Ceola McDonald’s entire life was changed after attending the Trial Lawyers College. Now she changes the world, one child at a time.
What a story you have to tell, Ceola. Thank you for sharing it with us. What brought you to the Trial Lawyers College the first time?
Houston trial lawyers Ron and Paula Estefan offered a free, all-day training in Houston on voir dire, and I went. I was touched by what they taught. It was challenging for me to step outside of my box. When I was going to law school, I had heard Gerry Spence speak and he talked about never losing a criminal case. I decided I wanted to be like that. I bought his book and I kept it. I didn’t have the money to go to the College and I was too proud to ask for handouts, but when I did get some money, I applied and amazingly, I was accepted on the first try. It’s really hard to get in there. I got to meet Gerry, and be taught by him. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that I would sit with him and talk with him and learn from him. It was an honor I will never forget.
What would you say to other trial lawyers who are thinking about applying for the College, or attending one of their weekend programs?
You have to apply – go, and go all in! Hold nothing back. It will change your life. Going to the Trial Lawyers College was the best decision I’ve ever made. Take chances you reap the greatest rewards. This experience for me was life changing. Gerry Spence and lots of his faculty, like Ron and Paula, taught me that I can be me and if I don’t agree with you it doesn’t mean you’re less, it just means that I think more of myself. That was hard for me. I have always tried to please everyone because I wanted them to like me. I would feel guilty if they weren’t happy. Now I know I’m loveable. I know I’m likeable. I know I’m smart. I know I’m talented. Gerry sort of gave me permission to say those things about myself out loud and not feel like Im being arrogant. We’re not taught to talk good about ourselves. That has to change.
Was it a difficult transition for you as a lawyer when you learned the Trial Lawyers College way of doing things? In a way, it wasnt. I was struggling to be what I thought practicing law should be like. Law school makes you stoic, you can’t feel, it’s just rules and procedures and law. My natural instinct is to be loving, caring and feeling. That created a conflict for me because in court, some judges are so distant, the District Attorney and other attorneys are rude and nasty and mean. That wasn’t me. I have to be human. I have to feel my client’s story. When I came to the College, I got permission to be who I am. That was a huge relief. Now I can be nice. I can hug my client. I can tell them I care. The true struggle was trying to be something that I wasn’t. I met some amazing people during my stay at the college. All of us affected each other in ways that forced us to look at our practices differently.
Tell us about how you’ve taken some of those TLC lessons and used them to teach children in your community.
Well, I get 15-20 kids together, sometimes more, and we go to the courtroom. Seeing the expressions on their faces when they meet a judge is amazing. When I see that look I remember that little girl that is still inside of me. When I went to the ranch I realized that there was a little girl inside me that was hurting. I had to take the path that my life took in order to get to this point so that more children could have a chance at doing something great for themselves. I created a program called “Create-a-Kid” which is designed to Motivate, Encourage, & Inspire kids to be their best MEI. I make My Activity Phonebooks that encourage kids to start getting to know each other. If they become friends, they are less likely to criticize, to be judgmental, to bully each other. In these books, there is a place to list the qualities they expect from a friend, the qualities they have as a friend, and a place to list their goals.
Those are the building blocks of children and youngsters being the best that they can be their best MEI. And not trying to be like anybody else but themselves. If everyone was their best MEI the world would be a better place because we all have something unique to contribute and society would benefit as a whole. Just think how much better this world would be if we could do that. A bunch of creative individuals being their best selves. My motto is, I Motivate, Encourage & Inspire MEI to be my best MEI
That would be beautiful. Is this how you got started in this field?
At the age of 15 years old, I was bullied and faced the juvenile justice system and remembered my attorney as well as the judge did not listen to me and I felt so alone, so when I was older and my brother was accused of a crime in New Orleans I helped him out on his case with Attorney Martin E. Regan, Jr., who later became my mentor. Martin saw the work I did and started telling me that I could be an attorney. I didn’t believe I could become a lawyer. Lawyers in our culture are put on such a pedestal so it appeared unattainable to me. As a teenager, I was encouraged to write down my feelings and I began to keep a journal and I wrote about what I wanted for my life. Instead of looking for somebody else to build me up, I began to talk to myself and build myself up. I use to stay up late at night reading books and I decided that if I could read romance novels, I could read something to educate myself. I began to take college classes and continued that journey which led me to be becoming an attorney. I still didn’t believe in myself so I went to paralegal school first. Martin and Michael kept telling me I could be an attorney, that I was smart, and they knew I could do it. So when I finally went to law school, I knew that I could do it too. I worked very hard even though I had children, and I studied hard.
That’s great! Do you still come back to the Ranch?
The Ranch is home I will always come back to the Ranch. The Ranch and its regionals are reminders that its okay to be myself when the pressures of life attempts to weigh me down. When I tell my story to a young lawyer or talk to an alum who listens to me in such an open and welcoming way, it makes me feel like I can go back out into the world and fight some more.
Ceola McDonald is a TLC-1 ’15 graduate. She was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to a single mother of three. Ceola moved to Los Angeles, California where she obtained her Juris Doctorate from the University of West Los Angeles, School of Law in 2000. Ceola is licensed to practice law in the State of California and the State of Texas. She is admitted to practice before the United States District Court, Central District of California, Northern District of California, United State Court of Appeals 5th Circuit, and the United States District Court, Southern District of Texas, Northern District of Texas and has appeared Pro Hac Vice in Louisiana. Her determination and passion have allowed her to successfully assist clients in the areas of Criminal and Civil Law.