One of the first things you notice upon entering Sonia Rodriguez’s office is a model of the human spine and hipbones. It’s not something you expect to see in a lawyer’s office, but it is relevant to her line of work.

“Right now I represent an individual who was injured in a car collision,” explains Rodriguez, a partner and shareholder at the downtown Branton & Hall law firm. “He has herniated discs, but he doesn’t quite understand his own injuries. So I use this to show him what’s going on with him so that he can have a better understanding of his pain.”

Dealing with people in pain is an everyday occurrence for her. Since Branton & Hall specializes in civil litigation in personal injury cases, Rodriguez and her colleagues exclusively represent plaintiffs who have suffered “because of someone else’s negligence.” Car accidents are just one cause of physical impairment. Tragic consequences may result from medical malpractice, malfunctioning products, inadequate security, harmful drugs, inadequate insurance compensation and other situations.

Rodriguez, 35, joined the firm in 2001 and feels she’s found her professional home. “My clients are entitled to justice,” says the vivacious, petite Rodriguez. “What they need is a lawyer who advocates for them. I have to be their voice.”

To do that she must understand their medical condition and the limitations it imposes on their life, both at home and in terms of employment. She often visits clients in their homes to witness firsthand what they need to do to cope with daily life.

Though trial lawyers have acquired a somewhat negative reputation as “ambulance chasers,” listening to Rodriguez talk about her cases presents a different picture. There is no frivolity here. She takes on only clients she believes in and then only those who have the law on their side. The individuals involved are all seriously, or catastrophically, damaged by actions of others.

Besides the client mentioned above, other cases on her current agenda involve a woman who was raped by a furniture delivery man, a patient who suffered brain damage from improperly administered anesthesia and a young trucker who was crushed between a truck’s tractor and trailer.

A case that’s mentioned on her résumé as a career highlight occurred in 2004 in Del Rio and concerned another truck driver who drove into high waters that had flooded the road during a storm. The steel pipes he was hauling shifted forward and broke through into his cab, shattering his legs.

“We alleged that the state failed to advise motorists of the danger,” explains Rodriguez. “They had sent someone to block the roadway, but that person didn’t have any barricades to get the job done. The truck driver spoke no English, and the Texas Department of Transportation offered him nothing (as compensation). He was permanently injured, couldn’t work, and he was very frustrated. A jury of 12 people looked him in the eye and told him that his pain and suffering were worth half-a-million and that his pain in the future was worth $1 million.”

The total award came up to $2.3 million, yet for her, as the plaintiff’s lawyer, it was a bittersweet victory because she knew that the poor man would see only a fraction of that sum because of legally imposed caps on claims against governmental bodies and health care providers. But it was a vindication.

Rodriguez says she chose trial law because she wanted to help the little guy.

“I saw it as a form of social work and an opportunity to serve my community,” she says. “So few people feel that they are ever given the opportunity to be heard and treated fairly and justly. I represent folks from all walks of life. Every one of them I represent with the same passion and integrity. Gives me a good feeling.”

And a good professional reputation. For three years in a row, her peers have named her one of “Texas Rising Stars” in Texas Monthly’s surveys of legal pros. In addition, the national peer ranking service provided by LexisNexis Martindale – Hubbell gave her top ratings for both ethical standards and legal ability,

Branton & Hall’s founding partner, James Branton, is also full of praise for his younger colleague. “In all my years of practice, I would rank her in the top two of all associates, and we have associates all over Texas,” he says. “She is a good lawyer, a delight to work with. I would hire her for myself if I needed a lawyer.” Branton also appreciates Rodriguez’s participation in professional bar organizations, something that he also engaged in to better the profession as a whole.

When Branton’s comment about the “top two of all associates” gets related to Rodriguez, she quips, “I wonder who is No. 1,” adding with a laugh, “That’s my competitive side talking.”

Well, he did add that she might even be the top one. In any case, she is numero uno with Mayor Phil Hardberger, who appointed her to chair the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women through 2008. Women’s issues have always been important to her, she says.

“Here in San Antonio there is much to be proud of. We have a female city manager, a female district attorney, more women on the city council than ever before,” she says. “At the same time, it’s disturbing that the teen pregnancy rate is so high. Some high schools have day care centers. I could give you shocking statistics, not only about that, but also about diabetes, homelessness of women and children, poverty rates for female-headed households. That’s what inspired me to work with the commission.”

Given that the commission’s mission is to report to the mayor and council about the status of women, she was surprised to discover that a study of that status had never been done. So under her leadership, the group has undertaken to raise funds to commission such a study, currently under way at UTSA’s Center for Policy Studies. “The study should have relevance for the city, with a specific plan of action,” says the chairwoman. “We want to work with the city’s departments in helping them to make decisions that would bring positive change.”

For the March 8 International Women’s Day, the commission has organized a lunch meeting and panel discussion to which it invited representatives of just about every women’s organization in town. The panelists include City Manager Sheryl Sculley; Dr. Martha Medrano from the Center of Excellence in Women’s Health at UTHSC; businesswoman Brenda Vickrey Johnson; Patricia Castillo, director of PEACE Initiative, and others. In fact, it was Sculley who suggested an event to mark Women’s Day, more commonly celebrated in socialist countries.

“It’s easy for women to become very comfortable with their successes,” says Rodriguez. “I am certainly proud of how far I have come, but I am also mindful that there are still so many obstacles for girls to overcome.”

THE FIRST TO GRADUATE FROM COLLEGE

Obstacles are something Rodriguez is familiar with. In an address to a group of educators, she said that at the time she graduated from high school, she knew nobody who had gone to college. People are surprised to hear that, but “there are hundreds and thousands of girls like me out there,” she says.

Born on the West Side, she attended Gardendale Elementary in the Edgewood ISD, one of the poorest districts in the state. Her father, Daniel Rodriguez, was a bus driver, while mother Diana worked as a paralegal. The family was not poor, but there were four children to raise. Later, the Rodriguezes moved closer to downtown, and Sonia became part of the San Antonio ISD, which had the highest pregnancy rate for teens in the city.

Looking back, she realizes that the odds were against her. She stayed in school, however, and even distinguished herself as a writer, thanks to encouraging teachers and the persistence of her mother. Diana Rodriguez never let her kids miss school.

Still, when Sonia started contemplating college, her grandfather warned her that the family could not afford it. She couldn’t bring herself even to ask for the $50 application fee. “If I didn’t get into the school I applied to, it would have been money thrown away. I didn’t want to be a burden,” she explains. Another problem was that her dad, “a traditional Mexican-American man,” refused to let her leave home. So she opted for San Antonio College, thinking she would become a journalist.

Two years later, Dad relented enough to let her finish her studies at the University of North Texas, where she majored in political science. Once she decided to become a lawyer, St. Mary’s Law School was an obvious choice. To support herself, the aspiring journalist-turnedlaw student worked or took out loans.

As she talks about her parents, her affection and respect for them shine through. Five years ago, she took Mom and Dad to Mexico for a vacation, which was the first time they had ever left the United States.

Her father continues to be a source of inspiration for her. “He is a natural leader,” says Rodriguez. “He was tapped by the police to be a peer counselor in the housing project where he grew up. Then he got involved in social service through the city of San Antonio. He is currently the president of the local (Amalgamated) Transit Union. We are very close, even though he sees me as a nontraditional woman.”

Married for 10 years to immigration lawyer Jon Haynes, Rodriguez is now a parent herself to 2-year-old “adorable and brilliant” Joaquin, whose picture stands on her desk. Busy as she was in her career, it was hard to take time off to have a baby, and Joaquin may very well end up being an only child.

Though Rodriguez switched from journalism to law because she wanted to make the news rather than report it, her love of writing never faded. In fact, it was her persuasive writing skills that helped her get her present job.

“A friend let me know that Jim Branton was looking for a lawyer with heavy research and writing skills,” she recalls. “In law school I founded a law review for minority issues. Writing has always been a passion of mine, and Jim appreciates good, correct writing. So I started doing brief writing and appellate work for them. What I learned when I got here, however, is that I had strengths beyond writing. When I got into a courtroom, I found that I enjoyed talking to the jury and telling my client’s story.”

Today, about 25 percent of her time is devoted to appeals. As the number of women lawyers grows, Rodriguez would like to see more of them become litigators and partners in law firms. Women have a sensitivity to others that makes them good lawyers, she says, and they make excellent mediators. “In my profession, clients need their hands held, they need kindness and patience. That’s not typical of a lot of males,” she observes.

And perhaps as more women start practicing, the reputation of the entire profession may improve. Like everybody else, she is aware of lawyer jokes.

“I ignore them,” she says. “It’s not what I know. We work hard for the clients. If it weren’t for us, most people would have a very limited access to justice.”

What I learned when I got here, however, is that I had strengths beyond writing. When I got into a courtroom, I found that I enjoyed talking to the jury and telling my client’s story.”

Today, about 25 percent of her time is devoted to appeals. As the number of women lawyers grows, Rodriguez would like to see more of them become litigators and partners in law firms. Women have a sensitivity to others that makes them good lawyers, she says, and they make excellent mediators. “In my profession, clients need their hands held, they need kindness and patience. That’s not typical of a lot of males,” she observes.

And perhaps as more women start practicing, the reputation of the entire profession may improve. Like everybody else, she is aware of lawyer jokes.

“I ignore them,” she says. “It’s not what I know. We work hard for the clients. If it weren’t for us, most people would have a very limited access to justice.”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams