Bank of America Women's Leadership Series Highlights Inspiring Careers, Journeys of Four Remarkable Asian American Women in Law
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HOUSTON, February 10, 2023 — As part of its signature Bank of America Women’s Leadership Series, Asia Society Texas welcomed four outstanding Houston-area legal professionals for a discussion on professional development and personal stories of Asian American women in law.
Help Us Build a More Inclusive World
The panel consisted of Judge Theresa Chang, currently serving as special commissioner of the eminent domain administrative hearing; U.S. Magistrate Judge Yvonne Ho; Assistant United States Attorney Zahra Jivani Fenelon; and Nishi Kothari, a partner at Brasher Law Firm. The four shared their personal experiences in the legal profession with an audience of notable guests, professionals, attorneys, and students from Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas Southern University, and the South Texas School of Law.
Moderator Melanie Lawson, an award-winning journalist and an attorney herself, opened the discussion with questions centered on Asian American female representation in the legal field, the roles of mentorship and sponsorship in career advancement, and the speakers' perspectives on building a network of support for the next generation of women attorneys.
Each speaker brought the unique experiences of their own journeys into the discussion. Judge Chang had a successful career as a chemical engineer before beginning her legal career in public service, eventually serving as a judge for the Harris County Civil Court. Before becoming a U.S. Magistrate Judge in the Southern District of Texas, Judge Ho was a partner at Bracewell LLP, practicing civil appellate law. Prior to that, she enjoyed a career as a classical pianist. Fenelon is an Assistant U.S. Attorney, focusing on the prosecution of fraud cases, who has previously worked on human rights cases where she prosecuted domestic and international cases of human trafficking. Kothari is a partner specializing in bad faith insurance cases, and previously served as the president of the South Asian Bar Association.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession
Among the topics discussed, the speakers reflected on the reasons why Asian American women are underrepresented in the legal field. In this regard, Kothari shared that growing up she had no personal role models who were attorneys and remarked on the difficulty to decide to enter a profession without knowing someone in the field. Judge Ho added that she was the first Asian partner in her firm’s litigation practice, and based on her experience, she recommendeds that young attorneys look for mentors and sponsors to help their careers.
As Asian American women in the legal profession, the speakers reflected on how commitment and hard work can help overcome challenges. Fenelon commented that in court, she feels she not only has to prove her case, but also herself.
Advice for the next generation
Fenelon reflected on the panel's relevance, particularly to encourage the next generation to pursue a legal profession and be aware of its challenges and fulfillment. The speakers commented on the value of support and motivation from family and partners. They also addressed students in the audience, encouraging them to look for opportunities like internships and to experiment with different types of law before choosing their specialization. Judge Chang also encouraged attendees to go out of their comfort zone and seek sponsorship and mentorship for career advancement.
About the Speakers
Theresa W. Chang is an attorney in Houston, and serves as special commissioner of the eminent domain administrative hearing. She previously served as Judge of Harris County Civil Court. Theresa has tried many bench and jury trials during her legal career. She served on the Commission for Lawyer Discipline of State Bar of Texas, as well as the Board of Directors of both the State Bar of Texas and the Asian American Bar Association.
Theresa obtained her Master of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from the Texas A&M University System, and was a registered Professional Engineer, prior to earning her law degree from the South Texas College of Law. She was inducted to the Hall of Fame of the College of Engineering at Texas A&M Kingsville in 2019. Prior to being elected as the Judge of Harris County Civil Court, Theresa served as Associate Municipal Judge of City of Houston, Harris County District Clerk, and Division Chief of Harris County Attorney’s Office.
Currently, Theresa is a Commissioner on the Texas Commission on the Arts, Board Chair of the Chinese Community Center, a member of the Board of Directors of the South Texas College of Law Houston, and a member of the Board of Trustees of Houston Grand Opera. She has served leadership in roles for many organizations, including serving as President of Texas Executive Women and Asian Chamber of Commerce. She has served on the Board of the YMCA, American Leadership Forum, Strake Foundation, Houston Area Urban League and Texas Governor’s Commission for Women. Because of Theresa’s professionalism and contributions to the community, she has been honored as 2021 St. Jude Gold Women of Philanthropy, 2020 Women of Distinction by ABC Channel 13, the George Bush Award from the Asian Pacific American Heritage Association in 2016, Impact Award from the Asian American Bar Association in 2012, Distinguished Alumni from the Texas A&M Kingsville in 2011, 50 Most Influential Women in Houston by Women Magazine in 2010, and Women on the Move by Texas Executive Women in 2005.
The Honorable Yvonne Ho serves as a United States Magistrate Judge in the Southern District of Texas, a position that she has held since March 2022. Before her appointment to the bench, Judge Ho was a partner at Bracewell LLP who practiced civil appellate law. Judge Ho enjoyed a prior career as a classical pianist, obtaining a Bachelor of Music degree in 1993 from Rice University and a Master of Music degree in 1995 from the University of Southern California. She later decided to attend the University of Houston Law Center and ultimately graduated in 2006, summa cum laude and as valedictorian of her class. After law school, she served as a law clerk for both the Honorable Ewing Werlein, Jr. of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, and for the Honorable Thomas M. Reavley of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Judge Ho serves on the Board of Directors for the University of Houston Law Alumni Association and is a past-member of the Boards of Directors for the Houston Bar Association, the Houston Volunteer Lawyers, and the Houston Law Review. Her contributions to the legal community have led to numerous recognitions, including as a recipient of the President’s Award for Outstanding Service in 2019 from the Houston Bar Association and the Diversity and Inclusion Award in 2019 from the University of Houston Law Alumni Association. Most recently, Judge Ho was recognized by the Asian American Bar Association of Houston with the 2022 Impact Award.
Zahra Jivani Fenelon is an Assistant United States Attorney with the United States Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Texas. Zahra has been a prosecutor for sixteen years and has tried approximately 70 cases. Zahra is currently in the Fraud Division and the Elder Fraud Coordinator. Zahra prosecutes a myriad of fraud cases, including cybercrime, wire fraud, healthcare fraud, and tax fraud. Zahra was previously in the Human Rights/ Organized Crime division where she prosecuted domestic and transnational sex trafficking of adults and minors and sexual exploitation of minors.
Prior to joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Zahra was an Assistant District Attorney with Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office. As an A.D.A, Zahra litigated murders, robberies and aggravated assaults, sexual assaults of children (obtaining the first conviction and life sentence under the newly enacted continuous sexual abuse of a child statute) and domestic violence. Zahra graduated cum laude from Houston Baptist University, double majoring in biology and psychology. She obtained her juris doctorate from South Texas College of Law, where she was the Vice Magistrate of the academic law fraternity Phi Delta Phi, and a member of Currents Law Review and co-published multiple articles.
Nishi Kothari is a partner at the Brasher Law Firm, and heads up the Houston office. She is the former president of the South Asian Bar Association (Houston chapter) and current the VP of Advocacy for the South Asian Bar Association of North America (SABA North America). SABA North America seeks to strengthen the rapidly growing South Asian legal community with a recognized and trusted forum for professional growth and development and promotes civil rights and access to justice for the South Asian community. SABA North America is considered to be the voice of the South Asian legal community in North America.
Nishi has consistently been recognized for her achievements in court. She has been consistently rated as a Super Lawyer, which selects the top 5% of attorneys in each state to the Super Lawyers list each year. In 2021, she was recognized as a Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Consumer Lawyer, which selects the top 500 plaintiff consumer lawyers in the country. She also is a graduate of the Keenan Trial Institute. A native of Houston, Nishi and her husband enjoy finding new restaurants and cuisines in and around the greater Houston area.
About the Moderator
ABC’s award-winning journalist Melanie Lawson currently serves as co-anchor of Live at 5, and Channel 13's midday show, Eyewitness News at 11am. Melanie has covered virtually every city, state, and national election during her career. She has traveled to Cuba, Panama, and Africa, among other places. She has won numerous awards for her reporting, including an Emmy for her coverage of President Clinton's visit to South Africa, the only local reporter in the nation to make that trip. Melanie has interviewed a wide range of notables, including three U.S. Presidents, Henry Kissinger, the Dalai Lama, poet Maya Angelou, Grammy Award winners Destiny's Child, and former heavyweight champion boxer George Foreman, among many others. She received her undergraduate degree in Politics from Princeton University, and a joint degree in Law and Journalism from Columbia University. She is admitted to both the Texas and New York State Bars.
About Asia Society Texas
Asia Society Texas believes in the strength and beauty of diverse perspectives and people. As an educational institution, we advance cultural exchange by celebrating the vibrant diversity of Asia, inspiring empathy, and fostering a better understanding of our interconnected world. Spanning the fields of arts, business, culture, education, and policy, our programming is rooted in the educational and cultural development of our community — trusting in the power of art, dialogue, and ideas to combat bias and build a more inclusive society.