WACO, Texas (KWTX) Waco attorney Will Conrad is considered by his colleagues in the legal profession to be among the best studied, best prepared, and most compassionate client advocates to be found in a local courtroom.
In his office, William Conrad employs devices that read emails, read Braille, translate videos and allow him to “view” pictures, and his laptop talks to him. (Staff photo)
And he’s been blind since birth.
“I never knew any different,” Conrad said during an interview in his Waco office.
“I just had to find ways to cope.
“I can’t imagine how hard it would be to have sight and then lose it,” he said.
“I never missed it.”
He’s never had a service dog.
“I just didn’t want to have to care for an animal,” he said.
“In fact he’s never used any kind of aid save for his quite recognizable red and white cane, which he’s been using since he was in grade school.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it yet, but it gets me where I need to go.”
It is how he gets from his office at 6th Street and Austin Avenue to the courthouse about two blocks away, which requires a brisk stroll across Washington Avenue where there’s steady traffic.
“It was easier in Corsicana (where he first practiced) because they had stop signs instead of lights, when I could hear the cars were stopped, that’s when you walk.
“But here cars don’t necessarily stop if the light’s green, so you really have to listen closely.”
And in his office, he employs devices that read emails, read Braille, translate videos and allow him to “view” pictures.
And his laptop talks to him.
State District Judge Matt Johnson deals with Conrad routinely as many of his criminal cases are assigned to the 54th District Court, and the judge has great respect for him.
“I see Will and then I see other lawyers doing something maybe easy, but I see Will has to work twice as hard to accomplish the same task,” Johnson said recently during an interview in his courthouse chambers.
“It humbling to watch him do the best he can for his clients,” Johnson said.
“Humbling and very inspiring. He has a very strong passion.”
Johnson said his court staff recognizes Conrad faces challenges and is prepared to make any accommodation he needs, “but he doesn’t ask for any accommodation.
“I think (his blindness) is a challenge for him but I also think his other senses are enhanced,” Johnson said.
“He learns people’s voices and recognizes them immediately just by listening.”
Waco attorney Rod Goble has known Conrad since he moved from Corsicana to Waco and hung up a shingle.
“I’ve known him very well, our families hang out, he and I go to lunch at least once a week,” Goble said.
“Working with him has become so normal to me I don’t even think of him as blind anymore, just Will.”
“I think that’s wonderful,” Conrad said of Goble’s comment.
“I think it’s great people think of me as just a person and not a blind person.”
“We go to lunch every week and when we do, I tell everybody it’s going to be a really wild ride if Will drives,” Goble said.
“Yeah,” Conrad said, “when people hear I’m driving they drop off the lunch list.”
“He loves sports, especially baseball, and goes to lots of games,” Goble said.
“My parents live in Austin and we make lots of trips to watch the Longhorns or the Rice Owls play,” said Conrad, a Rice University graduate, who went on to the University of Houston Law Center for his legal degree.
He met his wife at Rice and he and Laura married in 2011.
She works at McLennan Community College.
Conrad was born in Dallas, reared in Austin, schooled in Houston and got his first solid legal job in Corsicana, where he and Laura lived until the couple decided Waco was a better spot and moved in 2012.
Watching Conrad in the courtroom is amazing, Goble said, and usually humorous.
One day during hearings in Johnson’s court the judge called the case Conrad was appearing on asked where his client was.
Conrad, without skipping a step, stood up and said “Judge, I haven’t seen him all day,” which led other lawyers in the courtroom to break out in laughter.
“He did say that,” Johnson said.
“I said it hoping to inject a little humor into the day, but what surprised me was the judge didn’t even slow down, he didn’t laugh or say anything, just went right on calling his docket,” Conrad said.
“I was afraid I made him mad, but later he told me he thought it was funny.”
He accomplishes tasks like picking jury members just by listening.
“He can be in the courtroom on hearings with two dozen other lawyers, the judge, courtroom staff, bailiffs and defendants and he can recognize each one of them by their voice,” Goble said.
“He knows exactly who’s in the room and what they are there for.”
“I wouldn’t say my other senses are heightened, but I just pay more attention to sound, smell, taste and touch because that’s where I get all my information,” Conrad explained.
What’s first obvious about him, his peers say, is his passion for representing his client.
“I do have a passion for the law and for my clients,” Conrad said.
His love of the law came early on, he said.
“I started telling my parents when I was very young that I wanted to go to law school.”
He said a teacher who spirited him along stood up for him and was a devout advocate for his success, which is what drew him to advocacy for others.
Even though his blindness threw some obstacles in his path, so what, Conrad says.
“You can overcome more obstacles than you think you can,” he said, “just don’t give up.”
When asked if he could wave a magic wand and gain his sight, Conrad’s answer was a bit predictable.
“I don't know. I'd have to think about that,” he said.
“It would make traveling around easier but I don't know because I've become so comfortable doing things in my own way I just don't know if I would.”
Before Conrad, there was the “one-armed bandit”
Conrad isn’t the first disabled lawyer to make a name for himself at the McLennan County Courthouse, retired 54th District Judge George Allen said.
Waco attorney C.S. “Shuford” Farmer, (1893-1982) had legacy enough with the cases he tried here, but his impact on Texas criminal law went far deeper.
“I didn’t know him. I was just getting started,” long-time Waco attorney William “Bill” Vanatta said, “but back then there were stories about Shuford, what a fine man and fine attorney he was.
“He was well-known all over Texas as an outstanding criminal defense lawyer, but I think his real expertise was in appeals,” Vanatta said.
At the time of his death Farmer had reversed more Texas criminal case convictions than any living man.
“I think I tried one case against him while I was an assistant district attorney,” Allen said.
“I don’t remember enjoying it a lot,” Allen said.
Farmer never went to law school but was admitted to the Bar in 1912 at the age of 19, having had his age disqualification removed so he could take the state required Bar examination.
He lost his left arm in an automobile accident while returning from Austin where he had just argued a successful appeal.
After the incident fellow lawyers began calling Farmer the “one-armed bandit,” which seemed appropriate because he stole so many guilty verdicts by his superior knowledge of the law on appeal.
Wheelchair didn’t slow longtime local judge down
Allen, however, also worked very closely for years with the late 10th Court of Appeals Chief Justice Bobby Thomas, who spent his life in a wheelchair after contracting polio as a young child.
Thomas first was elected McLennan county judge and then successfully ran for the 10th Court of Appeals, where he eventually rose to chief of the court.
“We went to (Waco) high school together and graduated in 1955,” Allen said.
Thomas and Allen attended Baylor Law School together and Allen recalled their classmates playing routine pranks on the student in the wheelchair.
“There was one women’s restroom in the old law school, and it was down a really long, narrow hallway,” Allen said.
“They’d grab his wheelchair and shove him down the hall towards the restroom door, and, of course, he couldn’t stop himself, so he’d crash through the door and we’d have to go get him out.
“They once stole (Baylor Law School) Dean (Angus) McSwain’s hat and put it on Bobby’s head, then when the dean went looking for it, he found it on Bobby’s head ‘cause Bobby couldn’t take it off,” Allen said.
Thomas and Allen rarely teamed up on cases, but one, that involved a wage and hour issue he recalled in detail.
“We took the case for Odell Humphrey who was working for a bus line,” Allen said.
“He met every bus that came into the terminal every day and cleaned them all, but we learned he was being paid far below the minimum wage, so we took the case.
“I had a 1955 Mercury, both of us were just starting out and we didn’t have any money, so I put (Thomas) in the car, and we drove to Temple to see our client,” Allen remembered.
“Bobby was in a wheelchair and he couldn’t get into the guy’s house, so I went in and left him in the car.
“It had a habit of dying and being hard to start, so I moved Bobby into the middle of the front seat and put his foot on the gas, then I told him if the car sounded like it was dying, pump the pedal and keep it running.
“This other guy, a big guy, came out to leave the house but he couldn’t get around my car, so he got mad and started yelling at Bobby to move.
“Bobby couldn’t drive the car, he couldn’t even reach the horn, so he started frantically pumping the gas, the car was roaring -- vroom, vroom -- when I got out there and took care of the situation without anybody getting punched,” Allen said.