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March/April 2006

Local Heroes

Houston Bar Association members donate nearly 40,000 hours of volunteer service to HBA programs each year. In addition, they volunteer their time for countless other programs, projects and events. The lawyers profiled here represent just a few of the ways HBA members serve their community and beyond.


Benny Agosto, Jr.

By Benjamin K. Sanchez

Benny Agosto, Jr., a partner with the law firm of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Matthews & Friend, says it’s his roots that have kept him grounded in service and faith. Benny is the current president of the Mexican-American Bar Association and serves the HBA as co-chair of the Continuing Legal Education Committee.
Benny is one of five children and says his father impressed on all of them the value of education. Neither of Benny’s parents had more than a 6th grade education, yet Benny’s father was a successful jeweler, first in New York City (where Benny was born) and then back in his homeland of Puerto Rico (where Benny grew up). Benny first came to Houston on a soccer scholarship to Houston Baptist University, where he studied science and education, graduating with a BS in dual majors of microbiology and education. Benny had a distinguished career as a soccer goalie, participating in the 1979 Pan American Games, among other international tournaments, for the Puerto Rico National Soccer Team. He played four years of NCAA I soccer and was nominated for All-American in his junior year at HBU.
After graduating from HBU, Benny taught science and coached soccer before attending law school, first at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law and then at South Texas College of Law, graduating in 1995.
Benny says that he is blessed both professionally and personally, and because of such blessings, he feels an obligation to give back, especially as an advocate for the Latino community. He earned H Texas Magazine’s recognition as one of Houston’s “Top Lawyers for the People.” Due in large part to Benny’s efforts, the Hispanic National Bar Association will begin its first-ever substantive journal in its 30-year history, the HNBA Journal of Law & Policy, in the spring of 2007. As a member of the board of editors of The Advocate, the official publication of the State Bar of Texas Litigation Section, Benny chaired the “Experts” Winter 2005 issue.
Because he has been such an active HBA volunteer and is knowledgeable about the association’s programs, HBA Communications Director Tara Shockley says she often calls on Benny to talk about programs such as LegalLine, the HBA’s free legal handbook series, and the jury service program, on Houston’s Spanish-language media.


Kathleen Bergin and Tracy McGaugh

By James Paulsen

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Houston’s law schools— together with the bench, bar and the community as a whole — stepped up to the plate. Schools offered classroom space and free enrollment to displaced Louisiana law students. Students, staff and faculty organized and participated in relief efforts. Many opened their homes to evacuees. And two South Texas College of Law (STCL) professors worked together to significantly improve the evacuees’ quality of life upon arriving in Houston.
On the surface, Professors Kathleen Bergin and Tracy McGaugh seem to have little in common. Kathleen grew up and attended college in Massachusetts, earned a J.D. at Baltimore and an LL.M. from New York University. She teaches constitutional law and has an interest in critical race and feminist legal theory. Tracy is Texan to the core, having earned her undergraduate degree from the University of North Texas and a J.D. from Baylor. She teaches and publishes in the area of legal research and writing.
There are some similarities, though. Both Kathleen and Tracy are comparatively new members of the STCL faculty, assigned to adjoining offices. Both bring a long history of community service to their new jobs. Tracy worked as a volunteer crisis counselor during law school, consistently exceeded the State Bar of Texas’ 50-hour pro bono goal while in practice (domestic violence cases, mostly), and recently sponsored a family of Somali Bantu refugees who named their first American-born child for her husband.
Kathleen was a rape crisis counselor in college and took pro bono work through the Massachusetts Volunteer Lawyers Society before moving to Houston. And when the first buses from New Orleans began to arrive at the Astrodome, Kathleen and Tracy — like almost everyone else in town — were watching the live news coverage.
For Tracy, a particular story — that of a woman separated from her elderly mother and young daughter in the confusion of evacuating from the Superdome — hit home. “I have a toddler daughter too,” Tracy said. “I could not fathom the pain and panic of being forced onto a bus to go to another state without her. I cried for the mother and for myself; the only distinction between us that made any real difference was luck.”
That evening, Kathleen and Tracy left their offices together, carpooled to the Astrodome and worked through the night. Within minutes after arriving, they realized that many of the basics — water, fruit, juice, baby food — were nowhere to be found. So they shuttled to local stores, filling the car on each trip and alternating credit cards.
During the course of that first long night, they realized there were even more immediate needs. One man asked where he could get some insulin for his son. Kathleen said, “It was looking in that dad’s eyes that brought home just how desperate the situation was. Here’s his son, clinging to his side, a child he was able to save from all the ravages of Katrina, from the chaos of the New Orleans relief effort, and he’s about to lose it all because he can’t get his hands on a glucose pen. I don’t have any children, but I think I understood just a little bit that night how devastating it is to watch a child, your child, hurt – and to know you’re helpless to fix it.”
Kathleen and Tracy were hooked. For the next three weeks, they taught at STCL during the day and worked nights as “pharmacy runners,” assisting medical volunteers from around the country. During their down time, they did everything from monitoring restrooms and replacing air fresheners to scrounging for blankets and pillows and locating toys, books and games for restless children.
Frustrated by an early lack of communication between various relief organizations and governmental entities, Kathleen and Tracy improvised. Tracy used her computer expertise to create a weblog. Kathleen and Tracy then posted photos from their cell phone cameras to call attention to problems that volunteers could not solve on their own, like Astrodome security lapses. The publicity worked: Within a day after the problems were described on the web site, they were corrected. Kathleen, who teaches her Constitutional Law students about freedom of the press, said her Katrina experience gave her new appreciation for the real-world power of the First Amendment.
Kathleen and Tracy also used their blog to highlight evacuee needs that were not being met by existing relief efforts. Soon, boxes of medical supplies and clothing started arriving from around the nation, as well as from other members of the STCL community and the faculty, staff and students of other schools, including the City University of New York. “That show of support for the evacuees really helped keep us going,” Kathleen said. “When we got tired, we just remembered that volunteers from across the country were counting on us to ‘deliver the goods’ on their behalf. We thank them, and hope we served them well.”


Michael Chu

By Mark Trachtenberg

When he agreed to work on a pro bono asylum case for the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (HRI), Haynes and Boone LLP associate Michael Chu had no idea that his decision would change his life – and the lives of many others. HRI is an organization dedicated to helping men and women who suffered severe human rights abuses in their home countries seek asylum in the United States.
Michael’s first HRI client was a 21-year-old university student from Cameroon who was kidnapped by the government because he engaged in nonviolent student protests. The student, AA, was sent to a military prison for nearly a year without being charged with a crime or put on trial. The prison was dark, overcrowded, and rancid – conditions that would make an American prison seem like Club Med. Sent to a military prison-hospital to die, AA’s uncle found him and bribed a guard to help AA escape. Accompanied only by a man hired by his uncle, AA escaped through a forest, got on a plane, and after a long journey, ended up at Dallas Fort-Worth International airport, alone, with only 50 cents and a telephone number for a family friend in Dallas. AA’s and Michael’s paths intersected a short time later, when HRI asked Michael to represent AA at his asylum interview. With Michael’s help, AA was granted asylum and four years later, AA reports that he is alive and well, newly married and studying for his degree in chemical engineering.
Inspired by AA’s story and the efforts of the HRI, Michael volunteered to coordinate his firm’s pro bono asylum program. To date, 15 other Haynes and Boone attorneys have also accepted pro bono asylum cases. “Thanks to the HRI’s generous spirit,” Michael says, “our attorneys have had the opportunity to represent nearly 40 clients, as well as their spouses and children. It’s been a pretty remarkable partnership.”
Michael’s passion for volunteering has also had an impact closer to home. For the past three years, Michael has volunteered with the Texas Scholarship Foundation (TSF)’s College Bound program, which mentors disadvantaged area high school students. “If you think back to when you were 18,” Michael remarks, “I suspect that you, like me, never considered not going to college; it was just expected. But the opposite is true for our students—many of whom will be the first in their family to ever go to college.”
College Bound mentors help students connect the dots that lead to college: SAT preparation, applications, financial aid and campus visits. Heartened by the effect that College Bound was having on its students, Michael joined the board of College Bound’s parent organization, Texas Scholarship Foundation, in 2004. “College Bound is both public service and ministry,” says Michael, “and every one of its mentors has the chance to change the course of an 18-year old’s future.”
Michael also remains involved with the local bar, coordinating Haynes and Boone’s involvement with the HBA’s LegalLine program. Recognizing that many Asian-Americans paved the way for his own opportunities, Michael also volunteers with the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the State Bar of Texas’ Asian Pacific Interest Section and the Asian American Bar Association of Houston. He also periodically contributes to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s Diversity & the Bar magazine.
As inspiration for his volunteer efforts, Michael credits his faith, and the friends he met at Second Baptist Church, where he serves as an associate deacon. “At Second,” he says, “I found a lot of friends who had a heart for ministry and public service, and I find I’m still learning from them every week.”


Ronnie Harrison

By Robert Higgason

For the past seven years, Ronnie Harrison has orchestrated a fund-raiser for The Women’s Advocacy Project (TWAP), under the auspices of the State Bar of Texas Women & the Law Section. TWAP is a statewide nonprofit legal organization that promotes access to justice for Texas women and children under duress. From its genesis in 1982 as a legal hotline, the project has matured into a top?]notch resource for legal issues affecting survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also provides resources such as legal protection to women, particularly as a shield against violence.
During the first few years of fund?]raising projects, Ronnie acquired hats, Cow Parade figurines, and fashionable cloth gift bags to sell at the State Bar Annual Meeting. During the past three years, she acquired a huge supply of used books and sold them – in conjunction with attractive tote bags – at the Annual Meeting. In preparing for this sale each year, she not only acquires about 7,000 books, but also checks and cleans each one so that it satisfies her standard for display and perusal at the Annual Meeting.
Ronnie has a long history of volunteering. In the early 1990s, Ronnie was founding chair of the Special Olympics Committee of the Houston Bar Association. She previously chaired the Houston Bar Association Criminal Law and Procedure Section. She is a board member of the National Council of Jewish Women and actively participates in her synagogue’s Patron of the Arts and Hospital Visitation committees.
Ronnie also is on the board of directors of the Gulf Coast Family Law Specialists. In 2005 Ronnie won the Ma’at Justice Award from the Women & Law Section of the State Bar of Texas for her outstanding volunteer work.
When asked why she volunteers, Ronnie, a lawyer at Harrison Law Office, P.C., said she strives to carry on a family tradition of serving others’ needs. Her mother, who currently manages Ronnie’s law office, often volunteers along with her.


Daniella D. Landers

By Gwen Richard

The common purpose Daniella Landers mentions when talking about her extensive and diverse volunteer service is creating a better world for our youth. She focuses her volunteerism in three primary areas: children’s issues, the arts and the environment. Ultimately, she strives to make a positive impact on and for young people.
Daniella is a senior associate in the commercial litigation and environmental law practice areas of Epstein Becker Green Wickliff & Hall, P.C. Daniella’s nine-year-old son volunteers with her whenever possible.
Her volunteer work for the Houston Bar Association includes serving as the current co-chair of the Lawyers Against Waste Committee. She co-chaired the Minority Opportunities in the Legal Profession Committee and is a current member of both the Minority Clerkship and the Summer Associates Luncheon subcommittees. A past participant in the HBA’s Mentor Program, she continues to volunteer on the Speakers Bureau, speaking mostly at schools. She has also been a regular volunteer for LegalLine.
Daniella devotes her time and energy to other organizations that promote and support the interests of the African-American and other minority communities. She is a former board member of the Continentals Society, Inc., a non-profit organization started 50 years ago by African-American women, which now has over 40 chapters nationwide. This organization mentors children in the community, a task for which Daniella is well-suited. She has also worked with the Houston Lawyers Association, the Nicholas Alexander Higgins Foundation, the DePelchin’s Children’s Center, the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, the Houston Area Urban League, and the MFAH African-American Arts Advisory Association. Daniella is a current member of the Steering Committee for the State Bar of Texas Minority Counsel Program and has chaired the Houston Subcommittee since 2003.
Daniella, together with Sharon Hogge, an environmental consultant, and Mark Stacell, an attorney with Citgo, recently co-founded Houston Partnership for Environment and Health, a non-profit organization that combines Daniella’s diverse interests and concerns. Daniella describes the purpose of the Partnership as “promoting environmental health and public health issues in the Greater Houston Area.” Not surprisingly, the Partnership grew out of yet another volunteer effort: the City of Houston Land Redevelopment Committee (LRC), a part of the City’s Brownfields Redevelopment Program, which Daniella co-chaired. As she explains it, “Brownfields are properties that are environmentally contaminated or perceived to be contaminated. The purpose of the LRC is to identify redevelopment projects and to facilitate their development with the various stakeholders.” Daniella notes that Houston’s Brownfields Redevelopment Program has been recognized as one of the best in the country and cites these examples of redevelopment projects: Minute Maid Park, Hobby Center, The Aquarium, Wildcat Golf Course, and the new Federal Reserve Bank Building.
Daniella and other members of the LRC recognized a void in funding for certain programs. Of particular interest to Daniella were the shortfalls in funding for basic children’s health needs, such as immunizations. The Partnership will fund projects, facilitate redevelopment and, eventually, identify and develop new projects. Daniella anticipates that by mid-year, when the administrative process has been completed, the Partnership will be ready for funding. If you are looking for a service opportunity, Daniella says that volunteers will be needed.


Demetra Liggins

By Madison Finch

While still in law school, Demetra Liggins worked with the United Way to create an organization that helps pregnant girls as young as 12 years old, as well as counseling young girls considering early pregnancy on making wise choices. After graduating cum laude from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in 2000, she joined Winstead Sechrest & Minick in Houston, where she continues serving her community.
Demetra is a member of the Bankruptcy Inns of Court, treasurer of the HBA Bankruptcy Section and a member of the International Women’s Insolvency and Restructuring Confederation. She is also the chair of the HBA Minority Opportunities in the Legal Profession Committee, chair of the Minority Affairs committee of the Houston Young Lawyers Association, and she assists with minority recruitment and diversity at her firm.
Demetra also continues her work helping children. As a member of the board of directors of Spaulding for Children, she helps to place abused and neglected children into homes for foster care and adoption. Through the Interprofessional Drug Education Alliance, she teams up with doctors to speak to fifth?]graders about the medical and legal consequences of drug use.
But Demetra says her favorite organization is Transformations, an organization providing rites of passage for African?]American girls in grades six to eight. For four hours every other week, Demetra teaches girls the wide?]ranging skills they need to transition from childhood to their teen years with confidence and self?]esteem.
Demetra is quick to credit Winstead Sechrest & Minick for supporting her community service, which amounts to some 200 hours per year. “It’s true what Dr. King says,” explains Demetra. “We are ‘caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.’”
To other attorneys who may consider increasing their volunteer commitments, Demetra recommends, “Don’t do something just because you think it will look good on your resume. Pick something you are passionate about, and you will get back what you put in.”


Don Naylor

By David Wilson

Donald R. Naylor, an attorney with ExxonMobil Law Department, has found a way to experience the satisfaction of practicing law for a variety of clients, despite being employed by one of the world’s largest oil companies. He accomplishes this through his work with the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program (HVLP).
A 2001 graduate of Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans, Don began volunteering with the HVLP in 2002 during his first year at ExxonMobil. He learned about the program from Peggy Montgomery, the pro bono coordinator for ExxonMobil’s Law Department. According to Don, “The Law Department really stresses its commitment to participating in volunteer and pro bono services with the Houston Bar Association, the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program, Texas C-Bar, and other organizations as well as being involved in other volunteer projects such as the corporation’s annual United Way community service projects and fund-raising.”
The ExxonMobil Law Department was recently recognized for its service in meeting the needs of the under-represented population of Houston. Specifically, ExxonMobil’s Peggy Montgomery, Don’s catalyst for involvement, was presented an award for “Outstanding Contribution to HVLP by a Pro Bono Coordinator” by the Houston Bar Foundation at its annual luncheon on January 19th.
Don describes the greatest challenges of his work with the HVLP in this way: “A big challenge has been in making sure that I have thoroughly investigated and researched a matter for a client, while maintaining a balance with other work. I find that it is very easy to become engrossed in your HVLP client’s case due to a lack of everyday familiarity in the area of practice. What might take a family law practitioner a short amount of time to work through might take me an extra day or extra review because I want to be sure to cover all bases.”
When asked to describe the best part of his volunteer work, Don replies, “The feeling you get when you get a good result for your client.”
His favorite memory involves the first case he worked on. The case involved a divorce with issues of intimidation and past violence. “I really felt like I had given my client a new lease on life and an ability to move forward. She was a great client because I knew her goal was to move forward without that harmful relationship in her life and she stayed very engaged throughout the process,” says Don. “My client’s reaction to the final judgment of divorce was immediate elation. When I heard her express her new plans and saw her tears of joy, I was very fulfilled in knowing I had helped.”
Don’s practice with the ExxonMobil Global Services Company - Procurement Division is mostly transactional in nature. He deals with a wide variety of commercial and regulatory issues involving contracting for goods and services for ExxonMobil Corporation and its many affiliates. Summing up his volunteer experiences with HVLP, Don says, “HVLP is a great volunteer opportunity for any attorney to get involved, and I definitely recommend taking the time to take on a case. It will be a fulfilling experience.”
Don is committed to other volunteer efforts besides HVLP. He is a co-chair of the HBA Lawyers for Literacy Committee, which this year collected almost 8,000 books for the fall book drive. He is a member of the HBA Adopt-A-School Committee and enjoys participating in Reading Incentive parties at B.C. Elmore Middle School, where he talks to students about the impact of reading on his life. Don also tutored at B.C. Elmore in the fall of 2004, and he volunteers for the LegalLine program.
Don works as the Legal Counsel for ExxonMobil Corporation’s 2006 United Way Central Campaign, which coordinates many of the events for the company’s internal fund-raising and service projects in Houston. His volunteer efforts also include a recent appointment to the board of a newly formed community non-profit organization known as the Westberry-Engram Community Center, located in Houston’s Third Ward Area.


Robert Riddle

By Mark A. Correro

Houston attorney Robert Riddle is quietly doing his best to embody the true meaning of “volunteer” by devoting his time to our greatest resource -- children.
Robert chairs the Houston Young Lawyer’s Committee, “Reading in Schools/Small Steps.” He is responsible for recruiting volunteers for activities at the Small Steps Nurturing Center, located in Houston’s First Ward. One regular activity is the hour-long Reading Days, which start with reading but can end with anything, such as finger-painting, puzzles, and dress-up. Robert also has plans for mustering volunteers to help build a playground at Small Steps’ new school. Evan Harrel, executive director of Small Steps, described the importance of volunteers like Robert:

Volunteers are a critical element of our success at Small Steps. The enrichment that the HYLA volunteers bring is extremely valuable in our early childhood setting. In addition, HYLA volunteers introduce important role models into our classrooms. We are extremely grateful for the hours that have been contributed over the last four years. And besides, I can’t tell you how much fun it is to see a lawyer finger painting or dressed up in a feather boa.

Founded in 1995, the mission of Small Steps is to provide early childhood intervention programs to economically at-risk children and their families. Contrary to many such schools, Small Steps relies exclusively on private donations and receives no government funding. With these donations, Small Steps provides transportation, nutritional meals, education, and social and emotional therapy to 57 of Houston’s most impoverished inner city children. The program’s success is evidenced by a waiting list that exceeds 100 names for the past three years. As a result, Small Steps is constructing a new school that will be located in Houston’s Fifth Ward, with completion set for 2006.
Robert says he chose to chair and participate in the Small Steps program because of its deep commitment to children and his firm belief that, given the chance, even the most impoverished child has a chance to achieve goals and dreams.
Robert earned his J.D., cum laud, from South Texas College of Law in 2004, where he was an articles editor for the Law Review and member of the Order of the Lytae. Before attending law school, he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Houston. Robert is an associate at Baker Botts L.L.P., focusing on patent prosecution and litigation. To learn more about Small Steps or volunteer, contact Robert Riddle at robert.riddle@bakerbotts.com or 713.229.1881.

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