On March 10, Rocky Dhir welcomed president-elect candidates Jerry Alexander and Steve Benesh to give Texas attorneys the opportunity to learn about their campaigns and particular goals for the presidency. They discussed their career accomplishments and past service to the legal community, touched on the importance of maintaining the self-regulation of the State Bar, shared ideas for streamlining the attorney grievance process, and much more. Rocky also asked the candidates questions submitted both before and during the forum.
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Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcasts, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice with your host, Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Hi there, and welcome to the first of two new candidate forums for the 2023 State Bar of Texas election. Exciting times. My name is Rocky Dhir. I’m an attorney in Dallas and I’m the host of the State Bar of Texas Podcast. I’m honored today to be joined by Jerry Alexander of Dallas and Steve Benesh of Austin. Both have been out tirelessly campaigning to become the next president elect of the State Bar of Texas.
Guys, this forum is an opportunity for all Texas lawyers to meet the candidates, get some questions answered. Among other topics, we’ll be asking the candidates questions related to the practice of law, the governance of the State Bar, and those of you who watched and submitted questions in writing using the Zoom Q&A feature, well, we’ll get to them as well as time allows.
Now, this form will be one hour, and we want to get through as many of these questions as we possibly can. Candidates will have up to two minutes to answer each question, and we’ll start with introductions. Let’s get to know these guys Jerry and Steve, why don’t each of you take a minute to introduce yourselves. Jerry Alexander, let’s start with you.
Jerry Alexander: Hi, my name is Jerry Alexander. I’ve been a lawyer in Dallas, Texas. I was licensed in 1972, so I just passed 50 years. I’ve been at the same firm Passman & Jones that entire time. Started in the mail room and then became a court runner, then a briefing clerk and an associate attorney. I’ve practiced, had a general practice at first, did a little real estate law and then moved over to litigation. And I’ve done business litigation for the last 40 years, antitrust aviation and just business. I still try lawsuits, finished a lawsuit, month long trial in Tarrant County in January and February. I’m a former president of the Dallas Bar Association, a former board member, and chairman of the board of the State Bar of Texas. I have a family. I have two adult children and one grandchild. Been married to — in August, I will have been married to Sherry Alexander, who’s an attorney at the Polsinelli Firm for 40 years and she’s had an active practice in the healthcare space her entire career. So that’s pretty much who I am. Thank you.
Rocky Dhir: I got to wonder, do law firms even have mail rooms anymore? With everything on electronics? That could be a whole another podcast, Jerry. We’ll have you back to talk about that. Steve?
Jerry Alexander: We have one, but it’s much smaller.
Rocky Dhir: I was going to say I was going to say probably just a corner of a desk somewhere. Steve Benesh, it’s a pleasure to have you here as well. Tell us about yourself.
Steve Benesh: Sure. Let me first say, thank you to everyone who’s dialed in. Thank you to everyone who will listen to this later. I appreciate your interest, that you are interested enough in the candidates to dial in. Thank you, Rocky, for moderating and thank you, State Bar, for hosting this. I was born in San Antonio while my dad was in law school at St. Mary’s. As a matter of fact, they had to take a note to him in class when my mother went into labor to let him know. After he got out of law school, we moved to the Wichita Falls area. I actually grew up in the country in a little town called Iowa Park, which we call Iowa Park. I ended up going to Austin to the University of Texas to go to college. Fell in love when I was 19 years old with a beautiful blue eyed pharmacy student, and we dated for four years. Got married just before I started law school. After I got out of law school, we moved to Houston to join the firm, Bracewell that I have spent my entire career with 35 years. First 12 years in Houston, from summer clerk to associate to partner.
And then after 12 years, my wife and I, Jennifer, who is a cotton farmer’s daughter, we had a Green Acres moment. For those of you who recognize that 1960s literary illusion, there our TV illusion. And so I told the firm, asked the firm if I could move to our Austin office, which I ended up being the managing partner of and live in the country west of town. So we bought acreage little ranch in the little town of Dripping Springs that 23 years ago nobody had ever heard of but the world has come to Dripping, and we’ve been there. We have two sons. They’re both in their 30s. Will is 33, he’s a banker in New York, and Austin is 31, who’s an IP lawyer in DC. I am pleased to be here. I’ll talk more about my professional experience later on, but that’s a little about myself. I do oil and gas litigation. And again, I’m very thankful for this opportunity to talk about my candidacy. Thank you, Rocky.
Rocky Dhir: Now, when your dad got that note in class, did he actually get up to go join your mother or did he stay and — did he stay for the rest of class? Because –
Steve Benesh: Here’s the story. In 1961, they didn’t interrupt class for anything. So the person at the front office that my mother called to say she was in labor, took the note down, walked down and placed it on a bulletin board outside of his classroom. It wasn’t until class was dismissed and he was milling around outside that a classmate told him, well, GA, he went by his initials GA. I think there’s a note there for you. This is when St. Mary’s was where La Monteleone Hotel is now. But he rushed over to the Santa Rosa Hospital and made it in time before I was delivered.
Rocky Dhir: That’s amazing. Okay, well, hey, at least he wasn’t – at least he didn’t get in the doghouse that’s the important part. So let’s talk about why you guys want to serve as the President of the State Bar of Texas. It’s a big job, and if elected, what would your priorities be? So, Steve, we’ve heard a little bit from you. Let’s hear from you on this one. And then, Jerry, we’re going to turn to you as well. So why do you want to do this and what would you do once elected?
Steve Benesh: That’s probably and Jerry can chime in when it’s his turn probably the most asked question. Usually it’s, why the heck do you want to do this?
Rocky Dhir: Absolutely.
Steve Benesh: I’ve been asked a couple of times before if I would throw my hat in the ring and be a candidate, and I’ve declined twice for a couple various reasons, seasons of life. One time my youngest was getting ready for his senior year in high school and I didn’t want to miss it. This is a long campaign period, eight and a half months and we’re just a little over six months through it. It involves a lot of travel and a lot of getting to know our constituency lawyers around the state, and I didn’t want to miss important seasons of life, but this time it’s the right time. Our boys are grown and gone and beyond that, I think my experience through the years as the Austin bar president, chair of the Austin bar foundation, school board chair or school board president, I should say chair of leadership Austin on the State Bar Board, chair of Texas Legal Protection Plan, chair elect of the Texas Bar Foundation are all whistle stops along a trajectory. I think that’s led me to here and I think that the experience that I’ve had culminates in me being an appropriate candidate for State Bar president. And at the same time, too, there are a number of issues that are important to me. I think, Rocky, you wanted me to touch on that, that led me to say yes on this third time’s a charm.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Steve Benesh: I guess first and foremost, I want to make sure that we remain a self-governing entity. That’s very important to me that the State Bar of Texas remains lawyers regulating lawyers. And beyond that, there are a number of things that are important to me making sure that we continue to support the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, TLAP and expand and fund its services. And then beyond that, a number of nuts and bolts things that I would like to do to make the practice of law more seamless, like standardize electronic filing and streamline the grievance process and a number of other items. That I would like to be able to complete in the two years that I have from President elect through the end of what would be my presidency in the summer of 2025.
Rocky Dhir: Now, Jerry, you’ve had some time to ruminate. That’s my word of the day, ruminate, had some time to ruminate on this question. So why president of the State bar of Texas and what would you want to do if ascended into that office?
Jerry Alexander: When I was board chair in 2019 and 2020, I had some things that I wanted to accomplish, and we were cut short by COVID just when COVID started and we did have remote meetings and what have you, but just like everything else, COVID slowed some things up. The first thing I tell people when they ask me, why are you doing this? I don’t know why anybody would not want to be the president of the State Bar of Texas. It’s a terrific job, a terrific honor, and I owe the profession so much. I’m not supposed to be here on a podcast. My parents were great people, greatest generation people, both school teachers. Essentially, my father wound up working for the government a little while, but they gave me and my sister everything, got us educated. Louise Raggio, who was a neighbor of ours told me that I needed to go to law school and always did what she said. She was kind of my assistant mother, like my mother was for Drear and Tommy and Kenny. So I went to law school after I got out of the army and went to work, got a job, and it turned out, it just turned out great for me. I met my wife because she’s a lawyer.
And what I’ve seen over the years, I’ve been with a big firm and a small firm and a medium sized firm and never changed firms. That’s the way things go in Dallas a lot of times. But over the years, I’ve seen things that just make the practice terrifically difficult that I think I could make better.
And I feel like I owe this profession so much. That’s what I’d like to do. Like to accomplish two things. Number one, I would like to keep, be sure that there is self-governance. So, I just had my first grandchild, Emma. So, when she decides if she wants to be a lawyer, it’s still a really good profession, a self-regulated profession by lawyers. The second thing I’d like to do is to make the day to day work that lawyers do a lot less stressful, and I think I have some programs and some ideas that would help that. The disciplinary rules need to be redone. That’s going to be a three-year project, but you get a three-year runway. Your president elect, then your president, then your immediate past president. You can go to the executive committee, get permission to form a task force, look at those things hard and get changes made. For example, you could make a very simple change that there needs to be a standing requirement before a grievance can be filed. We have people filing grievances against other lawyers and other cases in order to get discovery now, and that’s permitted under the rules. I don’t think those grievances go very far. But still, you get one of those certified letters from the state bar, you have to spend time on it. We could try to make the profession bankable, which would take the stress out of the cash flow, the issues and we could make it so lawyers can collect their fees.
For example, if a grievance came out of a fee dispute, the fee dispute would be resolved first. The grievance would be over in a separate pile until that got resolved, and most of the time, both things would be resolved. We need to sit down with our health insurance carriers that are on the exchange, and we need to get better health insurance. I’ve talked to some people about that. I think we can. I’m pretty sure we can, and that’s very special and very, very key, because lawyers I found really do want to take care of their staff. Of course, their own families and even large firms. I don’t think we are getting as good a break on health insurance as they should and small firms have trouble being in a group.
I have two programs that have had a lot of resonance. One for the younger people, which is a mentorship program. Get some lawyers that are experienced to volunteer to be mentors. The new lawyers coming in, if they want a mentor, they can choose, a mentor off the list. They can start talking on the phone or by Zoom and see where that goes. But an outlet for young lawyers to ask older, experienced lawyers when either there’s no one else to go to or they don’t want to ask somebody in their firm about.
Rocky Dhir: Jerry, I don’t mean to cut you off, but we do have questions from some of the viewers, and we want to get those questions.
Jerry Alexander: Okay. All right.
Rocky Dhir: Here’s a great question for both of you. So, there’s the good news and the bad news. The good news is we want to hear about your greatest accomplishment in your career. The bad news is we also want to hear about your greatest career failure. So great question. We wanted to pose it to both of you. So Steve, let’s bring it back to you. What is your biggest accomplishment in your career, and then what is your biggest failure?
Steve Benesh: Well, my biggest accomplishment would be getting my wife Jennifer to say yes when I asked her to marry me. I married way over my head, but that’s a personal accomplishment and not a professional one. Rather than talk about a case that I won, I would tell you that probably my proudest accomplishment is that, like my father who was a lawyer, I had a son who became… I had a child who became a lawyer. It’s been not that every offspring of every lawyer should go into law. Certainly not. Hopefully not. But it’s been wonderful to share that experience with him through law school and to be able to discuss our profession. What I’m proud of is he’s become the kind of lawyer that I would have wanted him to be, someone who recognizes the important lessons of civility and professionalism. Just as I and my father’s law office and in his courtroom, he was a judge, learned those lessons. I have somehow imparted those lessons along with other friends and mentors to him, to be the kind of lawyer and the kind of citizen, the kind of person that I wanted him to be. I’m proud of both my boys, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nice to have one. To have followed me into the profession as I did with my father. Is the second one my greatest failure or regret?
Rocky Dhir: The biggest failure in your career.
Steve Benesh: I lost my first case. My first jury trial that I first chaired was in federal court before Judge Hittner in Houston, and it had to do with the misminting of Belarusian gold rubles. I even got to call the prime minister of Belarus as a live witness at trial.
Rocky Dhir: Wow.
Steve Benesh: Yeah, it was cool. And it was cool up until the jury came back and we won against one defendant. But the main defendant, we didn’t prevail and because it was my first, first chair, it was crushing. But there were important lessons that were learned there. That happens in the practice of law. The only lawyers, the only trial lawyers who haven’t lost a case are those who haven’t tried a case and valuable lessons about how the process works and the administration of justice come out of our stumblings and failings, often through no fault of our own, sometimes through fault of our own. But the lessons that we get when we lose are at least as important as those that we obtain when we win.
Rocky Dhir: Very well. Now, Jerry, it’s your turn. Biggest career accomplishment, biggest career failure.
Jerry Alexander: And so, we’re talking about careers, right? So this is…
Rocky Dhir: Yes.
Jerry Alexander: Families aside. I guess my biggest career accomplishment was I have won some multimillion-dollar verdicts and judgments. Probably the most famous one occurred recently, which was about two years ago in a case that has had 26 articles written about it because I represented a bankruptcy trustee and bankruptcy court in the Northern District and they found lender liability, which was the first time that anything like that had been done. $16 million judgment, and I just thought it was another case. But apparently that was something that has a lot of notoriety with it. Outside of that, I’ve accomplished things in bar work that I was considered professional. I did the mural project. I’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, probably over a million dollars for the Dallas Volunteer Attorney program, and I’m really proud of that. That’s something that’s very close to my heart. That’s for legal services, for people in civil matters that are below the poverty line.
My biggest professional failures, that would be two of them. I will tell you one that a judge tells about me. Every time I see this judge and I’m with anyone else, he tells the story about when I showed up for a jury trial that was a big trial and the defendant did not show up. The attorney for the defendant did not show up, and they had written a letter to the judge that said they were not showing up. So I said, “Well, we’ll just try it to the court.” And the judge said, “No, you have to try it to the jury” and I tried it to the jury with no opposition put on my case. The jury went out and were out for two hours and then started writing notes to the judge. And so. I felt fairly professionally inadequate at that time. They did eventually come around, but he tells that as a funny story.
The other things I feel like I fail professionally anytime I don’t help a client achieve their goals or the client is dissatisfied with the service, rightly or wrongly, people say I’m a pleaser. But those are always bad things for lawyers when the clients are not pleased with your work. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen that often. But that’s the way I would answer that question.
Rocky Dhir: For those of you viewing in your offices and/or at home, I want you to notice neither one of these candidates said that their biggest career accomplishment was getting to be on a panel with me. Okay? We just need to make that very clear. This was a golden opportunity, and look… All right, have you guys been…
Steve Benesh: I thought it had been up to now.
Rocky Dhir: It’s up to and including. That wasn’t stipulated, guys. I mean, come on. You should know by now.
Jerry Alexander: I am in my answer.
Rocky Dhir: Jerry, we’re going to start with you on this next question, and then, Steve, this gives you a moment to think about it. So as president of the State Bar of Texas, if you are elected, what would you do differently from your opponent? So this gives you a chance to kind of talk about the differences between the two of you. I know you guys have a great professional working relationship, but let’s talk about the differences. So, Jerry, if elected, what would you do differently than Steve?
Jerry Alexander: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer because I really don’t know what Steve would do as president. So you say what I do differently, I might do the same thing. I think what I would say I would do or go about differently is I understand something that a lot of people don’t understand about the way the state bar works. The body politic of the state bar is the board of directors.
And if you wanted to look at a power chart, the board chair would be probably the most powerful position because the president really can’t do anything without board approval. Since I know that any of these things that I want to do, I would know that I would have to go through the board and get their support and get them behind it, which you can do. And so I think I would be a more nuts and bolts, let’s get this program started. Let’s do the program. Let’s get this changed. Let’s do that and get it all passed and tidied up. A lot of presidents go and they go around as an ambassador. I would like to do that too. That’s fun. But I think I would be, I don’t know how Steve would do it, but I would be working a lot with the staff and the board to get the programs in my platform instituted and to bring about positive change for the working lawyers of Texas.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, very well. Steve, your turn. What if anything would you do differently from Jerry if you were to be elected State Broad Texas president?
Steve Benesh: Well, putting aside the fact that we have different platform points except for self-governance, and I’m not going to touch upon the different platform points that I would advance, obviously expansion of TLAP and streamlining the grievance process and standardizing electronic filing, making the State Bar’s website more manageable, easier to navigate. But I guess if we just take our campaigns up to now and project that into our service as State Bar president elect and State Bar president, I guess there might be two distinguishing points.
Both Jerry and I have a record of service both to our local bars and to our State Bar. We both served on the State Bar Board of Directors, Jerry as chair, but I have actually a longer record of continuous service statewide to the State Bar. I was first elected to the Board of Trustees in 2008 and I have served in a statewide capacity for the State Bar for the last 15 years. After I rolled off the board of directors, immediately, I was appointed to the Texas Legal Protection Plan, which is the legal insurance arm of the State Bar of Texas. And after a four-year term and after my service as chair, and during that time, I also was chair of the annual meeting of the State Bar. And that’s a year long process. After I rolled off as the Chair of Texas Legal Protection Plan, I was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Texas Bar Foundation, which I’ve been on for the last seven years, and I am the chair elect. That’s 15 continuous years of service. And of course, the Texas Bar Foundation is the charitable arm of the State Bar, 15 continuous years of service. And that’s important because it’s allowed me to build a vast network of relationships and friendships with lawyers, with local bar leaders that I think would inure to the benefit of the bar in my service.
The other thing I would do, and I think Jerry touched on it, is I have traveled much more extensively during this campaign. I got back from Amarillo this morning. That was my 80th visit to a city to attend a bar event since September. I’ve now traveled 16,000 miles since September, both because it’s important for lawyers to eyeball me, to size up who might be the voice and face of our profession, but also so I could go and listen and hear what gives them concern, what troubles them, what are their issues, what are their understandings and misunderstandings. I’ve met, by my nearest estimate, more than 20,000 lawyers on those travels. And so I would be that same type of bar president. I would go to our constituents, wherever they’re located, from the Valley to El Paso to the Piney Woods to the Panhandle and everywhere in between, to meet lawyers where they are and hear what they have to tell me about their local practice and about the State Bar.
Rocky Dhir: And we’ll be right back to continue our conversation with our two State Bar president elect candidates. Stay tuned.
So, guys, recently I was reading Clio’s legal trends report, and I found something surprising. There’s a lot of turnover in the legal profession due to work life balance issues, so I brought with me Joshua Lenon, Lawyer in Residence at Clio, to talk to us more about this. So, Joshua, what’s going on?
Joshua Lenon: Bottom line is, firms that want to stick together need cloud based legal practice management software. Lawyers using cloud based software were 29% more likely to be happy in their professional lives, 34% more likely to be happy working at their firm, and they’re 27% more likely to perform well at their jobs.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Happy lawyers, happy lawyer, happy life. Who knew? So, Joshua, if I want to dig into this a little deeper, where do I go?
Joshua Lenon: Oh, we make the report free for everyone at clio.com/trends. That’s C-L-I-O.com/trends.
Rocky Dhir: The Texas Lawyers Assistance Program provides confidential help for Texas lawyers, law students, and judges who have problems with substance use and mental health issues. TLAP offers 24/7 confidential support and can connect you to peers and providers for assistance. TLAP can also connect you to the Sheeran-Crowley Lawyer Wellness Trust, which provides financial help to Texas lawyers, law students, and judges who need treatment for substance use, depression, and other mental health issues, but can’t afford to pay for services. Call or text TLAP anytime at 1800-343-8527.
And we are back with Jerry Alexander and Steve Benesh, our two candidates for president elect of the State Bar of Texas.
Okay, so you guys both touched on something that in your opening statements, if you will, and that had to do with the State Bar having this unique position as being a self-regulating profession, writing our own disciplinary rules, choosing our own leaders, that kind of thing. Now, you both touched on that, and I wanted to give you guys an opportunity to kind of talk about how important you believe self-governance is to the legal profession. How do we sustain it? So Jerry will start back with you again. How important is self-governance to the legal profession, and how would you work as president to sustain that?
Jerry Alexander: Well, self-governance is crucial. Self-governance is what makes it the State Bar. It’s another way of saying it a mandatory bar. A mandatory bar has to be self-regulated. We have to have a mandatory bar in order to have any cohesion in the practice in the State of Texas. And the places that do not no longer have mandatory bars have suffered and the attorneys have suffered because of it. So it’s absolutely crucial.
What you have to do to maintain it, I think, are two things. Number one, there are legal aspects to it. You have to stay within the mission statement, which is a great mission statement, and there’s plenty to do within the mission statement as long as you’re in there, you should be fined legally. And the other thing you have to do is you have to, I think, give the lawyers of the State of Texas some tangible benefits, such as better insurance, better disciplinary rules, in order that they can understand the importance of the State Bar so that they are behind not doing away with self-regulation or a mandatory bar.
It’s absolutely crucial that we keep those things, and we can do that, but we have to do it by working together and working within the mission statement and not doing things that could get something sideways one way or another. We need to have just some normalcy and proceeding in a straight line here ahead, looking out for the practicing lawyers of the State of Texas. And that’s what I would try to do.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, fair enough. Steve, what about you?
Steve Benesh: Rocky, I would begin by saying I think that one of the bigger challenges that the State Bar faces is apathy by lawyers. For example, there’s almost 110,000 lawyers in the State of Texas. If 25,000 lawyers vote next month collectively for Jerry and for me, that would be remarkable. And apathy is perilous in connection with defending our right to govern ourselves. For many people, for many lawyers, the State Bar is like the air conditioning unit in your house. You don’t think about it. You don’t wake up in the morning and praise it if it’s working the way you wanted. But, boy, if it goes out, you certainly have something to say about that. There is so much that the State Bar does well. Could it be tweaked? Absolutely, and I would love to do so. But we must engage lawyers. They must understand why the State Bar is relevant and it’s accessible and why it’s important. They must understand the good works of TLAP. Would I tweak it? You’re sure.
I would love to add a docket assistance program of volunteer lawyers who would step into the breach of someone’s practice when they have to step away to get help that’s not there now. I would tweak that. I think they need to understand the grievance process. Would I tweak it? Yeah. I would love for the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel to designate a point person that both someone who files a complaint or someone who is an aggrieved lawyer has a person to contact to find out what’s the status of their matter during the investigation process. But it works well. I would tout the availability of CLE. Would I tweak it? You bet. I would move CLE to some more locations around the state to make it more available in person. I would make it specific to the nature of their practice and those locations. But it works well. There is information available on our website. You bet.
Steve Benesh: You bet. Would I tweak it? Of course, I would add an online searchable database of the most common questions and problems and concerns lawyers have with clear and concise answers available from a virtual button right there on the main page. So, I think we need to do of the State Bar website, I think we need to do a better job of marketing the good works of the State Bar. It’s importance in the lives of every lawyer so that we can battle apathy, and more effectively protect and defend our right to govern ourselves.
Rocky Dhir: One thing you’ve both referenced in the various answers to the questions is “streamlining the grievance process.” You’ve both talked about that at various points. Let’s maybe talk about some specifics about how you’d go about doing that. How do you go about streamlining that? Steve, we’ll start with you on this one, and then Jerry will turn to you.
Steve Benesh: Absolutely. So, three things. Number one, the legislature just a few years ago created the Office of Ombudsman, a facilitator of information in connection with the grievance process. I think that position is still getting its legs under it with regard to the course and scope of responsibilities of the Office of Ombudsman. And so, I would like to make sure that the Ombudsman remains an available source of information to both lawyers who are in the process, and those who have filed complaints. Two specifics therein, and one I actually touched on in my last answer.
A lot of times when a grievance goes into the investigation phase, it falls into a black hole, and it’s hard to know either for the person that initiated the complaint or for the lawyer that’s the subject of it. What is going on? I would support the creation of appoint person for each and every matter during the investigation phase, who would be responsive to questions as to status. And then finally, I would make sure that we do a better job of explaining to a person that files a complaint that they are not files a grievance, I should say, excuse me.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Steve Benesh: That they are not a party to that grievance. They’re more akin to a witness. It’s often frustrating to someone who files a grievance that they don’t get to participate in that process other than to provide information as part of the investigation. And I think doing a better job of describing, this isn’t like a plaintiff in a lawsuit. It’s like a witness in a lawsuit, would avoid some of the frustrations that the CDC and that local grievance committee has received in connection with the grievance process.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Thank you, Steve. Jerry, back to you on this one. Can you give us some specifics on how you would want to streamline the grievance process?
Jerry Alexander: Sure. There would be a two-pronged approach to this. The long term and the short term. In the long term, I’d want a three-year taskforce formed to study the disciplinary rules and to basically rewrite them. That’s going to take a long time.
First year you’d listen, second year you draft, third year you’re trying to get past because it is a long project. There are a lot of things in the disciplinary rules that just don’t belong there. Can’t be into all those now. What we could do right away though, is we could change one thing which would be the standing requirement. Anybody can file a grievance on anybody the way it is right now. There’s no standing. We need to limit that to clients or people that are otherwise affected and eliminate some other things, like, opposing parties, people that are filing, people that aren’t related to it, all that are filing grievances on other people and to try to get discovery from another matter. So that would be one really quick fix.
The second thing is there needs to be parallel systems. There needs to be a system involving money, disputes, and a system involving non-money disputes. The system involving money disputes would have two parts. Part one would be if it was about a lawyer taking a client’s money, it’s something that the victims fund of the State Bar might have to come up with money for. That goes on a fast track. That’s on a separate deal. If it’s a fee dispute, that’s completely different. Let the fee dispute go the way it would go. You keep the grievance to the side.
On the other things that are not or non-monetary, you could pretty much handle them the way they are, but the grievance people, the disciplinary people need to be more responsive to the lawyers when they want to know what the status is. And they need to understand that grievances are very, very, very stressful to attorneys that get those letters. And when I talk to people, I have not been to 80 or 90 events, but I’ve been to over 40 because I’m a practicing lawyer also. But the thing that comes up, if I ask them, what about the State Bar? They all talk about the disciplinary rules and they all talk about the grievance system.
That’s 90% of what you hear because that’s the way they look at us. I agree public relations needs to be done but for years, I’ve heard people say they’re going to travel around and tell everybody how good the State Bar is. And I think they want something concrete.
State bar is awesome. Pattern jury charges, those come from the State Bar. Real estate forms, probate forms, those are all from the sections and those are the starting place for people in those areas. Since pattern jury charges have come out, I have not been a court where the judges asked where they start. That’s all the State Bar. But it’s like something people do take that for granted. And so, we can talk about that too.
Rocky Dhir: Yeah. I do want to move on to another question, another topic that we haven’t really talked about yet, and that’s about the state of the world really outside of our State Bar. It affects the practice of law, but it’s not really a State Bar issue, but it is something that the State Bar needs to address potentially. As both of you, I’m sure know and as many people in our audience know.
The economy is not in the best of places. We’ve been struggling for some time, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. What do you think the State Bar can do to assist attorneys who might be struggling under some kind of difficulty related to the economy? Is there something we can do as a State Bar, and what do you think that should be? So, Jerry, we want to start with you on this one and then Steve, he’ll come back over to you. Jerry, any thoughts on that?
Jerry Alexander: I’m not sure I understand the question. He’s talking about what we could — what the State Bar could do to help the attorneys?
Rocky Dhir: Yes.
Jerry Alexander: That are having difficulties because of the state of the economy.
Rocky Dhir: Correct.
Jerry Alexander: Well, one of the things that I have wondered about forever and want to do that’s really not sort of outside of the platform, but it’s part of the same thing is I do not understand why our profession is not bankable. I talked to the managing partner of a firm that has been in existence for over 100 year, two weeks ago. And I asked him, I said, “If you go to a bank and try to get your receivables financed, do you have to sign personal guarantees?” And he laughed a little bit, and he said, “Of course, I do.” And I said, “Why is that?” What are the businesses that have been around for as long as your firm that have to do that? And one thing I would like to do is sit down with the banking industry, the lenders, and say, “You know what? Lawyers are and law firms are good risks, and try to get them a way to be bankable without having to sign a personal guarantee at least like on 20% of their receivables.” As far as how they can help the lawyers develop their practice, I think we need more programs about how to develop business. That’s sort of the thing that nobody teaches in law school and nobody talks about, but we could really be helpful, I think, by having some CLE about that.
And also, about teaching them to learn new areas. Some areas of the law get better, bankruptcy, creditor’s rights, debtor’s rights those get more active during a bad economy. We could steer them toward that. “Okay, well, here’s how you learn how to be a bankruptcy lawyer.” Or here’s how if somebody comes in and says, “I’m having trouble because of the economy.” You can help them and also earn a fee. I think those would be good things. But also, it would be good if, again, on the younger people or even older people have this mentor program where they could call another lawyer and say, “well, how are you getting through these times?”
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Jerry, thank you. And Steve?
Steve Benesh: Sure. Thank you very much. Well, one thing I would make sure is that we continue to adequately fund the Sheeran-Crowley Trust, which is a trust established in connection with Texas Lawyers Assistance Program. It is the only trust of its kind anywhere in the United States in connection with the lawyer assistance program. If someone is a law student, a judge or a lawyer and cannot afford the treatment they need, either mental health or substance abuse, the trust will cover it. If they have insurance but the deductible is too high, the trust will cover it. But that trust needs to be topped off. It needs to be funded on a regular basis to provide the financial relief that people need in connection with treatment, especially if their practices and profitability have languished because of what they’re struggling with. That’s one.
A second one that I think we should look at a program of cost relief in connection with CLE for those whose practices are struggling, or they’re trying to establish a practice.
And then third and Jerry actually hit on it. I would like to see the State Bar more involved in the establishment on the local level to partner with local bar associations and with law schools.
To establish regular mentoring programs to help young lawyers or lawyers of any vintage learn the business, the economics of practicing law. And I think that establishing that kind of mentorship program beginning in law school in some law schools, do that very successful, continuing that into the practice and partnering with all of our local bar associations and some of our affinity and specialty bars, in providing a more seasoned lawyer to mentor younger lawyers, less experienced lawyers on the economics and the business aspects of practicing law.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, so we’ll be right back to hear once again from our to president elect candidates. Stay tuned.
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Rocky Dhir: We are back with Steve Benesh and Jerry Alexander the two candidates for president elect for the State. Bar of Texas. Let’s get back to it. So, one thing you’ve both touched on is mental health and the importance whether it’s through TLAP or whether it’s through local bar associations, getting attorneys a mental health that they might need. So, mental health involved being it’s been top of mind for some time now and for good reason. The State Bar provides confidential assistance as you know through Texas lawyers, to judges, law students through TLAP, the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, are you supportive of these efforts and are there other things beyond TLAP that you think the State Bar could do to help lawyers struggling with wellness? So, let’s talk about wellness. So, Steve, we will start with you.
Steve Benesh: Well, I think a lot of it relates to the expansion of TLAP and the better marketing of TLAP really in three respects, I think a couple I’ve touched on lightly. One thing I was surprised, have been surprises, that TLAP does not have a docket assistance program, a pool of volunteer lawyers who if someone’s practices languishing where they’ve got to step away to get the help they need for what they’re struggling with, a volunteer lawyer who can stand in the breach. I would very much support that and I think that would be a wonderful thing to have for folks who need those services. You got to remember, TLAP is used most often by solo and small firm practitioners, which means they have few people they can turn to for assistance when they need to step away.
Another thing that I think we need to do is a better market that the variety of wellness offerings that TLAP has. People tend to think of TLAP as the auto garage, you take your car into when your transmission’s out for acute care but not where you get your tires rotated and your oil changed. And TLAP has a robust offering of wellness opportunities, lessons we all need to take to heart on a daily or regular or weekly basis to keep our lives on the rails. And I think we could do a better job of marketing and promoting that and making it available. And then the third is I mentioned the Sheeran-Crowley Trust. It is incredible in the way that it funds the treatment needs of those who seek to TLAP services, but we have to continue to support it financially and I would continue to market its good works and make sure that we have the folks that will adequately support it through financial contributions.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Jerry, your turn.
Jerry Alexander: All those things are great and TLAP should be expended and will be expanded. But here’s what I did, I’ve traveled the state too and I’ve talked to people, and they all said that they all said the same thing, same kinds of things about problems that they have. And goodness knows some people really, really, really need help. They have substance abuse. We have too high rate of suicide. Once too many, but this is really bad especially after COVID. TLAP has people that are professionals to quit then. So, I started asking people another question, not the question about how bothered are you now or are you feeling okay or do you need to go, get some professional assistance.
If you do, go ahead, please. When I started asking what is it about the practice of law that makes it so hard? Because all of them said the same that it was stressful. What are the things that make it stressful? There’s 110,000 of us, let’s try to do something about those things, let’s get to the next layer of the onion, let’s peel the onion a little bit. Well, grievances are stressful. Well, let’s make them less stressful. Let’s fix it like I’ve talked about. Cash flow and their firm is stressful. Let’s get it bankable. I can’t get good health insurance. The health insurance is so expensive. My employees leave to go other places because of the health insurance, because I’m a small firm. Let’s get better health insurance. And I want to attack those problems, because I don’t think people understand if you’ve got a $110,000 of anything, you can get deals, you can get a better deal on insurance.
You can go to banks and say, “Look this is what attorneys do and lawyers do,” or maybe there’s a lawyer’s bank. If there was a way and they say, “Why is your cash full?” then, “Well, I can’t collect my fees?” “Well, why can’t you collect your fees?” “Because I’m afraid of getting sued for malpractice,” or, “I’m afraid of a grievance.” You had put it all the grievance, so that grievance goes to the side. You sit down with the insurance people and you say, “Look, what if he had a little rider that we could pay a little extra for?” And you would pay the attorney that’s trying to collect the fee, the law firm, his own law firm or no law firm, money to defend that counterclaim. How much would that cost? I wasn’t that big of a deal. And not raise their rights through the roof the next year.
There are large firms I’ve talked to, they walk away from fees of over a million dollars because of that. And every small firm has that problem from time to time, and I think anybody watching this will go, “Yeah, I just walk away from that, didn’t do anything wrong, didn’t want the hassle.” I want to take those things away and then we’ll have a better way to practice and an easier way to practice and less stressful way to practice. People don’t mind going to court. People don’t mind doing a closing or contract. That’s what they were trained to do. It’s all of those, it’s the business of practicing law eventually that drives them.
Rocky Dhir: Let’s shift gears for a moment and talk. Both of you have a history, years and years of volunteering for the bar whether it’s state or whether it’s local. And so, this is a great question we got from one of our audience members. And I love this question, I love asking it to folks like you who serve in bars. Why is involvement in the State Bar or your local bar so important? And maybe stating in another way. What made you decide to get involved and be part of it? What I’m going to do on this one is I’m actually going to time you guys. All right, this is two minutes each, okay? So, Jerry, we’re going to start with you. Why is involvement in the State Bar or local bar so important? Two minutes, go.
Jerry Alexander: I would ask to converse of that question. I don’t understand why it’s not important to everybody. I will tell you why I got drafted into it because of a situation that happened in Dallas when there was a big turnover at the courthouse and they asked me to kind of try to get everybody together. I just got into it and here’s what I found out. And I think some professional now that are psychologists won’t have you’re finding this out too, that it’s a service organization and when you perform a service for somebody for no money, nothing, it makes you feel better. It makes me feel better. It really does. And I didn’t do this for notoriety money, goodness knows, but I don’t know why people haven’t tried giving, haven’t tried service because it really, really, really is chicken soup for your soul.
The other thing that’s really neat about that is you get to be around other people like that that are positive and try to accomplish things that are good. And you meet people that have very few personal agendas, and it’s just wonderful. I’ll tell you a perfect example about me. I would go to board meetings of the Dallas Bar Association, and they would end at 6:00 and we would have a little cocktail hour after that although I don’t drink anymore. And I would go to that and visit and then it would be 7:30. I would feel so energized after being around those people.
That I would go back to work and work joyfully on whatever you’ve been bothered me. That’s just the way I’m wired. I think there’s a part of that in everybody. And if we could get more lawyers to try it, it would really help to the profession, and it would really help them and that’s one of the things I would try to do —
Rocky Dhir: We’re two minutes now, Jerry.
Jerry Alexander: I would draft people like you.
Rocky Dhir: Hey, I’m already I’m already doing my thing here. Okay, watch. I’m trying to moderate two lawyers. Okay, here we go. Now, Steve, Steve Benesh, your turn. Why is involvement in the State Bar or your local bar so important?
Steve Benesh: Well, I guess a couple of reasons. One is, and this is probably reverse order. It is energizing to work with other people who are passionate about our profession. And beyond that, I enjoy being involved in the State Bar, because I believe I can make a difference. I can do things that actually enhance the practice of law in the state of Texas and that’s important to me. A small example, when I first joined the board of the Austin Bar, moved from Houston to Austin, as I talked about earlier, I was surprised that there was no charitable foundation, no Austin Bar Foundation. And I led the effort to create the Austin Bar Foundation, our law firm incorporated, the Austin Bar Foundation and spin up and operating for 20 years now. And so there’s a chance to do enormous good.
And remember, we’re a profession, which means that our practices should reflect what we profess, and what we profess is civility, and ethics and professionalism. But that’s not the way law students come to us out of law school, they come to us out of a polarized society where there is little civility and ethics. And so to be involved in a board that governs a bar where we profess ethics and professionalism and to be active and spreading that good news and mentoring and training lawyers and how to behave in the way that we profess is extraordinarily important. So I do it, because I enjoy it. Because I enjoy the people who are passionate about the practice of law, who I can serve with on the State Bar level. And because I believe it makes a difference, it makes our profession better and I feel good about doing something that’s helpful to other practitioners.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, wonderful. Now, look, we’ve talked about a lot of things just in the time that we’ve had, you know, we have less than 10 minutes left and there was a question that I wanted to make sure that we got to. That is, what in your opinion is the most important issue facing the legal profession that we haven’t mentioned yet today? And what role do you believe the State Bar should play in addressing it? You both talked about a number of issues, some of them have overlapped. But, you know, let’s talk about maybe something in your opinion that hasn’t been covered, that needs to be covered, and that the State Bar can help us with. So Steve, we’re going to start with you and then Jerry, we’re going to go to you. And like last time, I’m going to time this so that we can try to cram as much as we can in into the next six or seven minutes we’ve got left. So, Steve.
Steve Benesh: Of course, thank you. We’ve had a lot of the big wins self-governance, mental health, apathy and we’ve talked about. But one of the things and I’ve talked to almost all of the deans of the law schools here in Texas as I’ve traveled is a more active role of the State Bar in coming into the law schools, and providing coaching and mentoring on the one hand, but also to instruct on lessons of civility and professionalism and ethics and also the business of practicing law. And beyond that, the importance of serving the profession, by finding ways in local bars and specialty bars, infinity bars and the State Bar and sections and committees to give back. Think simply through the act of rolling up our sleeves and serving our profession for the betterment of us all.
So I would like to see the State Bar have a more active partnership with law schools in imparting those lessons because law students come into law school from a highly divisive political climate. And if we don’t play an active role in planting the seeds of civility and professionalism while they’re still law students, it’s more difficult to uproot those weeds of division once they become licensed practitioners.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, Jerry, your turn. What have we not talked about that we need to talk about? And how can the State Bar be involved in it?
Jerry Alexander: Something that we haven’t talked about that needs to be talked about and obviously the State Bar needs to be one of the most active, if not, the most active participants in this is jury trials. Jury trials used to be a very common thing. And what Steve was talking about with law schools, I go to law schools too. I’ve talked to deans, I’ve talked to the students too. And I asked them, what it is they want to do.
I judge Mock Trial competitions, a judged one Sunday. These kids are unbelievable in their skills. And so but they asked me how many jury trials do you have or how many jury trials can you have? Or are there jury trials? There’s just not as many as there used to be. There are a number of reasons for that. But I would like to do, I would like to look and examine that question. Maybe it’s a good thing, I don’t think it’s a good thing. But I would like to examine the question of why people are no longer using the courthouse as much as they used to when I was coming up to resolve their problems. We always talk about how we’re going to do things after we get there. Are all of these things about ethics and procedural rules and we spend lots and lots of time on that. But if you look at the number of jury trials, inside of Texas, they go down every year.
Now COVID skewed those numbers and all that, but that’s something that’s very important. To me it’s very important to everyone and it should be very important to the profession. And I would like to look and have something to examine that, maybe the schools could help us examine that. Because these kids, they want to do that, but there’s just that much not that much opportunity for them.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, very well now, gentleman and all of you at home and in your offices tuning in. Our time today is coming to an end, we hope this forum has been useful for you all as you make your decisions about the upcoming State Bar election. Now, as we get to the closing sections, we’re going to ask each candidate to give brief closing remarks. The order will be Steve, and then Jerry. Now to make sure that we get everything in, we’re going to give a minute to each of you. So one minute, just recap for your closing remarks. So Steve, let’s start with you, I want to hear your closing remarks as we wind down today.
Steve Benesh: They’re basically going to be thanks. I want to thank Jerry for being a gracious gentleman in this race. I’ve made a friend from it. I want to thank my wife and my law firm and my clients for graciously allowing me to engage in the full-time practice of law before the sun comes up and after the sun goes down and on the weekends while I’ve campaigned actively in the meantime. And I want to thank everyone that’s listening. I am passionate about serving the State Bar and that’s why I’ve spent so much time coming to meet you where you are.
I look forward to the opportunity to serve, the opportunity to know you, the opportunity to understand the things that concern you and to address your concerns and questions to make the State Bar relevant and accessible, and to make sure everyone has a seat at the table and that the State Bar at every level looks like who our profession is today. And of course, thank you Rocky for your time.
Rocky Dhir: Oh, well, thank you, Steve. And Jerry, it is now over to you, your closing remarks as we start to wind down.
Jerry Alexander: I’d like to thank everyone too, and especially the people that shown enough interest to tune in and watch this. But my closing remarks would be is that we are not at a crossroads but we’re close to it. And what we need to do is we need to build a better bar together and that includes everyone. We’re going to need every lawyer that we can get involved, to be involved, to face the challenges that are coming for the profession. There will be other challenges to the to the State Bar of Texas to its existence that come. I don’t know what form they will take or where they will come from, I just know that that’s a sign of the times. We have to be ready for that, we have to include everybody, and all work together for those things. I have some practical things that we can implement to energize those lawyers that will make their daily practice of law easier that they will appreciate. And then they will answer the call when we need them.
Rocky Dhir: We’re going to have a second virtual candidate forum which is scheduled for noon central on April 4. So anybody that wants to hear that and get a bit more information, we encourage you to attend that. You can register at texasbar.com/elections. Jerry, Steve, thank you both for being here for participating. And of course, thank you all of you tuning in with your questions, thank you for participating as well. Reminder, voting in the State Bar and the TYLA elections begins on April 3 and ends on May 2. Guys, thank you for being here. We’ll see you next time.
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