HBA's President Tackles Houston's Problems With "Can Do" Attitude

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 - 09:50

The Editor interviews David Chaumette, President of the Houston Bar Association and Chair of Neighborhood Centers Inc.

Editor: Please describe the steps that led you to become the president of the Houston Bar.

Chaumette: Shortly after arriving in Houston as a lawyer, I got involved with the Houston Young Lawyers Association – that was back in ’93 – and I became the president of that group in 2003. While I was president of HYLA, I sat as an ex-officio member of the HBA board, and while I was there I thought, I like this board and it does good work, so I ran for a position, and I’ve been on the HBA board since 2004. I’ve held just about every officer’s position and I’ve chaired a whole slew of committees, from the Law Day Committee back in the ‘90s to the membership committee twice. I’ve also chaired the Dispute Resolution Center, which is an ancillary organization that provides free mediation. I’ve chaired the Houston Lawyer Referral Service, which provides free referrals to competent attorneys. I also chaired the Corporate Counsel Section, one of our bigger sections, whose governing body is half inside, half outside counsel. That was a particularly rewarding experience.

Editor: Immigration reform is an important issue, particularly in Texas. In a letter to this paper in July, you mentioned that there is a lot of work to be done to educate the public and lawyers about immigrants’ rights. What do you hope to accomplish this year at the HBA on behalf of the immigrant community?

Chaumette: We’ll be talking about immigration all year. The immigration piece is very personal to me as a naturalized U.S. citizen. We often forget that there are significant issues in immigration that have nothing to do with the word “amnesty” or the phrase “pathway to citizenship.” There are a lot of things that happen to immigrants, and as an organized bar we can help on those issues. For example, in my letter I talked about the notario problem, which is a significant issue. Basically, there are people from Latin American countries who, when they come to the United States, they think, in my home country, the notarios, or notaries, are people who essentially act as lawyers, and so I can trust someone with that same label here. Unfortunately, that is not the case, because some notarios will sell the basic immigration form for citizenship, the N-400, and then complete it incorrectly. Those forms are available on the Internet for free. When the notarios fill them out incorrectly, they often permanently mess up someone’s application status, doing all kinds of damage to people who are otherwise innocent, whereas immigration lawyers, if they could be called in on the front end, could eliminate a lot of problems for people who are not here illegally and have no complication. They just went to the wrong person.

There are also, particularly with the Dreamers and others who would be affected by proposed legislation, ways that people with some legal expertise can help qualified applicants pull together their information. We’ve now met with the local law schools – there are three in Houston – and all three of them have immigration law clinics. They don’t work together, so we asked them if there would be a way for us to coordinate resources, and they think it’s a great idea. One of the schools, the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, puts on an annual conference on immigration policy and a related nuts and bolts class. Next year, all three law schools and the Houston Bar will jointly sponsor the event and make it bigger and better. In that way, we’re trying to make small inroads in getting the information out to people.

There really are three communities that we’re trying to reach. The first is the immigrant community. I’d like to provide better education to the people who are the applicants, such as those with the notario problem. Whether they are Dreamers or people with permanent resident cards, they have rights to information, rights to applications, perhaps to status, and if the information is available, I want to get it out.

The second group of people I’d like to aim our efforts at is the lawyers. It is commonly known amongst immigration lawyers that, particularly in the criminal context, there are things that other lawyers can do to compromise people’s immigration status. If you plead the wrong way to a criminal count, you can set yourself up for deportation unnecessarily. In the probate area, if you are married to a U.S. citizen but are not a U.S. citizen, and the citizen dies, the surviving spouse gets hit with the estate tax immediately. Normally, if you’re both citizens, the payment of the estate tax is deferred until the death of the surviving spouse. If you don’t know that, you could be in for a big tax bill. Again, that’s something that the immigration lawyers know but the probate lawyers might not.

The third group is the general public. At the Houston Bar Association, we issue a consumer law handbook, an elder law handbook, and a family law handbook, which are essentially 30 questions about various areas of the law with basic answers. It’s useful advice. The time has come to put something together on immigration issues, encapsulating the things we were just talking about. One would think that, given that immigration law is a federal law, someone would have created this already, but we haven’t found one yet, which is telling about the complexity of the law and whether this is something that the organized bar is paying attention to. When I meet with the folks in this space who are not lawyers, they express the interest in having such a booklet. I’m hoping we can get that done this year.

I met with one of the pre-eminent immigration lawyers in the country who happens to live in Houston and sits on the Neighborhood Centers board with me. He said that if immigration reform passes, there will be 400,000 people in the Houston area alone whose status will be eligible for a change. That’s not to say they will all become citizens overnight, but that there are 400,000 people who might have the need for a lawyer. Even if we got all the lawyers who do pro bono in the city to stop doing whatever pro bono they’re doing and instead work on immigration issues, we wouldn’t come close to meeting that need, so there is a significant population out there that would benefit from having better information.

Editor: Describe the diverse community in the Houston area.

The model for what we understand as diversity in Houston in the 21st century is very different than it has been. Today, when you talk about diversity in Houston, you have to talk about Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Central Americans -- who tend to be very different from people from Mexico and Cuba -- a significant number of Caribbean folks, people from many different African nations, as well as African Americans. Houston is being recognized as the most diverse city in the United States, and that diversity affects all of our issues, and it impacts the immigration issue as much as anything else.

Editor: The HBA promotes many community service projects. Name a few that you hope to focus on during your term as president.

Chaumette: We’re going to continue a number of the projects that we’ve worked on for years. We’re deeply involved in the Special Olympics; in fact we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of our involvement with them. Last weekend I attended the dedication of our latest Habitat for Humanity House. This will be the 17th year of our involvement with them. We are also very involved with The Center, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We do a fun run for The Center, and in the 27 years we have held this event we’ve raised over $1 million. We also provide pro bono legal services: we handle at least 1,400 cases a year and provide advice and counsel to many thousands more through our Houston Volunteer Lawyers program. About five years ago we greatly expanded our veterans legal services program, and that program has continued to expand. In particular, we’ve gotten a grant from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) to conduct clinics for veterans in 17 counties.

Editor: What are some of the ways you serve your members? Do you have programs for young lawyers?

Chaumette: I mentioned to you that I was chair of the membership committee last year, and, in that role, I ran some focus groups. Because my practice is in the area of technology litigation, specifically in e-discovery, I’m fascinated with how we communicate. In our focus groups I was trying to find out how people want to hear from the bar, to see how people communicate and to use that information to tailor the message. People said the bar does a lot of great things, we just didn’t know about it.

For younger lawyers, there are all kinds of programs to help transition them into the practice, and we’re trying to figure out how best to get the information out. To do that, I am creating a group I’m calling the Ambassadors. They are young lawyers here in town – 10 men and 10 women – and their job will be to learn more about the Houston Bar and to go out to other bar associations in the greater Houston area and tell them about what the HBA does and how it can improve their life and their practice. The purpose in doing that is twofold. First, the bar needs to get before its members. We need to go visit our constituents where they are, and it will also give us an opportunity to listen, to demonstrate to people what it looks like to be part of the bar.

My second reason for doing it is to cultivate the leaders of tomorrow. When I was president of the Young Lawyers, I started a group called the Leadership Academy to teach young lawyers how to do community service, the idea being that as a society, we don’t do a very good job of role-modeling. So I asked my friends to come in and talk to young lawyers about their leadership journey. We had the district attorney come in, we had the city controller, two city council members, the president of the State Bar, we had somebody who started a nonprofit after-school program, and basically they said, “this is how I got to where I am today.” It’s giving people a vision of where they can be. Similarly, the Ambassadors program can be a way for the bar to identify talented people so that we can get them involved and positioned to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Editor: Does the bar work to promote diversity in the profession?

Chaumette: As the first African-American president, diversity is important to me, and luckily I’m part of an organization that has been committed to diversity for a long time. When we make committee chair appointments, we always do it with an eye towards diversity. When we talk about where our events are going to occur, we do it with an eye towards diversity. It's  firmly engrained. It’s our tradition. We have many of the same diversity-based committees that other bars have, but more than that, there is commitment throughout the bar that diversity cannot be isolated in designated seats or relegated to special committees. It is the objective and obligation of the bar in every corner to seek the best people. We do that every day.

Editor: You are the chair of another important association in Houston, the Neighborhood Centers, Inc. (NCI). How did you become chair of that nonprofit organization?

Chaumette: I have been on the board of Neighborhood Centers since 2003, the same year I joined the HBA. I received an invitation from someone who knew of my interest in public service, and neither she nor I realized how good the fit would be. NCI has grown significantly since I joined the board, but all with an eye to a holistic approach to helping new residents of Texas become active members of their new community. Former Secretary of State James Baker’s grandmother, Alice Graham Baker, founded the organization over 100 years ago as part of the settlement house movement. Today, NCI programs range from a charter school, Head Start, and job placement to elder services and other community outreach. I was the first chair of the charter school board and served in that capacity for seven years before becoming the chair of NCI’s overall Board.

What is unique about NCI is our approach to community. Our schools have partnerships with medical organizations that have clinics in the schools, thereby providing easy access for the families with kids at the schools. Many of our centers house a branch of our credit union as well, allowing people the opportunity to get away from predatory pay-day lending. In fact, NCI has spent the last few years assisting Houston residents with their tax returns and returned over $100 million in refunds to those residents, all free of charge through our volunteer base. Perhaps the greater asset of NCI has been its ability to foster a great sense of community in its programs. The most recent center, Baker Ripley, is an open campus with no fences. Remarkably, in its five years of operation, there has never been any vandalism or graffiti anywhere at that location. The neighborhood knows it is an asset, and they take care of the premises with great pride.

Houston has its issues. Every city does, but what Houston also has is a workingman’s spirit. The people of this region are builders and workers: if you come to Houston and you are willing to work, we have a place for you. We have realized that solutions matter more than the politics do. Houston is an energy city miles away from any big oil reservoir. It’s a port city that is about 50 miles inland. Those are just two examples of Houston’s spirit and how we work together to solve our issues.

Neighborhood Centers has been successful because it approaches the future with a “figure it out” mentality. As leaders, they motivate themselves to come up with workable solutions to problems that were not even on the radar screen. There’s no operation manual for most of the issues that arise, but somehow the agency takes whatever it has to work with and makes the most out of it. In the words of the organization’s CEO and president, Angela Blanchard, “together we’ll figure it out.”  

© Alefiya Akbarally Photography


Please email the interviewee at dchaumette@chaumettepllc.com with questions about this interview.