Life Lessons

How a court battle between parents sprung the Texas Young Lawyers Association president into family law practice.

Interview by Eric Quitugua

Baili Rhodes

When Sally Pretorius was a child, she spent a holiday sitting outside a Bexar County courthouse with a family friend while her parents battled over child support for her brother with special needs. Her mother needed aid to put him through a school better suited for him. Pretorius’ mother, who was a school nurse, struggled to afford the fees for an attorney and represented herself. She lost. “When she finally came out of the courthouse, she told us that she lost—and the memory stuck with me ever since,” Pretorius said. “After that experience with my mom, I promised myself I would help people like her one day—family law gives me that opportunity.”

Pretorius started out studying political science at St. Mary’s University. Then the San Antonio native moved from her hometown for the first time and headed to SMU Dedman School of Law. Pretorius earned her J.D. in 2009, became the first attorney in the family, and made invaluable connections along the way. After some time working in Austin, she returned to Dallas, continuing her family law practice with KoonsFuller.

Pretorius is no stranger to the Texas Young Lawyers Association leadership. A director since 2012, she has worked on many TYLA projects, including Strength in Unity, Divorce Guide for Children, and her favorite, the National Trial Competition. Pretorius described working with her fellow directors and non-TYLA member committees from the competition as getting together with family. “Little did I know that would be the next chapter of my life,” she said. “The chapter where I met lifelong friends—who would be at my wedding or behind me at my board certification exam—and became a part of an organization that helps build leadership throughout the State Bar of Texas and helps our community immensely with nationally acclaimed projects.”

Pretorius will be sworn in as TYLA president at the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting in Houston on June 22. Under her leadership, the Texas Young Lawyers Association will focus on educating students on the fundamental rights guaranteed to Americans through the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments, will work to promote women in the law, and focus on compassion fatigue awareness.

Pretorius recently talked with the Texas Bar Journal about the new TYLA signature project, the benefit of being underestimated, and always staying ready to learn.


In Recess Minor
Left: Sally Pretorius with her husband, Adam Hodge, and their two hunting dogs, Roxy and Molly. Top Right: Pretorius with her mother, Lili Cruz, and sister, Melissa Contreras (expecting her first child), after graduating from SMU Dedman University School of Law. Bottom Right: Pretorius with TYLA members at her wedding in Austin in May 2015.

 

What was your experience like growing up in the Alamo City?
I loved it. San Antonio’s big but with a small-town feel. I was born and raised there and went to public schools. Then I went to college at St. Mary’s University. Growing up in the Alamo City afforded me amazing opportunities. Things I love about San Antonio are still there—the food and the culture really can’t be compared to any other city. We have the Spurs, and most importantly, my mom and brother are still there.


What’s the toughest part about being a young attorney?
The toughest part is the learning curve—learning that you have a lot to learn, learning to leave your ego at the door, learning to separate work from your personal life, learning the law, learning office politics, learning to be civil, and learning to communicate effectively. We are all smart and graduate law school with a wealth of knowledge, but once you realize that you don’t know everything and that it’s a learning process, it gets so much easier.


What’s the most rewarding part?
As a young attorney, you are constantly underestimated, but I think we, as young attorneys, need to use that to our advantage. Nothing is more rewarding than showing up fully prepared and ready to go, getting a good result, and your client being proud of the job that you did.


What projects have you worked on that you’re the most proud of?
By far my favorite TYLA project is the National Trial Competition, which TYLA co-sponsors with the American College of Trial Lawyers. Young attorneys across the state work to put on the most prestigious mock trial competitions in the United States. Another favorite has been our Lawyer Legends project, which allowed us to interview some of the most amazing attorneys in Texas and then memorialize their advice in a small book that is available for review. Reading through their responses is inspirational and impactful.


What will be your focus going into your year as president?
Our signature project this year will be Proud to Be an American, which will be designed to educate students about what it means to be a U.S. citizen, identify characteristics of good citizenship, and help students understand the fundamental rights Americans are guaranteed through the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the U.S. Constitution. We will have other projects, such as an update to Junior Judges, and initiatives that focus on women in the law and awareness of compassion fatigue. This project would not be possible without the support of the Texas Bar Foundation.


Who is the biggest influence in your career?
My mom. She pushes me to be a better human.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Pick up the phone and take people to coffee. A mentor of mine from Austin taught me about the power of a cup of coffee, even though he didn’t drink it and would order a Dr Pepper. Time for coffee is a small commitment but a lot can be accomplished—mentoring, a to-do list, quick advice, and human interaction. He also taught me about the power of a personal phone call. Emotions and context are left out of emails and texts (no, emojis aren’t enough). And it’s hard to say no to someone in person or on a phone call. TBJ

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