Criminal defense lawyer Mary Beth Harrell has taken on a new challenge the last three months — launching the Bell County Women’s Bar Association.
The grass-roots association, which Harrell began through word-of-mouth and email chains, already has about 30 members.
In the past, the lawyers in the association met monthly during their lunch hours at local restaurants, including The Gin at Nolan Creek in Belton, to share a meal and focus on continuing education.
So far, the group has covered topics of interest including social media and the law, immigration law and advice from The Jury Whisperer, according to member Cari Starritt-Burnett, a family law attorney in Harker Heights.
The group had its first social event Monday at the Morgan’s Point Resort home of member Barbara Young, an attorney with Young, Libersky and Holbrook.
“(Harrell) put out the feelers,” Young said. “I like that we can get all the women together.”
“We don’t always get to see each other at the courthouse,” Starritt-Burnett added. “You need that camaraderie.”
Anne Jackson, assistant district attorney for Henry Garza, said she missed the association’s first meeting, but has been a member since.
“It is easier for people with kids to attend the afternoon meetings,” she said. “But it’s also nice to have evening events like this.”
Carlson Law Firm attorney Rekha Akella, who also attended the social, has been instrumental in planning continuing education speakers for the association’s monthly meetings.
Akella is extending her practice into Williamson County. She said the association has been helpful in obtaining referrals.
“It’s an atmosphere for women to get to know each other, find similar interests and network,” Akella said. “It’s nice to put a name to a face.”
Akella has thought of ways for the group to reach out to middle and high school girls, encouraging them with the message that law “is not just a male-dominated field.”
Association member Savannah Stroud, who practices family and criminal defense law at Carlson Law Firm, has attended group gatherings since its start. She believes that “women act differently when it’s just them; there’s a camaraderie there.”
Harrell joined the conversation with members at the June social. She said the idea for creating the association has been a long time coming, stemming from her own education and community involvement.
Harrell first attended an all-girls’ high school, led by female educators.
“From them, I learned that being a woman and a leader was a very natural role,” she said.
Harrell then attended St. Mary’s University Law School in San Antonio, where she interned for a female judge at the Fourth Court of Appeals, composed almost entirely of women at the time. While interning there, she joined the Bexar County Women’s Bar Association.
“It was such a terrific experience, it stayed with me all these years,” she said.
Harrell’s extensive career in law includes serving as past president of the Coryell County Bar Association, teaching law at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and specializing in criminal defense law for the past 16 years in her private Killeen practice.
“I got to a point in my career where I knew enough people and wanted to do something for the community,” she said. “Giving women the opportunity to lead each other is worthwhile. Women (members) learn not to be in competition, but to be part of a team.”
Harrell said several members are working together to form bylaws for the association and to finalize the structure of the group.
In addition to upcoming continuing education topics such as the use of cellphone records in court cases, the group also plans to serve the community in Bell County by running pro bono legal clinics for those who cannot afford legal services, Harrell said.
“I strongly believe it is critical for women to mentor, support, network and socialize with each other to achieve professional success and personal satisfaction,” Harrell said.
There are more than 100 female lawyers in Bell County, according to Harrell. She urges anyone who wants to find out more about the association to contact her at 254-458-2195 or [email protected].