Welcome to MyShingle’s series celebrating Woman-Owned and Mom-Owned Law Firms. This profile features Houston, TX attorney deborah lawson working with real people, focusing on those in the LGBTQ+ community.
What is your name?
deborah lawson. Yes, it really is legally spelled in all lower-case letters. I like to tell people that I’m an anti-capitalist! It’s actually a great story about why you should never patronize a pre-teen, but that’s a story for another time…over adult beverages…
Law School attended and year of graduation.
SMU Dedman School of Law – 2003
Name, location(s) and URL of Law Firm.
deborah lawson, Attorney at Law, p.l.l.c.
Summarize your work experience, if any, prior to opening your firm. Both as a lawyer or prior to becoming a lawyer.
I graduated from Texas A&M in 1992, with a BBA in Management, determined to open a Disney-themed flower shop in Russia. In hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t the best of plans, but it was my plan.
Unfortunately, that same year, the New York Times published the headline “Graduates Facing Worst Prospects in Last 2 Decades,” so the future looked a little bleak. Instead of the promising career that typically follows 4 years of college, I had a lot of jobs (lots of scut work), but making a living I was not. I was a Disney World cast member, an interpretive naturalist at Moody Gardens, a temp, and even a substitute teacher.
After suffering through too many temporary jobs to remember, much less count, and a five and a half million dollar lawsuit from work as a temp, I finally left the dead-end job market and returned to A&M, this time in Galveston, to pursue a life-long interest in marine biology. I learned that I am not cut out to be a broke scientist, but I met the man I later married, and a professor who put me on my current path.
I went to law school dead set on becoming an environmental lawyer, but realized that my heart remained submerged in the ocean, but in a very different way. So after graduating, I found a job “working on the railroad,” as outside counsel. It was a stepping stone to my dream job as an admiralty & maritime attorney, where I learned that some industries simply haven’t kept up with the times. After several years in the good-ole-boy network, I finally understood what people meant when they talked about the “glass ceiling.” I realized fairly quickly that if I “went contract,” I could work half the hours for the same amount of pay, and could cut down on people telling me how stupid I was or how bad I’d messed up. But being a contractor isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, so I eventually took the full plunge and pursued a solo practice helping individuals, especially social entrepreneurs like me, skip some of the potholes that I had to traverse.
When did you start your firm?
I opened my own law firm on 10 January 2008, starting out as a contract attorney before really striking out on my own helping members of the often-forgotten middle-class negotiate the labyrinth of litigation.
Why did you decide to start your own law firm?
My goal was to help individuals who can’t typically afford an attorney, but who aren’t destitute, with everything from divorces, to legacy planning, to opening a small business.
What practice areas does your firm concentrate on?
I focus on helping real people – individuals who can’t typically afford an attorney – with their legal needs, everything from divorces, to wills, to opening a small business – hopefully without getting stuck in the labyrinth of litigation. I’ve found a comfortable niche in the LGBTQ+ community, and I love it!
What size is your firm?
It’s just me, and a contract IT guy, who doubles as my notary and husband.
Do you practice full time or part time?
I try to practice part time, but lately, it’s been full time hours because I function as my own assistant, paralegal, bookkeeper, and chief cook and bottle-washer.
What makes your law firm unique and different from any other law firm in the world?
We’re nice! I used to say that as a joke, but now I own it. My grandmother used to say: “You catch more flies with honey.” I never understood that. Why would anyone want to catch flies? Now that I’m in the business of catching flies and negotiating for their release, I finally get it. There is simply no reason to be mean or rude to anyone, especially opposing counsel. When someone is mean or rude, it makes me want to be mean and rude, which throws us into a vicious cyclone heading down the drain. You can zealously advocate for a client without being a jerk. So now, I make a point of being nice, even when it kills me. If nothing else, it throws opposing counsel off guard.
Was your gender a factor in influencing your decision to start or continue to operate your own law firm? If so, how?
Absolutely! Until I worked for a law firm, I never really understood what people were talking about when they cursed the glass ceiling or talked about being treated as “less than.” Working in law, those distinctions became very clear, very quickly.
Early in my career, I had the misfortune of working for several men (and a few women) who thought that, because of my gender, I suffered from low IQ and incompetence. I was expected to stay in my office, do as I was told, and never, ever, express an opinion unless it was given to me.
I remember one time, standing in my boss’s office while he railed on me, ending with “I’m wondering how long you’re just going to stand there.” Shocked that anyone would treat a fellow lawyer as he had, I responded, “I’m wondering if I’m going to come back to work tomorrow” before walking out. For some reason, that earned me a grudging respect that lasted about a week, and which I will never understand. But it really hit home that, in this industry, being nice (and female) really is seen as a weakness.
If you are married/living in a committed relationship with a partner, what role has your spouse played with respect to your practice and household obligations and conversely, what impact has owning your firm had on your marriage/relationship?
Everything! I honestly could not do what I do if it were not for my husband. He has supported me 100%, even when he should have told me “no!” When I said I was going to law school in New Jersey, he helped pack. When I said: “This sucks! Let’s go back to Texas.” he helped pack. When I said that I wanted to focus on LGBTQ+ clients, he helped me win “OutSmart Magazine’s Gayest & Greatest Female Attorney.”
What are the pros and cons of law firm ownership for women?
Working for yourself! It’s wonderful to make all the decisions and answer only to your conscience. It’s also really hard work, and you have no one to blame except yourself. And working for a woman is hard. Women are tough, judgmental, and emotional. So you have to be comfortable wearing a lot of hats and having a lot of introspective conversations with someone you don’t always like. But in the end, you also get all the glory.
Please share a story about an opponent or colleague who grossly underestimated you (whether due to youth, limited experience or just being a woman or parent) or an awesome victory that you achieved
Just before COVID, I had the pleasure of helping two women reunite their non-traditional family after years of struggling against a broken political system. The mom’s ex-husband had won custody of their two minor children because mom had come out, and was starting to live her best life. The judge at the time, was politically constrained to find for Dad. Dad was a hateful, zealot, who called everyone involved with the case “an extremist terrorist.” He actually wrote and posted a manifesto to Facebook condemning the community in general and his ex-wife specifically. He sent her daily hate posts in the court-ordered communication system. He was the first person that I’ve met who I would describe as truly pure evil. When the couple’s children decided that they wanted to live with Mom, we decided to take the newly elected judiciary for a test drive. It was a difficult fight, but we ultimately prevailed, receiving a non-contact order until the youngest turns 18, so that the children can be free to discover who they are.
In your view, what role does law firm ownership by women play in advancing gender equality in the legal profession?
Women have long abandoned their own fights to fight for the rights of others. We like to talk about equality – marriage equality, equality in sports, anti-bullying for a variety of reasons – but we rarely talk about why women still make less than men doing less work at the same job. You only get one hill to die on. Choose your hill wisely. A woman who takes the step of opening her own firm has chosen a great hill on which to make a stand. It’s a statement that I don’t have to struggle in an outdated good-ole-boy system to get what I desire. Here, I make my own rules.
Let’s pay it forward – share your best advice or most powerful lesson learned with other women who may be thinking about starting a firm or have done so but are going through a rough patch.
You are strong. You are smart. And you can do this. It’s hard, and some days it really sucks, but ultimately, it is worth it. You are the only person on this planet who can fight for what you want. Be confident. Be bold. You got this, girl!