Rise to the Challenge

State Bar of Texas President Randall O. Sorrels on getting out of your comfort zone.

Interview by Patricia Busa McConnico

Sorrels Profile

For the past 20 years, Randall O. Sorrels has been waking up at 4:45 in the morning to get to his 5:30 a.m. outdoor workout at Memorial Park in Houston. Led by a former U.S. Navy SEAL, the high-intensity program is based on the SEAL regimen. For Sorrels, it is another exercise in overcoming unexpected mental and physical challenges.

Sorrels first learned how to successfully adapt to different situations as a kid growing up in a military family that moved around quite a bit. Instead of leaning on the comfort of a consistent group of friends, he developed skills that enabled him to talk to complete strangers with ease. Those communication and problem-solving abilities landed him in a managerial position at a retail athletic store at 17, where he quickly learned that if you want others to give their best, you better be willing to do the same thing. He also learned that much like himself, most people want to be challenged to improve and become better.

That early leadership position served him well when he began college at Houston Baptist University, where he double-majored in speech communications and political science and played NCAA Division I soccer. A competitive person by nature, Sorrels realized that as an athlete and a student, he would have to work harder than most of his teammates and classmates to excel. And he did, earning the distinction of being an NCAA Academic All-America Division I Men’s Soccer player. “Being a college athlete is much harder than most people can imagine—a full-time job that regularly requires overtime hours if you are going to be competitive,” Sorrels said. “Going to college is a full-time job that requires focus and attention. I also continued to work part time at the athletic store during this time. I was taught the skills of compartmentalizing and precise focus when I needed to concentrate.” Today, the soccer field at HBU is named after him.


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Above from top: The office of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz in downtown Houston was flooded with 12 feet of water during Hurricane Harvey. Members of the firm photographed in their renovated office in March 2019.

 

His experience at HBU proved a great learning environment that carried over to his time at South Texas College of Law Houston, where he served on the law review and participated in the national mock trial program. “I did well at South Texas because I loved what I was doing and learning,” Sorrels said. “I had classmates and professors in law school who constantly challenged me to improve. And I love challenges.”

Sorrels began his legal career as an associate of Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston doing mostly defense work. But while practicing there, he realized that there were plaintiff’s lawyers who could help level the playing field. In 1990, Sorrels moved to Abraham Watkins, where he has been the firm’s managing partner for the past two decades.

On June 14, Sorrels will be sworn in as president of the State Bar of Texas at the bar’s annual meeting in Austin. Sorrels recently talked with the Texas Bar Journal about his career, giving back, and plans as president of the State Bar.


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Above from left: The Sorrels family—Alex, Stephanie, Randy, Darby, Garrett, and Ashley and Logan Burke—on vacation on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The newest addition to the family, Houston Alexander Sorrels, at six months.

 

Tell us about the path that led you to a career in law.
I can’t tell you when, but at some point I came to realize there were few professions where one could dramatically alter the lives of others for the better on a daily basis. Law is one of those professions. Once I started college, I focused much of my efforts on becoming a lawyer.


What lesson or experience has most impacted the way you practice?
Early in my career, I made a mistake in a case. I believed I could fix it, but it would be at a cost of great headache and heartache. I was very worried. The more seasoned lawyer on the other side of the case told me he had made a serious mistake early in his career and his opponent let the matter be fixed at minimal cost. As he allowed me to right the wrong, he told me to remember this throughout my career. I still try to show understanding, grace, and forgiveness when my opponents are in a similar situation. This will happen to all of us.


During Hurricane Harvey, your firm’s office was flooded with 12 feet of water. How did you recover and what advice would you give others in a similar situation?
We all face adversities and setbacks in our lives. The way we deal with those unwanted events is what is really important. For me, the Hurricane Harvey flood serves as a microcosm of our lives. Facing that disaster at that time, we drained the water, dried out what remained, and built an even better office. And a lot of friends and colleagues helped. My advice for others who have been hit by a personal or professional blow is to take a similar approach. First, know there are others who are willing to help. Second, don’t wallow in self-pity, despair, or regret too long—even if you played a role in causing your personal disaster. You can and must make a recovery. Pick yourself up or have someone give you a hand up. Clean out the old and start preparing for the new—for the better. Have confidence in your solid foundation. You made it through law school, so you know you have the grit to overcome and achieve. Start rebuilding quickly and be ready to take on other obstacles. I can almost guarantee there will be other setbacks but know you are well-equipped to overcome and move to the next level. Moving forward with a positive attitude through all adversity makes a huge difference in your outcome.


Your campaign focused on a “member-centric” theme. What areas will you focus on this year as State Bar president?
While I have several projects to improve member benefits, let me talk about five. First, we will continue to focus on developing a workable statewide courthouse access badge that puts courthouse safety at the forefront, while easing the burden on qualified lawyers. Second, I hope to connect lawyers looking for contract legal work with lawyers who need contract help. This free program is in the works and will hopefully be available this year. Third, I have asked one committee to look at a uniform parental leave continuance rule that will apply to new parents and parents-to-be who are adopting or giving birth. They have a recommendation ready to go. Fourth, we still need help in the e-filing arena. Our goal should be complete e-filing consistency in all 254 counties, but I routinely hear complaints all around the state (and all around my own office). I have learned it is a complicated problem that requires a complicated solution. There is a committee working on this, but e-filing consistency cannot come soon enough for those of us who use the system. Fifth, I wanted to increase the staffing at the State Bar Ethics Helpline. The staff at the State Bar has put this in place and our lawyers should see more prompt responses.


Abraham Watkins is one of the oldest plaintiff’s firms in Texas. What significant changes have you made to the firm as its managing partner?
The most obvious outward change is the makeup of the firm. When I joined the firm, it consisted of all white males. Today, we have seven male and seven female attorneys, each with their own unique background. With this diversity effort, we have achieved record profits the past couple of years. Diversity is good for all types of reasons.


What recommendations do you have for law students and young lawyers?
Work hard, be persistent, and don’t get discouraged. In law school, I made mostly A’s, scoring the top grade in several classes. But in Torts I, I made a D. I was stunned and in disbelief for a few days. But I quickly realized I needed to move on to something productive—something that would advance my future. I set my mind to graduate in the top five of my class, increased my studying effort, and achieved that goal. Today, I practice tort law, make CLE presentations on tort topics, and have written several articles in the tort field. Don’t get discouraged by a setback. Many underestimate their own resiliency. Believe in yourself and eliminate self-doubt and insecurity from your mind. We are equipped to prevail in life. Set your mind to it and get it done.


What have you found to be most rewarding about being a lawyer?
I went to law school to help people, and my practice allows me to do this every day. As a plaintiff’s lawyer, I help those who believe they have been wrongfully treated or wrongfully injured, and I also help families who have lost loved ones under tragic circumstances. I consider it an honor when a client entrusts her or his case to me. There is one other thing that has made a difference. The success from law practice has also allowed me to establish the Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics at South Texas College of Law Houston. These clinics help people who have legal needs but often cannot afford a lawyer to meet those needs. The clinics will hopefully help people long after I am not around.TBJ

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