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Intelligent. Energetic. Ask any friend or colleague and those are the words repeatedly used to describe Betsy Whitaker, the incoming president of the State Bar of Texas. But what many folks probably don’t know is that Whitaker yearns to be on stage. “I’ve always thought it would be a blast to be a singer,” Whitaker says. “I love to sing.” She sang in the glee club while earning her bachelor of arts degree at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., and loves the tunes of George Gershwin. “I didn’t pursue it because I didn’t have time,” says Whitaker, 50. She says her all-time favorite song is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Whitaker says she’s not sure why it’s her favorite tune, but Barbra Streisand sings a version that is “stunningly beautiful.” At one annual Christmas party, Whitaker always joins with others around the piano at a friend’s home. “We sing our hearts out,” she says. Whitaker says she’s currently out of practice. “I’ve got the name of a voice teacher, but I’ve just got no time,” she says. “So I sing in the car. I turn on the CDs and just sing away.” Whitaker likely won’t make a nightclub or concert hall appearance this year, but she will be on stage as the public spokesperson for the State Bar, pushing to implement technology innovations that will make it easier for members to use Bar information and participate in Bar activities, such as surveys and elections. Current Bar president Guy Harrison, a San Antonio solo practitioner, will pass the gavel to president-elect Whitaker at the Bar’s annual meeting in Houston, to be held June 12-14. Kelly Frels, managing partner of the Houston office of Bracewell & Patterson, also will begin his one-year term as president-elect. “I want people to feel connected to their Bar, and I really intend to use technology to help lawyers connect to their Bar and each other,” Whitaker says. As an example, she points to the online directory the Bar will roll out in September. “It sounds ordinary, but in fact it will be a powerful tool and the best membership directory anywhere,” she says. The directory, which members will be able to update via the Internet, 24-7, will include information about practice areas, where members attended law school, and will have links to the members’ individual Web sites, she says. Whitaker says the Bar’s goal is to give lawyers and the public 24-hour access to the tools they need. In addition to the directory, the Bar will offer an online way for members to update continuing legal education records, pay dues and report pro bono hours. Another technology-driven improvement the Bar plans to roll out during Whitaker’s term is online voting. “A lot of what we do is elections for directors, officers and judicial preference polls,” she says. “Currently all of that is very expensive for the Bar, with dues money being spent on referendums that can cost as much as $400,000.” Whitaker wants the Bar to take advantage of technology to conduct online surveys. “We have 70,000-plus lawyers all over one of the biggest states,” she says. “They want to know what other lawyers think. So I’d like to have a whole series of surveys on simple and serious things, and post those results on the Web site.” Whitaker says she has no specific survey questions in mind right now, but information will be gathered, most likely via questionnaires on the Web site, in such a way that it also can be used to determine members’ needs to guide the Bar’s board of directors as it makes future decisions. Leadership Style Gathering information as she prepares to take on a responsibility, whether it’s leading the State Bar or preparing for trial, is a Whitaker hallmark. “She does her homework, she does it well, and she has a lot of energy,” says Jim Coleman, a partner in Carrington Coleman Sloman & Blumenthal in Dallas, where Whitaker began her legal career in 1980 after graduating cum laude from Southern Methodist University School of Law. “She has become a formidable lawyer,” Coleman says. As a leader, Coleman says, “she’s very cooperative, but she doesn’t just fall in with what everybody says if she doesn’t agree with it.” He also says that her high energy level will take the Bar through a whirlwind tour of accomplishments during her term. “I tell you one thing,” Coleman says, “everybody better put on their safety belts because it’s going to be a ride.” Whitaker left Carrington Coleman briefly to work as an assistant district attorney from 1981 to 1982 in the Dallas County DA’s office. “I just wanted to hone my skills, and I had a ball,” Whitaker says. “I had 50 jury trials and dozens of bench trials. That teaches you to scoop up the facts and think of what will touch the jury. You just gain an ease by doing it.” After spending about a year working as a prosecutor, she returned to Carrington Coleman, where she practiced business litigation from 1982 to 1999; she became a partner in 1986. Mike Birrer, who joined the firm in 1992, says that Whitaker was one of his mentors. “She is one of the people who helped train me as a lawyer and the person who led me through my first jury trial,” says Birrer, now a partner in the firm’s labor and employment section. “She is one of the best standup lawyers I’ve ever seen in the courtroom.” Birrer says Whitaker thinks deeply about a case she is preparing for trial and about how the jury will react. “She’s the type of lawyer who, at the beginning of the case, will want to talk about it with the people she’s working the case with,” he says. “Rather than simply reacting to motions or issues that come up. From the very beginning, or day two, Betsy is already thinking about what she’s going to tell the jury – whether the jury will like this, or like that.” Birrer says that Whitaker’s ability to consider the different ways a group will react to an issue will be a useful tool as she takes the helm as Bar president. “The skill which allows her to lead a jury to reach the conclusion she wants to reach is the same skill needed to lead the State Bar to where she wants to go,” Birrer says. “She’s not a leader who tries to get her way by domineering or browbeating. Rather, she is an extremely articulate, extremely persuasive type of person that people instinctively like. Through that she can lead a group to where she thinks is appropriate.” In 1999, she married Dan Slottje, an economics professor at SMU. The two met on a blind date in the late 1990s — a Sunday morning brunch — arranged by a mutual friend. “It wasn’t a date-date,” Whitaker says. “It was just breakfast, but we hit it off right away. He’s a fascinating person and a wonderful, loving man,” she says. As a result of the marriage, Whitaker has two stepchildren — Andrew, 13, and Morgan, 11. She also has two nieces in the Dallas area, Amy, 5, and Elizabeth, 7, whom she visits at least every other week. That same year, Whitaker left Carrington Coleman to open her own firm as a solo. “I think every lawyer, in their heart, is an entrepreneur,” she says. She notes that two-thirds of the Bar’s members are in firms with five or fewer attorneys. Entrepreneurship “really gives you a perspective and appreciation on how to fix a copier, your computer, how to do a thousand things at a time,” she says. In January, she established a partnership, Hankinson & Whitaker, with former Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah G. Hankinson. “We complement each other in that Betsy is a communicator, a litigator and she enjoys every aspect of handling complex litigation,” says Hankinson, who has known Whitaker since they were both law students at SMU. “She enjoys legal issues and developing the facts,” Hankinson says. “I enjoy providing support on trial matters and also doing appellate work.” Hankinson says that her friend and partner exudes contagious, positive energy. “You want to be around her because she appreciates every day of her life and every opportunity presented to her,” Hankinson says. Colleen McHugh, managing partner of the Corpus Christi office of Bracewell & Patterson, says Whitaker has a rare talent. “She really listens and hears what people have to say,” McHugh says. “She can incorporate the ideas of others in her planning and then provide, I think, a focus for the lawyers in the State Bar.” McHugh and Whitaker met when McHugh was president-elect of the Bar in 1995. They have since become good friends, and speak several times each week, McHugh says. “Betsy took a key role both in the development of the State Bar’s plan for addressing legal services to the poor and then ultimately part of the legislation to add filing fees to lawsuits to support legal services to the poor,” McHugh says. The immediate past chairman of the Bar board of directors, Vidal Martinez, a partner in McFall Martinez Sherwood Breitbeil & Sullivan in Houston, says that Whitaker is “smart as a whip.” Martinez says, “She’s very direct, very thoughtful and very forceful and will use intelligence and humor, in balance, to get things done.” Harrison says Whitaker is driven. The two have worked together during Harrison’s term to upgrade the Bar’s online technology. “She has been so energetic in that and put a whole bunch of energy into that,” Harrison says. “I think she will be a great Bar president.” Harrison says Whitaker’s leadership style is one with high expectations. “She expects others to take on a project, get it organized and get it accomplished,” he says. Whitaker’s State Bar activities began in 1990 when she served on the Continuing Legal Education Committee. She joined the board of directors in 1997 and was elected its chairwoman in 1998. Other affiliations include serving on the State of Texas Lottery Commission since 2000, serving as a trustee for the Center for American and International Law since 1998, and serving as a member of the Selection Committee of U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, both Texas Republicans, a job that is charged with interviewing and recommending candidates for federal judgeships and for U.S. attorney positions in Texas. Whitaker grew up in Quito, Ecuador, where her parents were missionaries for more than a decade. She says that while living in South America she developed an appreciation for America’s values and its role in the world community. “To some extent, that’s why I’ve gotten involved and the reason I love the law,” Whitaker says. “The influence of our government is expressed in our laws, through the political process and through the courthouse. They are the tools by which we create and keep our country as strong as it is. It’s a real thrill to me personally to be a part of that.”

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