An Interview with Austin Bar President Leslie Dippel

The following appeared in Austin Lawyer, the official magazine of the Austin Bar.

Leslie Dippel, Assistant Travis County Attorney, began her term as President of the Austin Bar Association on July 1, 2016.

Austin Bar:  In addition to your job as Assistant County Attorney, you are a wife and the mom of three kids (ages 17, 13 and 6). And now you’re the President of the Austin Bar Association.  How do you manage to juggle all of those responsibilities?LeslieDippel

Dippel: I get asked that question a lot. When people ask me how I do it all, I say, “Sometimes I can’t.” I am not a passive participant in anything. I’m on the PTA boards at all three of my children’s schools. Not only do I enjoy it, but it shows my kids that I am interested in what they are doing. It’s also how I find out what’s going on in their schools. It is important to me, so I prioritize it. I do everything I can, but I know that I can’t always do everything and be everywhere. Probably my biggest fear is disappointing someone by not doing something they were counting on me to do. I hope that does not happen. If I do make a mistake, it is important to me to apologize, fix it, and move on.

Austin Bar: Where did you go to school?

Dippel:  My husband and I are both hometown kids. We were born and raised in Austin. My family is from Killeen, Texas and I went to middle and high school there, so I sort of have two hometowns. I got my undergraduate degree in political science and Spanish at [then] Southwest Texas State University, and went to law school at the University of Houston Law Center.

Austin Bar: Why did you want to become a lawyer?

Dippel: I wish I had a beautiful story to answer that question. The truth is, I grew up in a family with several lawyers. One of my mentors was my dear uncle, Don Wood. He was an attorney for Locke Lord in Houston. I am sure having people I love and respect be involved in the law influenced me. I have always been interested in the law. I am a litigator and I love the writing aspect of that practice.  It also captures my left-brain performance nature—I love the courtroom. What lawyer doesn’t love to talk?

Austin Bar:  What was your first job out of law school?

Dippel: I got married in law school. My husband moved to Houston with me on the express condition of moving back to Austin as soon as I graduated, which we did. In fact, we were literally packing moving boxes on graduation day! My first job after law school was with the Attorney General’s office in the Law Enforcement Defense Division. That’s where I met Judge Eric Shepperd. If you want to try cases, that is a great office. I was trying a case in federal court within 30 days of having my license. It was an incredible experience. My favorite thing about it was, as a young lawyer, you have this idea of what you should sound like, look like, or act like in the courtroom. The gift the job in the Attorney General’s office gave me was I got to try on several different personas. I tried on being the “country” lawyer, the “serious” lawyer, and the stereotypical “whatever” lawyer. It taught me that none of those things are right. The best lawyer you can be is who you are. I am me: Leslie. I smile, I crack jokes, and I giggle sometimes. That is who I am. I know that won’t connect with everyone, but if I try to act like someone else, I won’t connect with anyone. Getting to litigate frequently as a young lawyer in the Attorney General’s office gave me an incredible maturity which I don’t think I would have gotten as quickly in private practice.

After working for the Attorney General’s office, I clerked for two federal magistrates—Judge Steve Capelle, who is now the First Assistant in the County Attorney’s Office, and Judge Andy Austin. Those are two men I admire greatly for their dedication to their families and their careers. Then I went into private practice at Hilgers & Watkins, which later merged with Brown McCarroll. That was a great experience, too. I loved the people I worked with and I had great mentors there who taught me the business side of the law. Baby Dippel number two joined our family a few years after I joined the firm. Judge Shepperd was the Director of Civil Litigation in the County Attorney’s office at the time. He called one day to tell me they had an opening, and the timing was right for my family. The rest, as they say, is history.

Austin Bar:  What do you love most about your job?

Dippel: I truly admire David Escamilla. He’s an excellent lawyer, community activist, and just a good man. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The Travis County Attorney’s Office is simply a nice place to walk into every day under his leadership. And the work is fascinating. I love working with the local elected officials in the city where I live—to watch the work being done and to advise them on legal matters. I have a small role in that by providing employment advising and litigation. All the offices in the county have a similar feel. They are all family and it all feels close-knit. I have developed friendships in the commissioners’ offices, sheriff’s office, district and county clerk’s offices, the judges’ offices, and many others. It always boils down to relationships no matter where you are.

Beyond that, the reason I’ve stayed and have enjoyed it so much is employment law can be an emotional practice. It’s a large responsibility because you are dealing with people’s jobs, their livelihoods. It is how they identify themselves. It’s a very relationship-based practice. It’s like the pillars I learned in Leadership Austin: Skills, Issues, and Relationships. When you combine all of those things, then you’re in your sweet spot. I guess this is mine.

Austin Bar: When did you first get involved in Bar?

Dippel:  In law school. I was a research assistant to a professor who was involved with the Houston Young Lawyers Association. They always asked him to help place a student member on their board. During my third year, he asked the research assistants and I said I’d do it. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but what a gift it turned out to be. I was the student representative on the HYLA Board. That is where I met Justice Dale Wainwright, who embodied the characteristics of excellence, professionalism, and community service. I was pleased to have the opportunity to tell him what an impression he made on me at last year’s Austin Bar Foundation Gala. I was on the HYLA Board the year we hired our first Executive Director. It was exciting to be involved in that. So when I moved here, I just joined the Austin Bar Association. I thought that’s just what you did. I jumped on to the Bench Bar Committee that first year and have not looked back.

 

Austin Bar: Who were the first people you interacted with in the Austin Bar who made an impact?

Dippel: Justice Bob Pemberton was the chair of Bench Bar Committee that first year. He was so kind and welcoming to a brand new person who didn’t even know what the Bench Bar was at first. His kindness made an impact. On that committee, I met former Austin Bar Association president, Ann Greenberg, and Frank King and we became friends instantly. The next year, Frank called to say they were looking for a committee chair and he liked that I actually came to committee meetings. That was so funny to me–of course I went to the meetings! So that is the story of how I co-chaired my first committee—I showed up!

Austin Bar: If you had a word of advice to a young lawyer, what would it be?

Dippel: There are many areas of my career that I would like to say were part of a grand plan, but I look back and while it may look that way, it wasn’t designed that way. I went where the jobs were and that ultimately developed me into a well-rounded lawyer. So that’s the advice—maybe you can’t manufacture and design your career like that. Maybe you can’t control it. But you can pull lessons out of each experience and together, they become part of the tapestry. Austin is still a small town and the legal community even more so. Relationships are important here. Building the base of relationships is what the Bar does. So I advise just jumping in and showing up. Meet people. It doesn’t have to be intentional. You can just have fun and meet people and along the way you’ve met this base of people who are mentors, referrals, colleagues, and friends. People who will remember you. It just happens naturally. Find that person whom you admire and get to know him or her better. Say, “I like what that person is doing, I like who she is. I want to figure out what she’s doing.” Seek out your mentors.

Susan Burton was my supervising partner at Hilgers & Watkins. I was with the Calvert Inn of Court at the time. One time, I was sitting by Judge Suzanne Covington at dinner. Susan and I had been in Judge Covington’s court recently for a hearing. During dinner, I introduced myself and she said, “I remember.” She leaned over and literally patted my hand. She said she was pleased to see me in court with Susan. “I see so many young lawyers come through my court with people who may not have the best reputations, and I worry about their development,” she said. “I worry about what they are going to be like in 10 years. I was so happy to see you under her wing. We need more lawyers like that.” My lesson from that was, the things you think matter, don’t. But being truthful, authentic, and being a person of your word—that matters.

Austin Bar: What are your goals, or what do you want to achieve, during your year as President?

Dippel: I want more people to understand, and take advantage of, the amazing work that the Austin Bar does. And I want more people to give their talents to the Bar, too, because it’s reciprocal. You won’t know what’s going on if you don’t come to an event. There are so many avenues to be involved in and not all of them have to be about being a lawyer. Although if you want to do that, you can. Do you want to get involved in something practice-based, like a section? We have monthly CLEs. Whether it’s com-munity based, professional based, or judicial based, there is something for everyone. Show up. Then get involved. Serve on a committee, take a leadership role. There are so many ways to be involved. And those that are already involved need to ask people to come with them. Once, when Sherine Thomas and I co-chaired Leadership Austin’s recruitment committee, we timidly asked Judge Elisabeth Earle to speak at an event. We thought she was doing us a huge favor. It turns out she was looking for a way to become more involved and our invitation changed her trajectory in the organization. She ended up serving on the board. We would never have known her interest if we had not asked. We have to ask people to get involved. But they need to know they don’t have to be “all in”. They don’t have to be President. They don’t have to assume any leadership position. There is something here for everyone, whatever their interest or commitment level. It is all appreciated and they will get something out of it, whatever they do.

Austin Bar:  What do you think they’ll get out of it?

Dippel: I can tell you what I get out of it. I’m a relationship person, so I’ve made a lot of friends. Some of them have become professional colleagues, some have become the sort of friends where we’re involved in each other’s families. Friendships, contacts, networking, CLE. It’s all here.

The Austin Bar is also a very organized way to get involved in the community. Everybody wants to do volunteer work, or help in the community, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to make that happen. The Bar makes these things so easy to plug into. You want to help CPS and foster kids get adopted at Adoption Day? Ok, then go do it. Like animals? Walk dogs with the Animal Law Section. Interested in mentoring young lawyers? Great! Get involved with the mentoring program. Like fitness? Help raise money for the Heart Association and join the Fit Bar team for the Heart Walk. Like to write? Contribute an article to Austin Lawyer. Like kids? Get involved in the Law-Related Education in Schools committee and help collect books for kids at the courthouse. The list is endless. Just be yourself—and come on.


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