When Sedora Jefferson was growing up in Norwalk, Conn., the only lawyers she knew were the television characters Perry Mason and Ben Matlock.
“They were courtroom lawyers dealing with criminal cases, so that was my only image of lawyers, and I knew I didn’t want to do that,” says Jefferson, the associate executive director and general counsel of the Texas Association of School Boards Inc. (TASB) in Austin.
But while working on a bachelor’s degree in social work at Temple University in Philadelphia, two of Jefferson’s professors told her there was more to a law career than handling criminal cases.
“I just took them at their word,” she says. “I had no idea what else was out there.”
She graduated from Temple in 1981 and earned a J.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law in 1984.
“I looked at governmental agencies open to hiring fresh green lawyers,” she says. “That’s where I ended up, in public service. It was a place of opportunity.”
Jefferson joined the Texas Attorney General’s office in 1986 as an attorney in the general litigation division. In less than two years she was promoted to assistant chief of the insurance, banking and securities division.
“It was the best training ground for me,” she says. “I ended up in litigation and that experience prepared me for GC work.”
In 1991, she learned from friends that the then-Texas Department of Commerce was looking for a general counsel and she applied for the job. The agency’s operations are now in the Governor’s Office and the Texas Workforce Commission. She was the top lawyer for the agency for three and a half years.
When George W. Bush became governor in 1995, Jefferson was uncertain about her future at the agency which was led by a gubernatorial appointee.
“I wasn’t too sure who was coming in [as director] and what my status would be, so I made plans to leave,” she says.
Through her contacts, Jefferson heard that the Texas AG’s office was looking for someone to head its human resources division. She applied for the job and led the division for about a year before becoming chief of the AG’s administrative law division
In 1999, a new AG — John Cornyn — was coming into office and Jefferson says she again was uncertain about her future. A colleague told her that the City of Austin’s legal department had a position open.
“One thing I have learned — and I tell other lawyers starting off, particularly in public service — that the best way to get a variety of experiences and have opportunities is to be willing to do something different,” Jefferson says. “It was time to do something different again.”
She joined the city in 1999 as chief of its employment and housing law division and when she left to join TASB in 2003 she was the city attorney.
“The city is a wonderful dynamic place,” she says. “But it is a very consuming job.”
Jefferson says city council meetings, held on three Thursdays of each month, could last to 9 p.m. or 1 a.m.
“I had a young child and other meetings were beginning to crop up in the evenings,” Jefferson says. “I said, ‘I want to see my daughter grow up.’ “
A friend told her that TASB was looking for a GC and she submitted a resume. “And I have been here ever since,” she says.
TASB is a non-profit organization with 445 employees and annual revenue exceeding $50 million, she says. In addition to Jefferson, the legal department has one full-time and one part-time lawyer.
Her main focus is providing legal services to the association’s management and staff and seven affiliated entities including a purchasing cooperative that does more than $500 million annually in purchases and an investment pool with $8 billion in assets. Supporting TASB and its services entails a lot of contract review, determining legal structures and working with the various volunteer boards of the entities, she says.
Jefferson uses outside counsel for matters such as those involving the tax-exempt status of organizations, intellectual property issues and litigation. Mary Keller is an insurance regulatory partner in Winstead’s Austin office and has known Jefferson since the mid-1980′s when they both worked at the AG’s office. She helps Jefferson with TASB’s risk management fund which it administers on behalf of the school districts. The job as GC of TASB is very broad, Keller says.
“I think it’s a totally scary job,” Keller says. “She [Jefferson] has incredible nerves of steel. They are managing a lot of money. They provide extensive services to the school districts. If you were a private entity providing these services to this number of clients, with this complexity, you would have a GC office about ten times the size of theirs,” she says.
Greg Hudson, a partner in Austin’s Hudson & O’Leary, assists Jefferson with two of TASB’s affiliate entities: a purchasing cooperative and an energy cooperative. He first worked as outside counsel for Jefferson when she was the city attorney for Austin.
“I think Sedora is a very level-headed, very astute, but very calm personality to work with,” Hudson says. He notes though that she is not a “push-over.”
“Sedora will do her own homework,” he says. “She’ll test you with her own view of what she believes the law is on the matter.”
Jefferson says she enjoys the complexity of the job.
“That’s what makes it fun,” she says. “If I were not having fun, I would not be here. I would not be happy doing the same thing over and over again.”