M. Shane Henry Knows No Labels
The Tulsa attorney helped launch a hands-on trial-advocacy program
Published in 2018 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine on October 11, 2018
Last year, during the first-degree murder trial of James Vasco Jones, attorney M. Shane Henry made the defense’s opening statement and helped cross-examine a co-defendant who testified against his client. That was a big deal for him. He’s better known as a family law attorney.
He spotted a few differences between the practice areas.
“In family law cases, and even in civil cases, win or lose, you’re usually dealing with money or people’s children,” he says. “In criminal law, you’re dealing with people’s lives and freedom. That was a very new experience for me … to realize, based upon what happened at trial, this guy [could] spend, in essence, the rest of his life behind bars.”
And there were some epiphanies.
Preparation for a criminal case, Henry notes, calls for attention to the smallest details, looking for inconsistencies and witness motivations. He applies these lessons to his family and civil cases. “Oftentimes, the tendency is to argue conclusions and generalities, but the investigation and preparation required in the murder trial taught me to focus on the smallest facts and teach those at trial,” he explains.
“Conclusions can be brought up during closing argument when the witness isn’t on the stand to disagree. Trial lawyers can argue with witnesses about conclusions and generalities all day long, but the skilled trial lawyer uses the witnesses to bring up the facts needed during trial to lead the judge/jury to the conclusion that benefits the client.”
In April, Henry, 43, branched out and opened his own firm, Henry & Dow, along with his sister, Allyson Dow, who is also a family law attorney. Beyond family law, his team delves into criminal, wrongful death and personal injury law. Henry opened a previous firm in 2007, right after graduating from the University of Tulsa College of Law. Back then, he took every case he could to get his feet wet: criminal defense, civil work, personal injury.
For three years, Henry says, business was not exactly booming. Then he figured out that he needed a sharper focus—for awhile. He joined Tulsa-based firm Fry & Elder, where he was mentored in family law by a team of “great trial lawyers.” Eventually, he began branching out again, including taking on the occasional criminal case, such as the Jones trial.
“I never want to be labeled as just a family lawyer or a criminal lawyer or any other type,” he says. “I am a trial lawyer.”
Over the years, Henry began attending trial-advocacy training programs such as the Family Law Trial Advocacy Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and the National Family Law Trial Institute at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. In 2014, he began attending the Trial Skills Clinics taught by Roger Dodd, who became a valued mentor.
Inspired, Henry in 2014 co-founded the Trial Advocacy Institute for the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Family Law Section. Lawyers ranging from newcomers to 20-year veterans get lectures and hands-on experience with opening and closing arguments, discovery, cross-examination and other trial skills. While law school teaches important theory, programs like this can give attorneys actual experience in trial law, Henry says.
“You get critiqued, almost like American Idol, by family law attorneys and judges,” Henry explains. “It culminates with an actual trial at the end of the week, in front of real Oklahoma judges.”
In 2016, two years after helping start the institute, Henry was named the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Family Law Attorney of the Year. “I was surprised and very humbled,” he says. “I feel like there are a lot of well-deserving, excellent family law attorneys out there.”
Henry’s new firm is thriving. In its three locations—Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Norman—it now has three additional attorneys and one of counsel, in addition to Henry and his sister.
As always, his focus is on learning: “I’ve got to improve every day. Because if we’re getting better, we’re helping our clients.”