Taking the Reigns: Bar association presidents embody the “how” and “why” of leading professional associations

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion of lawyers, and too often it is disapproving.

Stand aside for five women who are in positions to shatter any negative perceptions. All five of the main San Antonio bar associations have women as presidents now for the second year in a row. This year’s five are making their mark in the community.

In fact, if you had guessed that lawyers get together and just talk about law, you would have missed the influence bar associations have in San Antonio. “A bar association is an avenue for helping in the community,” says Mary Belan Doggett, a property law specialist in her firm, Harrison & Doggett, LLP. She is president of the 3,000-member San Antonio Bar Association, the largest of the local bar associations not limited to specialty practice areas.

Community opportunity

“The more I can do for the community, the better I feel about myself,” says solo practitioner Rosa Mar92a Gonz87lez, president of the Mexican American Bar Association, who has a distinctly hands-on style. She says community work “defines for me who I am.” Gonz87lez was in social work before attending law school, so she easily slipped into community service projects of law associations.

Another of the five bar leaders who is not from San Antonio originally, Stephanie Boyd, found that association leadership revealed community needs to her. She is a criminal attorney in a solo practice at the Law Offices of Stephanie R. Boyd. As an example of uncovering community needs, Boyd and the San Antonio Black Lawyers Association she leads determined that the general public might not understand what actually goes on in the court system, and therefore, lack a foundation for electing judges. The association is planning a forum at election time so that judges can speak to voters about legal process and reasoning and citizens can ask questions.

“My goal and every other president’s goal is to start a program or build on a program. Each year we want to add something. Each president gets a chance to put something they are concerned about on the table,” Boyd says. “You’ll have members say, ‘Hey, that’s a good idea. Let’s figure out how we can work that.'”

Bar associations raise money to grant scholarships, sponsor student leadership conferences, assist local agencies such as the Rape Crisis Center on legal issues and help fund agencies like Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for children. And more.

Professional and personal enrichment

Even before counting community service hours, these are busy people who purposefully take on leadership positions in their associations to enhance professionalism. “Some people may have a certain perception of lawyers, but really, you get involved with amazing people. We work 40 to 60 hours a week, then we go to organization meetings at night,” says Kristal M. Cordova, in family law practice with Wilson & Pennypacker, LLP. She is president of the San Antonio Young Lawyers Association.

To work a schedule like that and take on association leadership and community work requires an organized life. Dayla Sara92 Pepi relies on her multitasking skills to balance her job at the Center for Legal and Social Justice at St. Mary’s University and her presidency of the Bexar County Women’s Bar Association. “I think the more you have going on, the better you organize. You become very productive,” she says.

Or as Cordova says, “People in motion tend to stay in motion.” Specifically, to pilot an organization with hundreds of members, Cordova says, “you have to be thorough, you have to do your homework, you have to be prepared, and you have to be organized. And those are the qualities it takes to be a good attorney. So while you are doing these things for your organization, you are learning skills that help you in work as well.”

One’s abilities — not only in skills but also in relationships — mature through leadership positions and association membership. “Professionally, you can’t beat getting involved in the bar association for getting to know other lawyers,” Doggett says.

“It helps build relationships. You see people outside of the courtroom, not only in the courtroom. Otherwise, you’d only see other attorneys in adversarial roles,” Boyd says.

Because Boyd exclusively practices criminal law, she might not have much opportunity to stay current on civil law. Thanks to her bar association’s Street Law program, she can observe attorneys in other areas of law teaching high school students about their specialty areas.

Just as attorneys with different specialties work together in one association, different bar associations work together — largely because many lawyers are members of multiple organizations. The president of one association may be a committee chair with another, and the different groups join together on projects. Clearly, these are women who know how to find a place for themselves — even multiple places — and they have advice for others interested in getting involved.

The time is now

Gonzalez suggests getting involved in one organization to start. “See what it’s about. See if it’s a good fit for you. See if they appreciate your contributions,” she recommends. “There will be people who recognize your talent and recognize the kind of contributions that you can make. You’ll slowly but surely be asked to contribute to another organization.”

Boyd suggests attending community programs or fund-raisers to meet fellow association members and find out exactly what they do in organizing these events. “It’s easy to join many organizations without being active in any of them,” she says. “Pick out your niche. You’ll find the time if you really enjoy it and have a stake in it.”

In only her third year of practice, Cordova remembers being intimidated attending her first San Antonio Young Lawyers Association luncheon. “I did not know anyone in the room,” she says. One of the officers spoke about an upcoming fund-raiser for Special Olympics Texas. “I had volunteered for Special Olympics Texas in college, and I thought it sounded like a fun opportunity. I joined the committee without knowing one other young attorney on the committee. The fund-raiser ended up raising $10,000 that year, and in the process I met and became friends with other young attorneys in Bexar County.” Before she knew it, she was asked to run for president-elect of the group. “So my advice to young female attorneys is to get involved in something they have a passion for, even though it may seem intimidating.” Pepi borrows Nike’s slogan: “Just do it.”

It’s all about making the time. “You can’t just stay in your office,” Boyd says. Doggett’s assessment: “How dull it would be if you didn’t have anything else that you did.”

It’s easy to get involved

Even if you are the introverted type, step forward and gain the benefits of being involved in your professional association.

Resolve to do more than attend monthly luncheons.
Volunteer for a committee.
Find a way to apply your individual talents for the benefit of others.
Respond when asked to help.
Identify an issue you think should be on the agenda, convey it to the leaders, and offer to head the effort.
Resolve to learn about aspects of your profession you don’t work daily, or practice management skills you want to develop.
Find time to take the lead

Of course, you are busy. But consider these reasons for taking a leadership role in your professional association.

You set the agenda.
You expand professional relationships with other leaders.
You build skills useful on the job, like communicating, mentoring, planning or decision-making.
You further your career and other people’s as well.
You exercise authority that may not be possible in your job, experiencing the fulfillment of moving a project from beginning to end.
You have the satisfaction of helping others.

Author: Sheri Rosen

Photographer: Jeffrey Truit

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