Patricia Busa McConnico 2013-05-30 11:44:50
Lisa Tatum takes office as president of the State Bar of Texas. IN THE FOYER OF THE BELO MANSION ON AN EARLY SPRING EVENING, LISA TATUM EASILY GLIDED AROUND THE ROOM, chatting up Smith College alumnae who were there to learn more about the school’s new diversity program—and to hear the story of her incredible journey. Tatum, the first African American woman elected president of the State Bar of Texas, gave up bits and pieces with a confident smile as she moved from cluster to cluster, but at one table, the conversation paused when Tatum spoke of her high school years and what she came to call the ratchet effect. As she talked about her move from a large public campus to Incarnate Word, a private allgirls high school in San Antonio, Tatum explained how friendly competition among her peers pushed the entire group to move forward—in effect, no one wanted to move back a level but strived to keep doing better and achieve more. In that brief moment, Tatum had defined her modus operandi— and provided the group with a powerful and inspiring message. “For me, it is about showing up and delivering,” Tatum said as we discussed her lifelong commitment to service in a small conference room in her downtown San Antonio office. After years of serving on the board of the YMCA of Greater San Antonio, Tatum had to step down because of her intense travel schedule and duties as State Bar of Texas president- elect. “I can hold that place in name, or I can give that place to a dedicated volunteer to take that spot to help fill that void and not be in absence because I’ve overcommitted,” she explained. Tatum, who has spent a lifetime helping others through her volunteer efforts and through her work as an attorney, has never been one to shy away from taking on more responsibility. The idea of giving and helping others stems back from her childhood in San Antonio. An only child, Tatum was a military brat—her father, a math and science devotee, was stationed at Randolph Air Force Base— and credits her parents with instilling a hard work ethic and a sense of citizenship. Tatum lived by five tenets preached by her mom and dad: 1) know that God comes first; 2) leave the world better than you found it; 3) always do your best; 4) get an upper degree; and 5) serve the community. Tatum has definitely delivered, but her path hasn’t always been direct—or easy. Poised at the podium in front of the crowd of Smith College fans and State Bar of Texas leaders, Tatum, dressed in a sleek black shift, decided not to read from her notes but instead speak from her heart. She talked about growing up in a city but often being the only African American kid in a room, which required her to learn to adapt to situations and embrace diversity. But she was never discouraged, not even when her invitation to join Leadership San Antonio somehow landed in someone else’s hands. She kept going, and she kept following her passion—to help others. Tatum didn’t always know she wanted to be a lawyer. She considered herself a math and science geek, but at one point in the late ’80s, she expressed an interest in law school, so her father managed to secure her a volunteer spot with the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office. She was assigned to Bert Richardson and Pat Hancock, who exposed Tatum to the work of a prosecutor. “I got to help and participate in jury selection. I got to be present for grand jury presentations. I had the opportunity to brainstorm with them when it was time for case preparation,” Tatum said. The duo found themselves in the national spotlight when the district attorney’s office tried to prosecute the hip-hop group 2 Live Crew for obscenity. Tatum was thrown in the mayhem as well. “Lisa, through her mom and her contacts, had some good people we were able to talk to about it, and they were very candid with us,” explained Richardson as he described working with Tatum. “She wasn’t afraid to do it. It was kind of fun for her. It was an interesting time. I think it piqued her interest.” Tatum certainly found that experience exciting, but she still imagined herself as a chemistry major and applied to Cornell, Dartmouth, and Northwestern, as well as local universities. But during that process, a young, striking African American recruiter from Smith College, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts, visited Incarnate Word, and Tatum’s trajectory shifted. Tatum wasn’t interested in attending an all-girls college, but her mother encouraged her to keep an open mind—and she did. After a tour of the campus—and the five-college area—Tatum was sold. She struggled with the thought of moving so far away from her support system, but she adjusted, juggling her academic studies with the demands of the crew team and an a capella singing group. A course in international law proved the turning point, and after graduation, she moved to California to attend Santa Clara University Law School, where she earned her degree in 1994. As Tatum re-lived her journey campaigning for State Bar of Texas president-elect, recounting the number of days she and her father were on the road (she was home for three during the month of March), she told the packed room at the Belo Mansion that it was a test. And, not surprisingly, Tatum passed. She outlined her initiatives for the year. The first is a program based on civics called I was the first. Vote for Me!, which spotlights the important “firsts” in U.S. history that are part of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards for social studies in kindergarten through fifth grade. The website component of this multimedia project features 22 historic figures talking about their significance and contributions to society via 30-second animated spots. Students will learn about U.S. presidents, elected officials, judges, and other consequential people who are role models and have paved the way for more “firsts” to make their mark in history. Hardback and e-reader books in both English and Spanish are also available. The second focuses on legal services, providing lawyers with the resources they need to ensure access to justice. The idea is to take a Care Kit—tools to make it easy for a lawyer to help, either through pro bono work or his pocketbook—and run with it. “I realize that these two projects are huge,” Tatum told me in the quiet of the conference room. “I didn’t go after them because of that. I saw needs. And if they end up having a profound impact on the short term or if they have some level of profound impact on the long term—I was raised that you leave things in a better condition than when you found them. So, I’m going to do my best with two that I think are tangible.” Throughout her personal life and professional career, Tatum has always tried to identify needs and seek solutions. She landed her first job at the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office, her old stomping grounds. She spent five years prosecuting felony and misdemeanor criminal cases, mostly dealing with drugs and violent crime, but always referred to a nugget of information that Richardson and Hancock had shared with her when she was a volunteer so many years earlier: “If you do not want to be a career prosecutor, give it three to five [years], no more than six, or you will find that you will be on that path and it will be harder to break away.” Tatum, true to her commitment to community service, often spoke about her job and the types of cases she tried. “When I used to go and lecture in schools, I would describe it as ‘If it wasn’t stabbed, shot, bleeding, or floating, I probably didn’t handle it.’ That’s kind of dark,” Tatum told me. “I wasn’t becoming dispassionate, but I was recognizing I was hitting that time window and knew that there was much more out there in the practice of law.” In 2000, she made the jump to civil practice and began working as an associate at Escamilla & Poneck. The natural progression would have been for Tatum to go into criminal law, but she embraced the opportunity to learn something new. “They realized I was good with people, and that’s how my niche evolved,” Tatum explained. “I started out working as general counsel with a couple of other attorneys with the housing authority, then I was assigned some housing authorities, then I had some private companies, and the progression came from there.” About two years later, Tatum began to feel the urge to go out on her own, but she wasn’t sure if it was the right choice at the right time. After bumping into Texas Sen. Royce West at a conference, the two talked and Tatum expressed her desire to try something new. Shortly thereafter, she was managing and operating West & Gooden’s San Antonio outpost. The firm changed names to West & Associates, but Tatum still ran the satellite office. It was during this time that Tatum learned how to build a business from the ground up. “The first year and a half, I didn’t have a legal assistant. It was me, by myself, doing everything. So that’s how I know what I can do and what I can’t do.” She was basically a one-woman show, and she eventually realized that she could do this on her own and work for herself. “I never wanted to be a solo practitioner. That has never been my goal,” Tatum said. “So, I looked at the initial piece of this as you gotta start by yourself if you want it to be what you want it to be—structure-wise, foundational policies and practices that you envision the way you want to operate. Then grow.” She founded LM Tatum, P.L.L.C., in 2011 and has been working toward her goal of having her own large firm ever since. It is a process—one Tatum is willing to tackle and tweak along the way. Part of her job is building a client base, something that Tatum excels at because of her ability as a lawyer and because of her approachable demeanor. “If you were to meet her on the street and she introduced herself, I don’t think that it would ever cross your mind that she is the State Bar president,” said Richardson, who now acts as a counsel’s counsel to Tatum. Indeed, Tatum admits that people have told her she has a quality about her that puts people at ease. “I am constantly being told, ‘You have a type of presence that allows people to feel comfortable and communicate. You have a way of being able to relay a message in the best way that it could be received,’” Tatum said. Being able to communicate is something Tatum’s mother, a UIL debate coach, impressed on her at an early age. Those skills have served her well in the courtroom as a litigator, as a member of professional and volunteer organizations, and as a bar leader. It wasn’t that long ago when Tatum attended an African American Lawyers Section meeting with one of her mentors, Demetrius Bivins. “I hadn’t really had any bar exposure that way,” Tatum said. “He walked out as chair, and I walked out as his vice chair—for my first meeting.” That commitment provided Tatum with an opportunity to meet lawyers from across the state and exposed her to a diversity of talent. From there she progressed up the chain and eventually became a director of the State Bar of Texas. “I found myself in a setting, younger than most of the folks there who were brilliant, passionate, dedicated, focused at work but focused on these tasks. I have grown up with ‘surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are’—not to be a sponge but to challenge yourself.” Tatum realized that if she simply followed her philosophy— show up, commit, and deliver—that she would continue to build these relationships with amazingly talented people who have helped her—and her practice—grow. Tatum’s professionalism and her commitment to her clients are evidenced by the way she carries herself and treats others. “When Lisa walks into the boardroom, she is prepared,” said Marisol Robles, the past chair of the South Central Texas Regional Certification Agency, one of Tatum’s clients. Tatum assists the group with bylaws, open-meeting questions, human resource issues, and state law navigation, among other things. Robles said when the legal counsel of other local governmental agencies in San Antonio learned that Tatum was guiding their processes, they were completely comfortable with it. “Just the respect she commands from her colleagues was really amazing to see,” she said. “It made me feel good as her client.” Racinda Vekasy, who has been one of Tatum’s clients off and on for more than 15 years, said Tatum was the only attorney she considered when she set up her company. “She is a loyal, conscientious individual that I trust completely with my business dealings,” Vekasy added. Tatum helped Vekasy with the expansion of a corporation and provided her with guidance on everything from employee practices to separation of owners. “She always has time for a client. There is never a time that Lisa is unavailable.” To Tatum’s surprise, the most difficult challenge she’s faced since the election has been reassuring clients that she hasn’t closed shop and moved to Austin. Being accessible to clients is critical not only for the momentum of Tatum’s practice but also for her. They rely on her. They need her. And for Tatum, that’s what it’s all about. Serving others. “I don’t know that everyone else’s walk is the same as mine,” Tatum said, “but if I can make myself a better person and help do things as a truly interested party, and I have the opportunity to be at the table for that, let me do what I can.” Tatum ended her improvised speech that spring evening in Dallas by telling the group that the ratchet doesn’t let you slip but only moves you forward.
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