2021 Whitehurst Public Interest Summer Fellowship Honorees
The Whitehurst Public Interest Summer Fellowships are supported by a generous multi-year gift from Stephanie Whitehurst and Bill Whitehurst, ‘70. Each summer, the Whitehursts name the fellowships for lawyers and others they admire in hopes that the recipients will be inspired by the honorees’ work in the public interest.
Summer 2021 Whitehurst Public Interest Summer Fellowship Honorees
- Pablo J. Almaguer
- Richard and Suzanne Burbidge
- Lia Sifuentes Davis
- Jeff Edwards
- Lamont A. Jefferson
- Jo Ann Merica
Pablo Javier Almaguer was born in the Mexican border town of Reynosa and at age five his parents migrated to South Texas. In 1989 he graduated from Pharr San Juan Alamo High School in the top 5% of his class and obtained his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Texas – Pan American in 1994. Pablo then obtained his law degree from Chicago-Kent School of Law in 1997 and he became a naturalized citizen in 2004.
Pablo J. Almaguer is part of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid’s senior management serving as the Pro Bono Counsel for the organization. He works in the third largest branch office of one of the largest public interest organization in the nation, and all his clients are low-income residents of South Texas. He has held several management and supervisory positions within the organization including and as an advocate for domestic violence victims, he has litigated many bench and jury trials. He also has extensive experience in the area of employment discrimination and labor law having obtained favorable verdicts or settlements for his clients in both state and federal courts.
In 2008 Pablo became the first legal services attorney to serve on the Board of Directors of the State Bar of Texas when he was appointed to a three-year term as a Minority Director. In 2010 a majority of the Board of Directors elected him to become the Chair of the Board, the first attorney from South Texas to serve in that capacity since the 1950s and the first Mexican in the history of the State Bar. In 2017 he was conferred an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Education from Wheelock College for his advocacy on behalf of women, children and families.
He has served as President of the Hidalgo County Bar Association/Foundation and as President of the Board of Directors of the Texas Civil Rights Project. He also served on the Commission for Lawyer Discipline which oversees the State Bar of Texas’ disciplinary system and currently serves as a Trustee on the Board of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and was appointed to a three-year term on the Supreme Court of Texas’ Grievance Oversight Committee.
Pablo is married to Linley Boone-Almaguer another successful TRLA attorney and UT-Law graduate. Together they are parents to two intelligent and talented daughters named Paloma Adele and Astrid Isidris.
The Pablo J. Almaguer Public Interest Law Fellowship is awarded in hopes that the recipient will be inspired by what successful lawyers like Pablo J. Almaguer do in the public’s interest as an essential part of their career, and will make a similar commitment.
Richard and Suzanne are residents of Salt Lake City, Utah. They have eight children and 17 grandchildren. They have had the privilege of adopting a number of children and revel in the closeness and diversity of their family.
Suzanne was born and raised in Washington, DC. She obtained a degree in accounting and serves as the Office Manager for Richard’s firm Burbidge | Mitchell. Richard was born and raised in Salt Lake City, started law practice in Los Angeles and returned back to Salt Lake City to establish his own firm.
Richard and Suzanne enjoyed the privilege of serving respectively as President and First Lady of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers in 2016-2017, following the service of Austin’s own Bill and Stephanie Whitehurst, President and First Lady a few years prior.
Incident to their involvement with the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and its Foundation, Richard and Suzanne have devoted a substantial amount of time and treasure to the concept of Restorative Justice. The essence of this movement is to keep young adults out of court. When young adults breach the norms or violate criminal law, Restorative Justice sees those fractures as opportunities to intervene, have the community present a restorative system in which the young adult can accept the responsibility for the wrong, see its effect on the victim, make reparations and amend their behavior without the scars of a criminal record.
The International Academy of Trial Lawyers, and its Foundation, have been instrumental in establishing a pilot program for Restorative Justice in Minneapolis, Minnesota, following on the inspiration of one of their colleagues, who established a similar program in Toronto, Canada.
As part of this same Academy initiative, Richard and Suzanne have also served as Executive Producers of a Restorative Justice film entitled “A Once and Future Peace” which is premiering in April-May at the Canadian “Hot Docs” International Film Festival. It will also premier in the United States at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Richard and Suzanne are currently working on the production of a shorter data-driven “how to” film in respect of the mechanisms of setting up Restorative Justice programs.
The Richard and Suzanne Burbidge Public Interest Law Fellowship is awarded in hopes that the recipient will be inspired by what successful lawyers and their families like Richard and Suzanne Burbidge do in the public’s interest as an essential part of their career, and will make a similar commitment.
Lia Sifuentes Davis is a Senior Litigation Attorney at Disability Rights Texas, the federally-mandated protection and advocacy organization for people with disabilities in Texas. She’s a public interest attorney, through and through, and has spent her entire legal career working in public interest law.
Lia provides direct legal representation to clients with disabilities in the areas of employment discrimination, accessibility, and voting. Her work focuses on the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and she leads the voting rights team at DRTx in its litigation, amicus, and policy practice to address voting issues and laws impacting people with disabilities. In addition to voting rights work, she litigates employment disability discrimination cases and ADA Title II and III cases in state and federal court, and at the appellate level at the Texas Third Court of Appeals, the Texas Supreme Court, and the Fifth Circuit. She is also admitted to the United States Supreme Court where she was part of a team of attorneys who filed a writ of certiorari regarding the applicability of Title III of the ADA to plasma donation centers.
ADA cases are varied and provide for a diverse and interesting case load. Lia’s cases have included representing a deaf over-the-road truck driver in an employment discrimination claim, representing a child with cerebral palsy who was excluded from a summer camp because of his disability, and representing voters with visual impairments who needed an accessible mail-in ballot in Texas. She has an expertise in cases of disability discrimination of children in daycare and camp settings, and the intersectionality of disability discrimination and discrimination based on sex and LGBTQ identity. At Disability Rights Texas, Lia also led various statewide projects, including the investigation of sheltered workshops paying subminimum wage to workers with disabilities in Texas and a systemic complaint about the accessibility of county voting websites across Texas.
Beyond her legal work, Lia leads the law clerk program at Disability Rights Texas and created a weekly “lunch and learn” program for the Disability Rights Texas law clerks in which she invites public interest attorneys from various fields to discuss their legal work and careers with the law clerks. She is passionate about promoting public interest work with law students, and in particular, disability rights and disability justice work. She sees disability rights as an often overlooked area of civil rights and recognizes how much work there is to be done in the area.
She’s been invited to present nationally and statewide on a variety of disability-related topics, and is a board member of the Disability Rights Bar Association and a member of the National Employment Lawyers Association and the Texas Employment Lawyers Association. She is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law and Brown University, where she concentrated in Community Health and American Studies.
The Lia Sifuentes Davis Public Interest Law Fellowship is awarded in hopes that the recipient will be inspired by what successful lawyers like Lia Sifuentes Davis do in the public’s interest as an essential part of their career, and will make a similar commitment.
Jeff Edwards is a Texas trial lawyer who founded his own firm, Edwards Law, specializing in civil rights, commercial, products liability, medical malpractice and catastrophic injury litigation. A graduate of Dartmouth College in 1993, he joined Teach for America as a sixth grade teacher at Alamo Middle School in Alamo, Texas. He received his J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law and Masters of Public Affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs in 1999. Jeff Edwards takes on the hard cases, police misconduct, corporate fraud, and medical injury with successful verdicts, pursuing appeals and making new law.
His public service includes serving on the Board of Directors of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation since 2015, a Life Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation since 2008 which provides annual grants for Texas legal aid programs, and as an Adjunct Professor in Civil Rights Litigation at the University of Texas School of Law. He also has served as President and on the Board of Directors of Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas while maintaining a pro bono docket in his personal law practice, as President of the Austin Young Lawyers Association and as a Commissioner of the Texas Access to Justice Commission including six years on its Legislative Task Force.
Jeff’s honors and awards include the Texas Civil Rights Project Pro Bono Champion in 2008 and 2018, Austin Under 40 Outstanding Lawyer, Best Lawyers in America in Commercial Litigation, Texas Monthly Super Lawyers, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Outstanding Board Member and Texas Top 100 Trial Lawyers.
The Jeff Edwards Public Interest Law Fellowship is awarded in hopes that the recipient will be inspired by what successful lawyers like Jeff Edwards do in the public’s interest as an essential part of their career, and will make a similar commitment.
Lamont Jefferson is a 1984 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law and an accomplished trial lawyer with the Jefferson Cano law firm in San Antonio, Texas. He represents clients who can afford to leave nothing to chance. Whether the stakes involve corporate treasure, trade secrets, or business reputation, companies and individuals turn to Lamont to help resolve the thorniest business-related disputes. He has been go-to counsel on some of the most important cases in San Antonio and South Texas, including litigation over the multi-billion dollar expansion of the South Texas Nuclear Project, litigation over the $26 billion Clear Channel merger, and the recent much publicized litigation involving the Church of Scientology.
Lamont is a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, an honorary trial lawyer organization whose membership is limited to no more than 1% of the lawyers in any state. He is a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates and most recently served as president of the San Antonio Chapter. Lamont regularly speaks on topics of interest to lawyers and judges, from trial strategy and tactics, to rules of civil procedure, to professionalism.
Lamont is active in the San Antonio community; he currently serves on the board of directors for the Valero Alamo Bowl, Texas Public Radio, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and as a trustee of the San Antonio Museum of Art. He has also served as a member and president of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Texas Supreme Court Rules Advisory Committee, State Bar of Texas Task Force on Diversity, a member of the Texas Access to Justice Commission since 2007, and as a Board Director for the Down Syndrome Association of South Texas.
Lamont’s honors and awards include “Lawyer of the year” in Bet-the- Company Litigation and Appellate Law, the Ethical Life Award from Association of Corporate Counsel and named a Texas Super Lawyer and one of the Best Lawyers in America. His brother is Wallace Jefferson, a former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
The Lamont A. Jefferson Public Interest Law Fellowship is awarded in hopes that the recipient will be inspired by what successful lawyers like Lamont do in the public’s interest as an essential part of their career, and will make a similar commitment.
University of Texas School of Law alumna Jo Ann Merica (1984) has spent most of her legal career in private practice civil litigation matters. Since 1993, she has taught Trial Advocacy as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law. Ms. Merica has regularly been selected for inclusion in the Texas Super Lawyers List. Texas Monthly has named her in Top Attorneys in Texas since 2017 and in Top Women Attorneys in Texas in 2020.
Ms. Merica’s legal career has always reflected a commitment to professional leadership, community service and pro bono legal services. Besides volunteering at legal service clinics and taking cases regularly on a pro bono basis, Ms. Merica served as co-chair of Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans, a State Bar initiative that established pro bono advice clinics around the state to serve Texas veterans. Each bar association led by Jo Ann has won first-place honors and awards for projects created and implemented during her leadership, including the “And Justice for All” specialty license plate created by the Texas Young Lawyers Association, which has raised more than $250,000 for legal services to the poor in civil matters.
Ms. Merica has served as President of the Texas Young Lawyers Association, Austin Bar Association and Austin Young Lawyers Association; as a director on the Board of the State Bar of Texas; and as a Trustee for the Texas Bar Foundation. Ms. Merica is the recipient of the Austin Bar Foundation’s 2017 David H. Walter Community Excellence Award and 2019 Distinguished Lawyer Award. For her service to veterans, she has also been honored with the Texas Veteran’s Commission Service Award, the Col Bryan Spencer Award and a State Bar of Texas Presidential Citation.
The Jo Ann Merica Public Interest Law Fellowship is awarded in hopes that the recipient will be inspired by what successful lawyers like Jo Ann Merica do in the public’s interest as an essential part of their career, and will make a similar commitment.