SoS Hosts Legal Panel to Cross Court Room Barriers, Make Personal Links

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The Legal panel consisted of John Parras (left), Carolyn Garcia, Carel Stith, Bonnie Hellums and George Willy with moderator Briseida Luna.

By Kristi Rangel

Houston: As a part of its Speakers Series, the Share Our Secrets (SoS) Program hosted a unique Judge and Lawyer Day designed to break down the walls of the court room by allowing its members to make personal connections with some of Houston’s top legal professionals.

Share Our Secrets (SoS) is an educational organization founded in 2010 as a joint venture between Club24 and NetIP.  SoS selects exceptional young professionals interested in lifelong learning with a desire to be plugged into the mainstream.  The members have their needs addressed by interacting and learning from each other. SoS’ vision is to create an environment to allow its member grow in their profession, personal and social spheres.

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About 40 SoS members and invited invited guests packed the Houstonian Boardroom to hear retired Judge Carolyn Garcia, retired Judge Bonnie Hellums, Attorney John Parras, Attorney Carel Stith, and Attorney George Willy share their legal wisdom and personal stories of their professional growth.  Attorney Briseida Luna, a SoS alumnus, served as moderator and facilitated a lively Q&A session.

In true SoS fashion the panelist were asked to share their personal path to the judicial system.  “When it comes to the legal process, people over-worry and over-spend,” shared SoS co-founder Biki Mohindra. “It is important that we understand real people make up our legal system and are not to be feared.”

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Former District Judge Carolyn Garcia gave the audience insight into how she has led a full life, filled with lots of pursuits that are rooted in her desire to make the lives of others better.  Garcia expressed her love of family, art, and the judicial system.  Garcia’s parents wanted her to be a doctor, she said.  Instead, she married a doctor and pursued a law degree.  It took her several years to figure out civil law was the area she would specialize.  Her stellar performances in the court room would soon lead to her being offered a position as a judge not once, but twice.  Garcia’s first appointment was as a district judge.

Later, she was approached to a State Supreme Court Judge.  Garcia felt it was important to be available for her then teenage son, so she politely declined.  Her dedication and love for her family has always come first she said. Garcia went on to became a well-known and highly respected judge, whose court room was known for some the “most interesting and sometimes most difficult cases,” shared Mohindra.

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Today, after retiring as a sitting judge, Garcia continues to work in law as a sought-after mediator and an occasional visiting judge.  She is also an artist  and promotes other artists through her Carolyn Garcia Art Gallery.  Garcia stressed to her audience the importance of prioritizing what you do, to achieve a balance in their lives.  This balance has allowed her to be a fair, empathic and thoughtful member of the legal system, she stated.

Bonnie Hellums served as the Harris County District Family Court for over 20 years. Her huband, Family Court Attorney and ex-NFL player Carel Stith, shared with the audience his story of how seeing his wife, retired Judge Bonnie Hellums, at work in her family court room, inspired him to go to law school in his 50s. Stith explained how he wanted to practice family law and help children in the Child Protective Services (CPS) system.

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Stith and Hellums stressed the importance of putting children first in all proceedings, especially in the cases where couples are seeking divorces, by pursuing mediation first.  “You can send your attorney’s children to college or your own children,” Stith cautioned the SoS audience.

During the question-and-answer period, criminal defense attorney, John Parras was quick to stress the importance of everyone receiving a fair trial without having to worry about racking up huge bill.  Parras explained how his billing system works in order to ensure the client’s needs come first.  “My job is to help good people with once-in-a-lifetime problems,” Parras said.

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More familiar to the largely South Asian audience was immigration lawyer Attorney George Willy.  Willy shared his own immigrant story and deep connections with the South Asian community to help his audience get the intensity of his passion for immigration law.  Each week,Willy hosts a free weekly call for the general public to dial in and hear new updates to immigration law in common, everyday language.  Several audience members indicated that they have participated on his calls and found them quite helpful in easing their fear of the unknown.

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The importance of a skilled attorney, especially in the world of immigration law, was expressed by Willy.  “We (lawyers) learn the ability to analyze a set of facts and break them down into pieces, then reassemble the facts to make sure they favors our case,” said Willy. At the end of the session, the panelists spent time chatting with attendees and making personal connections.  The intimate environment allowed personal connections to take place.

“I had perceptions of who judges and lawyers were,” said Sanjeev Shah, an IT professional and SoS member.  “Now, I’ve been given a reality check and deeper understanding.”

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