by Jared M. Slade
A Houston native, Judge Chris Wilmoth, Judge of Dallas County Probate Court No. 2, first moved to Dallas 25 years ago when he enrolled at Southern Methodist University for college. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa and entering the work force, he returned to SMU’s Dedman School of Law and again graduated with high honors.
Judge Wilmoth secured a coveted clerkship with the Honorable Jorge A. Solis, an experience that has proven instrumental in his professional trajectory. He joined Baker Botts as a litigator in 2003 and handled a variety of complex litigation and major bankruptcy matters. Those bankruptcy matters afforded him extensive estate-related experience.
He also performed over 600 hours of pro bono work on top of his busy docket of cases and extensive community involvement during his tenure there. His former colleagues spoke highly of both his work and his corporate citizenship.
Integrity and intellect were the two traits that immediately came to the mind of Tim Durst, a litigation partner at Baker Botts, who mentored Judge Wilmoth during the latter’s seven years in private practice. “I have great confidence that he will call the balls and strikes as he sees them with impartiality,” Mr. Durst said, “and he has the intellectual horsepower to be able to understand even the most complicated legal wrinkle that could come before him.”
Those who have practiced before Judge Wilmoth agree. Jim Hartnett Jr., of The Hartnett Law Firm, believes Judge Wilmoth is “doing a fantastic job.” Recently, Mr. Hartnett litigated two hotly disputed, highly complicated cases before Judge Wilmoth. “I’ve been impressed by the calls he’s made, even the ones against me,” Mr. Hartnett said. “He tries to get it right, listens carefully, and is willing to make hard decisions and rule quickly.”
Edward Smith, of Smith & Stephens, noted that Judge Wilmoth is “putting out the effort to be a good judge” and that his Honor has “grown into the job since elected.”
“I think he has surpassed everyone’s expectations,” said Michael Duran, of The Duran Firm, PLLC, noting that Judge Wilmoth had not focused his practice on probate before being elected. “He has jumped into it. He is able to take a very high level of argument and get right to the heart of the matter.”
Judge Solis has been a role model to Judge Wilmoth. Particularly, Judge Wilmoth seeks to emulate Judge Solis’ temperament and approach to cases—avoid prejudging any matter and, if appropriate, deciding cases on the merits, not technicalities. Inspired by Judge Solis and his longtime friend, Judge Dennise Garcia of the 303rd Family District Court, he ran in 2010 for judge of Dallas County Probate Court No. 2. He was sworn in on January 1, 2011.
Judge Wilmoth acknowledges that his background has afforded him the necessary legal foundation and organizational skills to succeed. That said, he considers the true source of his success on the bench to be his accomplished, experienced staff. “What’s important is to have a really good staff that you can trust,” said Judge Wilmoth. When asked what he wishes more attorneys knew before coming to Probate Court 2, he said that his team’s goal is to make the attorneys look good to their clients. To that end, he and his staff seek to communicate early and often with the lawyers in uncontested matters to ensure that the necessary formalities have been met to allow those lawyers to “look like geniuses” in front of satisfied clients.
Serving the community from the bench speaks to what Judge Wilmoth wants to do in the law: help people. Mr. Duran complimented Judge Wilmoth’s demeanor and noted that he has a great “bedside manner,” given the personal strife that often brings the public before him. The Judge recognizes that those who come before him are typically in mourning or struggling through challenging personal situations, such as caring for adult children with intellectual disabilities or parents who have lost the capacity to care for themselves. The fresh eyes he brings to the challenges and issues before the bench allows him to serve others by seeking the right outcome for the matters before him.
Of particular importance to Judge Wilmoth are the guardianship cases before him. “Each of these cases is unique and deserves individual attention,” he said. To that end, when selecting attorneys ad litem, Judge Wilmoth focuses on the circumstances and condition of the proposed ward and tries to match the ward with an attorney who will work to maximize the ward’s independence. Judge Wilmoth also takes the time at the end of each hearing to encourage the guardians in the responsibilities they bear.
Judge Wilmoth considers the legal process to be a means to an end and not an end in itself. He understands that the hard questions need a judge’s input, and believes that the solution can often be found by looking at the Probate Code, the Trust Code and the case law with fresh eyes. He is not afraid to take his time to get things right.
Off the bench, Judge Wilmoth’s six- and nine-year-old daughters keep him busy. They frequently enjoy campouts with the YMCA. They have recently adopted his stamp collection hobby, which the judge began as a Cub Scout. He has also maintained his community involvement through his church and volunteer efforts with local groups like the Wesley-Rankin Community Center, where he serves on the board of directors.
Jared M. Slade is a senior associate at Alston & Bird LLP and a member of the DBA Publications Committee. He can be reached at Jared.Slade@alston.com.