State Bar of Texas Election 2018
The Texas Bar Journal asked 2018-2019 president-elect candidates Lisa Blue (left) and Randy Sorrels (right) to share their perspectives on issues facing the bar. Vote online or by paper ballot from April 2 to May 1, 2018. The deadline to cast ballots is 5 p.m. CST May 1, 2018.
Why do you want to serve as president of the State Bar of Texas?
Blue: I want to help build a stronger, more unified State Bar by directly addressing the issues of bar reform that have become so important for so many lawyers across Texas. The strong victory of President-elect Joe Longley as a reform candidate in the last election showed that a voting majority of bar members have lost confidence in the “insiders” who have controlled the bar. The embezzlement scandal, the bloated budget, the lavish junkets by bar leaders, the closed-club culture, the backroom committee hearings, and the election rules tilted to favor hand-picked candidates—these are just some of the issues that have plagued the State Bar in recent years. We must address them in order to restore trust in the State Bar.
Fiscal responsibility, openness, transparency, and fair elections should not be controversial issues. They should be first principles that guide all bar operations. As a state agency, the State Bar must serve both Texas lawyers and the public. We should move forward with civility, mutual respect, and cooperation—but also with frank, open discussion—to address these issues. Law is a noble profession and we should work together to achieve its finest ideals.
Sorrels: I want to bring about meaningful change for the good of Texas lawyers, and I have concrete ideas to do so. For example, I want to establish a statewide courthouse access badge to get our busy practitioners into state courthouses, bypassing long security lines. I also plan to create a State Bar document database/repository for Texas lawyers to access and add to—something I call “Texas Lawyers’ Briefcase”—to benefit all practice areas, including our transactional lawyers. I will ensure there is no increase in bar dues and that our bar is fiscally responsible. I shoot straight with people and am not afraid of making changes for the better. To learn more about me or my specific ideas, go to my website (www.RandyForTexasLawyers.com), but don’t stop there. Google me. I want lawyers to know they are electing someone with a long history of involvement in trying to improve our profession.
In your opinion, what are the most important issues facing the legal profession and what role do you believe the State Bar should play in addressing them?
Blue: • Restore fiscal responsibility to the bar budget. Reduce the bloated bar budget—over $51 million in 2017-2018, with over 270 employees, with more than 29 of those having average salaries over $100,000 and eight employees earning more than the governor of Texas. Bar members also have had to pay for lavish junkets by some bar leaders, staff, and spouses.
• Reduce bar dues by 10 percent, instead of raising them by 10 percent, as some bar leaders intend to do.
• Restore bar members’ voting rights—to allow bar members to cast a binding vote on all dues increases. Bar leaders convinced the Legislature to dilute our voting rights to allow the board to impose a 10 percent dues increase.
• Increase openness and transparency. Produce all documents concerning the $555,000 embezzlement scandal, and the effort to reduce bar members’ voting rights on disciplinary rules and dues. Livestream and videotape all bar board meetings.
• Conduct fair bar elections, and eliminate the candidate-suppression policies now used to favor candidates hand-picked by secret backroom committees.
Sorrels: The most important issue facing the legal profession differs from lawyer to lawyer, depending who you ask. If you care most about access to justice, then the State Bar must remain vigilant to ensure adequate funding and programs during these uncertain times. If you have a big law firm perspective, a key issue is preserving a viable professional business model that works for both the clients and the law firms. And if you are a small firm or solo practitioner, like I am, the State Bar has to show it is listening by being responsive to our everyday needs. Beginning a statewide courthouse access security badge program, not raising dues, and supporting efforts to stop unauthorized practice of law are examples of meeting these widespread needs. On a whole, the State Bar’s top priorities should involve protecting our industry and improving the professional lives of our everyday lawyers.
You have served the profession in a number of capacities. Which of these experiences has best prepared you to lead the State Bar of Texas?
Blue: I served as president of the largest national trial bar in the United States, the American Association for Justice. In that position, I visited 38 states to talk with lawyers about the issues that concerned them. I learned a great deal about managing a large organization and about how the legal profession is changing across the country.
I also have served as chair of the Financial Responsibility and Fiscal Control Task Force that President-elect Longley appointed to conduct the first-ever independent, in-depth analysis of the bar budget. That work has convinced me that we can achieve substantial budget savings, thus benefiting all bar members.
Sorrels: When I was president of the Houston Bar Association, two hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, hit the Gulf Coast. The devastation was widespread and there were many in dire need. The HBA was one of the largest local bar associations west of each landfall and our response was immediate: we helped lawyers, judges, and the public with homes, offices, supplies, clothing, food, and the administration of justice. Our pro bono providers were amazing and thousands received pro bono help. I had two takeaways: 1) Things rarely go as planned; and 2) I have the ability to be calm and lead in the midst of a storm. One other thing I learned: lawyers respond like no others during times of crisis, confusion, and chaos. If elected, I will be ready for anything thrown my way.
What can the State Bar and individual lawyers do to ensure access to justice for Texans, one of the State Bar’s core missions?
Blue: I’m a strong believer in access to justice. That includes the never-ending challenge of adequately funding legal services to the poor—and that requires work both in Texas and in Washington.
Nationally, the ongoing threat to funding legal services remains a critical issue. The Justice Department recently shut down the Office for Access to Justice. The State Bar must participate in those ongoing battles nationally.
But we also know that access to lawyers is increasingly out of reach for average Americans. As billable rates have climbed steadily, the legal-services affordability problem for regular Americans has become severe. We must work to develop innovative new solutions to this continuing problem.
Sorrels: A lot. Pro bono programs are under constant funding pressure and Texas lawmakers need to fund these essential programs. I served on the Texas Access to Justice Commission and advocated to our Texas Legislature for funding. The State Bar must also continue to support its pro bono programs. We need to keep a watchful eye on national funding as well. As to individual lawyers, there are already many Texas lawyers who devote time and effort to pro bono clients. But we need more. I have long supported the access to justice effort and five years ago funded the legal clinics at South Texas College of Law Houston that annually engage dozens of students who provide pro bono work to clients in our community.
What should the bar do to guide and prepare the next generation of lawyers?
Blue: Whether we’re talking about Gen X, Y, or Z, the challenges are greater than ever before for us more “senior” members of the profession to understand and respond appropriately to the issues facing our young lawyers and future lawyers.
With the increasingly rapid changes in technology, the economy, and social mores, the bar needs to involve the next generation in State Bar activities, education, and planning more extensively. The bar needs to partner more closely with the Texas Young Lawyers Association on an ongoing basis to inform the bar’s programs and strategic plans.
Sorrels: No doubt our profession has seen major transformations in both the practice of law and the business of law. Technology has already affected every area of our profession. Artificial intelligence isn’t far behind. But not everything has changed. Mentorship still works. The State Bar should continue and encourage programs that connect mentors with mentees. The next generation will take our places to be the protectors of the rule of law and the guardians of our democratic process. Lawyers must continue to be involved in the formation of laws and must advocate for the fair enforcement and application of our laws. Our bar must also continue to offer high-quality CLE that trains our members to be successful. Mentorship of all types will assist in the proper passing of the torch to the next generation.
What can the State Bar do to enhance ethics and professionalism among Texas lawyers?
Blue: Under MCLE rules, bar members must devote at least three hours of their annual 15-hour CLE requirement to “legal ethics/professional responsibility subjects.” Ethics and professionalism training are critically important for maintaining necessary standards of conduct, dignity, and decorum in our interactions with clients, judges, colleagues, and others.
But CLE costs often are too high, especially for young lawyers and senior lawyers. Accordingly, the bar needs to experiment with free and low-cost CLE delivery mechanisms. For example, according to YouTube, 300 hours of video are uploaded every minute, five billion videos are watched daily, and 80 percent of 18-49 year olds watch YouTube each month.
In short, video-platform technologies are changing rapidly, and we must strive to use these and other new technologies to reduce CLE costs.
Sorrels: I am optimistic our fellow lawyers really want more civility and professionalism among our colleagues. We learn from each other when we bring lawyers together to engage in open debates and exchange ideas on ethics and professionalism. We need more person-to-person connections through mentorship programs, interactive CLE programs, and conferences. While this is no explanation of all ethical breaches or uncivil communications, a significant cause of some breaches involves mental health, alcohol, or drug abuse issues. Studies show attorneys experience these conditions disproportionately to professionals in other professions. So our State Bar should continue to fund the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, which assists attorneys dealing with these serious issues.
How important are your community activities to balancing your life as a lawyer? Which has affected you the most?
Blue: Community activities have been a very rewarding part of my life. I have been a first-responder volunteer psychologist for the Red Cross assisting victims of Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters. Personally witnessing the anguish of victim families and trying to help have been some of the most moving experiences of my life.
Since 2002, I have headed the Baron and Blue Foundation, which strives to enhance the functions of nonprofit organizations in Dallas, with a particular focus on homelessness. For the last two years, we have worked with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas and the UNT Dallas College of Law to establish and fund a new legal aid project to provide legal services to needy populations in Dallas.
Sorrels: I have heard of the term “work-life balance,” but in my world, “work” and “life” continuously overlap. I know many lawyers can relate. From a civic duty standpoint, I founded the HBA’s “Importance of Jury Service” program that encourages high school seniors (on turning 18) to serve on a jury when summoned. Today, we have spoken to almost 60,000 students and the jury summons response rate in Harris County has significantly increased. Besides my faith and family, a source of great personal satisfaction has been coaching almost every athletic team my four children played on. Life gets put into perspective when the adult coaches really listen to the words of our children. The teachers become the students.
Describe your most satisfying legal experience.
Blue: In the first part of my legal career, when I was an assistant district attorney, the most rewarding cases—but also the most difficult—were child-abuse cases.
In private practice, most rewarding—and again, most personally difficult—has been the representation of individuals with fatal forms of cancer due to exposure to various toxic substances, from benzene to nuclear radiation.
In both criminal law and civil law, I have loved courtroom work, especially trying to verdict over 125 criminal cases and 75 complex civil cases.
Sorrels: The establishment of first-class legal clinics at South Texas College of Law Houston. I grew up in a modest household, the son of a U.S. Army officer. Through the love of family, the help of many, and the blessings from above, I became a lawyer who has been able to save enough money to fund legal clinic training programs at my alma mater. These programs, managed by professors, enable seasoned practitioners to share their knowledge and skills with law students, who take the lead role in helping thousands in our community with their immediate legal needs. These hardworking law students conversely gain practical experience, which can help them after graduation and may encourage them to participate in more pro bono work after law school.
What can the State Bar do to promote diversity within the legal profession?
Blue: We should start in the classrooms, the earlier the better. Heroic lawyers have fought for equal justice under law, voting rights, civil rights, human rights, and quite simply, to make the world a better place. Their stories can inspire children of all backgrounds. We should teach those stories in elementary school and beyond. The bar’s Law Related Education programs have done some great work in schools, but those efforts should be expanded and sharpened.
We must bring more diversity to the office of president-elect. Since the bar began 78 years ago, we’ve had only six female bar presidents (just one out of the last 11 and only one African-American) and only two Hispanic presidents.
We should end the closed-club culture of candidate suppression rules in the bar, with candidates hand-picked in secret, behind closed doors. We should make it possible for any qualified bar member to have a fair chance to serve.
Sorrels: Promoting diversity in the legal profession is very important and something I have emphasized in leadership at my firm and at the Houston Bar Association. When I became managing partner at my law firm over 20 years ago, there was zero diversity. Today, about half of the firm’s lawyers (including half of the partners) are either gender or racially diverse. As president of the HBA, I emphasized diversity in all of my appointments. In terms of our State Bar’s function, we need to not just ensure that our members of various backgrounds have a voice, but also ensure these voices are at the table and heard, whether minority, small firm, large firm, solo, urban, or rural. We need to continue to elect leaders who have strong track records for promoting diversity and appointing our underrepresented members in leadership positions.
What is your favorite book, TV, or film representation of a lawyer? Why?
Blue: My favorite movie about justice was The Verdict. Paul Newman was amazing in his gritty, in-the-trenches portrayal of a lawyer fighting for a terribly victimized underdog against the establishment—while also fighting his own inner demons. In my career as a prosecutor and as a plaintiffs’ lawyer, I’ve many times tried cases to vindicate the rights of victims, and I well know that uphill-battle feeling.
Sorrels: This is a challenging question because I admire Atticus Finch for his zealousness and ethics. From a whole different perspective, I still laugh watching My Cousin Vinny. But the show that helped inspire me to pursue the legal profession was Perry Mason. It involved a criminal defense lawyer who led a team of professionals (teamwork), who defended the criminally accused (actually innocent, but seemed destined to be convicted—the underdog), and who inevitably exposed the guilty. Good prevailed over evil. While the “not guilty” rate on that show was unrealistic, Perry Mason showcased a noble fight for the underdog. Every day I work with a talented team of professionals. We usually represent the underdog. And our goal is to have our “good” clients prevail over the wrongdoer. As I have traveled the state in this campaign, I know I am not alone in applying these principles.TBJ