Texarkana Young Lawyers Association: A Tale of Two States
By Maria Vittoria G. Carminati
Maria Vittoria G. Carminati is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate and a Litigation Associate in the Houston, Texas, office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP.
Not everything is bigger in Texas. Standing at thirty members, the Texarkana Young Lawyers Association (“TexYLA”) makes that abundantly clear. But TexYLA also proves that bigger is not always better. Despite its relatively small number of members, this group of dedicated lawyers implements a public service or bar service project once a month for ten months out of the year. It has captured awards from both the Texas and Arkansas state bars as well as the American Bar Association several years in a row.
Texarkana sits on the border between Texas and Arkansas. TexYLA exemplifies Texarkana’s dual statehood by being affiliated with both the State Bar of Texas and the Arkansas State Bar. The Association was founded in 1998 “to take visible roles in community service projects in an attempt to improve the public image and trust of the legal profession in general . . . [and] to provide young attorneys in the Texarkana area an avenue to meet and network in order to help further an already positive and professional atmosphere among the Texarkana legal community.” Texarkana Young Lawyers Association, 4 The Footnote No. 7 (Apr. 8, 2009), at 8. TexYLA has an exemplary track record fulfilling these goals.
Annual Projects and Activities
TexYLA has several annual events: a literacy project, a judicial dinner, and volunteering at a local equine therapy center for children with disabilities. In addition, TexYLA publishes a monthly newsletter, The Footnote.
A few years ago, Shivali Sharma, a Past President of TexYLA, was shocked to learn that a whole class of Texarkana fourth graders had never owned a book. As part of the Literacy Project, each fall the TexYLA provides a legal-themed book to each child of a local class. The children are encouraged to read their new book and are given a reading comprehension test to ensure they complete their assignment. In the spring, TexYLA lawyers return to the school to host a pizza party and watch a movie with the kids. The movie is usually a screen adaptation of the book. This year, the book will be Leapholes, a legal fiction about the adventures of a middle-school student.
Annual Judicial Dinner
Judges from both Arkansas and Texas are invited to dine for free at the TexYLA’s only fundraiser. Participants also are provided with entertainment. This year the theme was “Family Feud.” Texas and Arkansas judges were pitted against each other in a battle of the wits.
On a more serious note, TexYLA members volunteer at a local equestrian therapeutic center. Runnin’ WJ is a nonprofit organization that provides therapeutic riding lessons to children and adults with disabilities. Runnin’ WJ needs volunteers to walk alongside the horses and their riders. TexYLA and the Arkansas Young Lawyer’s Division teamed up to provide the extra hands—and feet—needed.
Cory Floyd, Immediate Past President of TexYLA, explained that people with autism who attend this type of therapy show marked improvement over very short periods of time. In fact, this therapy is used for individuals who have otherwise reached their full potential. The equestrian therapy allows them to surpass caregivers’ expectations and improves their quality of life. Floyd explained that TexYLA tries to volunteer at Runnin’ WJ twice a year.
This Year’s Special Projects
In March 2009, TexYLA helped organize the “Egg Hunt Eggstravaganza,” sponsored by the Texas YLA. Bill Miller, Immediate Past President of the Texas YLA, was nominated to be the Easter Bunny. Donning a white bunny costume he hugged necks and made himself available for photos. The nominating competition raised $595, which was used to fund another public service project, the “Christmas Reading Project” organized for the benefit of Texarkana’s Baptist Orphanage.
For the “Christmas Reading Project,” TexYLA purchased law-themed books for children in the Texarkana Baptist Orphanage. The children received the books as gifts and read them over the Christmas holidays. The children were then rewarded for their efforts with a dinner and a theater night, which this year featured an adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Cory Floyd added that this was a “neat project” because it aided multiple organizations. TexYLA was able to reach out to the nonlegal community and improve lawyers’ image. The children read, went to a play, and were exposed to facets of the judicial system. The theater company, Montana Rep, was only given the funds and resources to perform in Texarkana because they were able to turn the performance into an educational event. This was truly a community effort that benefited all.
Yet another Texarkana project was for National Adoption Day. TexYLA hosted a lunch for families who completed their adoption proceedings on that day and another lunch for families who had completed their adoptions during the preceding year.
TexYLA Past President Sharma said that each immediate past president should implement a project to lighten the incoming president’s load and contribute to their communities. True to her word, Shivali created the TYLA Community Pro Bono Award. The first recipient was DeMaris Hart of the State Bar of Texas. DeMaris graduated from the University of Arkansas Law School and practices family law on both sides of the Arkansas–Texas state line. Last year she worked 225 pro bono hours in Texas alone! Shivali Sharma, TYLA, and TexYLA organized an awards luncheon providing one hour of ethics CLE to all attendees.
TexYLA members, however, did not stop at merely providing CLE credit. They are tackling the IOLTA funding crisis for pro bono programs by asking local banks to help with the fund. So far, none have accepted but talks are under way.
State and National Recognition
It should come as no surprise that TexYLA has been recognized for its efforts.
In 2007–2008 TexYLA won the Second Place Comprehensive award in the ABA YLD’s Awards of Achievement IIC Category, special recognition by the ABA YLD for its newsletter, a certificate of performance recognizing a service project to the bar for its judicial dinner, and a certificate of performance for its service project to the public—the Domestic Violence Prevention Valentine’s Day Basket Donation. Also in 2007–2008, TexYLA received the Arkansas Bar Association and Bar Foundation’s Outstanding Bar Association Award. It was the only young lawyers association given this honor.
TYLA recognized TexYLA in 2007–2008 by awarding it First Place Comprehensive Small City, First Place Small City Newsletter, Second Place Single Project Service to the Public, and Third Place Service to the Bar.
In 2008–2009 TexYLA again captured multiple awards. It won First Place Small City Comprehensive, First Place Single Project Service to the Bar for its Easter egg hunt project, and First Place Best Newsletter.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” said Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist. TexYLA’s track record is not merely impressive. It is inspiring. TexYLA is just such a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens, changing the world one project at a time.