March 2022

About the Journey

The women who have served as State Bar of Texas president share their stories about the path that led them there, celebrate the mentors and role models who supported them along the way, and inspire others to embrace opportunity.

Introduction by Sylvia Borunda Firth

Headshop of Syliva Boruth FirthThank you to the editorial board of the Texas Bar Journal for designating the March issue as a celebration of women in the legal profession. It provides a moment in time to remember our history, celebrate the progress that has been made, and to prepare for the future. As we pause to remember the trailblazers and pioneering women in the profession, I encourage everyone to also remember the everyday “sheroes” who may be practicing from the dining room table while assisting in home schooling or caring for toddlers or elderly parents all while running a home. The efforts of that population and its resilience during the pandemic also need to be celebrated. I hope you will take the time to read the stories and share with others who may not be members of the bar so they can serve as not only an education, but also inspiration to generations of lawyers to come.

—Sylvia Borunda Firth
State Bar President, 2021-2022


Headshop of Harrient Miers

My journey to the presidency of the State Bar of Texas began early in my legal career as—fortunately—role models of true professionalism were all around me. Starting with clerking for Judge Joe Estes, I then joined a firm whose lawyers and history embodied the duty of lawyers beyond just practicing law. Over time, those traditions at the firm only have grown as the firm has grown. The firm’s support for me helped pave my road to a successful practice, the Dallas Bar Association presidency, a city council seat, service in the American Bar Association, myriad other civic and professional endeavors, and eventually State Bar president. The privilege of having supportive family, colleagues, and friends encouraging and aiding me made for an appreciation of opportunities as well as needs where service could make a difference. Being the first woman president of the Dallas Bar and State Bar was certainly one of those opportunities.

Readers may be surprised to hear from me that my greatest challenge as a candidate for president-elect was not necessarily gender. A big challenge was being from North Texas. I had to develop in a very compressed time support among lawyers throughout the state, including in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, the Rio Grande Valley, East Texas, and West Texas. That I could not carry Houston with my opponent being a Houstonian was a given. The question was could I garner sufficient support there to prevail with anticipated support in Dallas and other cities. Critical to the effort was help from members of the Texas Young Lawyers Association. Two of its leaders painstakingly educated me on issues about which young lawyers cared. I credit young lawyer support with making a very significant difference in my race, if not as the determinative factor.

You will note I have mentioned only one name. Those individuals who have made a real difference in my life know who they are. As truly great and generous people, they would neither ask for nor even appreciate my using their names. Bottom line, I am so grateful for them and the opportunities that they helped make possible.


Headshop of Coleen McHugh

“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” —Mark Twain

Twain’s “do right” admonition on a postcard from revered Fort Worth lawyer Jim Barlow paralleled my son Gregg’s charge as I began my president-elect campaign. As a child, Gregg accompanied me to law school in San Antonio. I returned to Corpus Christi to start my legal career, and he watched as I engaged in local and State Bar and community activities. Gregg was in his last year of college when we talked about my reason for the commitment to the president-elect campaign and to service as president if successful. He asked: “As State Bar president, can you do something good?” My instinctive answer was “Yes.”

I reread my Texas Bar Journal “President’s Opinion” columns in preparation for this article and again understood that my “do right” response meant that I, with a community of determined lawyers, could make a positive difference in the lives of others. And so I ran, and so we did. Those columns are filled with their names and stories of the important work lawyers do professionally and personally. One example was the successful team effort to increase legal services funding for disadvantaged Texans.

Diverse avenues take each of us to the practice of law. I was 31 years old, rearing a 4 year old, and reading nursery rhymes, not caselaw. There comes a time for each of us when we take a next step. Law school was mine, and I soon found that some of the best and most interesting people I knew were lawyers. They were good at their jobs, working for the betterment of their communities, and proving “doing good” counts.


Headshop of Lynne Liberato

After my first interaction with Harriet Miers, I hung up the phone and cried tears of gratitude. I was emotional because I had never had the counsel of another woman—there were virtually none in a position to give counsel—as I sought leadership roles in the bar. Harriet had called me to offer encouragement and advice as I embarked on a successful race to become the first woman president of the Houston Bar Association.

The year before, Harriet had won her race to become the first woman president of the State Bar of Texas, facing and overcoming considerable skepticism. She understood more than anyone how difficult my race would be. Her call was an act of kindness, and I thought of it often when I later ran for State Bar president myself.

No less important on my path was the second woman president of the State Bar, Colleen McHugh. She was president while I was chair of the State Bar’s Board of Directors. Colleen treated me as a full partner as she successfully battled for legislation to authorize a filing fee add-on to fund legal services for the poor.

These two women of grace, courage, and effectiveness showed me the path to become the third woman president of the State Bar. Among the many lessons I learned from them was the importance of guiding younger lawyers.

There has been considerable discussion about the important question of how to keep women lawyers—indeed all young lawyers—in the profession. The answer I would give is simple to describe but harder to execute. It is the one-on-one guidance that one individual lawyer can offer another. Well-intentioned plans and programs pale in comparison to the effectiveness of individual interactions. Nothing can make a difference like an individual lawyer’s commitment to a younger peer.

I received that individual attention from wonderful men—first Judge David Hittner and Chief Justice Frank Evans and later trial lawyer Kenneth Tekell. In pushing me beyond my comfort zone, these men showed me there was more to being a lawyer than simply billing time, and I had a unique opportunity to make a difference in my cases and in my community. For me, a major part of that opportunity was leadership in the bar.

Headshop of Betsy Whitaker

[Betsy Whitaker could not be reached for comment. As president, her initiatives included an overhaul of the State Bar website.]


Headshop of Martha Dickie

I have never been sure whether we are guided by nature or nurture, but I have often felt that I was given a huge advantage in both. My grandfather, grandmother, and father were Texas cattle ranchers and teachers. My mother and her family were full of fun and social graces and my dad always said they passed down their brains. None of them ever met a stranger. Being the middle child of seven, I also got the best of both worlds, growing up in a home with all nine members of the family as well as myriad friends. From all of this, I learned not only how to herd cattle, ride a horse, and drink tea, but I also learned how to herd people, which is sometimes kindly referred to as leadership. These are all skills that have served me well as a lawyer and helped me along my path in bar activities.

Digging deep for why I felt compelled to take a virtually full-time unpaid job for three years, and why I’m glad I did it, I find many reasons. It gave me a bully pulpit to talk about lawyers’ mental health and wellness; I got to travel to places I otherwise would not have seen; and I met countless new people, many of whom I now count as friends. But I think my main motivation for wanting the job was my regard for our third branch of government and the legal system generally—and a desire to try to give back to this system given all my good fortunes in life.

In my role as leader, I came to truly understand that when we step out of our roles as advocates and begin to make policy, not everyone is going to think we are doing it right. Still, I tried as best I could to express my views, and occasional disagreements, in the most agreeable way possible—although in this I’m sure I did not always succeed. I was always appreciative of the strong feelings that my colleagues expressed on the issues we confronted. It showed that we cared, and that we were trying, which really is all you can ask.


Headshop of Lisa Tatum

It was an honor and privilege to be elected president of the State Bar of Texas. I did not set out to be president. Hard work, opportunity, and grace all played a part in saying yes to run. Each of us is given our own path and different strengths to overcome the obstacles along the way. There is no one pathway to the presidency. My advice for any person seeking to achieve any goal is to keep running the race.

When I became licensed, the profession had diversity goals but had very few individuals who reflected the diversity of our larger community in positions of leadership. As a young lawyer, I joined numerous sections as well as local, state, and national bar associations. In doing so, I met like-minded people. Serving in a variety of capacities led me to a better understanding of issues facing practitioners, courts, and the bar as an entity.

I followed through and I did the work. I said “yes” often, when asked to serve. People knew I could be depended on to complete tasks. Over time, I became more selective in the opportunities I agreed to take on. I considered how my saying yes would impact me as a person and as a lawyer. I looked at why I was being asked and whether I was the right person for the job. Sometimes refusing an opportunity is as important as saying yes.

I learned to work cooperatively with a full spectrum of individuals from all walks of life to achieve common goals. It is easy to work with people who look and think like us, but for real meaningful impact to occur, it is critical to learn to work with those who are different than us, sometimes with ideas that make us uncomfortable. Listen—especially to those who have opinions different than your own.
My advice boils down to say yes when opportunity presents itself. Find creative ways to overcome obstacles. We are each unique and diverse, and showing up and doing the work really is what changes our world for the better step by step.TBJ

Lisa Tatum would like to thank Kelley Jones King for her assistance with this article.

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