20 Questions with Benny Agosto, Jr.
I had the privilege to play NCAA Division I, Men's Collegiate Soccer at Houston Baptist University for four years, lettering each year. After a short stint in graduate school and teaching, I became the head soccer coach at Houston Baptist University where I coached for two years. During both my playing and coaching years at the collegiate level, I learned many lessons on how to use competition creatively to get the best results out of people, including myself. There is no question that my years in collegiate soccer allowed me to learn about the skill of preparation and organization, which I have certainly put into practice during my litigation years. There is no question that athletics will teach a trial lawyer how to keep ones nerves in check as you enter the courtroom for trial. (At Abraham Watkins there are four trial lawyers that played NCAA Division I sports while in undergraduate school)
2. You are the 2011-2012 President of the Hispanic National Bar Association. What has been your platform?
My year as National President of the Hispanic National Bar Association has been themed "The Year of the Advocate." The HNBA celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and I thought it appropriate to theme my presidential year as the year of the advocate, because the HNBA is the national voice of the community. However, the mission of the HNBA has evolved to the point that it is not only the advocate for the legal community, but also the advocate for the Hispanic community across the country. The HNBA strongly advocates for three essential areas of our population -- first, in assisting our lawyers to become the best that they can be; second, by providing free legal services to communities across the country (this year the HNBA will hand out its first National Pro Bono Awards); and third, the HNBA has been and continues to be strong advocates for children. The Feed the Children Initiative was created by the HNBA and will serve as a tool through which The Initiative will provide funds to feed and educate children at each of the cities serving as hosts for the HNBA Annual Conventions. This new partnership also allowed the HNBA to further advocate for children, in partnership with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, at five separate events in different U.S. cities this year.
This year, I have been blessed with the opportunity to co-author a children's book with my daughter, Victoria Agosto, titled "Victoria Goes to Court." This book relates to children about what lawyers do, how to become a lawyer, and how lawyers fight injustice. The book was published and distributed across the country during the Law Day events in May 2012.
The HNBA National Convention is slated for August 2012 in the great city of Seattle, Washington. For more information contact www.HNBA.com.
3. Your landmark case of Hinojosa v. Harris County rewrote Texas law concerning on-duty/off-duty responsibilities of police officers. Such pro bono work is of paramount importance to not only the profession, but to society as well. What are the personal rewards for you in pro bono representation?
While representing a Texas Peace Officer in his claim for benefits, our work ultimately became the law in Texas and now stands to help all Peace Officers in the state. There is no question that my biggest reward in all cases, but particularly in pro bono cases, is the personal satisfaction of having helped another when they could not speak for themselves.
4. You have been named one of the 101 most influential leaders in the Latino community by Latino Leaders magazine. What issues do you see within the legal system and profession itself that continue to affect lawyers of Hispanic descent?
The status of the Latino lawyer has changed quite a bit during the last few decades. This year, the HNBA celebrates its 40 year anniversary. When the organization started, the primary goal of the HNBA was to get a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. After 37 years of promoting our goal and lobbying, this was finally met. Promoting the goals of the HNBA and Hispanic lawyers across the country, has evolved to affect the entire Hispanic community.
This year, the ABA Journal released a special edition in one of its publications titled "The Rise of the Latino Lawyer." This title proves to be true in that the number of Latino lawyers is steadily increasing both in law firms and in board rooms across the country. However, published reports have concluded that education still remains a top issue for the Hispanic community, and more specifically regarding law school admittance. Even though the Hispanic population in America approaches 40% according to the recent 2010 census, only about 6% of all lawyers in the country are Latino. These numbers show that there is a definite disconnect as it relates to education and the Hispanic community.
5. Having grown up on the soccer fields of Puerto Rico, I am sure the Caribbean holds a special place in your heart. Do you ever have an opportunity to practice there, and what is your favorite Caribbean place to relax and unwind when you are back in the area?
I have been blessed with the opportunity to practice law in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. As a result of my law license in Texas, I have been admitted to practice law in the Puerto Rico Federal Court system for a number of cases through the years. I look forward to my continued work there.
As a young man growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I was able to enjoy the Caribbean beaches as well as the friendly atmosphere there. Although I have been in Texas for over 30 years, my family and I always enjoy going back to San Juan and visiting the nice beaches, hotels and historic sites, like those in Old San Juan.
6. What impact do you think the discovery process has had on the number of cases being tried?
The "discovery" of a case is essential if a lawyer is to successfully try a case in our court system. There is no question that in order to be prepared for trial and in the end be successful before the jury, a trial practitioner must go through the discovery of the case while focusing on all possibilities to be faced at trial. I often say that in order to be successful at trial one must start preparing for trial from day one. A thorough discovery of each case is necessary if one is going to be fully prepared for trial. During my years as a trial lawyer I have always sought out to fully discover each case in order to have no surprises when the case is tried.
7. What was your evolution toward litigation, and did it begin before, during or after law school? That is, did you go to law school because you were attracted to the aesthetics of courtroom work, or did you want to become a trial lawyer after getting out of law school and experiencing other areas of practice?
As a school teacher for six years prior to attending law school, I really had no idea what area of law I was going to get into once I concluded my education. I had attended graduate school at the University of Houston, but had no real expectation as to where my law education was going to take me. Having studied law at South Texas College of Law in Houston, Texas, one of the nation's premier mock trial and moot court champions, I quickly realized that there was an area in law (i.e., trial law) that was exciting and gave me an opportunity to shine given my background and experience. While at South Texas College of Law I fully engaged in the mock trial competitions and focused on becoming a trial lawyer.
8. I once practiced with a fantastic, though legendarily difficult trial lawyer named Olin Zeanah. One of my partners, beginning when we were associates, kept a list of "Zeanahisms." They were little gems of knowledge that Zeanah would occasionally impart. Did you have a trial icon or mentor in your early years of practice who shared with you the wisdom of years of practice? If so, please tell us about them.
During my last year of law school, I was blessed with the opportunity to intern for the Honorable Alice Oliver-Parrott, Chief Justice of the First Court of Appeals in Houston, Texas. Judge Parrott was a former trial lawyer and I had an interest in becoming a trial practitioner. After working for a small insurance defense firm in Houston for one year, I was able to join the judge back with her old law firm once she retired from the bench. My experience with Judge Parrott both as a practitioner and as a friend, helped form me in great part into the trial lawyer I am today. Of course, once I joined my current law firm, Abraham Watkins, the oldest plaintiffs firm in Houston in 1998, I worked under wonderful lawyers and partners who always encouraged me to be myself and become the best lawyer I could be.
9. Do you read legal fiction? Which author in particular do you think nails the practice of law more closely than anyone else?
As a practicing trial lawyer I read a lot of law materials and pre-trial discovery on a daily basis. I have found out that in order to relax my mind, non-case related reading will assist me in relaxing and eliminating work related stress. My favorite author for this kind of reading is James Patterson. I keep several of his books handy for reading on the weekends, vacations, or when I travel.
10. What has been the biggest change in the way law is practiced between the time you first began until now?
The most glaring difference in how law is practiced these days is in the use of technology. From pre-trial discovery to trial, depositions to mediation, and everywhere in between, the practice of law has evolved into a faster and more technological process. In addition, many jurisdictions across the country have modified their discovery process to lead to faster trial dates, which means the lawyer's discovery methods and techniques must be refined and sharpened in order to accomplish more in less time.
11. Litigators tend to travel a great deal. What are some of your favorite cities or places and what fascinates you about them?
As a trial lawyer, I have been fortunate enough to travel across the country handling a number of different types of cases. In addition, I have been blessed with the opportunity to teach continuing education and serve on panels for educational purposes for different legal organizations. In doing so, I have been able to travel to many cities and I have been able to enjoy the people, the food, and the hotels. A comparison of old traditional courthouses and new highly technological courthouses has proven to be a very nice experience in my travels. But to give one example, my favorite trip associated with one of my cases was a trip to Amsterdam to take depositions regarding a chemical plant explosion. Witnesses from Germany met the trial teams in Amsterdam during the pre-trial discovery portion of the case. As one can imagine the food and culture in the city of Amsterdam proved to be not only fascinating but unforgettable.
12. Have you ever had a case in which your opposing counsel went over the line ethically in representing their clients' interests? How did you deal with it?
For the most part, the opposing counsel I have faced have been hardworking ethical lawyers doing the best job they can to represent their clients' interests. However, whenever I have encountered opposing counsel going over the line in his or her behavior, I have attempted to be a calming force in order to settle our differences. There has been one occasion where I had to object to the judge regarding counsel's behavior which I believe was the appropriate thing to do.
13. Has trial law's golden age passed or have we yet to reach it? What intrigues you about prior generations of trial lawyers?
Many folks opine that the trial lawyers' golden age has passed, primarily due to the reduced number of trials that take place across the country. However, despite tort reform and civil procedure changes that have taken place in Texas and in other jurisdictions across the country, good trial lawyers that are prepared and ready always get to court with their cases. The secret to successfully trying cases is to always be prepared and ready.
14. What is the first thing that comes to mind if I ask, "If you were a judge, what would you do differently from what you deal with most frequently in your practice before presiding jurists?"
Most judges that I stand before in court on a weekly basis are all courteous, prepared, and ready and willing to help move the case along. However, there are some judges that have a more difficult time deciding some pre-trial disputes. I always tell my lawyers at the firm that the fact remains that if you are prepared and a hardworking trial lawyer, you will have very few visits before the judge during the pre-trial proceedings. However, whenever there is a genuine dispute between counsel, the best way to resolve differences is to take it to the judge to decide. What I would do if I were a judge, is to make sure that all rulings are done fairly and as quick as possible, so that trial lawyers can continue to evaluate and push their cases forward.
15. What is your greatest extravagance?
As a trial lawyer, partner at the oldest plaintiffs firm in Houston, husband and father of four, my free time is very limited. We are always busy working on one matter or another. However, I find that my greatest extravagance is finding time to rest, have a glass of wine, and spend time with my family.
16. What object in your office serves to re-energize you when your mood needs an adjustment?
The Abraham Watkins office building is over 100 years old. It was remodeled in 1972 and now serves as the home for Abraham Watkins, my law firm. In my office I have many mementos and artifacts which I have gathered through my career and bring me good memories as well as good feelings because of what they stand for and or their beauty. However, in my office I have a black and white picture of my father standing outside of his jewelry store in Puerto Rico in the mid-70s. This photo is strategically placed near my desk and provides rejuvenation whenever I need it during the day. Of course, it must be said that a good number of photos of my wife and family are also present in my office which bring me great joy on a daily basis.
17. If you could have a candid conversation over dinner with anyone from history, who would it be, and why?
I would choose to have dinner with Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln. On the one hand, I would find it spiritually fulfilling to have a discussion with Jesus regarding his life and the meaning of life. As a Christian, I live by the teachings of Jesus. I find no other man I would rather meet and discuss history and life with.
On the other hand, President Abraham Lincoln would be the American historical figure I would love to have dinner with, due to the many difficult choices he had to make in his life. As a trial lawyer, we face many difficult choices throughout our career and I would love nothing more but to converse with President Lincoln about how he handled those many choices that he made in his life.
18. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA's mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the next issue of Litigation Commentary & Review, as well as the Diversity Law Institute's website. So in a word, sentence, or paragraph, what in your opinion is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
At my law firm Abraham Watkins, I was the first non-white male ever hired in the firm's history. I strongly believe that by bringing on a diverse lawyer to the firm, the firm became a better law firm for its clients. Since I joined the firm in 1998, Abraham Watkins has increased its diverse hiring, and now boasts to be one of the most diverse plaintiffs firms in the state of Texas.
There is no question that a more diverse law firm is a better law firm. Diversity not only brings our differences in background, experience and culture to the collective table to be shared, diversity in the law firm also harbors more trust from the clients we seek to represent.
19. What trait do you most value in your friends?
The traits that I most value in my friends are loyalty and honesty. True friends are always loyal and honest with each other. The same can be said about family in regards to parents and children. If you truly love your family and friends, you will be loyal and honest to them.
20. What is your motto?
I have a motto that I have lived by all my life and have taught my children to repeat to themselves whenever they face difficulties in life... "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." To most of us, things do not come easy, but only after hard work and perseverance will we succeed. The way I see it, failures or defeats are not just failures, but steps in the right direction towards victory.
By G. Steven Henry