An Inspirational Model: Betsy Whitaker

Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - 00:00

Editor: Please describe your reasons for becoming a lawyer as well as your educational preparation for your outstanding career.

Whitaker: Needing income while in college, I worked at a law firm in Chicago and became fascinated by the importance of the legal profession and of the lawÑhow lawyers are leaders virtually everywhere they go, how law permeates all aspects of society, and how, as a lawyer, I would be uniquely positioned to be an advocate for people who need help. I wanted to make a difference.

I graduated from Wheaton College, Illinois, and then obtained my law degree from SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas. I entered private practice in 1980, although I spent some time early in my career as a prosecutor. Recently, serving as a commissioner of a major state agency, I gained experience in administrative and regulatory proceedings.

Editor: I understand you are the immediate past president of the State Bar of Texas. What factors played a role in your becoming involved in the bar association? Tell us what important accomplishments were achieved during your term.

Whitaker: The State Bar of Texas is our mandatory bar association comprised of more than 74,000 lawyers. I became actively involved in the State Bar in the early 1990s through our Continuing Legal Education Program, which is one of the best in the country. Through that work, I met many fine lawyers and judges from all over the state. I came to realize the importance of helping to strengthen our profession, and so, in 1996, I ran for and was elected to the board of directors. I ran for president in 2003.

During my term as president, we started many significant initiatives that will continue to develop in the coming years. Those initiatives included a complete overhaul of the Web site of the State Bar, one of the key means through which the State Bar connects with its members and helps its members connect with each other. Our Web site was recently awarded the Association of Continuing Legal Education's Award of Professional Excellence. Those initiatives also included setting up a referendum on some key issues facing lawyers on advertising rules and referral fees, as well as updating the procedural rules of our disciplinary system.

Editor: Sometimes with their workloads it is difficult for in-house counsel to take time out for bar association duties, but it does enhance their practices so very much.

Whitaker: When I was making appointments to committees I made a deliberate effort to include in-house lawyers. I got a great reception from in-house counsel who were eager to be involved.

I know how busy everyone is, but I strongly encourage in-house lawyers to get involved in bar work. I continue to hear stories about the rewards of being involved with other lawyers and being involved in issues that are important to the profession. This is true, as well, for younger lawyers. You will find that the relationships you form through our Texas Young Lawyers Association will last for your entire career.

Editor: Do you have a State Bar committee that suggests appointees to the judiciary in Texas?

Whitaker: No, we don't. I have been consulted on many judicial appointments, but not in my official capacity with the State Bar.

Editor: Besides chairing the Continuing Legal Education Committee, what other duties for the State Bar did you take on?

Whitaker: As I mentioned earlier, I joined the board of directors in 1996, and then went on to chair the board and to serve on a number of the board committees. I also serve as a delegate to the American Bar Association, have presided over the Southern Conference of Bar Presidents, and am a member of the National Conference of Bar Presidents. My roots, of course, are right here in Dallas. I have belonged to the Dallas Bar Association since 1980, and have served in different capacities and on different committees, most recently as co-chair of the Media Relations Committee.

Editor: Being a bar association president requires not only dedication on your part, but a commitment by the firm to allow you time off for this undertaking. In what ways did Bracewell & Patterson support you?

Whitaker: One thing that is so impressive to me about Bracewell & Patterson is its understanding of the importance of giving back to the community and being a part of that community. In fact, Kelly Frels, the current president of the State Bar, is also my partner here at Bracewell & Patterson. Having two back-to-back presidents from a single firm is, I think, unprecedented in the history of the State Bar and clearly demonstrates the firm's commitment to the profession as well as the community.

Editor: How many women have previously served in the capacity of president?

Whitaker: I am the fourth. The first was Harriet Miers, who was just appointed by President Bush to be White House counsel. The second, I should mention, is also my partner at Bracewell & Patterson, Colleen McHugh.

Editor: Did you notice any impediments to your rise in the hierarchy of the State Bar?

Whitaker: I think every year you see changes in attitude. At the beginning of my career, it was not common to find women in leadership positions. In the past five years, however, I have seen accelerated change in the profession. For example, four women have now served as president of the State Bar, almost a third of the members of the board are women, a woman now serves as president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association, several women have served or now serve as presidents of local bars, and, of course, the number of women judges increases every year. I find it fascinating that in elective offices in Dallas, it is widely considered that a woman running for office has as much as a 3 percent to 4 percent point advantage. What was at one time considered a disadvantage is now considered an advantage.

Editor: Can you tell us some more about your own varied practice as a litigator in complex commercial cases?

Whitaker: I have focused on the needs of businesses in resolving disputes, whether through lawsuits, mediation or arbitration. Because the particular needs of business vary over the years, and the law has gotten so complicated, a lawyer can do a better job for a client if the lawyer has the experience to deal with a broad and deep range of issues. For example, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act requires familiarity with employment law, securities law, corporate governance law, and even criminal law. Also, at given points in time, business has to confront and deal with different "hot" issuesÑsuch as, for examples, S&L issues in the 1980s, or intellectual property issues relating to the Internet starting in the 1990s, or corporate governance issues today. I have been fortunate in my career to deal with these wide range of issues in complicated and important lawsuits and I credit some of my best work to the fact that I have been able to recognize how law developed in one area can help win a case in another area of the law. Business is always evolving, and, therefore, the particulars of business disputes have changed. What has remained the same, however, is the need for experience and judgment regarding how to move a business dispute effectively and efficiently through the court or arbitration process. That is what I bring to the table.

Editor: I would be interested in your views on Sarbanes-Oxley.

Whitaker: When the law was first enacted, I served as course director of a seminar that covered the various issues arising under Sarbanes-Oxley. What struck me then and what continues to strike me is how the Act requires knowledge of so many areas of the law. In my experience as a prosecutor and, later, in defending clients before grand juries or in parallel criminal-civil proceedings, I was keenly aware of how representing clients with an array of issues covering many areas of law is not an easy thing to do. Sarbanes-Oxley takes that complexity to another level and makes the role of in-house counsel even greater than in the past. I also think it is that much more important for in-house counsel to have trusted outside counsel to advise on the sheer range of issues.

Editor: You have written many scholarly articles. One theme had to do with court appointed experts. Is this an innovation being tried in Texas courts?

Whitaker: Court-appointed experts are seen in family cases and also, from time to time, in complex patent or intellectual property cases. I have not seen wide-acceptance of court-appointed experts in other areas. One of my law professors and I teamed up on writing a series of articles on experts beginning way back before the Daubert opinion was handed down. We had predicted, correctly it turned out, that courts would be writing extensively on the proper limits to an expert's testimony.

Editor: Are there any legal issues unique to Texas?

Whitaker: Tort reform is an issue that has appeared to advance more rapidly in Texas than in most other states. Many significant changes to the law have been made, starting back in 1995 and continuing with the passage of the widely-reported House Bill 4 last year. I strongly urge in-house counsel to stay versed on this developing trend as the courts interpret the wide array of statutory changes pertaining to class actions, venue, interlocutory appeals, the impact of the primary jurisdiction of an administrative agency, and much more.

Editor: Please give our readers some background about Bracewell & Patterson.

Whitaker: Bracewell & Patterson is a special place with great lawyers who enjoy working together. I have had the opportunity to observe many lawyers and law firms. I continue to be so impressed with Bracewell & Patterson's culture of collaboration and team work among the lawyers while at the same time keeping its eye on the future and on the national and international trends. Everyone knows that the business community and, therefore, the legal community are going through a period of great change. It takes skill and vision to manage that change well. Our managing partner, Patrick Oxford, and our management team have that skill and vision. I think it is no accident, for example, that Bracewell was rated No. 1 in the country by our mid-level associates in terms of job satisfaction in the American Lawyer 's survey last year. Bracewell & Patterson is going places and we all sense that energy.

Editor: How would you care to sum up this interview?

Whitaker: As the law continues to grow in complexity and the stakes continue to get higher, it is a real privilege to be a lawyer today and be able to serve clients. I am grateful I have the opportunity to do so with such a great firm.

Please email the interviewee at ewhitaker@bracepatt.com with questions about this interview.