Four caring counselors who prove law knows no gender
Consider this piece of evidence:
According to the American Bar Association, nearly half of all law school graduates are women. So why is there still a fair amount of deliberation as to whether or not female attorneys can be as “tough” as their male counterparts? Let the record reflect that not only are female lawyers strong, they are able to combine that strength with an innate ability to nurture. Many, like the women featured here, enter into the profession with their sights set on more than winning cases (although they do—and often!)
These accomplished, driven, intelligent, compassionate individuals actually want to make the world a better place by helping people through difficult situations. And while each one has her individual approach and area of expertise, the common thread running through this impressive group is the desire to improve the lives of their clients. We rest our case.
What do former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and San Antonio tax attorney Elizabeth Copeland have in common? They all made the list of Top 10 Tax Attorneys of the Year in the January 2013 national edition of Tax Notes®. Pretty impressive, but not at all surprising, given Elizabeth’s determination to make a name for herself. Inspired by Ophelia Wyatt Caraway, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate, Elizabeth, who always knew she wanted to be a lawyer, set her sights on achieving great things — and she succeeded. “I just thought it was so impressive to be the first woman doing something fabulous,” she says enthusiastically. “I thought law school was the key to that.”
Turns out that, for Elizabeth, it was indeed. As of June 2013, the San Antonio native is the first Hispanic female to serve as chair of the State Bar of Texas Section of Taxation. She is also the recipient of the Janet Spragens Pro Bono award from the American Bar Association for her creation of the first statewide tax court pro bono program. The program, which provides tax court litigants with an attorney at no cost, has proven so successful that Elizabeth was asked to provide the American Bar Association with a document on the creation of the program to serve as a model for other states to implement. “Most tax court litigants are underrepresented and are trying to defend themselves,” explains Elizabeth of the need for this program. “They might have a good case, but they don’t know how to present it in court. This provides them with a tax attorney who can help them, kind of like a ‘tax attorney for a day.’” Elizabeth, who is a partner at Strasburger Attorneys at Law, received her degree from UT School of Law in Austin in 1992, but some of her most valuable education came from working as an attorney advisor to a U.S. tax court judge in Washington, D.C. “It was an amazing experience to see how the court system worked,” she recalls. She applies her expertise and knowledge to assisting clients who are having difficulties with the IRS, handling appeals and litigating in court when necessary. It’s a role she relishes and one in which she says that being female has given her some advantages. “When the IRS is involved, people are very scared,” she explains. “As a women, I think we tend to be more personal and nurturing, and, because we multitask so well, we can often find alternative ways to solve their problems.”
Of course, some problems can’t be solved, a fact that frustrates Elizabeth, who says she loves nothing more than helping people. But there are those clients who haven’t filed or paid taxes in years, thereby creating an exponential problem that is difficult to get rid of. “That for me is the biggest challenge,” she says. “It is so hard for people in that situation to understand that they have to adjust their standard of living.” As for her own standard of living, Elizabeth strives to find the balance between work and play. She and her husband enjoy taking family vacations with their three children to Rockport, Tex., and Steamboat Springs, Colo., where the children enjoy skiing. She is a runner and a cyclist, participating in the Rock and Roll half marathon and several MS 50 rides. While her children are “her life,” helping others is her passion, and Elizabeth is a highly sought-after speaker who travels to speak to various groups and organizations on tax-related topics. With her own “first” — not to mention her countless accomplishments — Elizabeth has become the type of role model that first inspired her. It’s a case of coming full circle, and Elizabeth is proof that when it comes to setting and attaining goals, women are as capable as men at working hard to achieve them.
“Have you ever argued with a woman?” That’s just one of the billboard tag lines that set tongues wagging, along with the one depicting a cartoon sports car with a vanity plate that reads, “WAS HIS.” “We’ve gotten some flack for those, but they do get people talking,” admits Heather Tessmer, owner of Tessmer Law Firm P.L.L.C. “They’re very tongue-in-cheek.” Billboards with attitude aside, Heather actually takes a very courteous and compassionate, albeit no-nonsense, approach to family law. Refusing to “get nasty” to get her point across, she prefers to encourage collaboration between the clients who, as she points out, are going to have to deal with each other for the rest of their lives — especially if children are involved. But don’t confuse kind and courteous with “soft” or “weak.” “We kick ass,” she laughs. It is that marriage of confidence and compassion that has guided Heather on every aspect of her life journey, both personally and professionally. A nontraditional student, she was 30 years old and married with a baby when she entered law school at St. Mary’s University. While attending, she became pregnant and delivered the couple’s second child. Undeterred, Heather graduated in 1999 and opened a practice in San Angelo in 2001. She landed a large insurance company as a client and spent the early part of her career working from home and raising her children.
When the family returned to San Antonio in 2005, Heather opened an office in Fair Oaks Ranch. That three-room office was home to Heather and one paralegal. Today, Tessmer Law Firm is home to 13 employees (all women) and is headquartered at the Lincoln Center building. The practice has diversified to include family law, personal injury and small estate planning. Heather says personal injury is her favorite.“It’s the least emotional,” she explains. “You have a scenario, a set of facts, and you work for a good recovery for the client.” However, it is family law that makes up the majority of Heather’s case load, more than 50 percent, to be exact. That fact seems ironic to this woman who has been married for 25 years. The couple’s recipe for success? Mutual respect and staying in touch emotionally. “Everyone knows he comes first with me, and I know that I am his first priority too,” she says happily. Heather and her husband share many common interests and hobbies, including gardening, cooking and taking cruises. The family also owns an RV that they use to vacation in places like Monterey, California or for shorter jaunts to Garner State Park.
Heather’s commitment to family extends to her employees as well. She has created an office environment that is conducive to flexibility and parenting. “We encourage babies,” she laughs, adding that she is toying with the idea of adding an on-site day care to make it easier on those women who have children. It isn’t just her employees that are the beneficiaries of Heather’s commitment to family. She works hard to ensure that her clients are well taken care during what is a very difficult and stressful time. As the billboards suggest, this is one woman who can argue effectively, but she does it courteously and with her eye on the best and most productive outcome for her clients. “It is my true belief that I am helping others,” she says passionately. “It’s why I do this.”
Soothing colors, glass sculptures and a noticeable absence of overflowing bookshelves are among the first things you observe upon entering the office of Jean Brown. In fact, it looks like an environment one might see featured in the pages of Architectural Digest rather than a place to come when your marriage is ending. But that’s the point.
“When people walk in here, their lives are upside down,” Jean explains. “I wanted to create a peaceful, Zen-like place for them to talk about their problems.”
Jean has had an impressive career, but not always in the field of law. She is an Addy Award-winning copywriter, a former fitness center owner, and once hosted her own exercise segment on several San Antonio morning television shows. So why would this Arkansas native who has worked out on live television with Sylvester Stallone leave all that to enter law school at the age of 37? In a word (or two): her husband, criminal attorney Alan Brown. “I watched him deliver a closing once, and it just really inspired me,” she confesses.
Entering law school at 37 wasn’t easy, but after spending a few minutes with Jean, you realize there isn’t much she can’t do. Driven by what she says was a “fear of failure,” she was at the top of her class after the first semester and graduated cum laude from St. Mary’s University. She joined a large firm, but went out on her own when she discovered that, at the age of 42, she was pregnant with the couple’s first (and only) child. She began trying criminal cases, but over the years, her focus turned to family law with the goal of getting all parties around a mediation table and working it out. “I really enjoy trial work, but I don’t think these cases should go to trial,” she says matter-of-factly. In another paradox, Jean also enjoys custody cases, but she doesn’t believe in them. “I will not do anything to harm a child,” she says frankly. “If the child has two good parents, why should one be relegated to only weekends?”
Helping families find solutions is an integral part of Jean’s practice, and she devotes herself to educating her clients on everything from proper protocol in the courtroom to legal terms and all the potential outcomes. “I feel like my No. 1 job as an attorney is to be an educator,” she says. As part of that commitment to the whole client, Jean is very active in a group that helps support attorneys who struggle with addiction, depression and/or substance abuse issues. By helping these individuals, she is able to share her knowledge with clients who are also dealing with these problems — something that is all too common in family law. “There is hardly anyone who walks in here that has not been affected by this in some way,” she says sadly. “If you can help someone get well, that’s a great thing.” When she isn’t volunteering her time or assisting her clients, Jean is still the fitness instructor at heart. She exercises daily, competing with her husband and son on their “fit bit” trackers, and can often be found ballroom dancing for fun or shooting skeet. She also enjoys creating beautiful environments like the one in her office. She takes pride in aesthetics and enjoys gardening, a fact she attributes to being the daughter of a florist.
“I had my first garden at the age of 6, and I’ve had one ever since,” she says. “I work on it seven or eight hours a week.” But what she most enjoys is putting a little beauty back in the lives of families torn apart. In the center of one of her shelves is a large red glass sculpture that Jean says represents a womb. It is significant to her because she wants her clients to feel “reborn” and be able to get a fresh start. “My philosophy is, I’m helping someone shape the future of his or her life,” she says. “I am highly invested in the outcome of that for both the individual and the family unit.”
What do a nurse and an attorney have in common? According to Pamela Thompson, who has enjoyed successful careers in both fields, several things.
“Nursing and law are very similar,” says the statuesque blonde, who served as a nurse for 20 years prior to earning her law degree from SMU. “Both require you to take care of people. Both require you to ‘triage,’ prioritizing and addressing the immediate needs, and both require you to be skilled at reading people’s faces and tone of voice.”
Pamela, who relocated to San Antonio from Dallas five years ago, entered law school at the age of 40, studying for the LSAT while her teenage son prepped for his ACT. With her background in nursing, she began her law career with medical malpractice cases, but she began focusing on family law in 2007. Today, the Law Offices of Pamela J. Thompson handle every aspect of family law from adoption to what she refers to as “soft divorce.” While the term may suggest a lack of gumption, nothing is further from the truth. “It’s not about being soft when it comes to assets,” explains Pamela. “It simply means that we are not here to destroy, but rather to rebuild.
“If you have come here seeking revenge, then you have come to the wrong firm,” she continues. “It doesn’t have to be that bad or that hard.”
The product of divorced parents, and with her own divorce under her belt, Pamela understands the struggles a family goes through during the dissolution of a marriage — especially when it comes to the children, for whom Pamela is the biggest advocate. “We don’t buy and sell children, and they are not assets,” she says passionately. “We want the children to have a healthy relationship with both parents if that is possible.” Pamela’s commitment to children and family preservation extends beyond the walls of her office. She serves on the board of Kendall County Family Services, and she and her husband have volunteered as foster parents with Arrow Family Ministries. Her own son, now grown and living in Dallas, has a 4-year-old son of his own, and Pamela enjoys spending quality time with her grandson whenever she can. Even the most amicable divorces are still stressful situations. An accomplished equestrian, Pamela finds her peace and relaxation through riding. She has owned horses since the age of 10 and has ridden in rodeos and played on polo teams. While she is no longer active in those arenas, she can often be found trail riding on one of her two beloved quarter horses.
But it’s helping families through hard times where Pamela finds her true reward. Having been through what the majority of her clients are experiencing, she understands the importance of a promptly returned phone call or a sympathetic ear. “I’ve been married, I’m a mother, and I’ve been divorced,” she says. “I ‘get’ that scary feeling, and when people are happy because we’ve helped them through something like this, that makes me happy.”