Austin Bar Association Immediate Past President Amanda Arriaga ’04 knows about being No. 1. As the association’s first Hispanic female president, she’s taken on the mission of finding and spotlighting others who have made their own mark on the Texas legal profession through the new Council of Firsts podcast.
We recently spoke to Arriaga about the legal history that makes the podcast possible and where it’s heading in the days and months ahead.
What inspired you to launch a podcast?
When I came into office last July, someone mentioned that I was probably the first Hispanic female president, and we looked at the list and it was true. I then started a deep dive into who served before me. I’m the 14th female, the eighth minority, and the first Hispanic female. And because we’re in Austin, where we love to talk about diversity, it seemed strange that we haven’t had that much representation on this board.
I then got a grant from the Texas Bar Foundation to celebrate these different legal firsts. Originally, it was a narrow idea of talking to all the female and minority presidents. But we have so many legal firsts in Travis County that we don’t talk about and celebrate enough. It happens that a lot of them went to Texas Law. I think we go to UT and then we don’t want to leave Austin!
Where do you see the podcast heading?
We may run out of firsts for Travis County, but we’ll never run out of them for the state. We have a bunch of people who did exciting things that we don’t talk about anymore. Texas Law grad Richard Pena ‘76 was the first minority president ever of the Austin Bar and the state bar. We should name an award after him. We should be celebrating his contributions because he opened the door for everybody who came behind him. If I have one big goal, it’s to find and celebrate more people throughout the state and throughout the country.
Are people reaching out to suggest guests?
Oh, yes. Judge Hilda Tagle ’77 was the first Latina federal judge in Texas. I met her at an event for a group of Latina lawyers called Cafecitos and she told me about her friend, someone she thought would be a great guest on the podcast, who was going through confirmation in federal court. As Judge Tagle was talking about her friend, she kept mentioning, “I happened to be the first county court at law judge that was Latina, and I happened to be the first federal district judge,” and so on. It hadn’t occurred to her that she was the fancy cool one because she wanted to celebrate her friend.
I actually think as females and minorities, we tend to do that a lot. We know how to celebrate other people, but we don’t know how to celebrate ourselves. But I also like that people are saying, “My friend has this cool story, how can I help tell it?”
What’s your favorite feedback on the podcast so far?
Armin Salek, the executive director of a group called the Youth Justice Alliance, reached out and asked if his students could watch a live taping. They were invited to watch (former Texas Law Dean for Student Affairs) Susana Alemán ‘84 and Judge Dimple Malhotra ’97. That discussion was so fun, because those students were just about to come into being undergrads, almost all at UT, and they could see the future and the doors that were open for them. That was incredibly exciting.
The kids asked who’s going to interview me one day, and could they do it? Maybe that’s the season finale: I’ll tell my story because these episodes are all really a commercial for the guest. It’s “This is Your Life.” It’s about them.
Speaking of Dean Alemán, was she here when you were a student?
Dean Alemán took an interest in me in law school, not necessarily because I was Hispanic, but because I’m an Aggie and she really loved to find the Aggies and harass them to death! We had a very fun relationship and rivalry. I’m not sporty, so I don’t care who wins the game, but she would want to place bets on the Aggies or the Longhorns, and whoever lost had to wear the other team’s colors. I also think that she ended up taking an interest because we’re both from South Texas, and we’re both loud and happy to be in charge of things.
She was so helpful. When you go to law school, it’s with the smartest people you knew from high school and college. You don’t know if you’ll be good at law school. And when they start ranking you, if you’re not the best, it hurts your feelings. Well, I was very involved in the Student Bar Association and Texas Law’s musical theater company Assault & Flattery, and Dean Alemán loved the SBA and Assault & Flattery. She was very complimentary in saying, “Of course, you don’t have to do law review or moot court. If you want to sing and dance on the stage, go do that.” It was very helpful to get a fancy person’s perspective that that’s okay.
Does being a lawyer—and a Texas Law lawyer—prepare you for podcasting?
I sometimes say my only skillset is fancy talking. I get that from law school! I’m one of the weirdos who always wanted to do public service. People tease me and say, “You’ve never been a real lawyer, not in the courtroom.” But I’ve always been an executive branch attorney and worked for state agencies and done work at the Capitol, and now at a nonprofit, Texas CASA, and it’s the fancy talking skills and being able to get a story out of a person that help you there. At Texas Law I learned that if you want to do something, they let you, right?
Who are you especially excited to feature in the future?
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I just recorded a panel in two parts with the people who essentially created the Hispanic bar of Austin. They’re all Texas Law grads: Richard Pena ’76, Thomas Esparza ’77, Judge Jim Coronado ’78, and David Mendez ’80. They all either knew each other at law school or became mentors to each other because there weren’t that many Hispanic people at law school at the time. That’s fun to know that they looked around, noticed they were missing representation somewhere, and how they didn’t mean to, but they transformed the state bar. Because once they banded together, they went to the state bar and asked the president, can we have an Office of Minority Affairs? Can we have diversity set aside positions?
They did something 30 or 40 years ago that still exists today. I think that’s cool. I asked Tom Esparza, how did you decide to do this? And he said, “I was born to be a leader.” And I thought, “God, I didn’t think we were allowed to say that.” But I get it. It’s not polite to say that, but I’m glad he said it because it’s true. I think some of us that feel that. I was born to be a leader, and that plus the fancy talking is what happened and why we have a podcast.
Thanks so much for talking to us. Congratulations on the success of Council of Firsts!
Many guests on the Council of Firsts podcast are Texas Law alumni, including:
- Velva Price ’86 first African American female president of the Austin Bar Association
- Betty Balli Torres ’85 executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, first Latina executive director of an Access to Justice Foundation, and first Latina distinguished lawyer from the Austin Bar Foundation
- Richard Pena ’76 first minority to serve as president of the Austin Bar Association and the State Bar of Texas
- The Hon. Gisela Triana ’88 first Latina justice of the 3rd Court of Appeals
- Betty Blackwell ’80 first female president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association
- The Hon. Dimple Malhotra ’97 first female South Asian judge in Travis County and first elected South Asian judge in Travis County
- The Hon. Hilda Tagle ’77 first Latina federal district judge in Texas
- The Hon. Christi Craddick ’95 chair of the Texas Railroad Commission
- Paul Carmona ’98 first Hispanic president of the Austin Young Lawyers Association
- David Mendez ’80, former president of the Capital Area Mexican American Lawyers, former president of the Mexican American Bar Association of Texas, and one of the first Hispanic partners in a major law firm
- Thomas C. Esparza Jr. ’77, former president of the Capital Area Mexican American Lawyers and one of the first three Hispanic lawyers to become certified in immigration and nationality law
- The Hon. Jim Coronado ’78 former judge of the 427th Travis County District Court, past president of the Austin Bar Association, past president of the Capital Area Mexican American Lawyers, and founding member and past president of the Mexican-American Bar Association of Texas