“We better run this by Legal.” It’s a phrase familiar to all of us who carry the weight and responsibility of being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
As city employees, the decisions we make have the potential to affect millions of people, so somebody has to be in charge of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. That person is City Attorney Ronald Lewis.
In May, Lewis replaced retiring City Attorney Donna Edmundson to lead the 130-member Legal Department that negotiates and drafts contracts, provides support and advice on litigation, taxation, personnel actions, acquisition and sale of city property, oversees city elections, redistricting matters, neighborhood protection and quality of life issues.
Over his 30-year career as a trial lawyer, Lewis demonstrated professional versatility handling complex cases for the energy, real estate, construction, financial and manufacturing industries. He earned an undergraduate degree at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and graduated with honors from Harvard University in 1983.
In addition, he has served as a member of the Houston Bar Association Minority Opportunities in the Legal Profession Committee, as a steering committee member for the State Bar of Texas Minority Counsel Program and on the Commission for Lawyer Discipline. He volunteers for the Center for Public Policy Priorities and has previously served as a member of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors, the South Texas College of Law Board of Trustees, Texas Appleseed, Neighborhood Centers Inc., and Junior Achievement of Southeast Texas.
“He is an outstanding lawyer with excellent credentials and the experience necessary to run the law firm that is part of city government,” Mayor Turner said of Lewis.
City Savvy caught up with Lewis and asked him to reflect on his first few months on the job.
Q: You have been on the job since May. In that time, what have you learned about the culture at the City of Houston and how does it differ from your previous roles?
A: The city is operated by a diverse and friendly group of people. They care about Houston and its citizens and are willing to sacrifice for the good of the city. The diversity of city staff is unique in my personal experience.
Q: Mayor Turner described you as a ‘lawyer’s lawyer.” What does that mean to you, and how is that an advantageous characteristic in this role?
A: Good question. Most experienced attorneys are confident in their judgment. I hope that the Mayor believes that I can and will add value to his decision making.
Q: You were a partner at Baker Botts, LLP, for more than 20 years, and then you started your own firm in 2006. What drew you to make the transition from the private sector to the city?
A: Houston faces great challenges. In this mayor, it has a man willing to accept the burden. With citizenship comes the duty to accept the responsibility for our civic well-being. Inspired by our mayor, I wanted to do my share.
Q: What are the greatest strengths and what are some opportunities for growth in the Legal Department’s day-to-day operations?
A: Our practice areas are remarkably diverse. The breadth and depth of our practice is amazing but our bench is not deep. As a result, every lawyer and member of our team has the opportunity to exercise responsibility for issues that matter and affect Houstonians. In so doing, they can challenge themselves to grow professionally.
Q: Going forward, what are some of your immediate and long-rage priorities for the Legal Department?
A: We want to provide timely, responsive and valuable legal services to Mayor Turner, City Council, and our client departments. If we can do that, everything else will take care of itself.
Q: Name one thing that most employees and Houston residents may not know about what the Legal Department does for the City of Houston?
A. One of my friends was surprised to learn that we have an intellectual property practice. Again, our practice areas are quite varied.