Anne Dingus 2013-05-30 11:47:40
Twice a year LeadershipSBOT members—young lawyers who exhibit a propensity to excel and a desire to serve—get together to work as a team, develop community projects, and envision a better State Bar. A true brainchild gets even smarter as it grows. That’s certainly the case with LeadershipSBOT, which this summer marks its fifth birthday. One of the bar’s most ambitious projects to date, LeadershipSBOT is a straightforward name for a complex plan of fostering future leaders of the State Bar of Texas. It is a fusion of diversity awareness, idea brainstorming and implementation, executive grooming, and bar immersion. Better yet, it is a complete success. Leadership- SBOT was the idea of Midland’s Harper Estes, who served as president of the State Bar of Texas in 2008-2009. Sharing the bar’s commitment to pro bono work and community service, Estes decided to undertake the creation of an annual leadership academy devoted specifically to fostering those aims among lawyers statewide. (He notes that the idea is not original to Texas. He adapted it from a popular civics model that several states and many cities have implemented.) The plan was to encourage lawyers— especially younger lawyers—to recognize their capacity for influence and authority, as proved by their own track record. The academy’s prospective students would be young men and women with exceptional professional service records and a recognized commitment to local philanthropy. Their vision and ambition would help lead a future bar. The idea was beautifully simple in theory but extremely difficult to create and put into action. Recalling the challenges of that first year, Estes downplays his role in the formation of the leadership curriculum and credits instead three colleagues: State Bar Executive Director Michelle Hunter, former State Bar Deputy Executive Director Kelley Jones King, and former Texas Young Lawyers Association President Sylvia Cardona. “We decided our best partner was the Texas Young Lawyers Association, so we invited them in right away,” Estes said. “We wanted to identify and form a group that represented the diversity of Texas lawyers. So the criteria were based on much more than ethnicity or social background—there was also diversity of practice and geographical location in the state, for example. And sometimes, personal experiences clearly set some attorneys apart. After going through all that, finally getting to the very end, we had a class that looked just like Texas. That had kind of become our mantra—we wanted a class that looked just like Texas. The first time I stood there looking at all of them, I got a little chill.” There was one little hitch: An applicant could not nominate himself. Lawyers who saw themselves as leaders were not the quarry of Estes and his fellow planners. Instead, the State Bar and TYLA created a downloadable nomination form on the State Bar website and sought input from members of the bar all around the state, asking them to anonymously submit the names of worthy attorneys. The result was a list of hundreds of suggestions that—after a prolonged and complicated elimination process— was whittled to a final elite of 20 attorneys. [Editor’s note: The deadline for nominations this year is July 1.] The participants, meanwhile, were flattered but perplexed. They were not sure what they had gotten themselves into. Each of the subsequent LeadershipSBOT classes has felt the same way. Tobias Cole, a personal injury lawyer from Houston who is just completing his year in the program, said, “We really didn’t know what to expect. That’s intentional, to some extent. They didn’t want us to get too fired up or freaked out.” And, reassuringly, the schedule for the first big event— a two-and-a-half-day retreat—included that familiar and essential staple of conferences everywhere, the panel discussion. Experts in a variety of fields address the class on their work and involvement with the bar. At a recent gathering, U.S. Federal Judge Andrew Hanen participated as a keynote speaker and then stayed after the dinner presentation to answer questions. A handful of engaged lawyers had the unusual opportunity to have a personal conversation with a federal judge. Hanen lingered at least an extra hour. For young lawyers to receive that kind of professional intimacy from such high-ranking jurists is rare. Balancing that kind of gravitas are the light-hearted team-building exercises. LeadershipSBOT’s attorneys found themselves facing high school students in a game show–style competition about the U.S. Constitution that challenged them as much as the practice of law. This fall, when the retreat was held in Austin, the class was divided into two groups and each faction was tasked to write a song—and perform it—within hours of meeting each other. During the spring retreat, at South Padre Island, the up-and-coming attorney-leaders tackled a sandcastlebuilding contest. During the same weekend, this year’s LeadershipSBOT class divided into groups and attempted to build a complete, working bike by issuing instructions to blindfolded team members. The State Bar donated the bikes to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Texas, just as it had previously donated handmade teddy bears to local EMS groups to give to children involved in crises. Given the quality and personality of each year’s 20 LeadershipSBOT candidates, the State Bar decided to, well, set the bar high. Members are required to select one of four specialty subgroups to support—public service, member service, access to justice, or professionalism—and, in concert with the rest of the class members in that group, commit to an academic or philanthropic project that will enhance the State Bar as a whole. These aren’t merely essays on What I Did During LeadershipSBOT Camp. The projects are interactive, sustainable aids to the Texas legal world. For example, this year Eduardo Romero of Laredo, working with the professionalism subgroup, helped create an online mentoring database comprised of top legal experts in the state who are willing to mentor young lawyers— a hugely ambitious chore. “Primarily,” Romero explained, “it gives attorneys all over Texas an online database of experts to ask for help. Say, you have a case in another city you’ve never been to. You can ask these folks, ‘Anything special I need to know?’ We all have friends to help us out, but this is an information resource—broader, wider, more accessible to us all. And we’ll keep on working on it, updating and expanding it as time goes on.” Cole and the other lawyers in his subgroup, access to justice, produced an equally promising resource. Although Cole is a personal injury lawyer—a career he chose after a diving accident at age 18 left him a quadriplegic—his firm regularly represents clients who are trapped in dangerous relationships. As a result, the access to justice contribution takes the form of two hour-long videotapes on how to handle divorce and domestic violence cases. “We’re proud of and really hopeful about these training videos,” Cole said. “In recent years the bar has really encouraged service work. We know a lot of lawyers want to pitch in with helping out the less fortunate members of their community, but they don’t know how to get started. We wanted to help.” Now the step-by-step videos—made with the assistance of two of the state’s top experts in family law—will be available to every member of the State Bar of Texas. “If you’re stuck in a bad marriage, you’re sad and you’re hopeless, and you don’t know how to handle it. It’s a very difficult situation, but not for a lawyer.” Cole’s final comment on the bar’s leadership model: “They put so much trust in us and let us develop these projects.” Founder Harper Estes is proud of what he started. “LeadershipSBOT is working. Many of the graduates have gone on to serve their local bar associations as well as TYLA and State Bar committees. The academy will keep going. The leaders will keep coming,” he pointed out. “LeadershipSBOT is about people who understand that to be a good leader, you must first be a good follower. I stole that line from Andy Hanen.” ANNE DINGUS is best known for her Texas Monthly columns on humor, history, and popular culture. A graduate of Rice University, she lives in Austin.
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