspective on the federal court system

University of Tulsa College of Law student Brandon Keaton (3L) spent his final semester as an extern in the office of The Honorable Irma Ramirez, a Magistrate Judge in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. Now just days away from graduating on Dec. 17, Keaton is well-equipped with the skills and knowledge he will need to fulfill his dream of practicing in one of the Lone Star state’s larger legal markets.

law student in a suit smiling for the camera outside
Brandon Keaton

Born and raised in Camden, Arkansas, Keaton graduated from the University of Arkansas — Fort Smith in 2018 with a degree in business administration. While there, Keaton took a handful of law courses and one of his professors was Associate District Judge Dennis Sprouse, a 1977 graduate of TU Law. “In fact, Judge Sprouse was the person who put TU Law on my radar,” Keaton recalled.

An instructive experience

As he reflects on his four months in Dallas, Keaton is particularly thankful to Judge Ramirez for encouraging and empowering him to tailor his externship experience to suit his interests and ambitions. Central to this was Keaton’s daily practice of reaching out to court-security officers in order to find out the schedules for the Northern District’s judges. Whenever a topic or case piqued his interest, Keaton would sit in and watch the proceedings.

Experiencing trials firsthand took Keaton far beyond the theories and examples he had studied in the classroom. “My externship opportunities were great,” he reported. “I got to see the ins and outs of the federal courts in the Northern District. It was certainly eye-opening.”

When he was not attending trials or busy drafting opinions on pending motions for Judge Ramirez, Keaton read and reviewed case files. In fact, he received his first file to review on his very first day of the externship. His most notable assignment was to write a motion to dismiss a case featuring a pro se plaintiff before working on a response to the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial.

Looking at life after graduation and passing the bar, Keaton hopes to pursue a career in civil litigations, where his writing and mock trial expertise will definitely prove valuable. “Early careers in civil litigation usually involve heavy research and writing as well as handling discovery,” Keaton pointed out. “As a law student’s foundation starts to build, their responsibilities follow suit.”

Laying the groundwork

While externships are a powerful means of experiencing what it is like to work as a legal professional and getting set to practice law, Keaton credited his coursework and professors at TU Law with enabling him to lay the necessary groundwork. For example, Keaton underscored the impact of the legal writing courses he took during previous semesters, which he was then able to build on in Judge Ramirez’s office.

law student in front of a book case with arms folded
Brandon Keaton

Keaton also praised the effectiveness of TU Law’s trial skills and evidence workshop along with the American Association for Justice mock trial travel team, both of which helped him to enhance his analytic skills and improve his ability to notice the issues and minute details being argued in the cases and proceedings he sat in on. “Those experiences allowed me to focus on the effectiveness of the lawyers themselves, rather than placing all my focus on the issues being argued,” Keaton said. “That’s a priceless experience.”

A further, less tangible, element of preparation TU Law provided was to help Keaton set his expectations with regard to what it is like to work as an extern. In addition to receiving advice from Assistant Dean for Experiential Learning Lauren Donald, Keaton spoke to other students who had already completed or were in the process of completing their externships and pick their brains for externship wisdom.

Keaton also had professors on his side to help him prepare to apply for an externship. In particular, both Professor of Law Johnny Parker and Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law Robert Spoo provided Keaton with guidance and boosted his confidence. “Brandon is one of the brightest and most prepared legal minds that I have had the pleasure of teaching at TU Law,” commented Spoo. “He performed superbly in my Contracts and Constitutional Law courses, and I expect to see him thrive in the profession of law.” Parker likewise had high praise for Keaton, stating “he’s a highly intelligent, very dedicated individual. These qualities, along with his work ethic, allow him to succeed in all his endeavors. He is a joy to work with.”

Advice from a law school vet

When asked if he had any advice to bestow upon those who may follow in his footsteps, Keaton had this to say: “I will give the same advice I was given when I was a 1L. During my first year of law school, a 3L told me to try to experience as many different areas of law as possible while you’re in law school. They said that the only sure way to find out which area you want to begin your career in is to exhaust all your options first.

“I came into law school unsure if I would even consider litigation mainly because of the idea of having to step foot in a court room and make arguments. But, after taking trial skills and following that up with participating on a mock trial travel team, it was clear that this was for me.”

Does the prospect of having a well-rounded law school experience excite you? Head over to the TU College of Law for more information!