Paving the Way
The Texas Young Lawyers Association launches a project to inspire would-be first generation attorneys to pursue the profession.
By Jillian Beck
Above is a preview of the project’s website, which features videos
highlighting 15 individuals, including Barbara Jordan, who was a lawyer
and the first African-American woman elected to the Texas Senate.
A railroad porter’s son descended from slaves. A granddaughter of immigrants who came to America in search of a better life. A child of a construction worker with no more than a second-grade education. All lacked examples of attorneys in their families. But that didn’t stop them from achieving their dreams of becoming lawyers and eventually making a mark on history.
Stories like these are the focus of the Texas Young Lawyers Association’s newest project, I Was the First. You Can Be a Lawyer Too!, which aims to inspire a generation of young people to pursue a career practicing law, no matter their background. Funded by a $42,000 grant from the Texas Bar Foundation, the website, which goes live April 1 at iwasthefirst.tyla.org, features documentary-style videos detailing the paths of 15 living and historical figures who became attorneys, were trailblazers, and made significant contributions to the state or the nation. “If you can see someone that looks like you, sounds like you, and has a similar background, it makes it more accessible and within the realm of possibility,” TYLA President Sam Houston said. “I really wanted the project to show that irrespective of your race or your socioeconomic background, a legal education and career in law is a possibility.”
Houston, a first-generation lawyer himself, drew inspiration for the project from TYLA’s What Do Lawyers Do?, which provides information and steps on how to apply for and succeed in law school and as a lawyer, as well as the State Bar’s I was the first. Vote for Me!, a multimedia project spearheaded by the first African-American president of the bar, Lisa Tatum, that teaches students about reading, math, citizenship, and voting through lessons on historic leaders who were firsts, such as Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, and Barack Obama. TYLA representatives worked with the State Bar of Texas Law-Related Education Department to incorporate figures into I Was the First. You Can Be a Lawyer Too! that are included in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, standards set for public schools in the state. The goal is for the website to not only educate those who stumble upon it online but also be used as a teaching tool in classrooms. “We know students look to others to see if something is possible,” said Jan Miller, director of the Law-Related Education Department. “This project allows students to see that if they want to become an attorney, it is possible even if they are the first in their family to try.”
Retired 3rd Court of Appeals Chief Justice Marilyn Aboussie of San
Angelo shares her journey to becoming a lawyer and eventually a judge in
one of the project’s videos. Photograph by Jillian Beck.
For the historical or high-profile figures, such as Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor, the videos contain biographical information or interviews with people who worked with them or studied their lives. For other firsts, like Senior Judge Marilyn Aboussie of San Angelo, viewers hear directly from them. Aboussie always gravitated toward politics and government, but there were no lawyers in her family when she decided to pursue a career in the law, and growing up in Wichita Falls as a young girl she was unaware of what they did or what it took to join the profession. But Aboussie, the granddaughter of Lebanese immigrants who traveled to the United States as teenagers to make a better life, would go on to become the first woman in every firm where she practiced, the first woman to serve as chair of the State Bar General Practice Section, the first woman on the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, and the first woman chief justice of that court, a post she retired from at the end of 2002.
First-generation lawyer Angela L. Dixon, a solo practitioner in Houston, sees the importance of TYLA’s project because it exposes people to the possibilities of a law career at an early age. A Mobile Bar Association outreach program sparked an interest in the law in her when she was just 15 in Alabama, and she then doggedly strove toward a legal career despite initial rejections and obstacles along the way. “It really made an impact on me as a young person and showed me that this was something I could do and that there were options. I held on to that,” Dixon said.
Like Dixon, an outreach program motivated TYLA District 14 Director Raymond J. Baeza, who helped spearhead the project, to become a lawyer. “I hope that this conveys to students of all backgrounds that a legal education is possible,” he said. “While it might seem far-fetched at times, and it did for me, with dedication and hard work, it can be done.” Baeza worked with TYLA District 15 Director Sara Anne Giddings to bring the website to fruition. TYLA hopes to work with teachers, education regions, and social studies organizations across the state to get the website into classrooms and in front of students, said Giddings, who was the first in a family of educators to become an attorney. A common thread she has noticed among the individuals featured in the project is that even when each faced challenges, they did not give up on their pursuits—like Barbara Jordan who unsuccessfully ran for state office twice before being the first African-American woman elected to the Texas Senate in 1966. “We talk about dreaming the impossible dream,” Giddings said. “If you want to become a lawyer, if you want to become a doctor, whatever you might want to become, you can do it. And then you can make a difference—and it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
TYLA leaders and those involved with the project hope it will show youths the opportunities that lay ahead of them. “It’s hard when you’re really young to think that all those things are possible,” Aboussie said. “So that’s part of our responsibility—to encourage young people to realize that all those doors can be open and that you shouldn’t be afraid to dream big.”. TBJ