Monday, January 01, 2024

Meet Judge Robinson

Shad Robinson took the bench as the twelfth bankruptcy judge to serve in the Western District of Texas on February 21, 2023. Judge Robinson, by his own telling, took an unlikely path to law school and practicing bankruptcy law. He is fairly unique among his bankruptcy colleagues in that he practiced in a small firm in a small city and practiced both consumer and business bankruptcy. However, he does possess one credential common among the current judiciary in that he clerked for one the Western District Bankruptcy Judges. Practitioners were introduced to Judge Robinson at a brown bag lunch followed several days later at his Investiture Ceremony. This article is taken from those two sessions and questions that Judge Robinson was kind enough to answer.

Judge Robinson’s Road to the Bench

Shad Robinson grew up in Iowa. He played baseball in high school, junior college and college. He gave a lot of credit to his baseball coaches for teaching him dedication and hard work. He did not go to college expecting to attend law school. His father was a fireman and he hoped to be a police officer or an FBI agent. At the end of college, he had a double major in Criminal Justice and Political Science and a double minor in Religion and Philosophy but no job prospects. One of his professors suggested he attend law school.

He went to Baylor Law School in part because the climate in Texas was more pleasant than in Iowa. He still had hopes of becoming an FBI agent. After his first two quarters at Baylor, he returned home for the summer. He didn’t have a job so he asked a friend’s dad, who happened to be a bankruptcy judge, if he could volunteer in the court. During the summer of 1997, he spent 4-5 weeks as an intern for Bankruptcy Judge William Edwards of the Northern District of Iowa. He thought bankruptcy was pretty cool. He didn’t want to do something that was boring and bankruptcy was something different every day.

After graduating from law school, he applied to be a law clerk for Judge Leif Clark. Judge Clark called him back and said that he was having trouble deciding between Robinson and another candidate. On a Friday afternoon, he gave Robinson an assignment to write a bench memo on a legal issue and have it back to him by 5:00 p.m. the following Monday. He said that he re-wrote it 25 times before sending it off by fax.

He began his year with Judge Clark in August 1999. During that year, they wrote 10-12 published opinions as well as 40 unpublished ones.    On one occasion, he wrote a 30 page bench memo to Judge Clark. Judge Clark said that the memo was all well and fine, but asked about subject matter jurisdiction. Mr. Robinson replied that the parties had not raised subject matter jurisdiction.  Judge Clark explained that you always start with subject matter jurisdiction regardless of whether the parties raise it.

When Judge Robinson reached the end of his clerkship, he was looking for a place to practice. Judge Larry Kelly told him that if you are good at what you do, you can succeed wherever you go, so you should go where you will be happy. He took a job at Haley & Olson, a small firm in Waco. He said that from day one, his mentor Blake Rasner would hand him files and tell him to go to court. Because he worked for a small firm, he got to do a lot of other practices such as mergers and acquisitions and civil litigation.

While at Haley & Olson, he taught Creditor’s Rights and Debtor’s Remedies at Baylor. One time, he learned that his students had been discussing him on social media. He found the group chat, printed it out and attached it to his final exam, asking his students to discuss the ethical issues raised by the discussion. 

Prior to taking the bench, he was General Counsel for Alliance Bank Central Texas.

Q & A With the Judge

Before Judge Robinson took the bench I sent him some questions to answer. I recently heard back from him. Here is what he had to say:

Mr. Sather, thank you for the questions you submitted to me for purposes of writing a short profile in your blog. I wanted to wait before responding so I could reflect on your questions and my experiences since taking the bench. I hope the responses are interesting to you and your readers.

Q: I see that you graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice/Political Science and Religion/Philosophy. That is quite a varied set of studies. How did that schooling prepare you to be a bankruptcy lawyer?

It was indeed a very diverse set of studies, but I don’t think that undergrad actually prepared me to be a bankruptcy lawyer. That being said, my diverse undergrad studies provided me the opportunity to improve my writing skills, explore my intellectual curiosity in different academic areas, and develop practical skills such as effective communication, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving. The practical skills I first acquired in undergrad were improved in law school, used on a daily basis during my practice, and are certainly utilized as a bankruptcy judge.

Q: How did you make the decision to attend law school? Was this something you had always planned?

I had no intent to attend law school until the fall semester of my senior year of college. I wanted to be an FBI agent and I was encouraged to attend law school to get an advanced degree to assist in achieving that goal. It was also suggested that I consider learning to fly an aircraft or speak a second language and since I am afraid of heights and learning a second language seemed too difficult at the time, I chose law school! In hindsight, I think it was the right decision.

Q: Did you take a bankruptcy class in law school?

Yes, I took bankruptcy at Baylor Law School with Professor Larry Bates. I also did an independent study with Professor Bates regarding executory contracts.

Q: Did you know that you wanted to practice bankruptcy law when you were in law school?

The short is answer is no, I wanted to be an FBI agent. However, during law school I spent three weeks as a volunteer intern for Bankruptcy Judge William Edmonds in the Western District of Iowa. During the three weeks I spent with Judge Edmonds, I enjoyed the diverse factual and legal issues that arose in bankruptcy and wanted to learn more. I returned to Baylor Law School with a strong interest in bankruptcy and then took courses in bankruptcy, secured transactions, creditor’s rights, securities law, tax, management of complex litigation, etc.

Q: What did you learn clerking from Judge Clark?

Where do I start?! I learned so many things clerking for Judge Clark that I think I could write a book. As we all know, Judge Clark liked to write so I certainly improved my writing skills. Judge Clark also interacted a lot with his law clerks on pending matters and asked tough questions, so I quickly learned the importance of being prepared and understanding the various pieces of the bankruptcy puzzle and how they fit together in a variety of different cases.

Q: Where have you practiced since concluding your clerkship? How would you describe your practice?

After clerking for Judge Clark, I went to work for Haley & Olson, P.C. in Waco, Texas. My bankruptcy practice consisted of representation of secured and unsecured creditors under chapters 7, 11, 12, and 13. I worked on both consumer and business bankruptcy cases and on all bankruptcy related litigation. I was also fortunate to work on a wide variety of other legal matters such as debt collection and related litigation, workouts, banking compliance, real estate, mergers and acquisitions, and general commercial litigation.

Q: Did you have a law firm mentor you would like to mention?

I worked with many excellent lawyers at Haley & Olson. I also worked with many outstanding bankruptcy lawyers in Texas and many other jurisdictions. I was fortunate that during my first few years of practice, the senior lawyers at Haley & Olson trusted me to interact directly with clients, gave me the independence to make substantive and strategic decisions, and allowed me to handle complex matters as the lead attorney.

Q: Did working in house for a bank change your perspective on the law as opposed to when you worked for a firm?

Working in-house for a bank for a short time period, gave me the opportunity to participate at the management level of a financial institution and be involved in a variety of matters including litigation management, contract review, legal compliance, bank regulatory compliance, loan underwriting, general corporate legal matters, and strategic planning. I don’t think that it changed my perspective on the law, but it allowed me to diversify my legal knowledge and also experience being the client when dealing with outside counsel.

Q: What are some of the most important cases that you have worked on and why?

I know it’s a cliché, but I believe every case is important to the parties in that particular case, so I treated every case I worked on the same whether it was five thousand, fifty thousand, or fifty million dollars.

If I had to pick a few cases, as a third-year lawyer, I defended a preference case filed by Enron that involved complex financial transactions and contentious issues related to reasonably equivalent value, intercompany debt, cash management systems, and application of the Texas construction trust fund statute. In the Schlotzsky’s bankruptcy, I represented the purchaser of the debtor’s assets as lead counsel and later represented the former Schlotzsky’s board of directors in litigation regarding alleged breach of fiduciary duty claims. I was also lead counsel for ERCOT on some general bankruptcy matters in Lehman Brothers and several other bankruptcy cases in various jurisdictions. I was also lead counsel for a large supplier and critical vendor in the Takata bankruptcy. 

Q: If the answer is different, what are some of the most personally significant cases you have worked on and why? 

Generally, the same answer. I sincerely believe every case is significant to the parties in that particular case, so I treated every case with the same effort and focus while being aware of, and sensitive to, the economic realities of each case. In fact, in small cases I often elected to substantially reduce my time or cut all of my time to make my services economically feasible for the client. 

Q: How do you feel about sitting on the same bench where Larry E. Kelly once sat? 

I appeared in front of Judge Kelly frequently and had such great respect for him and I am honored to now sit on the same bench he once occupied. During my years of practice, the Western District has been blessed with competent, hard-working, and well-respected judges and I will certainly strive to maintain the high standards established by my predecessors. 

Q: What are some of the things you did to prepare for taking the bench since your appointment? 

I observed hearings before all of the Western District Judges (both in-person and via Webex). I had general discussions with Judge King, Judge Gargotta, Judge Mott, and Judge Parker regarding their courtroom practices and asked them many questions about how and why they did certain things. I also read many of the opinions of my colleagues that are posted on the Western District website and studied written materials provided to new Federal Judges by the Federal Judicial Center. Since taking the bench, I have attended Phase I and Phase II of new judge school, I have attended several functions with the Austin bankruptcy bar, and met with the members of the Austin Bankruptcy Bar-Court Liaison Committee. 

Q: Are there any practice areas that you are likely to encounter as a judge that were not part of your law firm experience and how do you intend to prepare for those areas? 

Bankruptcy cases involve so many different areas of law: state law, intellectual property, tax, employment, family, probate, insurance, environmental, etc. When I encounter an area of law or issue that I am not familiar with, I will review and consider the pleadings/briefing provided by the parties and then my law clerks and I will discuss the issues, conduct our own research, and collaborate so that we understand the issues and I can apply the law to the facts and make the correct decision.

Q: What advice would you give to a lawyer appearing before you on a contentious case?

Be prepared. Comply with the local rules. Be on time for all hearings. Cite statutes, rules, and cases in pleadings. Accurately represent the facts and the law. I will probably ask questions so you should know your case well enough to accurately answer my questions. Pay attention to details. Make sure the relief requested in the Motion/Complaint matches the form of order/judgment. Promptly respond to emails from my law clerks (and copy opposing counsel). Provide reasonable and accurate time estimates. Confer and work through discovery and evidentiary disputes, if possible. Confer prior to the hearing and stipulate to exhibits, if possible. Be prepared, did I mention that?!

Q: What is a personal challenge that you have had to overcome in your life?

A challenge I frequently encountered and had to overcome was being perceived by opposing counsel as a small-town lawyer that was not competent or didn’t know what I was doing in complex litigation or a large Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.

Q: What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?

When I am not working, I enjoy spending time with my family, traveling, playing board games, and enjoying new experiences. My wife and I also enjoy good restaurants (Austin has so many great restaurants). She is also trying to get me to watch television shows and movies, but I am not really entertained by watching TV unless it is college sports or the news. I am from Iowa originally and a huge Iowa Hawkeye fan so if an Iowa game is on TV I am likely watching.

Q: What do you think your approach will be to when you hold hearings live in the courtroom and when you hold them virtually?”

Although we have all adapted to virtual hearings over the last few years, I personally prefer having hearings live in the courtroom. I expect that I will continue to set more hearings live in the courtroom, especially if they are evidentiary hearings or involve complex issues and/or extensive legal argument. Virtual hearings are generally acceptable for announcements, status conferences, reaffirmation agreements, motions for continuance, and other similar type of non-evidentiary hearings. I am currently holding the Chapter 13 dockets in Austin and Midland via Webex, but per guidance from the Judicial Conference regarding limits on remote access I am reviewing our Chapter 13 hearing procedure and discussing the same with Judge Bradley.

Thanks to Erin Shank for the photo.

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