“Prior proper planning prevents poor performance,” advised The Honorable Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale, Judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Judge Barksdale spent the eve of the LSU v Ole Miss game with a group of LSU Law students, recounting his service to his country, his legal career, and sharing thoughts on what makes a good lawyer.
Following his graduation from West Point, Barksdale volunteered to serve in Vietnam. “I arrived in 1967-68 during the Tet Offensive,” he told the students. At age 23, he found himself as a platoon leader responsible for the safety of “54 men, three tanks, and six personnel carriers…It’s a serious responsibility, and you grow up in a hurry. At a very young age, people and young men come to depend on you.”
Promotions to Troop Executive Officer and Assistant Division Operations Officer would come quickly. He patrolled in South Vietnam around Da Nang. Barksdale also recalled his own personal brush with death when an explosion rocked his armored carrier, killing his driver and wounding everyone inside. When he was released from military service some two years later, he made the decision to enter law school at Ole Miss.
After law school, Barksdale served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White. Barksdale recalled his clerkship with Justice White, speaking fondly of the Justice’s love of words and his penchant for brevity. “He got it right, and kept it tight. He was a great lawyer…very kind, interested in people, and very courteous to other judges,” said Barksdale. “Few people knew that Justice White actually played professional football for Detroit while he was in law school. I was lucky to clerk for him. He had a profound influence on me.”
Following his clerkship with Justice White, Barksdale entered private practice in Jackson, Mississippi, where he focused on commercial litigation and some First Amendment work representing the Jackson newspaper. His nomination to the Fifth Circuit by President George H.W. Bush came in 1989 for a seat vacated by Judge Alvin Rubin, graduate of the LSU Law Center, and previously held by Judge John Minor Wisdom. He received his commission on March 12, 1990 and has served the 5th Circuit for almost 19 years. “I’ll take senior status this summer at age 65,” said the Judge.
Barksdale advised students to participate in oral advocacy training and moot court programs. “Frank Maraist, one of my Moot Court professors at Ole Miss, taught me, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.”
On the question of what distinguishes the quality of legal arguments, Barksdale replied, “Certainly knowledge of the facts and the case …distilling and conveying the complexities quickly and succinctly; and, being active and engaging in presentation would be a ‘Category A’ argument to me,” he said. “Know the procedure, and have a sense of humor,” he advised. He noted that “clarity, simplicity, brevity, organization, correct grammar, and distilling of the issues” are the hallmarks of the best briefs.
“Would you recommend clerkships, and did it help in private practice?” asked a 3L student. “Yes. It’s a great experience,” he said. “You may make less money during your clerkship, but it makes you a much better lawyer. You see how judges react and think. Clerkships are largely about problem solving.”