It Begins With Encouragement

How San Antonio-area bar presidents
Donna McElroy and Danielle Rushing Behrends
define leadership.

Interview by Eric Quitugua
Photos courtesy of Noah Kerwin

San Antonio-based attorneys Donna McElroy and Danielle Rushing Behrends are both leaders of bar associations headquartered in the Alamo City and first-generation lawyers originally from Louisiana. McElroy, with 36 years in the law, is president of the San Antonio Bar Association. In her sixth year as an attorney in Texas, Behrends is the immediate past president of the Bexar County Women’s Bar Association. The two find commonality in leadership styles and how they view the pathway to the helm in the profession for women. For McElroy and Behrends, that track emphasizes identifying group goals, earning buy-in from peers, self-advocacy, and mentorship. The two spoke to the Texas Bar Journal about leadership and what comes next.

Women Lawyers
ABOVE: Attorneys Donna McElroy and Rushing Behrends

Donna, can you tell me about your path to becoming president of the San Antonio Bar?
DM:The path to the San Antonio Bar was really through the Bexar County Women’s Bar Association. I was on that board a couple of different times. The San Antonio women’s bar started about 25 years ago. I was asked to be a board member, and I was at the stage of my career when I had a little more time and a little more flexibility, so I said yes and worked my way up through the ranks.

What focus do you have at the San Antonio Bar?

DM: We’ve been working on DEI initiatives. Related to that, Dawn Finlayson was supposed to be president the year before last, but she died of cancer. Her belief was we need to encourage people to pursue legal careers and stay in San Antonio because we feel like we have talent that leaves us. So we started the Dawn Finlayson fellowship scholarship, and we give scholarships to undergrads, law students, and court reporters who are first-generation in their field, have an economic need, and give an indication they’re interested in staying in the San Antonio community. That’s a big part of our focus now—is trying to build up this scholarship fund.

Danielle, can you tell me about your path to the Bexar County Women’s Bar?

DB: I was involved with the St. Mary’s Women’s Law Association in law school and its mentoring program. After I graduated from law school, I started working for a commercial litigation boutique here in town and the female partner at that firm was a past president of the women’s bar. She encouraged me to get involved. I started at various committees, and I ended up running and was elected as a director. From serving as a director, I went through the officer chain and now I’m in my year of presidency. I have one more year on the board as an officer. That’s how I got involved—starting small, getting involved in webinars and luncheons, and working through the family committees. It was a great way to meet some of the young female practitioners who had families and get to know people right out of law school.

What are some of your initiatives?

DB: One of the struggles we’ve had—San Antonio as a whole and not even necessarily the women’s bar—is meeting members where they are post-pandemic. What we found was that people still want to do family events, and so we focused on those throughout the year. We still do CLE luncheons. But one of the new things is a focus on DEI initiatives. We were able to secure USAA as a sponsor this year, and we’ve been able to do a lot of DEI initiatives that require some extra funding that we just didn’t have in our budget coming out of the pandemic. So we’ve been able to reach a new subset of members, specifically female, diverse lawyers in our San Antonio legal community.

It sounds like DEI is big at both bars. Can you tell me about the need for more diversity initiatives? What are some of your observations?

DM: From the San Antonio Bar Association’s standpoint, we just didn’t feel like the membership reflected the diversity of the community. We put together a DEI committee last year. You have to start thinking of other people who represent diverse ideas and invite them to be part of the organization. So that’s part of the effort we’ve put together.

Danielle, is that similar to what you’re noticing over at the women’s bar?
DB: We have a wonderful group of diverse female lawyers, and our membership just wasn’t reflective of all the subsets, whether it be diverse for the members but also in practice areas. The women’s bar came up with a DEI mission statement. We’ve been able to carry that through. That was something the two presidents in front of me felt strongly about, and I wanted to take it to the next level. Obviously, we have the opportunity to partner with USAA and we hope to do it again next year to be able to reach those people who might not otherwise come to different women’s bar events.

What do you think, given your experiences in law, is part of the cause for the gulf in gender representation? I know at the Texas Bar, only about 38% of Texas-licensed attorneys are women whereas 62% are men. What do you think is part of the cause there and how do you think your bar or your firm are finding ways to address that?

DB: I think the profession as a whole, especially for females—young female attorneys—the number one thing I think from a private practice perspective that we hear is burnout. Or simply not being able to juggle family responsibilities with work responsibilities. What the women’s bar is doing specifically is trying to make it to where we’re developing our female leaders and also educating them on not having to leave the profession. The LEAD Academy is an arm of our foundation and a lot of that is developing the potential of women but also making sure that they understand you don’t have to leave the profession. There are a lot of alternate career paths. You can also go part-time.

The LEAD Academy is a great example to be able to show people that you can go through leadership programs and pull out your best potential and see what works for you but also being an advocate for yourself at your workplace. I think those are critical pieces of information that female lawyers don’t always take to heart.

I’ve been practicing over 30 years. When I first started practicing, there were just a handful of in-house positions. If you look at the numbers within law firms that say why is there a gap, if you will, between men and women, a lot of women are taking the opportunity to say, “I’m going to go in-house” because they believe that their life is a little more controlled. Because when you’re in private practice, we’re in the service business. If we’ve got clients who have urgent matters that need to be attended to, somebody at the end of the day has to service those clients, and I think whether we want to admit it or not, many women still take on the lion’s share of the work at home. That just becomes very difficult to balance for many women.

Danielle, you mentioned earlier that it can be hard for some women to advocate for themselves in the workplace. Can you tell me more about that?

DB: The LEAD Academy helped me realize how I wasn’t an advocate for myself at the workplace. I think coming to the table, there are so many different ways you can advocate for yourself, whether it’s in the evaluation process or long-term career planning. The way I’ve approached it is you have to be comfortable, and you have to have the buy-in of the people you work around. When I think of work-life balance on a scale, I consider the people I work with my family. I have my work family. I have my home family. Because I spend a lot of time with them. I know the people that I work with are going to go to bat for me.

Right. They’re going to be your advocates.

What are some of the challenges to your respective paths to leadership?

DB: This goes back to—this is not Dykema-specific—being in private practice; we’re client service-focused. We want to give 100% to our clients. We want to develop ourselves to be the best attorneys that we can be. We want to be the best leaders that we can be. All of that boils down to every single person has 24 hours in a day and how do you allocate that and make sure you’re developing yourself as a lawyer, developing yourself as a leader, being there for your team, being there for your family and friends. How do you juggle all of that? At the end of the day, you make time for things that matter. Women’s bar matters to me. It’s been influential in my career thus far. It all boils down to time. You have to make time for things that matter. Donna and I have done that. Anybody who wants to get involved, you just have to know that yes it takes time, but you get out of it what you put in.

The other thing that I would add is I will tell you I have never felt like there was a gender challenge. Some people ask that sometimes. “Did you feel like it was a challenge for you to come through leadership because of your gender?” And I’ve never felt that way.

How do you become effective leaders?

DM: I think it’s helping the people around you accomplish the goal you’re setting as a group. Be open to listening to different voices, number one. And number two, these are volunteer boards and so everybody who’s on these boards is busy so you’ve got to nudge people to make sure you’re getting where you want to be with respect to your goals and what you’re looking to accomplish.

DB: I think that’s right. One thing I’ve seen the women’s bar do specifically the last couple board retreats is we take a step back in January and we say, “OK, this is what we accomplished last year. Where do we want to go as a new board this next year?” We look at our mission statement and say, “OK, this is our mission. Where do we want to spend our time, our talent, and our treasure as an organization this year?” I think you have to have the buy-in from your team but also focus on your mission.

If you’re talking to a woman who is thinking about becoming an attorney, what advice would you give her as she’s contemplating getting into a career in law?

DB: I do this all the time with St. Mary’s law students. I love to meet with them and do one-on-one mentoring. I was a first-generation law student. I had no idea what going to law school meant. I knew zero lawyers going into law school. I think if I had a little more preparation or exposure, I would have been set up differently. I want to expose them to other practitioners in our legal community. If they want to move to a different market, I want to tap into my resources. It’s all organic, but I want them to understand they need to broaden their network and get involved. And part of that is also getting involved in organizations like SABA and the women’s bar. That’s my number one piece of advice when I talk to people—you need to get involved and you need to get to know people in the area you want to practice.

DM: I tell them to understand the importance of relationships inside and outside of your firm or wherever it is that you’re working. I tell people they’ve got to be responsive. If you’re going to volunteer on a board just because it’s non-billable, you’ve got to be responsive and do what you said you’re going to do in that volunteer capacity.

And by the way, I’m also a first-generation lawyer. And I was not from Texas even when I showed up in San Antonio. So having somebody to help you understand the community and the lay of the land is very important.

Is there anything else you want to add in regards to leadership?

DM: The only thing I would say to people is don’t be afraid to raise your hand. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand and say, “Hey, can I help on that?” That’s how you get into the chain, so to speak. Danielle was talking about working on committees and then getting involved in leadership. I think sometimes people are afraid to raise their hand because they think, Well, they’ve got somebody else in mind. Raise your hand. People react to those who want to get involved. The more involved you get, the better chance you have to get into those leadership roles.

DB: We’re always looking for people to say “yes.” TBJ


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