Optimistic About the Future
State Bar of Texas President Sylvia Borunda Firth on creating opportunities.
Interview by Patricia Busa McConnico
Photo by Adrianne Riley Photography
One morning when she was a small child, Sylvia Borunda Firth, carrying her lunchbox, walked toward the front door of the school where one of her relatives attended, pretending to be a student. A nun met her and asked what she was doing. Borunda Firth explained that she really wanted to go to school but her mother said she couldn’t because she was too young, not even 5 years old yet. The sister had a few words with Borunda Firth’s mom, and shortly afterward, Borunda Firth was enrolled in kindergarten. Somehow that determined little girl knew that education was the door to opportunity. She never looked back—and has continued to learn, be curious, and create educational opportunities for others.
Born and raised in El Paso, Borunda Firth—along with her two sisters—attended an all-female Catholic school from kindergarten through high school run by the Sisters of Loretto. The nuns became her mentors, instilling in her the importance of service to the community and social justice. Although she didn’t really know any attorneys, Borunda Firth knew from an early age that she wanted to be a lawyer and help people like the ones she saw on television. Her teachers told her she needed to be able to read and write well, so that’s what she focused on, reading voraciously and writing short stories and essays for fun.
By the time she graduated from high school, she had dreams of being in-house corporate counsel in a big city. She enrolled in St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, majoring in business administration, and flourished, graduating with magna cum laude distinction and learning that if she could keep her eye on the prize, she could achieve any goal. “I was motivated to do well in college because I had my eye on law school,” Borunda Firth said. “There were many other students who had set a similar goal but most of them were in the more ‘traditional’ pre-law degree plans like criminal justice or political science. I learned then, I was always going to be a little different.”
Next Borunda Firth moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas School of Law, where she found the critical thinking and analysis necessary to succeed stimulating. She also met her future husband, Victor Firth, on the first day of class. After law school, the couple moved to El Paso, where Borunda Firth has worked in numerous practice areas and various settings, from a two-person group and in-house counsel for a large corporation to municipal law and her own solo practice.
Borunda Firth was sworn in as president of the State Bar of Texas at
the Texas Supreme Court in a ceremony broadcast as part of the bar’s
virtual annual meeting on June 18, 2021. Borunda Firth recently talked
with the Texas Bar Journal about her career, creating
opportunities, and her plans as president of the State Bar.
What lesson or experience has most impacted the way you practice?
Remember, I have always been a transactional lawyer so the lessons I have learned and use every day are likely very different from a litigator. My first mentor-boss, Merton Goldman, told me that clients came to us because they wanted us to help them accomplish something. While it is always our primary objective to protect the interests of the client and to negotiate to secure the best outcome possible, it is not our place to “get in the way of the deal.” Merton told me that I wanted to have the reputation of being a lawyer who can get the deals done—not someone who blows things up by over-lawyering. I always keep that in mind. In my 37 years of practicing law, I can honestly say that it has been a rare occasion when I was not able to negotiate a good outcome if the lawyer on the other side of the deal was like-minded.
You have worked in numerous practice areas and various settings. What are your key takeaways from those experiences? How will they help you as State Bar president?
Because my practice has been so varied, I have a broad perspective of the types of challenges lawyers face. Common sense tells us that the day-to-day issues faced by a lawyer in a large firm are not the same as those a solo practitioner in a rural part of the state deals with. I know what it is like to work in a firm chasing billable hours while trying to maintain work-life balance. Similarly, I now know what it is like to be a true solo lawyer hoping for good paying clients and interesting work. While I have never been a litigator, I have had substantial experience managing litigation, supervising trial attorneys, acting as a corporate representative at trial, and working through mediations. When I help form State Bar policy and make decisions, those decisions will be informed by those experiences.
LEFT: Sylvia Borunda Firth at the University of Texas School of Law
Sunflower Ceremony in 1984. MIDDLE: Borunda Firth with her nieces Aria
Borunda (left) and Lauren Crusoe in 2002. RIGHT: Borunda Firth with her
husband, Victor Firth. Photos courtesy of Sylvia Borunda Firth
You campaigned on the position that bar leadership should more accurately reflect the demographic makeup of the 21st-century legal community. As president-elect you established two initiatives, an SBOT Focus on Diversity Listening Session and a Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Tell us more about this and why it is important to you.
Lawyers and the public should see State Bar leaders diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, gender identity and orientation, practice areas, and geography. The legal profession is lagging behind other businesses and industries in recognizing the value of diversity and inclusion, so we need to focus our attention on correcting that deficiency. I would like to continue the work that has been done by the bar to this point with a new emphasis.
I am not talking about going through the motions of recruiting people of diverse backgrounds just for appearances, or because it is politically correct to do so. I am looking for recognition that there is value in hearing divergent points of view from people whose life experiences are varied. The bar will become more relevant and effective as the seats around the table are filled with lawyers from different walks of life in positions of leadership. Lawyers will be more comfortable with the idea of volunteering to serve as a bar leader if they see people who look like them in leadership.
I am encouraged by the recent engagement of lawyers from across the state. We have seen unprecedented numbers participating and monitoring our meetings. We had a record number of people apply to be an at-large director. LeadershipSBOT continued during the pandemic, and the program has produced a good group of potential future leaders. When making my committee appointments, I made sure to tap these folks to keep them engaged with the State Bar at some level. I spoke to people who have been serving on committees for a long time about stepping aside and creating leadership opportunities for others all while staying on board to mentor. Lawyers graciously agreed to work with me on these issues.
I am optimistic about the future. We only have to look at the
leadership in the Texas Young Lawyers Association to see that recently
licensed lawyers have figured it out. We are stronger as an organization
when we embrace the differences.
What other areas will you be focusing on this year as State Bar president?
We will need to focus on helping lawyers recover from the negative effects of the pandemic. Immediate Past President Larry McDougal formed a work group to study ways in which the bar can be of assistance. I look forward to those suggestions. We also need to preserve the efficiencies that were gained as we learned to work remotely.
While we examine the positive outcomes from the use of technology, I also want to focus on the areas of the state that are underserved by lawyers. While I was campaigning, lawyers told me of places away from the major metropolitan areas where there are just not enough lawyers to serve the needs of the people. In far West Texas, there is a dire need for criminal defense lawyers. In small rural communities, there are no “main street” lawyers.
I have been talking to faculty and staff at the SMU Dedman School of Law Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center regarding the STAR (Small, Tribal, and Rural) Criminal Justice initiative to determine if that program can be a tool to assist with recruiting and keeping lawyers in areas in the state where they are sorely needed. The Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator and the Dallas Bar Association incubator program “Entrepreneurs in Community Lawyering” may also be resources to replicate and expand in more rural areas. I am not ready to announce an initiative to address this problem, but I will work on it during my time as president.
Legal services for Texas veterans are another one of my priorities. I
have spoken to past State Bar President Terry Tottenham regarding the
work he did to establish Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans and lawyers
who are veterans themselves to look for ways we can expand on the
programs and support the good work done by the Military and Veterans Law
What have you found most challenging about being a lawyer? Most rewarding?
I think work-life balance is a challenge for most lawyers. It is difficult not to get totally consumed by your practice to the detriment of your family, personal relationships, and your health. The practice of law is intellectually stimulating and never boring. It is always rewarding when you complete a project and were able to be of assistance to someone else.
What do you think the legal profession will look like 50 years from now?
Everything I have read indicates the future is bright for lawyers. There is projected steady growth in the need for legal services. The question becomes how will technology and developing artificial intelligence change the way the lawyers of tomorrow practice? During the pandemic, the legal profession has proven its ability to adapt and thrive during unprecedented circumstances. I have every confidence the profession will adjust to whatever the future holds.TBJ