Behind the Bench with Judge Matt Osman: A Candid Conversation with the Mecklenburg County District Court Judge - Part 1
This episode is the first in a series of conversations directed towards lawyers, legal professionals, and law students. In this series, North Carolina Attorney Bill Powers digs into personal issues, patterns, personalities, unspoken truths, realities, and the lifestyle of being a lawyer.
In this episode, Bill Powers sits down with ... Read MoreModified Transcript of “Behind the Bench with Judge Matt Osman: A Candid Conversation with the Mecklenburg County District Court Judge - Part 1” for the Hearing Impaired
Speaker 3: You're listening to Law Talk with Bill Powers. Your resource for answers to your most pressing legal questions. Attorney Bill Powers sits down with some of today's leading legal minds to discuss everything from legal issues and legislation to practice tips and policy. Now here's your host, an NBTA board certified criminal law specialist, former President of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, and renowned trial lawyer Bill Powers.
Bill Powers: Hello and welcome to another episode of Law Talk with Bill Powers. Our latest series of conversations on Law Talk are directed towards lawyers, legal professionals, and law students. While I'm sure regular folks may be interested in the conversation, especially if they're thinking of getting into the profession, I want to dig a big more deeply into personal issues, patterns, personalities, unspoken truths, realities, and the lifestyle of being a lawyer.
Bill Powers: With that, I'm honored to introduce my next guest, the honorable Matthew Osman. Sorry, your honor. District Court Judge in the 26th judicial district. That's here in Charlotte North Carolina.
Bill Powers: Judge Osman attended school here in Charlotte at Charlotte Christian school, continues education at UNC Chapel Hill, and received a BA in American history and a Minor is business administration. Thereafter, he attended law school at the Regent University School of Law, graduating in 2001. Since that time professionally Judge Osman has served as a prosecutor, a defense attorney, staff attorney, and advised sailors and their families on domestic and civil issues. He worked in the United States Navy JAG program, and was stationed in Yokosuka Japan, Rota Spain, and Charleston South Carolina. He also worked for a time at Capital Hill for Senator Phil Gramm, United States Senator from, I believe, Texas. He was an economist who taught school at Texas A&M. He interned here at Charlotte for the honorable and now deceased Judge Brent McKnight, who was a federal judge here in Charlotte North Carolina.
Bill Powers: Thereafter he did some prosecutorial work in Monroe North Carolina in Union County where, I think, he was the lead prosecutor. Well, one of the ones, probably larger cases in Union County. That was my recollection, my apologies if I'm incorrect on that. He was elected District Court Judge in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014. As a District Court Judge he presides over criminal, civil, and family court matters. He is the lead Judge for DWI treatment courts in Mecklenburg County. He's the lead criminal court Judge in Mecklenburg County. He's a member of the North Carolina Governor's state wide impaired driving task force. A judicial member of the Mecklenburg County Bar's continuing legal education. We call that CLE, Continuing Education Committee. All around, pretty experienced jurist in North Carolina.
Bill Powers: He's married, he's a husband. He's a proud father of a daughter and two sons. Greetings, your honor.
Judge Osman: Thank you for having me, hello.
Bill Powers: Thank you. Hello to you and thank you for joining us.
Bill Powers: I'd like to dig in right off the bat if that's okay and ask you, your honor, one question I feel like I always want to ask every Judge in their profession as well as lawyers who are in active practice of law. How is it that you became a Judge? How is it you became an attorney? Was it a life goal, was it a reason you went to law school, or was it something that developed over time as you practiced and maybe matured professionally?
Judge Osman: Well, going back to the decision to even go to law school. In some ways I refer to myself as an accidental lawyer. I went through college at Carolina and didn't really have a ton of direction for what I wanted to do. Made my way to DC to work for Senator Gramm, which really was a fascinating time, 97 to 98. Bill Clinton was the President. There were some interesting things happening in DC at that time, so I kinda had a front row seat to some really interesting history.
Judge Osman: During my time there I realized that my long-term future wasn't in DC. Again, and didn't really have a good plan. A friend of mine invited me to go down to visit Regent Law School. I sat in on one of their summer classes, and it was a contracts class. Contract's probably one of the more boring and dry topics, and yet there was something about the class that just captured my interest. I loved it. I loved the discussion of the cases, the way that we do in law school where you go through a case study. I loved the application of the facts, and I loved the fact that while there could be different interpretations of that, that the answer was somewhat straight forward. That there was still a degree of absolute truth to that, and I came away from that and knew that, that's what I wanted to do.
Judge Osman: I interviewed for admission on the spot. That was three weeks before classes started. I was admitted on the spot, went back up to DC, gave my two weeks notice, and went back to Virginia Beach and started law school. I found myself sitting there on the first day surrounded by people who ... this had been their life-long goal to go to law school. Here I was just happy to be here. It just went from there, but I just had this real love for the law that developed while I was in law school, but it was never something that I had set out to do.
Judge Osman: I think it was the same regarding becoming a Judge. I think that I had always thought that one day that's something I would really like to do, but I didn't have a set timeline. I didn't have a specific plan. When the opportunity presented itself to run in 2010 it was long before I thought that opportunity would present itself, but given that opportunity was something that several people encouraged me to do, and I decided to go ahead and take a shot at, at that point.
Bill Powers: Thank you for sharing that, because I'm one of those ... things more developed over time as I think I personally maybe matured, and I love asking that question, because the answers are always so interesting and different. I had a friend, a practicing attorney in Charlotte now, the [inaudible 00:06:17] and if you ever heard Joe's story about how he ended up becoming a lawyer it was amazing where he was in Times Square and ended up on a bus down to Georgia and he had joined the military in a time of transitional need we'll say.
Judge Osman: It's one of those things that, looking back, I have no doubt that this is what I was supposed to do. It just took me a lot longer than other people to come to that realization that this was what I was meant for.
Bill Powers: I think that's okay, and I think especially for maybe college students or people in a career already that are starting to wonder, "Hey, is this really what I want to do?" It's okay not to know, or it's okay to change your mind.
Judge Osman: I think that sometimes when I see people in pre-anything programs, pre-law, pre-med, pre-pharmacy, pre-nursing I hope that they truly have that call and maybe have a little of experience beforehand, because if not they've limited themselves pretty substantially at an early stage of their college graduate career. That's why I'm a fan of broad-based liberal arts educations. They expose you to a lot of different things, and then from there you can figure out what you want to do and what appeals to you.
Bill Powers: Well, that's a great point, because in your own curriculum vitae you were a history Major, and I went to a law school where they took a lot of non-traditional students. I mean, one of my classmates played french horn in Julliard, if I remember correctly. This is a point ... I always ask lawyers and Judges about. I want to see if you agree with me. I think the development of the character of the lawyer and the person is actually more relevant to the day in, day out practice of law as opposed to someone's parents saying, "Well, he should go to law school. He loves to argue." When I hear that I quietly and nicely think to myself, "I really hope that person doesn't go to law school."
Bill Powers: Do you have a thought on that, or is that ever kinda crossed your mind?
Judge Osman: I hear that all the time, and the idea that, "Oh, you should do to law school because you love to argue," does make me cringe a little bit as well. Lawyers to so much more than argue in court. There are so many lawyers who never step foot inside of a courtroom; corporate, real estate, and other attorneys. You don't have to focus solely on that.
Judge Osman: To me the single biggest thing that lawyers need is critical thinking ability and critical thinking skills, and that is something that I think you develop through exposure to different disciplines, academic and otherwise. We need to be able to think critically to apply the law to the facts and vice versa, and if you can do that then you can figure out the communication skills and other things on the back end.
Bill Powers: One of the things I'm interested in, in this series on this podcast, because we sometimes go very granular on issues of law. I'm real interested in big picture perspectives, especially people like yourself who I think thinks of things more in a satellite view of things. I attended a law school, I went to Campbell, where we used the Socratic method; where we actually had to stand up and answer questions.
Bill Powers: I wondered if you could tell me a little about your experience in law school and what the legal education meant to you, and what you learned or took from the process. Was it a books and testing experience, or was it something more? Did you see the world open up to you, or was it just a business trip get in and out?
Judge Osman: It was a fairly traditional law school experience in many ways. We did by and large use the Socratic method while teachers do vary, and professors did vary from class to class. For the most part they used the Socratic method. The student that was under fire didn't have to stand in any of the classrooms I was in, but they still were the one who was responsible for knowing the case and was taking most of the questions from the teacher at that point.
Judge Osman: I think one of the things I valued the most about Regent was in addition to the academic rigor was the emphasis as well on practical skills. There was a heavy emphasis on appellate advocacy, and our teams did very well at competitions around the country. There was a heavy emphasis on trial skills and trial advocacy, and also we had an award-winning negotiations team. I think that encouraging students and pushing students to do those different things, even if they never did appellate advocacy. I've never argued an appellate case, but I did a number of appellate advocacy, and those helped hone my legal writing skills because you're preparing briefs.
Judge Osman: Also, you're taking questions, direct fire, from multiple Judges or people playing the role of a Judge during an appellate advocacy competition. That forces you to think on your feet, forces you to communicate well, and also to pivot when an argument isn't going well. Good lawyers have the ability to recognize that and pivot to something else. Less killed lawyers don't know how to get off of that argument and will just keep arguing it until the bitter end.
Bill Powers: Yeah, that's one of my ... and you've probably heard me say this in court before, my saying that if the horse dies get off. Meaning, don't try to ride the horse-
Judge Osman: It is dead and if you keep riding it the Judge will just keep beating that horse, then everybody loses.
Bill Powers: Right.
Judge Osman: But I think it was those things beyond just the classroom books testing that really appealed to me, and that I really enjoyed about Regent. And as some areas where I excelled and that definitely helped me become a more effective litigator, especially at my first job as a Navy JAG.
Bill Powers: Well, one of the things that interests me, but I also think it's a duty and responsibility, is for people in the profession with some amount of pavement underneath their feet, meaning they've got a fair amount of practical experience, to share their thoughts about the development of the law and the developing of attorneys, but also a part of their legal education. I know I have some definite opinions about lawyers and law school and the profession itself. I frankly would personally limit law school to two years of classroom study and maybe implement something like they do in medical school for internships or residencies. I personally think we're missing a little now from the old school way of educating lawyers through mentorships or tutelage and there was a term where you would study under the bar, meaning you would work with an attorney as opposed to necessarily going to a law school and you could just sit for the exam.
Bill Powers: Do you have any thoughts about that or suggestions?
Judge Osman: I don't think I'd be the worst idea for a couple reasons. One, I think that by the time you get to your third year in law school you're taking a lot of niche subjects that aren't even on the bar. I can think of a few that Regent and other schools offer that they're just not tested on the bar. There may be some practical real world application, but when you look at the significant debt that many people incur for that third year versus the value that you're adding to your practice as a lawyer, I'm not sure that it's there.
Judge Osman: I think reducing law school to two years.
Judge Osman: 1. I think it would substantially help people with regard to their debt.
Judge Osman: 2. I think it could provide that practical experience through internships, through working with attorneys. Almost apprenticeships.
Bill Powers: Right.
Judge Osman: There was a time, remember, you could have basically apprentice to the bar without even going to law school. So, if you could do that and get people that more practical experience I don't know what you would call them. They would almost be like para-attorneys, not quite para-legals. Para-lawyer. I recall that from a movie and I cannot remember the reference. Maybe The Rain Maker.
Judge Osman: If you could do something like that I think that would benefit the profession. Unfortunately the law school setup in America, it would be very hard, very high bound, very hard to change the law school system the way it's set up. The tiered rankings ... I think it would be really hard to change that and get the Bar Associations or the State Bars who accredit to be accepting of that. But, I do think that there would be substantial value for future attorneys.
Bill Powers: I think that falls in line with what you said before. I don't know what they call it in medical school, whether it's the internship of the residency, but I know that before you become a practicing doctor you do a several month stint in maybe pediatrics or maybe you do geriatrics or maybe you work in the morgue or whatever.
Judge Osman: Rotations. They do their rotations through different disciplines, then after that they pick their specialty after they've done their rotations is how I understand it, and I think that's a great idea.
Bill Powers: I think, frankly, your experience with the JAG in that department has to ... I mean, you did it the way I would try to encourage people from this point forward. In fact, one of my critiques of the current status of the practice of law is people graduating, throwing up a shingle. Lawyers and Judges know what that means. Maybe law students do, but basically you just open your own practice. You have your newly minted diploma. You have your bar certification, you passed the Bar and you met all the moral requirements and ethical requirements, and then bam. You're practicing law and you can take ... in North Carolina you can take any case you want, basically. There are a couple subcategorizations of that, like first degree murder case they're not going to let you do it.
Bill Powers: One of the other aspects I ... And I appreciate your commentary on that, but I think people forget the humanity of the practice of law, both for attorneys but I'm real interested to hear about your thoughts about humanity on the bench. You are a living, breathing person, and while you represent a co-equal branch of the government ... that's if you notice I'm referring to your honor as your honor. I think, first, because you're earned it, but the honorific is related to the position of Judge itself. You're also a husband and a father, and first a lawyer. We still have that in North Carolina. You still have to be a lawyer to be a Judge.
Bill Powers: There are times I worry that people try to change that up, but what was it like the first time you put on a robe? What were you thinking about? Were you nervous?
Judge Osman: Very, because there really is ... In the Navy we use lots of acronyms, and so there's no ... It is OJT. It is on the job training in every way, and so in North Carolina there are two sessions in the School of Government, which is in Chapel Hill, for new Judges. One of those sessions is in December before you take the bench, and the other is in February or March after you've already been on the bench. You've basically had at most one week of judicial or Judge specific training before you take the bench, and then the rest of it you're figuring out on the fly.
Judge Osman: Now, if you're been a practicing attorney for years you should know most of the issues, but I think that it really takes a Judge at least five years before you really fully find yourself, your judicial philosophy, your demeanor, how you run a courtroom, and how you handle all of those things. I'll never forget the first day that I was in trial court. I was in courtroom 4170 in Mecklenburg County, and we're doing some basic administrative matters and all of a sudden it gets quiet. I look up and there are people sitting at the council tables, which in District Court is not common. People don't sit at the table until it's time for a trial. All of a sudden I look up and we're about to start a trial. My clerk, Diana, who's known to many in Mecklenburg County District Court kinda looks over at me and lets me know what's about to happen. "Are you ready?"
Judge Osman: I was, but it was just this, "Okay, this is happening," moment. Then there's that first time when someone lodges an objection and everybody looks at you, and you realize, "Oh, they're waiting for me to respond," and you just have this, "Okay, this is really happening," moment. I think once you get past those first couple of moments you just get into the flow, but you're still trying to find yourself. How do I respond to this? Am I going to permit speaking objections or do I just want to hear from the attorney that they have an objection? How much argument do I want? How much opening statements do I want? Which are very uncommon in district, and many other things. So, you may have thought about some of those things, and some of those things you should think about before you're on the bench so it's a little more seamless.
Judge Osman: Other things you don't think about, and it's just the way you're carrying yourself, the way that you're running the courtroom. Those are things that I think really develop over time and also from having observed other judges that you were respect and that you want to emulate.
Bill Powers: That's interesting, because I would think I would personally be maybe a little behind airplane, meaning that there's a lot coming at me very quickly and I want to make sure I'm responding in a timely fashion.
Judge Osman: We call that drinking out of a fire hose in the Navy.
Bill Powers: Right. We had a Judge in Charlotte years ago named Bill Scarborough, and Judge Scarborough was tried and tested, and actually fought in the battle of the bulge. Really was a very interesting man personally, but professionally ... after he retired he practiced law for a while and during trials where he was defense counsel he would occasionally sustain objections that had never been lodged, because he'd been on a bench for so darn long. I think that's an interesting perspective.
Bill Powers: That brings up another point regarding the perspective as a Judge, and as an attorney that appears before you I can only imagine what you see in the courtroom. You literally sit in front of the courtroom above anyone else, and while the focus for everyone in the courtroom is both literally and figuratively you, the court a single person, you are the sole person who can actually see everyone at the same time. You can see the activity and the commotion in the courtroom. You can see how people are acting, their reactions, their facial expressions, how they dress, how they sit, and pretty much everything. What's that like?
Judge Osman: It's interesting. You see a lot of different things, as you said, that people don't see, because you're one of the very few people who's looking back toward the back of the courtroom. Almost everyone else is looking toward the front. The few times I have sat in the back of a courtroom just to get a sense for it, it's very interesting. One thing I've seen is that you really can't hear very much of what's happening in front of the bar, in front of that area where normal people, non-lawyers and officers and things like that can't pass. I try to keep that in mind to make sure that everybody can hear me when I'm on the bench, but it is interesting. You can just see different interactions, body language of people that are out in the audience or even at counsel table.
Judge Osman: You can see things that they may not think you can see, and you need to be careful not to draw conclusions from those things, but it does give you that overall 30,000 foot perspective about what's happening.
Bill Powers: What a great point, because I actually got called to a jury panel probably a couple of years ago now here in Charlotte and there's always this assumption, "Oh, you're a practicing attorney, you'll never be called." I personally have handled a fair number of jury trials, and I found myself sitting in the back and not being able to hear the questions, and when I am trying a case I think we assume in the well of the bar that ... one of the standard questions is, "Sir, you've heard me ask all the other people these questions, do you have anything you want to add?" In large measure that's because the courts don't want us to keep asking the same question.
Bill Powers: What the truth of the matter is, is that it's easy to kinda lose focus. You're not on the spot, and then when they called my name and I actually went up into the chair--and I've been in court at this point for 22 years or more--I was nervous. I actually knew the Judge and I actually knew the prosecutor and the defense lawyer well. They were from my home jurisdiction and I was nervous when they were asking me questions. I think that's a great point.
Judge Osman: Well, and I think the same thing applies if you've ever been called as a witness. During my legal career I was called twice when I was in the Navy as a witness, and that was because there were some questions about some things that the commanding officer had one and the legality of some decisions. That was so uncomfortable for me as a lawyer to be on the stand. You're thinking of the question that are being asked, you're thinking of the questions that should be asked, you're thinking, "Would I have asked it that way?" And, you're overthinking you answer.
Judge Osman: I think it's helpful to keep that in mind when I see people get on the witness stand and flounder a little. I know they're nervous. I know they're overthinking. I know that for many of them they have a story they want to tell so badly and they get frustrated when the questions don't allow them to do that. I think that perspective is beneficial as well to somewhat hopefully put the witnesses at ease and maybe assure them that they'll have a chance to tell their story, but also to know that when people get frustrated in courtrooms to perhaps ... especially non-lawyers, to give them a little latitude with that, because while the day-to-day operations of a courtroom are pretty routine to us this might be the single most important thing that's happened to this person in a long time. We as legal professionals can get a little calloused about the day-to-day operations of our job and lose sight of that for this person who's in court this is a really big deal, and so we need to treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve and expect, because this is their big thing today. Whereas for us it's just our job.
Bill Powers: Sure, and there's a balance there. I personally, you try to be empathetic. People have busy schedules. You see law officers come into court, maybe they've been up all night or they haven't had a chance to look at their notes because they were dealing with a terrible murder two hours before. Frankly it is an adversarial system. If we're trying to reach the truth, and as a defense attorney my goal and objective is to show inconsistencies in the story. Our job is to purposefully try to get the person off the story, but I think it can be done nicely at times.
Judge Osman: It can be. I think that ... especially when you're dealing with what I would call the professionals, so the lawyers and law enforcement, the people that testify professionally. Those times when I have had a chance to speak to officers after cases are in different trainings I'll remind them that the attorney is doing their job and that if you take this personally, which it's easy to do when you feel like your work's being attacked, then that's going to show and it's going to impact your credibility.
Judge Osman: Same thing for lawyers. When lawyers take cases personally and start to get emotional and worked up that impacts their credibility as well. It helps if everyone remembers that everyone's just trying to do their job and they're recognizing that there are some times when personal issues are relevant, but for the most part everyone's just trying to do their jobs. It helps to keep things professional and less emotional while also allowing that latitude for civilian witnesses who aren't used to this and they need a bit of freedom to express themselves.
Bill Powers: That's actually a good transition for my next series of questions for you. One of the things I'm interested in a lawyer is the idea of a moral compass. If you borrow the idea from natural [inaudible 00:26:17], perhaps Thomas Aquinas or Aquinas, where one would argue that intrinsically we know in our innermost beings what's right and wrong. My question to you is: do you think being a lawyer is merely a business or something else? Should it be more? Are there aspects to serving the community ... Now, I know you know that and I know that, but maybe a law student doesn't understand how important that is to being a legal professional.
Judge Osman: Well, I think one way to answer that question is to look back at the history of our country, and if I recall correctly John Adams, who defended British soldiers who were accused of killing Americans during the Boston Massacre. One of the most unpopular defenses of all time, and yet he recognized that everyone is entitled to and deserves a defense, no matter how heinous or unpopular the crime, and I think that as lawyers we often have to take on unpopular causes, granted we are paid for that, but take on unpopular causes because, again, one of the hallmarks of this society is that everyone is entitled to representation.
Judge Osman: There is a service element to that, because if everybody turned down unpopular cases then some people would never have representation and what kind of society would we be? But, I do think that through pro bono work, which is lawyers doing work for free and other opportunities, there are ways to serve. So, while people in the banking industry and other industries might do certain volunteer work relevant to what they do, for lawyers that might mean representing people who can't afford to be represented or are in a really bad spot.
Judge Osman: I do think that there is a service component to any profession, but for lawyers specifically called toward providing legal representation and occasionally taking up unpopular causes.
Bill Powers: Sure, and you've always been very generous with your time. I regularly see you speaking or at continuing educations, going to schools, and you're active in the community. Why is that? Does that fall in line with what you're saying? Is that part of your job as being a Judge?
Judge Osman: I think so. I think Judges have a responsibility to help improve the legal profession. For me, I want to see the practice of law--and when I say the practice of law I mean the quality of lawyering and workmanship that I see in a courtroom--I want to see that continue to improve, and I know that I was mentored when I was a young attorney by senior attorneys. I know that new attorneys come into our system all the time, and they need mentoring and they need to hear from the people who are making decisions for litigators. They need to hear from judges about the things we see, the things that lawyers do well and the things they can improve on.