ALUMNI PROFILE: Michael J. Ritter ’10, Texas’ First Openly LGBTQ+ Candidate Elected to Statewide Bar Office
In April thousands of Texas attorneys cast their vote for Michael J. Ritter ’10, selecting him as the Texas Young Lawyers Association’s President-Elect and making him the first openly gay candidate to run for and win a statewide Bar office. Ritter’s 3-year term begins on June 18, and he will be sworn in as TYLA President in June of 2022.
His was a unique election, with all campaigning taking place online because of the global pandemic. However, Ritter embraced the new playing field and campaigned with a focused platform advocating for mental health and diversity, skills and career development, and public service. His slogan, “Practice Proudly,” carried a message of authenticity well-received by the legal community here in Texas.
In the years leading up to his election, Ritter made tremendous contributions to TYLA. He has served the organization as Vice President, Secretary, Minority At-Large Director, Delegate, and on the following committees; Diversity, Mock Trial, Moot Court, Local Affiliates, Law-Focused Education, and Online Services & Executive.
A graduate of Trinity University and Texas Law, the San Antonio resident clerked at two state appellate courts—and before rejoining the San Antonio court of appeals as a career staff attorney—was an Assistant Attorney General litigating throughout the state.
The law school’s Robyn Munn spoke with Ritter to learn more about his campaign and his goals for his term.
RM: Thanks for speaking with us, Mr. Ritter.
MR: It’s my pleasure!
RM: This was the first TYLA election conducted entirely online, but your campaign was distinctive even within that. Could you share with us what made your campaign so unusual?
MR: I decided to take a unique campaign approach (doing humorous parody videos, including my Elle Woods-style video) to get lawyers’ attention, interest them in the State Bar elections, and show my personality. This year was the first, and likely only, year that the statewide State Bar campaigns were entirely virtual, without any in-office visits permitted.
RM: I imagine campaigning online presented some serious challenges and opportunities…
MR: Well, yes. Campaigning started approximately one year after most Texas lawyers went into isolation and started working from home, and after most, if not all of us, were running low on energy, especially with Zoom meetings. Without travel expenses, I wanted to do something different with the flexibility I had with my budget. For each parody video, there was a more serious video emphasizing work that needs to be done on other fronts, such as attorney wellness and mental health.
RM: Your opposing candidate, Reginald Wilson Jr., a Thurgood Marshall School of Law alumnus and the second African American man to be nominated for a statewide State Bar position, also championed resources to help attorneys maintain their mental health. Why the focus on mental health now?
MR: Many young lawyers report handling mental health challenges, including depression and anxiety. The Texas State Bar and TYLA have great resources to help lawyers, such as the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, TYLA’s Attorney Wellness Website, and recorded CLEs. A lot of the work on having resources has been done and is being done, but the next steps need to be taken: letting lawyers know these resources are available, destigmatizing discussions on mental health, and perhaps the biggest challenge— trying to make structural changes to address the factors causing excess stress.
RM: Speaking of important changes, how does it feel to have become Texas’ first openly LGBTQ+ candidate elected to statewide State Bar office?
MR: I’m very excited. During the campaign, I only had one TYLA member respond with opposition to my being “out.” But all State Bar candidates have family photos. Because I’m in an interracial same-sex marriage, my family photos just happen to look a little different. I’m proud of who I am and of my family.
RM: Happy Pride Month, by the way!
MR: Thanks! One of the things I learned being closeted as a teenager is that not being who we are, or trying to hide ourselves from others, is a recipe for unhappiness. Having more diverse leaders in the State Bar helps encourage more lawyers to be themselves and that, in turn, helps improve the quality of legal services we’re able to provide and helps minimize or better handle the stresses that can lead to more significant mental health challenges. My campaign slogan “Practice Proudly” encompassed this idea: we’re better lawyers when we can take pride in who we are and the work we are doing.
RM: Clearly that idea resonated with your constituents. And over the last decade or so, you have devoted a great deal of time and energy to your work with TYLA. Does this new role feel different, or perhaps like a natural next step?
MR: Having worked on numerous projects and committees, I’ve been able to develop a comprehensive understanding of TYLA’s functions and purpose. This new role is somewhat different because it involves being the figurehead of the organization with 26,000 members in Texas and throughout the U.S. All the hard work on projects and committees will continue to be done by TYLA’s dedicated board members. But in the President-Elect role, and during the 3-year term, the focus shifts to highlighting all of the great work the organization accomplishes in improving the quality of legal services through public service.
RM: Would you mind sharing with our readers about your goals for your term as TYLA President?
MR: My goals include promoting career and skills development, mental health resources, and public service projects to help reconnect our members to our mission of public service.
RM: Admirable goals indeed. It was so great to speak with you! Thank you again for taking the time.
MR: No problem, and Hook ’em!