State Bar of Texas Election 2021
The Texas Bar Journal asked 2021-2022 president-elect candidates Sara E. Dysart of San Antonio (left) and Laura Gibson of Houston (right) to share their perspectives on issues facing the bar. Vote online or by paper ballot from April 1 to April 30, 2021. For more information, go to texasbar.com/elections.
Why do you want to serve as president of the State Bar of Texas?
DYSART: I want to make the case for the value of service to the bar. As State Bar president, I will encourage all Texas attorneys to engage actively with the bar at the local and state levels, stressing that the bar needs you and you need the bar. Regardless of your law practice, participation with the bar will enhance our profession and your career, broaden your perspective, and create a network of friends across the state.
As I reflect on my 40-year legal career, I realize how important my participation with state and local bar associations has been to me. From responding to the question posed in the early 1980s—“Why do you need a Bexar County Women’s Bar Association?”—to recently talking with young attorneys at the REPTL Leadership Academy, my conviction that bar service brings attorneys together for personal and career development as well as the good of our profession and community has only grown. There are numerous opportunities to serve, including local and State Bar governing boards, commissions, sections, committees, grievance panels, pro bono clinics, and programs such as the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, SOLACE, and TexasBarCLE. My call to action will be “The Bar Needs You!”
GIBSON: I have devoted the entirety of my bar service to making our bar more welcoming and inclusive. I am a strong leader and will devote my time, energy, innovation, judgment, and diplomacy for the benefit of the bar, its members, and the public. I want to establish programs that create a stronger sense of community among our members and demonstrate that we support them.
Three programs I have conceived include establishing “All Rise,” a mentoring program supporting groups of diverse, local, newly licensed lawyers throughout the state, which will meet regularly on their own. The bar will host periodic meetings for all cohorts to have opportunities to network and become connected to more seasoned lawyers. I will create a “We Care” campaign whereby the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel and Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program leadership write personalized caring letters asking at-risk lawyers how the bar can better support them. I will also create a grievance support attorney program called “Lean on Me” whereby lawyers can designate a grievance support attorney who will be notified in the event the designating lawyer does not respond to a grievance so that the grievance support attorney can encourage the lawyer to file a response.
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?
DYSART: This last year has been overshadowed by the fear of contracting COVID-19, experiencing COVID-19, agonizing with others suffering from COVID-19, and losing loved ones to COVID-19. We have experienced social isolation and financial challenges. We have wrestled with new uses of technology and virtually conferred, mediated, and argued before courts.
The State Bar should address issues confronting Texas attorneys created by these extreme circumstances. TLAP will require additional resources to extend support services to attorneys and should consider offering services to their families and staff. A “Financial Wisdom Program” could be created within the law office management program to offer financial resources and guidance to all Texas attorneys, including a fund to help attorneys keep their law offices open. The State Bar should actively work with the Texas Supreme Court to determine whether and how Texas courts will operate virtually versus returning to in-person appearances.
GIBSON: I believe that maintaining a unified bar is critical to retaining our right to self-governance. The bar needs to ensure that all of our members have an equal opportunity to succeed in the practice of law, to be included in opportunities that help grow their legal skills, and to learn new technologies that make their jobs and lives easier. The bar must demonstrate a renewed commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. The rule of law is under attack. Without preservation of the rule of law, our democracy will not survive. The bar needs to educate the public on the importance of the rule of law and the role of lawyers and the judiciary in preserving order. Finally, after a year of remote working due to the COVID-19 virus, we must continue to increase our lawyers’ feeling of belonging and educate them on the importance of lawyer well-being.
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?
DYSART: All of them! Service to our profession has allowed me to meaningfully interact with attorneys, gain an understanding of their perspectives, and celebrate our successes. As a transaction attorney and mediator, I know how to bring parties together with diverse interests. These experiences will be important if I have the opportunity to lead the State Bar’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
As a frequent speaker at State Bar CLE programs, I have learned how to communicate with Texas attorneys. As a volunteer attorney working with TLAP, and as a mentor, sponsor, and monitor of attorneys in recovery, I understand the struggles that many attorneys face with addictions, depression, and other mental health issues. As chair of the Real Estate Forms Committee, the committee that drafts the Real Estate Forms Manual used by most Texas real estate attorneys, I know the value of State Bar publications for practicing attorneys.
GIBSON: All. As chair of the board, I worked to equip newly elected board members with the knowledge to maximize their ability to effectively serve our members. As chair of the Houston Bar Association Labor & Employment Section, I emphasized to our council the importance of being ambassadors to our members and introducing them to others within our group. As a member of the Texas Minority Counsel Program Steering Committee, I suggested that we create the “Dine Around” program so that our members could get to know other lawyers throughout the state. While president of the HBA, we strengthened our mentorship program and reinvigorated our fellows program, which funds the great work of the Houston Volunteer Lawyers. As president of the Houston Association of Women Attorneys, under my leadership, we created the “Premier Women in Law Luncheon,” which honors primarily women lawyers and raises money for scholarships for women law students.
What can the State Bar and individual lawyers do to ensure access to justice for Texans, one of the State Bar’s core purposes?
DYSART: A board of directors’ resolution broadly defining legal services to the poor states: “that each Texas attorney should aspire to render at least 50 hours of legal services to the poor each year, or make an equivalent financial contribution to an organization that provides legal services to the poor.” I am confident that most Texas attorneys are unaware of this aspirational resolution but meet or exceed this benchmark. Every bar association that I have worked with sponsors ways for its members to provide pro bono legal services and financial support. Many attorneys contribute financially to the Texas Access to Justice Commission and the Texas Bar Foundation and other bar foundations knowing that funds will be used to support access to justice. The State Bar should champion the significant contributions of Texas attorneys. Public awareness of Texas attorneys’ contributions to access to justice is the perfect antidote to every lawyer joke.
GIBSON: Expand the reach of the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator. TOJI improves access to legal services by training attorneys to build sustainable, solo law firms; providing a supportive community in which attorneys develop efficient approaches to serving low-income and modest-income communities; and analyzing the sustainability and effectiveness of these methods in providing more of our citizens with access to justice. In my view, this program is a win-win: Young lawyers are trained, and the public has better access to justice. Since January 2020, TOJI has operated as a digital community with the silver lining being that the program reaches more attorneys who need assistance in establishing their practices and similarly, serves low-income clients in underserved communities.
The State Bar needs to continue to be innovative in the training and development of lawyers and increasing access to justice to those in need.
This past year the legal profession was transformed due to COVID-19. What is one thing you have learned from the pandemic that Texas lawyers can use to be successful going forward? What can the State Bar do to help lawyers adjust to pandemic life and beyond?
DYSART: Throughout my legal career, I have held on to two maxims. The first is “every day is a new opportunity” and the second is “how a person responds to challenges defines her, not how she responds in good times.” These two verses have been especially important since March 13, 2020, when I started writing a CLE article that was due in May because I wanted it to be finished when the sheltering in place was lifted. I think these maxims are beneficial every day.
While attorneys have been able to continue to practice law from their homes or redefined office space, many have suffered from COVID-19 and the consequences of it, including social isolation and financial insecurity. The State Bar must focus on this reality and develop programs through TLAP and the financial management program that provide guidance and resources.
GIBSON: I have learned that as long as we take care of ourselves with faith, sufficient rest, nutritious food, exercise, and good friends and family, we can be resilient. Before the pandemic, I didn’t work from home. My preference was that when I was at the office, I worked hard and when I was at home, I recharged my batteries. That doesn’t mean I didn’t work on weekends—I just did it from the office. Entering our second year of working from home, I take comfort knowing that with the right equipment and support, I can do almost everything from home that I could do at the office. In many cases, I’m more efficient.
The State Bar needs to continue to provide support to our members, through law practice management offerings, wellness programs, and opportunities to engage with other members, so that we can support each other during these stressful times.
What should the bar do to guide and prepare the next generation of lawyers?
DYSART: The bar should promote ways to introduce law students to experienced attorneys and their practice areas. I know the value of law students interacting with members of our profession from speaking at law school classes and initiating and participating in a Mentor Circles program at St. Mary’s University School of Law.
The State Bar should make recent law graduates aware of (1) the Texas Young Lawyers Association, (2) free Law Practice Management programs and materials, and (3) discounts and scholarships at TexasBarCLE programs in every practice area. The State Bar should support opportunities for young attorneys to interact with members of our profession. Current programs such as internships, career days, and practice seminars offered by bar sections and local bar associations should be replicated and made available to as many young attorneys as possible throughout the state. We must develop our members and future leaders.
GIBSON: I favor continued support of TYLA. TYLA provides an opportunity for lawyers to network and get involved in a leadership role. Texas lawyers who are in their first five years of practice, regardless of age, and lawyers 36 years old or younger are TYLA members. TYLA is funded by the State Bar so no additional dues are required.
LeadershipSBOT, a yearlong program that is designed to give attorneys the tools to develop leadership roles in their firms, bar associations, and communities, is an excellent program especially for diverse attorneys. If elected, I will develop “All Rise,” which will have a more expansive reach than the 20 nominated attorneys in each class of LeadershipSBOT. My hope is that this program will allow diverse attorneys to get to know one another, share ideas and best practices, and become connected with others in their legal community.
What should the bar focus on to ensure it is relevant and meaningful to members?
DYSART: Texas attorneys work together for a better State Bar and to govern and provide services benefiting its members. As members of the board of directors and with sections, committees, and the grievance system, Texas attorneys set policies and provide numerous valuable services, often with the help of committed public members.
The State Bar should communicate to its members what it does and what it cannot do for its members. Some Texas attorneys have criticized the State Bar for not benefiting them personally. I challenge these naysayers. For example, why does the State Bar impose a minimum annual CLE requirement? The obvious answer is that this requirement is to encourage and enable all Texas attorneys to stay current on the law, which benefits them and their clients. More significant is the State Bar’s free CLE and discounts and scholarships for CLE courses available to its members to meet this requirement.
GIBSON: We need to continue to improve our communications with members. One tool that has been effective in communicating opportunities and supporting local bar associations is the Local Bar Leaders Conference. The purpose of the conference is to train leaders from local bar associations and to facilitate the sharing of best practices among local bar leaders.
The bar needs to continue to increase and improve member benefits and programming, which enable lawyers access to tools, such as the online library, and law practice management skills to enable lawyers to better serve their clients.
At the section level, the bar should continue to facilitate interactions among the chairs of the various State Bar sections with quarterly meetings of all chairs of sections. Here items of mutual interest and programs by which the State Bar can better serve its members can be discussed and evaluated.
How important are your community activities to balancing your life as a lawyer? Which has affected you the most?
DYSART: Early in my career, my community service was exclusively law related. I was active with our local bar associations, TexasBarCLE, and St. Mary’s University Law Alumni Association. In 2008, I branched out and joined the board of directors for the San Antonio Council on Alcohol and Drug Awareness. This experience helped me recognize the many valuable community services provided by local nonprofit organizations. I also realized that many attorneys participate on nonprofit boards. I currently serve on the boards of the San Antonio River Foundation, St. Mary’s University, and Broadway Bank. These opportunities allow me to work with community leaders and to participate in worthy and interesting endeavors.
My most fun community activity has been chairing the baked oyster booth at St. Mary’s University Fiesta Oyster Bake for 20 years. I am very sad that the pandemic has again canceled this annual event that funds scholarships.
GIBSON: Very important. I serve on the Goodwill Industries of Houston Board of Directors as governance chair. I am proud of the fact that I can assist in the mission of Goodwill not only through my leadership skills but also by sharing my legal knowledge with our committee members so that we all are aware of our fiduciary duties and have appropriate bylaws in place.
I spent many years volunteering for the HBA Adopt-A-School Program. Having the opportunity to teach a student who may not encounter any lawyers in her life is impactful. Angela Dixon, a Houston lawyer, graduated from the school where we volunteered, and I am proud that she went on to serve as the editor of The Houston Lawyer.
As a board member of Justice Forward, watching the transformation of the lives of people who have become embroiled in the criminal justice system through addiction was restorative.
Describe your most satisfying legal experience.
DYSART: I represented family members when an adjacent landowner notified them that he intended to cut off a scenic access easement that crossed his property and would provide access through a newly constructed “goat trail.” He neither referred to the new route as a “goat trail” nor did he mention that the “goat trail” was not convenient, safe, or attractive. After completing a review of limited documentation, I called the attorney for the adjacent landowner who proceeded to espouse the law and the facts. His concluding comment was that my family should appreciate the use of the “goat trail.” After initial offers to discuss settlement did not materialize, a settlement was reached 24 months later as opposing counsel was about to take the deposition of my sister-in-law’s then 83-year-old mother. This experience was satisfying because very good attorneys reached a settlement that was beneficial to all.
GIBSON: Representing a small home health care company, which was sued for violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The company believed the employee was a no-call-no-show and thus terminated the employee for absenteeism. Her supervisor testified that she tried to reach the plaintiff to determine when she would return to work but received no reply. The plaintiff produced a fax header showing the fax of a one-page document, which did not reveal what was faxed. The plaintiff claimed that the fax header demonstrated that she faxed a doctor’s note. By the time suit was filed, the supervisor had left her job to go to work for another home health care company. The supervisor testified that no note was received. The jury found my client did not terminate the employee because of her pregnancy. My client was gratified that its reputation in the community as a fair and lawful employer remained intact.
What can the State Bar do to promote diversity within the legal profession?
DYSART: The State Bar is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion for its members. The Office of Minority Affairs, Diversity in the Profession Committee, and LeadershipSBOT are three ways the State Bar demonstrates this commitment. These efforts should continue with renewed emphasis. We can always do more.
The Bexar County Women’s Bar Association has set an example of how to start the conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion by hosting bimonthly panels on Acts of Allyship, including “Understanding Our Role in Addressing Racism in Healthcare” and “Recognizing and Combatting ‘Micro’ Aggression in the Legal Community.” Such panels are one of many ways to learn about the challenges that attorneys experience in order to improve the bar and the practice of law for all of us. Let’s continue the conversation.
GIBSON: The bar does an excellent job of promoting diversity and inclusion through TMCP, which provides opportunities for lawyers to network with one another, attend high-quality CLE programs, meet other lawyers across the state, and interview with companies seeking more diverse counsel. Texas is known for having one of the premier diversity programs in the country by virtue of TMCP.
Additionally, we should all be working to identify diverse leaders to recruit for director positions or serve on the State Bar’s committees. This summer, during the special meeting held in July, I identified 34 potentially diverse leaders whom I contacted and encouraged to get involved in bar leadership.
What is your favorite book, TV, or film representation of a lawyer? Why?
DYSART: My favorite books about a lawyer are written by lawyer John Grisham. I read The Firm before I read A Time to Kill (my favorite) and have read every Grisham novel published since then, except the last two novels, which are on my reading list. I appreciate Grisham’s knowledge of the legal system and the challenges faced by his protagonists. Grisham’s books shine a light on the dark side of the practice of law while developing characters who use the legal system to fight for righteous causes. His books and the movies based upon them draw their audiences into the legal process with intrigue and adventure. I also appreciate that Grisham has written a series of children’s legal thrillers based upon the Theodore Boone character. Grisham has likely encouraged many of his readers to become attorneys.
GIBSON: My Cousin Vinny. It most accurately depicts the rules of procedure and trial experience. Like real life, anything that could go wrong during the trial did. The movie also had the perfect ensemble cast. Fred Gwynne did an excellent job portraying trial Judge Chamberlain Haller, and Marisa Tomei was a fabulously uncooperative witness. Lane Smith’s portrayal of DA Jim Trotter’s opening is a CLE masterpiece of a near-perfect opening statement. Vinny’s sharply leading cross-examination challenging the witness’ perception of time using his recently acquired knowledge of how long it takes to cook grits was brilliant, as was his impeachment of an eyewitness with photographs of bushes, trees, and dirty window screens that obstructed the witnesses’ view of the crime scene. The movie is also laugh-out-loud funny. Its realistic portrayal of the trial should be no surprise given that its director got his law degree from Cambridge University. TBJ