Embracing the Opportunities We Are Given

October 24, 2017 | Spotlight

By Christopher R. Mugica

A veteran of both World War II and the Korean War with an innate sense of family and an exceptionally strong work ethic, my maternal grandfather, Manuel, was someone that people naturally looked up to. And I was certainly no exception.

As a child born to teenage parents that divorced before I was 2 years old, growing up in East Austin in a lower socioeconomic class seemed to predestine me for a lifetime of strife and struggle. However, my grandfather loomed large and, as my family’s patriarch, he ensured that his grandson would learn and appreciate how his hard work and perseverance helped him accomplish success in his life.

I still recall the stories he told me in high school about his life at the same age – hitchhiking to nearby towns to pick crops all day long, then hitchhiking back home to help care for his siblings in a small home in Round Rock, Texas. That daily routine continued until he enlisted in the Army at 16 or 17 (and later the Navy.) His stories taught me lessons of brotherhood, teamwork, and perseverance, that the group is stronger than the individuals, that dedication to a higher purpose will overcome obstacles. As his time of service was during a period of history in which our country was still mired in issues of segregation and discrimination, without saying it, he showed me the importance of taking pride in being the best possible representative of our culture to the rest of the world.

His lessons were far-reaching and often not so subtle. Neither of my parents completed high school and I was the first of nine siblings to be accepted to college. Although I took that seriously, I was still a young man ready to enjoy the new experiences that college offered, even if I was living with my grandparents. After one particularly long night out on the town, my friends and I were awoken at 6 a.m. as my grandfather burst into the room to make sure we were up and headed to classes – and he made sure to remind us to make the bed before we sat down for breakfast. His message was simple. I had been given a chance so many others would never have. I needed to hone my work ethic to ensure I did not squander my opportunities to succeed.

I take seriously my responsibility to be that same type of mentor to my professional family as well as the young members of the Austin community, especially those in underrepresented classes.

I was honored to serve as the hiring partner for Jackson Walker’s Austin office for several years, before stepping down in order to become head of this office’s litigation group. I have likened it to going from being a rush chair, trying to convince the most promising young attorneys to join us, to becoming the professional coach who is helping bring out the best in each individual.

With respect to advancing the profession, I had the privilege of being Jackson Walker’s first fellow in the Leadership Council for Legal Diversity and have served on the steering committee for the State Bar of Texas Minority Counsel Program. With both organizations, I proudly accepted leadership positions to help effectuate change in the legal profession to ensure equal opportunities for all attorneys, regardless of gender, race, creed, or sexual orientation.

But more important to me than my professional peers are the youth of Austin. I was lucky to have become involved in the Young Men’s Business League of Austin’s Sunshine Camp as a pre-teen camper, and later as a counselor and camp director. It was my first glimpse at what the world was like outside of my own small bubble. And it opened my eyes in a way I expect the military opened my grandfather’s eyes. I got so much from them that I feel compelled to keep giving back. That’s what led me to serving on the league’s board, as well as leadership roles with the Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts and National Campaign to Stop Violence’s Do the Write Thing Challenge.

I have been humbled over the years when people have termed my life as a real “Horatio Alger” story, having pulled myself up by the bootstraps to become the person I am today. But the reality is that has been a much more nuanced story. One that never would have been possible without the lessons my grandfather taught me about the responsibility we have to embrace the opportunities we have been given and then ensuring we help others reach their fullest potential.

This article was originally published as part of a feature by Texas Lawbook called “Three Lawyers & their Hispanic Heritage: Why Diversity Matters.” It is reprinted here with permission.