by Michael K. Hurst
“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” –Willie Nelson
What likely began as a religious observance, American Thanksgiving has become our Country’s most celebrated holiday. Many of us think of family, friends, football, turkey feasts, parades, our Country, our soldiers, God, perhaps those less fortunate and going around the tables expressing that for which we are most thankful.
For some, Thanksgiving is a time for reflection. As the holidays approach this year, I am especially reflective about the Dallas legal community—from where we have come and to where we are hopefully going. I think about our low-income neighbors and their access to our civil justice system. I think about what we can do to ensure that women and minorities continue to have increased opportunities in our profession. I think about the injustice and tragedy of how girls and women in our community continue to be trafficked and abused. I think about whether the civil jury trial will be something that will only be seen in history books. I think about why I have had opportunities in life that many people with lesser means or different innate characteristics have not had. And I think about depression and the many people that can be saved, and the ones for whom it is too late.
As I have focused a great deal of my time this year on being DBA President, my eyes have been opened wider to many opportunities for the betterment of humanity. In fact, so many that it overwhelms me. The fire in my heart for making a difference has never burned so hot.
Finally, I reflect on how I and our legal community in general have had the opportunities and the ability to continuously reinvent ourselves. For instance, 30 years ago Dallas lawyers had not figured out how to independently fund and volunteer time for representation of clients that could not afford access to our civil courts. Since that time, the DBA has embarked on an annual campaign that initially raised less than $100,000 from the legal community to now over $1 million per year, added more staff and provided representation for tens of thousands of pro bono clients. And now, the DVAP Endowment should expand and protect legal services to the poor for generations and serve as a template for other communities around the Nation.
Once again, I am thankful that we are able to ensure that many of our pro bono clients have Thanksgiving dinners when DBA Board members, colleagues at my firm, and my family will purchase and deliver dinners to 20 homes. To me, deeds are the soul of Thanksgiving.
Thankfully, the Dallas legal community has reinvented itself with respect to its recognition and treatment of women in our profession. We have a ways to go, but we should not forget the way things were. Venerable Dallas attorney Nina Cortell recounts: “The gains made by women in the legal profession over the four decades of my career have been remarkable by any measure. In Dallas, for example, it was a struggle to even get hired as a woman lawyer in the 70s, and there weren’t many of us. In stark contrast, women lawyers today, in significant numbers, preside in prestigious positions as judges at all levels of the judiciary and as leaders in corporations, law firms, law schools and throughout government. It is a new day.” The Dallas Bar will again be led by a woman next year, my good friend Laura Benitez Geisler, who will be the first Hispanic DBA President, and who will preside over a Board of at least half women.
Dena DeNooyer Stroh, General Counsel of the North Texas Tollway Authority and former president of the Dallas Women Lawyers Association, is one such leader today. Dena recognizes some reasons behind this improvement. “Diversity in all forms brings documented improvements in law and is good for business in addition to being the right thing to do. We have come a long way, but still have a ways to go.”
Thankfully, the Dallas Legal Community has reinvented itself in its acknowledgement and treatment of African Americans over the years. Sam Scott, the first African American lawyer in Dallas, only practiced here for 7 months in 1881. It was not until the late 1960s when the DBA first admitted an African American lawyer, Fred Finch, after not previously acting upon the applications of W.J. Durham and C.B. Bunkley in 1963. Hon. L.A. Bedford was the fourth African American member of the DBA. In 2004, Rhonda Hunter became the first African American president of the organization, with Paul Stafford holding the office eight years later.
Today, the DBA Board is comprised of Anglo, African American, Asian American, and Hispanic attorneys. The DBA enjoys an outstanding partnership with the African American affiliate bar (J.L. Turner Legal Association), along with counter-parts associations for Hispanic descent attorneys (DHBA), Asian descent attorneys (DAABA), women lawyers (DWLA) and young lawyers (DAYL).
JLTLA President Ashlei Gradney tell us: “Today, JLTLA is a well-embraced Sister Bar of the DBA, diverse and multi-cultural. This is due in part to not only pioneers dedicated to breaking down barriers, but also to the efforts of many forward-thinking DBA members of the past and present. Although there is still much work to be accomplished, the barricades that once hindered minority legal professionals are diminishing. Breaking the traditional public perception of the stereotypical attorney pedigree makes us all better advocates and I am so blessed to be a part of the movement towards inclusion.” For this, we are thankful.
Indeed, we have a great deal of progress to be made with respect to opportunities for women and minorities in terms of pay, promotion, and decision-making power in our profession. But many “enlightened” lawyers are doing their best to move us forward.
Finally, I am thankful for the opportunity to re-invent myself in so many ways, including from being that person who always felt he had to be “on” and could not show downheartedness to someone who is up front with some of his feelings of despair. I am thankful that I confessed my depression when conducting a voir dire presentation at the DAYL Trial Skills Boot Camp. The result was three young lawyers contacting me and asking for assistance. The holidays are particularly known to be times of loneliness and dejection for many.
This Thanksgiving, let us count our blessings and reflect on how we can continue to be leaders in our profession and community. Please let me know if you want to visit.