Host Rocky Dhir is joined by special guest co-host, Victor Flores, president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association, to interview State Bar of Texas president Randy Sorrels and Houston Bar Association president Benny Agosto, Jr. They cover some of the initiatives the new presidents will aim to accomplish during their tenure as well as why they’re so passionate about developing a more diverse bar.
Randy Sorrels is the managing partner of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz, and is the 2019-2020 President of the State Bar of Texas.
Benny Agosto is a partner at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz and is the 2019-2020 President of the Houston Bar Association.
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State Bar of Texas Podcast
State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting 2019: Bar Presidents Randy Sorrels and Benny Agosto, Jr.
Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice, with your host Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Hello and welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast recorded from the Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. This is Rocky Dhir and I am joined by — by the time you hear this, he will be the President of the Texas Young Lawyers Association (TYLA). I got Victor Flores.
Victor Flores: Thanks; thanks for having me.
Rocky Dhir: And we are the hosts for today’s show which is being sponsored by LawPay, trusted by more than 35,000 law firms to accept legal payments online. It’s the only payment solution offered as a member benefit by the State Bar of Texas.
Victor and I are being joined today by two luminaries. Now, first we’ve got, he already is the new President of the State Bar of Texas, we’ve got Randy Sorrels.
Randy Sorrels: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Rocky Dhir: And we also got Benny Agosto. Now, Benny is a luminary too in Houston because he is now the President of the Houston Bar Association, the HBA.
So, this is not unusual for me, but now it is definitively clear, I am the least accomplished person at the table. This is very overwhelming; but, before we get started we’re going to talk about Bar leadership. We’ve got three great Bar leaders here, one of them is going to be a co-host.
Before we start talking about Bar leadership, let’s get to know our guests a little bit. So, Randy, let’s start with you, this is presidential privilege, you get to go first. So tell us a little bit about yourself and where you practice and what got you to decide you want to become the State Bar President?
Randy Sorrels: Yeah, it’s interesting. The three of us leaders all have a military component to our backgrounds. So I grew up in a military family, I didn’t have any lawyers in my family, went to college, played soccer with Benny, the President of the Houston Bar Association, went to law school, started at Fulbright & Jaworski as a defense lawyer, then moved over to Abraham, Watkins doing plaintiffs work and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last almost 30 years.
Benny Agosto, Jr.: I have a military background. Also my father, when he was 16, he said he was 18 and he joined the army to be a World War II.
Rocky Dhir: Oh, he was in World War II?
Benny Agosto, Jr.: Yes, and he’s passed already but he taught us that kind of attitude about life that you do what’s right and you go all out. And so, I was blessed to come to Houston to play soccer, that’s when I met Randy, we were roommates.
Rocky Dhir: Roommates where?
Benny Agosto, Jr.: At Houston Baptist University, we played soccer, Division I soccer
Rocky Dhir: In college?
Benny Agosto, Jr.: In college.
Rocky Dhir: So you guys have known each other since college.
Randy Sorrels: Since 1981.
Rocky Dhir: No wonder you guys are both Bar leaders at the same time that way you can kind of cover for one another. It’s kind of like — it’s like don’t tell about the dirt on each other.
Benny Agosto, Jr.: Well, that may be true but right now we’re both working, so that means we have to work extra hard to keep our firm.
Rocky Dhir: We’re going to talk about that, I’m sure — I think Victor has got some questions about that.
Victor, for those that, I guess, know who you are, but want to know more about you, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background.
Victor Flores: Oh, if we’re talking about military background, I served in the United States Marine Corps from 2001 to 2008 in the reserves and I got deployed once to Iraq in 04/05.
Rocky Dhir: Oh, thank you for your service.
Victor Flores: This similar pass just going to undergraduate law school and then just getting involved in Bar service and just wanted to help people out like these great guys here.
Rocky Dhir: So, maybe this is a chance for you to learn a little something from these Bar leaders. I’m sure you’ve got questions for them.
Victor Flores: Oh, I have questions.
Rocky Dhir: Oh man, he came prepared, look at this guy.
Victor Flores: You guys are ready?
Rocky Dhir: Okay, okay, so fire-away.
Victor Flores: Randy, I know you just got sworn in and at your — during your speech, you were talking about diversity, why it’s important, it’s important for the Bar and for the Texas attorneys. Why is diversity so important to you and are we headed in the right direction, are there ways that we can improve diversity in the bar?
Randy Sorrels: Well, I think diversity is important first because I know it creates better outcomes and I mean I know it creates better outcomes. I’ve seen it personally. I’ve experienced it in the profession. I’ve watched it happen in the profession as well, and are we headed in the right direction? Yes. Are we moving a little too slowly? Still in my opinion, yes.
And you’re going to hear a little bit about my colleague Benny here and his efforts in Houston trying to bring greater emphasis and spotlight on the diversity effort. So we’re going in the right direction, we need to move it faster.
Victor Flores: Benny, what are some things that Randy just mentioned with the Houston Bar Association, also a golfer for the Houston Bar Association and how are you working to improve diversity?
Benny Agosto, Jr.: Yeah this year, we’re celebrating diversity at the Houston Bar Association. We are almost 150 years old and we have not done some things to keep up with the change in Houston. Houston happens to be the number one diverse city or the most diverse city in America.
Rocky Dhir: It’s incredibly diverse, yeah.
Benny Agosto, Jr.: Right now it’s ranked number one. When you look at the law profession in the studies, the law profession is the least diverse of all professions. So something has to be done and us lawyers and may be us that are in leadership roles need to really step up to make changes.
So this year, we’re doing a Diversity Summit in Houston that’s never been done before. We’re creating Diversity Awards to celebrate those firms that have done great and we’re honoring women and different groups of lawyers that have not been identified as for recognition in the past.
So we’re trying to do our part, not only to bring up diversity as part of what we need to do to have a better Bar and a better profession, but also identify those that have been doing a great job, and celebrate them by rewarding them or awarding them recognition.
Rocky Dhir: Randy, you said something very interesting. You said, you know that you get better outcomes with diversity. You said, I know it, and I don’t mean to read back your deposition transcript to you, I know it feels like that. But when you said that, you said it with conviction and you’ve experienced it. Can you tell us a little bit about how you experienced that to get such conviction in that?
Randy Sorrels: Sure. Our law firm started in 1951 and when I enjoined it in 1990, it was an all White male law firm and I took over the management roles of just a few years later and started to develop diversity. Benny was actually our first hire. We went to school slightly — he went to law school slightly later than I did. He was our first real diverse hire and then we started to add other women lawyers, other lawyers who you’d consider diverse.
And since then also our success has increased. The financial success, the focus on the firm throughout the State has been successful, but I’ll give you one example. We have — there was a very tragic case and the clients had gotten down to two lawyers, great excellent product liability lawyers. One was our lawyer Muhammad Aziz, a Pakistani lawyer who became an American citizen two years ago.
Another was a tremendously talented American lawyer. The client ended up choosing because they were from Southeast Asia, the Pakistan lawyer, our partner who settled it for a tremendous amount of money through hard work. No doubt the other lawyer would have gotten a great result as well, but that diversity allowed him access into the communities that maybe I as a Caucasian lawyer could not get into.
So I know it works. I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes and I’ve seen it happen with the firm.
Victor Flores: Diversity is just — it’s a common piece I think across even at the ABA level and I commend you guys for your work in improving that. I also wanted to ask diversity membership, we’re talking about that as well. Randy, you’ve made a concentrated effort in reaching out to our membership, can you kind of expand on that a little bit more and I know you’re really passionate about getting out to all Texas lawyers?
Randy Sorrels: Yeah, I think there is a segment of our Bar that feels disaffected or maybe disenfranchised with the State Bar because they don’t think the State Bar does enough for them. And so, we’re making the effort to say we, the State Bar, are here for you, we want to hear from you and we want you to hear from us on what we’re doing.
So the State Bar does a good job of getting the message out, not everybody reads their messages so we have to get better at figuring out our messaging so people get our message and then we also want to hear from those folks to say, this is what we need in our community and the State Bar needs to be responsive to that.
And one of the things we talked about today at the lunch was a Statewide Vacation Letter because a lot of people in small communities practice in a lot of different counties and you have to follow the rules on when you can tell the court you’re on vacation and they should have their hands off of you, and that’s not easy to follow.
So a Statewide Vacation Letter is one filing, all counties, 254 of them and the State recognize it easier for the lawyers something that benefits the lawyers and make their lives easier.
Rocky Dhir: I never thought of that, that’s kind of cool because that way lawyers can actually get some off time away from court.
Benny Agosto, Jr.: Well, no, and I know at the luncheon, there’s a large applause that followed that announcement. Right.
Rocky Dhir: Oh, was it really? Lawyers like vacations too, who would have thought.
Benny Agosto, Jr.: Well, it resonates, remember lawyers have to — trial lawyers and lawyers that go to court have to have schedules and have to have calendars and so you have to — you want predictability. So if you can have a statewide letter announcing to all the courts, all the counties me and my family are taking a few weeks off in the summer to go do something or just you want to go to Europe by yourself or with your best friend, that’s fine too. But you are able to announce it so that when it’s court time, they can put that off for the next trial setting.
It really helps our well-being and our lifestyle if we’re able to plan those things, and if I go on vacation in Houston and I have a case in El Paso, then the El Paso court may not recognize that and then call me to trial. So it’s important to have this opportunity to keep everybody working together and give you the wellness that we need, which is some time off.
Rocky Dhir: Probably also need something to prevent opposing counsels at that point from filing stuff while you are on vacation, filing a TRO or doing something, that way judges are aware, courts are aware, and then they can’t pull a fast one, and I like to think most lawyers don’t do that, but we know there’s always a few that do that, there’s always that one.
Victor Flores: Benny, you were talking about wellness, and I mean, you and Randy are partners at — is at the oldest —
Randy Sorrels: Plaintiff’s firm in the State.
Victor Flores: — right, and obviously managing associates in workload and family, how do you guys deal with balancing work/life and maybe what are some recommendations you give to younger lawyers, trying to deal with that as well?
Benny Agosto, Jr.: I’ll jump in because Randy preaches this all the time to our young lawyers as a managing partner for over 20 years of our firm, which is not easy in and of itself. He will be the first one to say, it’s not really balanced, it’s an unbalanced. If you think you’re going to balance your life and be a successful lawyer, it’s going to be tough. You have to put in a 100% commitment to your firm, to your work, to your charities, whatever you want to do, and then of course, remember, you’re at home sleeping most of the time, so your quality of time with your family is really the key, focus on the quality.
If you’re at work all day and you’re not focusing on the quality of your work, you’re going to hurt too, same thing at home. So it may be unbalanced but if you focus on the quality of life that you have, the quality of practice that you have and the quality of love you share with your loved ones at home, then that’s going to keep you somewhat balanced and successful.
Victor Flores: I think that’s great. I’ve actually never heard it explain that way but just focusing on the quality because we do have a short amount of time, there’s only 24 hours in a day and most of those are at the office or in transit, with traffic and everything, and when you get home you just really want to be able to shut off maybe and just spend that quality time with family, that’s great, that’s good stuff.
Rocky Dhir: Plus now with devices, it’s so tempting and so easy to just constantly be on your phone and see what’s coming in, and oh my gosh, I got to be on my iPad. So I think that, Victor, that’s a great question you asked because, yeah, we all need to learn how to unplug and part of that is on us. It’s not just on the Bar, it’s also — we individually have to make that decision. So I liked that question.
Randy Sorrels: That’s a great question. I will tell you day before yesterday I went to the gym early when I thought it was early at 6 o’clock I felt bad about myself because Victor’s in there, he’s got the body of a Marine, he’s lifting weights before six. I got in there at six, he was before six, already worked up a sweat. I said, man, I’m a slacker.
Victor Flores: I was trying to sneak out. I don’t think you had seen me. I was just going to sneak out, but —
Randy Sorrels: I looked down. I was ashamed with that physique you have, Victor. Keep yourself in great shape, terrific, that’s way to do it.
Victor Flores: I appreciate, but you’re lying on radio and –
Randy Sorrels: It looks great on radio.
Rocky Dhir: Well, every Marine I’ve ever known has always — this always happens whenever I have a meeting with the Marine and I try to show up right on time. They say, well, you’re late, I said, I’m not late, and they said, well, in the Marines if you’re on time you’re late. You always got to be there early. So that’s probably why he was at the gym before you were.
Randy Sorrels: Yeah.
Victor Flores: Just as a last question, I guess, what can we expect from the State Bar and the Houston Bar Association?
Randy Sorrels: Well, I would like Benny go first on this because he has got a very aggressive agenda that’s exciting for the Houston community, for sure.
Benny Agosto, Jr.: Thank you Randy and thank you Victor and Rocky for the opportunity to share some of the things we’re doing. I can tell you that as a person who’s involved with Bar activities, I’m honored to be working with Randy at the State level as we’ve done for many years and we’re going to follow his lead.
I’m also following his lead in Houston because he’s the past President of the Houston Bar and so I’m inspired by the things he’s done, and of course, we as leaders need to do, try to do better than what’s been done before. It’s hard to do, but we stand on the shoulders of giants like Randy and others that have led the way.
So, this year, we’re really going to focus on the diversity side of things, to celebrate diversity not to criticize but to bring it up to celebrate it. We’re going to celebrate the woman lawyer we talked about that. We’re starting the first LGBTQ Plus committee in the history of the Houston Bar Association, 150 years. Of course this year, the Stonewall riots are celebrated this June, and so, in parallel with that the Houston Bar is going to announce its first ever committee of LGBTQ Plus to be able to celebrate and do things that lawyers who identify with LGBTQ can feel part of the Houston Bar.
So, again, that’s diversity in many ways. We can’t just look at the color of our skin. We have to look gender diversity, our differences in lifestyle and our differences in how we live so that we can be better lawyers, because at the end we’re going to also celebrate the clients with the work that we do.
Lastly, one thing that’s very important to me and my wife is the libraries of Houston. We have a library project. There are schools in Houston that don’t have libraries, believe it or not.
Rocky Dhir: Wow.
Benny Agosto, Jr.: Not because of Harvey but just because they just have no funds to do it.
Rocky Dhir: Like no school library?
Benny Agosto, Jr.: No school library in an elementary school. So we’ve identified a school with the Mayor’s help and the city help and HISD, and this year the Houston Bar Association will be raising funds and books and different things needed to start a library in Houston.
And if we do one library then we’ve done our part to help the community; and Houston Bar does a lot of community efforts every year, but that’s one thing we’re really going to focus to help our community directly which impacts the future of our children in our community.
Randy Sorrels: Yeah, at State Bar we’re going to be a member-centric Bar for the next two years and the reason why is because the guy elected behind me Larry McDougal who’s a criminal practitioner, three person from Richmond, Texas, three person law firm. He has the same mindset.
We want to hear lawyers, we want to identify issues that can be fixed, ways to give us better well-being through lessening our anxiety, increasing our efforts with our clients in a more efficient manner and I listed a few like the Vacation Letter, we’re still working on universal access badges, E-filing consistency, a way to connect contract lawyers with people who need to hire contract lawyers on a free basis.
So we’ve got a bunch of other things we’re going to roll out. We’re going to listen for suggestions, we’re going to listen to criticism and we’re going to be sure and address that criticism and we’re going to try to build the Bar up including with the young lawyers who do so much work for our State Bar and celebrate their successes and focus on their achievements and move the Bar forward for the better of the profession.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Well, I wish I could hear more of this wisdom coming from all three of you really, but it looks like we have reached the end of our program.
I want to thank President Randy Sorrels. I want to thank President Benny Agosto, and by the time you hear this, I also want to thank President Victor Flores for joining me as a co-host today. You guys have been great. Thank you all for being here.
Randy Sorrels: Thanks so much.
Benny Agosto, Jr.: Great, thanks.
Rocky Dhir: Now for our listeners who have questions or want to follow up, what’s the best way for them to get a hold of you guys?
Randy Sorrels: Well, I think through the State Bar, we have a President’s page on the State Bar, but you can also email me at my office or my cell phone is freely given and so I’m not going to stop giving.
Rocky Dhir: Wow, this is bold, okay.
Randy Sorrels: And I still have to give it, so my cell phone is 713-582-8005 and my email address is [email protected].
Rocky Dhir: Wonderful, thank you. Ben.
Benny Agosto, Jr.: And again thank you all for today. I can be reached easily through the hpa.org or at abrahamwatkins.com. My email is [email protected] and my cell phone is everywhere as well. It’s the same number I have used for decades now and it could be reached at 281-389-6506.
We are here to help you become a better lawyer and serve our community.
Rocky Dhir: And Victor, I am going to ask you the same question because you are a Bar leader and I think one day we’ll be interviewing him as State Bar President, so.
Victor Flores: I hope so.
Rocky Dhir: So, how can the young lawyers get a hold of you if they want to get more involved in TYLA?
Victor Flores: Well, I am just going to repeat. I’ve shared my cell phone number on Bar Journal articles and just extended the offer if anybody wants to get a hold of me and has a good public service project that they have an idea about. They can call me or text me, 956-802-5620. That’s probably the best way to get a hold of me.
Rocky Dhir: We’re going to call this a Leadership Podcast because this has been absolutely phenomenal.
But that is all the time we have for this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast brought to you by LawPay. Thank you again LawPay.
Also, thank you to our listeners for tuning in.
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This is Rocky Dhir and Victor Flores signing off. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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