The Coastal Bend Women Lawyers Association just completed our 2017 Spring Luncheon wherein we honored former Gold Medal Olympian, Mary Lou Retton, as our Woman of Distinction. We were very pleased with all the positive feedback we received after our luncheon. I think almost all would agree that Mary Lou Retton was inspiring. As is always the case, the weeks leading up to the event are nerve wrecking as the final details are being dealt with to ensure a successful luncheon. As is always the case, it usually takes a few weeks to decompress after our spring luncheon and reflect on how we can improve the next spring luncheon. For example, in the nervousness of directing the presentation of events, I completely forgot to introduce myself. My name is Deborah Rios and I am the President of CBWLA. Better late than never.
Prior to the luncheon I had the opportunity to sit in while our local newspaper reporter interviewed our speaker, Mary Lou Retton. The reporter asked Mary Lou something along the lines of, “can you explain what a former Olympian has to do with women lawyers or what message you can provide to a room full of attorneys.” I smiled because I remembered that this reporter had asked the same question last year of our previous woman of distinction. I realized at that point that CBWLA has never really done a good job at explaining what a woman of distinction is and why or how we select these speakers. While I think that at first glance the vast array of women that we have honored seem to lack a concise profile, on the other hand I think that's exactly the point.
Women of distinction are women who have broken barriers (Coach Welter, First female assistant coach in the National Football League). Women who made us cry with their compassion for others that few understand (Sister Helen Prejean). Women who have successfully led major companies (Collen Barret, President of SW Airlines). Women who broke barriers in politics (Janet Reno, First female US Attorney General). Women who have transformed the landscape in breast cancer research (Nancy Brinker, CEO of the Susan G. Komen Foundation). Women who are considered pioneers in Texas politics (Sissy Farenthold). And we have even had women attorneys (Gloria Allred, Civil Rights/Womens Rights advocate attorney). Women of distinction manage motherhood with work. Women of distinction know that they risk criticism for some of their opinions but they speak up regardless. Women of distinction seek to help others in their community. Women of distinction uplift other women. Women of distinction mentor other women. Women of distinction never stop trying to improve. Women of distinction don’t let other people put limits on them.
Women of distinction are you...and me. We are each capable of being a woman of distinction. Women of distinction may have absolutely nothing to do with the law per se. But they have everything to do with what can help us excel in any profession or occupation. I urge each of you to discover the woman of distinction that dwells inside you.
It’s that time of year where law school graduates have now taken their bar exam and are anxiously awaiting the November results. I can’t believe that it’s been 14 years since I went through this very same anxiety. I remember feeling faintly confident as I walked out of that building where I took my bar exam in 2002, vowing to never ever take another test again. By the time November 2002 rolled around my faint sense of confidence had been replaced by a stark sense of reality as I pondered the implications of failing the exam. Luckily, I received confirmation of my passage of the bar exam on November 5, 2002. To date I have stood by my vow to never take another test....unless you count those silly tests on Facebook.
As an older law school graduate (33 years old) I was certain of the direction I wanted my career to take. Perhaps it was because I had worked for five years as a paralegal before entering law school. I knew that I wanted to have my own solo practice and work exclusively in the field of family law. It was very simple and clear. But life is never simple and clear no matter how hard you try to clarify it. I also knew that I ultimately wanted to get board certified in family law. So naturally, my first legal job was working for a civil insurance defense firm where I was able to take zero family law cases and had to work for someone else. But such is life. I worked there for six months before I got the nerve to leave and hang up my shingle. Over the next 13 years I drifted in and out of private practice as I experimented with work as in-house counsel and as an assistant attorney general in the child support division. When I finally returned to private practice again in 2012 I expanded on my criminal law practice and started to minimize and eventually cut out several other areas. My practice is now 80% criminal law and 20% family law. And I’ve finally reached my full satisfaction private practice balance ratio. Who would have guessed. Certainly not my 33 year old self.
So as I watch the new crop of law school graduates ready to start their careers I’ll pass on bits of wisdom that I’ve acquired over my 14 years of experience. Maybe the most important piece of advice is: be open to change. Don’t get tied up in trying to get tied down. I have no doubt that you probably have an idea of where you’d like to start but I’m here to tell you that it’s most likely not where you will end up. The worst thing you can do to yourself is commit yourself to staying in one area despite losing your passion for the job. Seek out mentors. There are so many experienced attorneys willing and ready to help you along the way. Build a reputation based on ethical and professional demeanor. Not only will it make life with other attorneys easier but it will save you state bar grievances in the long run. And finally, get involved in your bar associations. There are so many great things that bar associations expose you to. Leadership opportunities, networking opportunities, mentorship, community involvement and much more. I wish each of you the best as you wait for November and the Coastal Bend Women Lawyers Association looks forward to meeting you as you enter the legal field and become a part of this great world of advocacy that we all worked so hard to become a part of.
I am honored to be the newly elected President of the Coastal Bend Women Lawyers Association. As our organization enters its 28th year of existence I believe it’s time to examine our role in this community and whether we are doing everything we can to provide opportunities to women lawyers that enhance, support and enrich the practice of law. In furtherance of this self-evaluation I have set an ambitious agenda for this fiscal year. I am hopeful that this will be a year of many firsts for our evolving association. It began with the launch of our new website. And as we now begin our new fiscal year (July 1st - June 30th), I have started this blog that I hope will help us get to know the women in our legal community who are doing some great things. As we get to know so many of these great women it is my hope that we see that our diversity in law and in life is our greatest strength.
I thought I’d begin by just introducing myself to you and share my history. I was born and raised in Corpus Christi. I grew up in central Corpus Christi to parents that worked very hard to provide stability for me and my brother. Educational achievement was not a priority. Graduation from high school was expected but anything beyond that was a bonus. It’s not that they didn’t care about education they just didn’t have the information needed to convey more to their children. I stumbled into the legal field after high school when my mom’s friend suggested I get into “paralegal” studies which at the time was an emerging field. I did and I soon found myself enjoying the study of law. I graduated from Del Mar with an Associates degree in Legal Assisting. Within a short time I found my first job as a legal assistant working at a local Law Firm. During my tenure there I met a young ambitious attorney who eventually left the firm and offered me a job to help him open his own law office. I ended up working with him for 5 years. About 3 years into my job I made the crazy decision to go back to school to get my bachelors degree and possibly apply to law school. I credit that decision with the mentorship and support I received from my boss who made me believe that I could accomplish this goal. When I went back to school I suddenly found myself more determined and focused than ever before. In two years I finished my studies and graduated with honors from Texas A&M Corpus Christi. I applied to law schools and decided to accept the offer from St. Mary’s University School of Law. As of all of that was not enough, in the midst of all those life changes I also married, divorced, came out to my parents as gay and met a woman with 3 children who I raised for ten years. Unfortunately that relationship came to an end shortly after I finished law school. I am now engaged to my fiancee, Anna Lopez, who I’ve been with for the past 6 years. We will marry in March 2017. That is my foundation. My diversity in life.
I am entering my 14th year of practice and my career has been just as diverse. I have worked for a civil insurance defense firm, as in-house counsel for a medical practice, as an assistant attorney general in the child support division and as a solo practitioner. I even threw in a judicial campaign stint in this last primary election. This vast experience has introduced to many different people in different fields with different backgrounds, different viewpoints, different politics, different religions, and different beliefs. But we share a love of the law. That’s my diversity in law.
I remember the days (during my years as a paralegal) when there were no female Judges on the bench. I remember the days when there were no Hispanic female Judges. And then as the first woman on the bench broke that barrier (Hon. Rene Haas) and shortly after that the first Hispanic female Judge (Hon. Hilda Tagle), we started to finally see a wave of women getting elected in Nueces County. These women are groundbreakers. I am only one of probably many who looked to them as role models, as people who dared to disrupt the status quo and refused to give in to doubt and fear.
As you might be able to guess from the title of our blog, women now make up 35% of the Texas Bar. I invite any of you who are interested in writing an article on a topic of interest to publish on our blog to contact us. I am hoping that as we get to know more of the people in our legal community over the next year that we will realize truly how our strength comes from our diversity.