Women in law now have a place to call their own in Bell County with the formation of the Bell County Women’s Bar Association that meets monthly. Founded last March by criminal defense attorney Mary Beth Harrell, it is still a work in progress.
Harrell’s idea to form a women’s bar association is based on her experience working as an intern for the Justice of the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio. She was encouraged to join the Bexar County Women’s Bar Association that exposed her to a network of attorneys in other areas of the law who encouraged and supported each other. The monthly meetings hosted guest speakers who spoke on important legal topics and satisfied state bar continuing-education credits for the members.
Harrell said the state bar is a professional licensing organization that oversees the professional legal community to make sure lawyers attend required continuing-education forums and maintain a level of ethical balance in their careers. Lawyers are expected to earn 15 continuing-education credits each year — 12 in education and three in ethics.
“We never stop learning,” Harrell said. “We practice what we know. Attorneys specialize in a field and stay within that field. There is so much to know, we can’t do it all.”
Because most attorneys are solo practitioners, Harrell said the demands of their practices don’t always leave time to socialize with other attorneys and share the burdens of being a lawyer. “The demands on your time, the emotional stress,” she said.
With the BCWBA, guests gather in groups before the meeting to share what is happening in other areas of the law. Currently, the BCWBA has an average of 20 members who attend the meetings, but have had as many as 40.
“We don’t limit our membership to women,” she said. “Any attorney, paralegal, law students, men or women, are welcome to attend. At our last meeting we had four male attorneys attend to hear our presentation on HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws. We don’t discriminate.
“Young attorneys are welcome to become a part of the BCWBA. Rekha Akella, one of our founding members and a young attorney, would like to start a speakers’ bureau where attorneys would go out to speak to high school students on career day and talk about their roles as lawyers,” Harrell said.
Attendees gather before or after the meeting to ask each other what is going on in their law specialty. For example, Harrell said as a defense attorney, she gets to meet women in other areas of law. If a client calls her and asks for a referral to a family law attorney, she can help them find that person.
Harrell said the BCWBA is still a work in progress and a corps of women is working on bylaws for the group spearheaded by Stephanie Newell, assistant district attorney for Bell County.
“I am offering my services with drafting the bylaws and trying to cater it to the needs of our local women’s bar association,” she said. “Since we are a fledgling association, we have formed a committee and we are still in process of drafting the bylaws. At some point when we feel like we have a finished product that reflects the mission and the needs of our particular bar association, then we will have a ratification of the bylaws. They are a work in progress, but getting close to completion.”
“Stephanie is leading the charge researching how other women’s bar associations across the state work,” Harrell said.
Newell said Harrell has led the creation of the BCWBA with the concept and ideas of offering a service to the state bar association by holding monthly meetings and offering continuing legal education.
“(It) came from an abstract concept to offering a service that is useful to attorneys in this area,” Newell said.
Newell, a prosecuting attorney, and Harrell, a defense attorney, often find themselves on the opposite sides of a trial. However, Newell said that although they meet each other in adversarial cases, they are able to maintain a professional friendship outside the courtroom.
“We still have to be strong in the courtroom and we have to be strong as advocates, this is critical,” Harrell said. “But you also want to encourage trust and a good working relationship even though you are opponents. There is a level of trust there so you can do the best job for your clients. You can be opponents and still have the fundamental respect and civility with each other.”
At home on the range
Harrell knew she wanted to be a defense attorney from the time she was 10 years old and watched Gregory Peck’s portrayal of defense attorney Atticus Finch in the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird,” based on the Harper Lee novel. She said that when she saw that movie she wanted to “be that guy.”
“He defended the innocent, defended the underdog,” she said.
Her aspirations to become a lawyer, however, didn’t happen until later in life. An Army wife and mother of two sons and a daughter, her family moved around a lot.
“The best part of being an army wife was the moving around and ability to live and work in Germany twice as a family,” she said.
Her husband, Bob, is a retired U.S. Army warrant officer. Her sons, Robert and Joshua, both married with children, are on active duty also as U.S. Army warrant officers, and her daughter, Tonya, is a teacher and the wife of a border patrol agent. She and Bob have nine grandchildren.
Once the children were grown, Harrell, who already had a degree in history from Caldwell University in New Jersey, entered St. Mary’s Law School in San Antonio.
She was in the middle of her life when she went back to school to fulfill her childhood aspiration. She graduated with her law degree and passed the bar in 1998.
“I was a late bloomer,” she said. Harrell was 41 when she earned her law degree.
Some of her accomplishments as a defense attorney in Bell County include serving on multiple civic and nonprofit boards, including the Gatesville Lions Club, Boys and Girls Club, American Cancer Society and Central Texas Children’s Advocacy Center. She produced and hosted a talk show on KNCT-TV called, “Insight with Mary Beth Harrell.” She as been a featured speaker at the Central Texas Business Women’s Exposition and taught business law at Mary Hardin Baylor University, just to name a few.
When she needs to unwind, she retreats to her family ranch surrounded by rolling hills and pecan trees where she and her husband live on 100 acres. Their home is a 1924 farmhouse they kept adding on to. The Harrells share a love for animals and the outdoors. She and Bob have three horses, five dogs, and share 40 goats with a neighbor.
She calls her ranch life therapeutic. On any given Sunday she is washing her three horses and tending the goats while Bob trims hooves.
“There is always something to do, like mending fences,” she said.
Harrell makes time to ride her horses a bit, but she said they are spoiled because they don’t “get ridden enough.”
The ranch provides a petting zoo and menagerie for her grandkids, and a place to roam. When she is not spending time at her ranch, she is in her office preparing for the next trial.
“I became a defense attorney because of the challenging cases,” she said. “When the evidence is overwhelming, and the accused said he wasn’t guilty and I am able to show that he wasn’t guilty, it doesn’t get any better than that.”