Celebrating a Legacy

The Texas Bar Foundation marks its 50-year anniversary.

By Jillian Beck

Louise B. Raggio, 1984-1985 board of trustees chair, with David Beck (left) and Orrin Johnson. Texas Bar Foundation Fellows at the Foundation's gathering at the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting in 1966.

Half a century ago, a couple hundred Texas lawyers banded together to donate money in hopes of improving the legal profession and justice system across the state.

In giving away about $7,000 in grants in the first year, the charter members of the Texas Bar Foundation couldn’t have imagined where their legacy would lead five decades later.

“Lots of people start things that don’t work. So it is not surprising, but is gratifying, to know that our profession embraced what this was about in the years after 1965,” said David W. Copeland, 2015-2016 chair of the Bar Foundation’s Fellows. “It’s vibrant, it’s alive, and it’s helping people and helping the administration of justice in Texas on a daily basis. What those men and women did back then—what their vision has turned into—is pretty amazing.”

The Texas Bar Foundation, established as a project of the State Bar in 1965, gathers charitable contributions and provides funding to organizations that enhance the rule of law and the administration of justice, ethics in the profession, legal services to the underserved, and the encouragement of research and public education concerning the third branch of government.

As the organization marks its 50-year anniversary, it has much to celebrate.

Thousands of Fellows who have joined the Foundation over the years—growing from 255 at its inception to now nearly 9,000—have worked to amass an endowment of $25 million, making it the largest privately funded bar foundation in the nation. To date, it has given out $16 million in grants to more than 400 nonprofits throughout Texas, and it continues to have a lasting impact on the profession and beyond.

In 1989, a $30,000 grant to the State Bar of Texas led to the first printing of the Texas Lawyer’s Creed, and a $40,200 grant the same year established the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism. After the September 11 terrorist attacks and hurricanes Katrina and Ike, the Foundation’s board established relief funds to assist victims. And in 2010, it used its money to help start Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans to provide pro bono legal assistance for veterans and their families who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Just over 30 years ago, following a gathering of Fellows in 1985 to set the trajectory of the organization, then-Board of Trustees Chair Louise B. Raggio of Dallas wrote in the Texas Bar Journal: “The profession has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. Our responsibility is to not only change with it but to lead in those changes.” The commitment to that responsibility by the Fellows, who many consider the lifeblood of the Foundation, continues to thrive.

Every year, nominating chairs in all 17 State Bar districts identify stellar Texas attorneys who have made outstanding contributions to the field and their communities, and the board of trustees then votes on each nominee. Only the top one-third of 1 percent of the state’s lawyers is invited to join the esteemed body of Fellows annually. Membership requires a one-time $2,500 financial commitment that can be paid all at once or with $250 annual payments for 10 years, said Texas Bar Foundation Executive Director Andrea Stone. After the initial pledge, the attorney is a Life Fellow, and those who elect to continue to pay $250 annually become Sustaining Life Fellows.

In recent years, the Sustaining Life Fellows have provided invaluable support. When the economy took a hit during the Great Recession, Stone said the group stayed strong, even contributing more money, which allowed the Foundation to continue to increase its grant program despite the downturn.

The Foundation’s board of trustees reviews and awards grants twice a year, thoroughly researching each project and interviewing the nonprofit representatives before voting on which to fund. In 1977, the Texas Bar Foundation Board of Trustees became separate from the State Bar Board of Directors. Now, the State Bar Board appoints attorneys—and three public members—to three-year terms on the Foundation’s board.

2015-2016 Foundation board and officers, from left: Cezy Collins, Sara E. Dysart, Lisa M. Tatum, Judge Penny Roberts, Andrea Stone, Melinda Wycoff, Diane DeVasto, Shannon Dacus, David W. Copeland, Buck Files, Randall O. Sorrels, Wendy Burgower, Jo Ann Merica, Cindy Johnson, Cindy V. Tisdale, Kyle Lewis, and Justice Patrick A. Pirtle.

Making the funding decisions is often tough for board members because the amount of available funds—even though it has grown—hasn’t been able to keep pace with the number of groups and projects in need. “It’s almost like a triage of great programs that are out there and they all need money and they are all doing good work,” said Tom Vick, 2016-2017 State Bar president-elect and a Sustaining Life Fellow who served as chair of the Foundation’s board in 2013-2014. Though the choices can be difficult, Vick said the opportunity to learn about the projects and to see the real impact they have on legal services and education throughout Texas makes it worth it. “You realize it really does make a huge difference and that’s a great reward for doing the work. It’s just amazing.”

Cezy Collins, 2015-2016 chair of the board of trustees, knows firsthand the importance of the grants. She remembers applying for and receiving a grant to conduct a comprehensive survey of maternity and paternity leave policies at law firms across the state on behalf of Texas Women Lawyers. “It’s a great thing to look through all these grants and actually see some wonderful, innovative ideas of ways we can, as lawyers, give back to our community,” Collins said.

Ask anyone involved with the Texas Bar Foundation and they’ll tell you the programs funded by the grants are central to the organization.

“Each and every one, even though some might appear to be a similar type of project, they are all very different in what they’re doing—they’re the heart and soul of what we do,” Stone said. From providing legal assistance to families dealing with Alzheimer’s to aiding immigrant children, grants have helped jump-start a range of programs across the state.

With a $23,500 grant last year, the Texas Advocacy Project was able to develop a system to follow up with individuals who call the organization for assistance with securing protective orders, ensuring that those who experience domestic violence, dating violence, or sexual assault receive the legal help they seek.

A few years before, a grant from the Foundation allowed the Texas Advocacy Project to start video-based legal clinics at domestic violence shelters across the state. The seed money gave the nonprofit the ability to start the program and now it offers the service at 40 shelters with the help of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. “The Bar Foundation has had such faith in us and it’s really made a difference,” said Heather Bellino, executive director of the Texas Advocacy Project.

A $5,000 grant to Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support in Dallas will allow the nonprofit to offer on-site legal help for women who are recovering from domestic violence and need assistance with custody battles in the court system. “It isn’t just us asking for money. If the Texas Bar Foundation says this is a worthwhile project, this is important for victims of domestic violence to have access to representation—the stamp of approval is huge,” said Jan Langbein, chief executive officer of the shelter.

With the assistance of a $25,000 grant, Freedom Place, an Arrow Child & Family Ministries program in Spring, is creating a program to train therapy dogs to accompany girls through the court process as they testify against the individuals who allegedly were involved with their human trafficking. The dogs provide comfort, emotional support, and security for the girls. Debi Tengler, national development director for Freedom Place, said receiving a grant from the Texas Bar Foundation lends credibility to the project and increases its chances of getting additional funding elsewhere. “It gives us the ability to say, ‘Y’all are helping us make a difference in the lives of children who thought that people didn’t care for them,’ ” Tengler said.

In Dallas, Advocates for Community Transformation is using a $25,000 Foundation grant to deploy a team in the southern inner city trained to empower residents through support and education to use the justice system to reduce crime in their neighborhoods. “We are so thankful for support like this, not only from a financial perspective—we obviously couldn’t do the work without it—but also from the aspect of having awareness about what we’re doing,” said Elizabeth Wirmani, legal operations director for ACT. “It really helps us and blesses our work.”

During the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting in 1975, the Foundation hosted its first Fellows Dinner. More than two decades later, this year’s event on June 17 in Fort Worth was a celebration of its success and the attorneys who started it all. Capping off 2015-2016, the organization passed more than just its half-century milestone: It was the first year that more than $1 million in grants was handed out to programs in need.

“Wouldn’t it be nice for that to exponentially grow to $2 million, to $5 million, to $10 million over the next 50 years?” Copeland asked. “Can we get there? I don’t know. I won’t be there in those 50 years, but it’s possible with vision and people supporting it.” TBJ

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