The Texas Young Lawyers Association creates the “Kirk Watson Excellence in Leadership Award” that will be presented to a sitting TYLA director who has consistently exceeded expectations by taking initiative and inspiring others to work collaboratively, demonstrated transformative leadership skills that empower others to succeed, and promoted the goals and objectives of TYLA over his or her own interests or accolades.
For about 90 years, the Texas Young Lawyers Association has been led by a group of attorneys comprising the state’s top-ranked litigators, government lawyers, in-house counsel, and corporate attorneys. Each year, young lawyers from across the great state of Texas elect a single person to lead TYLA as president.
Thirty years ago, TYLA was led by an energetic, humble, and service-minded attorney from Austin: Kirk Watson. As Texas Sen. Watson winds up his tenure of public service as a Texas legislator and former mayor of Austin, we reflect on the lasting impact he’s had on TYLA.
Prior to assuming the role of TYLA president, Watson served TYLA as chair of the board in addition to serving on several TYLA committees including its Redistricting Committee (no longer in existence), its Moot Court Committee (now a subcommittee under the Competitions Committee), and the Public Relations Committee (now part of the Online Member Services Committee). He also served on the State Bar of Texas Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Matters Committee, the Austin Young Lawyers Association Board of Directors, the board of directors of Austin Lawyers Care (now called Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas), and the Austin Women’s Health Center Advisory Board.
Alex Acosta, TYLA’s first Hispanic president (1987), shared his first impression of Watson after meeting him at TYLA’s New Director Orientation in 1984: “The first time I met Kirk, I could tell right away, almost immediately, that he was headed to do some very important things. He was selfless, courageous, and had a lot of compassion for people of all kinds. Of course, we became friends right away and still are friends to this day.”
Kirk Watson as a TYLA member
Even before Watson became president of TYLA, he had a vision to expand fairness, diversity, and inclusion within the legal system. Acosta, now a partner in Bickerstaff, Heath, Delgado, Acosta in Austin, shared that it was through the leadership of Watson, along with Ken Raney (past TYLA president) and Richard Abernathy (past TYLA chair), that TYLA created at-large positions. These positions have continued to advance more diverse leadership in TYLA and the State Bar of Texas. “Creating the at-large positions became very controversial at the time. It took lots of courage for that group,” Acosta said.
Later, as TYLA president, Watson would create VoTexas. The project included a curriculum guide for high school students to better understand the importance of voting, development of the right to vote, and how to register to vote. The Texas Office of the Secretary of State would later implement a project tailored around VoTexas statewide that continues today.
Even after leaving TYLA, Watson never gave up his passion for serving young lawyers across Texas.
David Courreges, former TYLA secretary and president-elect candidate (2011), was mentored by Watson. Courreges said, “As a lost college student, he helped me realize there is more to the law than litigation and more to government than politics. He encouraged my desire for bar service and was there every single time that we asked (and there were a lot of asks).”
No matter whom you ask, past or present, Watson is the exemplification of the uncommon leader. He’s uniquely talented in gathering groups of diverse individuals, harnessing their unique perspectives and, together, creating innovative solutions to difficult issues.
Courreges said, “He develops constituencies that others could not see, or chose not to see. He gives his voice to those who have none and fights to preserve access to justice for all.”
Although Watson received many accolades over the course of his career, it’s not surprising that when given a chance to comment on his time with TYLA, he said, “TYLA played a tremendous role in my life. Importantly, it provided a great avenue for public service while also giving a base for serving the profession I loved so much and that gave me so much. In fact, TYLA created a pathway for service that extended past my time as a young lawyer and active participation in the bar.”
There’s a saying by the late Judge Damon Keith: “We are all walking on floors that we did not scrub. We are all walking through doors that we did not open. So wherever you go, scrub floors and open doors.” We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
This year TYLA has created a new award to honor Watson’s legacy of work and service to the organization. The “Kirk Watson Excellence in Leadership Award” will be presented to a sitting TYLA director who has consistently exceeded expectations by taking initiative and inspiring others to work collaboratively, demonstrated transformative leadership skills that empower others to succeed, and promoted the goals and objectives of Texas Young Lawyers Association over his or her own interests or accolades.
Additionally this year, TYLA we will be presenting Watson with the TYLA Legacy Award for his 30-year history of service to the Texas Young Lawyers Association.
Sen. Watson, thank you. Thank you for all that you’ve done for TYLA, our legal profession, and the state of Texas. We salute your legacy of servant leadership and congratulate you on this next season as you lead the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs.