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Benny Agosto Jr. didn't start college planning to become a prominent Houston lawyer. In fact, Agosto, whose Puerto Rican parents insisted their children go to college, originally intended to study medicine and become a doctor. Ultimately, however, he chose to pursue a law degree, and is now a partner with Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend.
The current president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, and a past president of the Mexican American Bar Association of Texas, Agosto has had tremendous success as a litigator, and in 2006 was awarded the State Bar of Texas President's Certificate of Merit. But he also holds a soft spot for teaching - a profession he enjoyed early on in his professional life, remains actively involved with, and to which he is confident he will return someday.
In an interview with The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education Magazine, Agosto related his parents' efforts to instill a desire to get an education in him and his four siblings. He also spoke of his days as a soccer player for Puerto Rico, his journey through college, becoming a college biology instructor, and eventually choosing law as a profession. He also discussed some of the successes he has enjoyed as a litigator focusing on civil cases - including a notable appellate victory in the historic ruling for Republic Waste Services, Ltd. v. Martinez, which sets a new Texas legal standard for undocumented workers that prevents immigration status from prejudicing juries, and ensures that such workers and their families can have a fair day in court.
The Hispanic Outlook: Thank you for taking the time for this interview Let's talk for a minute about your childhood and early family life.
Benny Agosto Jr.: My parents were Puerto Rican migrants that moved from Puerto Rico to New York in the 1940s. My father was a World War II veteran. After the war was over, like many other Puerto Ricans, he migrated to New York City. I was born there in 1963, and then in 1969 we moved back to Puerto Rico, where I was raised through high school. My dad had been a jeweler working in the jewelry district of Manhattan. That's the trade he learned once he got to New York, and that facilitated him opening his own factory, which then allowed him to move the factory to Puerto Rico in 1970.
HO: Did anyone in your family follow through with the business?
Agosto: No, not really. We had a jewelry store and a factory. My dad and my mom both went to school only through the sixth grade, so their goal was to get us all educated, and not so much instill the craft. It would have been a good idea, I guess, but they were more interested in seeing us get educated, and pushed hard for that.
HO: When did you first start thinking about what you would do with your life? What led you to decide to go to college?
Agosto: I played soccer for the Puerto Rico national team, but my intention always was to get educated and go to college. From a very early age, it was instilled in us that education was your primary asset. Because my parents had gotten out of school in the sixth grade, they really felt that getting us ready for college was going to be the best thing for us. In high school I was able to do internships in my hometown, and I was lucky enough to work at a local hospital and at the court house. Those two things got me thinking about future careers.
HO: Did you plan on studying law?
Agosto: I first thought I'd be a medical doctor. I studied biology and chemistry and all that in college. But as an athlete in college, I'd had to play sports, so when I graduated I didn't have all my classes in line to go to medical school, and had to go to graduate school. I did that in biology with the hope that I would go to medical school. And with the turns that life gives us, I ended up teaching for about six years. At that point, I decided I needed to go back to school because the college I was teaching at was telling me I had to go further in my education.
That's when I decided to go to law school. I had gone through undergraduate studies in biology and chemistry and then had moved to graduate school in biology and was teaching at Houston Baptist University at that point.
HO: How did you end up in Houston?
Agosto: The folks from Houston Baptist had gone to Puerto Rico and recruited me to play soccer. I had played in the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico. They had caught the championships and offered me a full scholarship to come to Houston and get an education. I had some offers at different schools, but Houston is a big city, and I knew about Houston Medical Center, so I thought: "If I'm going to be a doctor, that may be a good place for me to go." Then after college, I went to graduate school at the University of Houston biology department and started teaching.
HO: What made you choose law over medicine?
Agosto: I think the beauty of the law - and I teach a lot of young people this - is that becoming a lawyer allows you to have options that a specialized post-graduate degree does not offer. When I was a biology major, I had only one option: go back and get a Ph.D. in biology, and then work either in private industry or teach biology. There's not much else you can do. So instead of going back for my Ph.D. (in biology), I decided to switch and become a lawyer because that would offer me the opportunity to teach or to work in private or public areas. A law degree allowed me to have those options, and I was encouraged by that. Once I was in law school, I realized that my skills - both bilingual skills and skills as an athlete - would translate effectively into litigation, so I turned to litigation.
HO: What was your first professional post after completing your law degree?
Agosto: I worked for a judge here in Houston, and then worked for a defense firm. That was a good experience, but I very quickly realized that I was better suited to work as a lawyer representing injured people. In Houston, there's a large amount of Hispanics, and the Hispanic population is very much so a working population. So I realized that would be a good position - for me to represent those folks.
HO: Did you do pro bono work as well?
Agosto: Because Spanish is my first language and I realized that I can help sometimes-downtrodden folks, I was able to do pro bono. I've done pro bono through my entire career. I do about 75 to 100 hours a year of pro bono work, which is a lot. I've actually taken cases all the way to the Supreme Court of Texas of a pro bono nature that have been made into law. I take my pro bono activities and hours very, very seriously.
HO: Can you provide an example of some pro bono work you've done?
Agosto: The landmark case that I handled on a pro bono basis was a case called Harris County v. Hinojosa. Sergeant Hinojosa was a police officer here for the constable's office. He was injured on the job - severely injured, with brain damage. The insurance company for the county denied his payment for his treatment because he was the Saturday-morning, on-call sergeant. They didn't have enough sergeants, so instead of having more sergeants on duty, they would say - whoever is on call Saturday morning to come on duty, you're it. He was called in by an on-duty deputy, so he put on his uniform and got on his motorcycle, and was on his way to cover for this deputy when he got hit by a car. The county claimed that he was in transit to work, and the general rule is if you're coming or going to work, you're not covered. I was able to prove that in this specific instance, when you are on call to come on duty, once you accept the call and leave for work, you are now on duty. So, we won the trial, won at the court of appeals, and won at the Supreme Court of Texas. I was really proud that that became the law for all police officers in Texas.
HO: Were you involved with any other important cases?
Agosto: Here's another example. For over a decade, I've been writing law reviews on behalf of workers who've been injured on the job. That's a very typical issue that I've fought for all these years. I'm of the strong opinion that if undocumented workers are arrested, they need to go through the process; that's the law of this country I believe we need to have border security and everything that is associated with it. However, if an undocumented worker is working in any capacity, if they're injured because of the negligence of others, they need to be treated just like anybody else. One thing is to be in deportation proceedings, which is necessary by law in this country; another is to treat everybody equally. I had the privilege to represent a family on this issue when an undocumented 21year-old worker was killed on the job. The case went up on appeal, and the issue was that they didn't want to pay compensation for his lost wages or lost earning capacity because he was undocumented. I was able to fight that in the Supreme Court of Texas, and won. A new law came out in January of this year where an undocumented worker has the right to collect lost earning capacity - even though he's undocumented - if his injury or death is caused by the negligence of others. I published a legal article on that case seven times this year.
HO: Do you think that you would consider going back to teaching in the future?
Agosto: I will go back to teaching when I'm ready to retire from my litigation days because I really love teaching. Right now, I'm very active in the community teaching young children; I'm very strong in the legal education pipeline, teaching fourth- and fifth-graders about the law and how to become a lawyer. I've also written a book that's about to be published called Victoria Goes to Court. It tells about a young Hispanic girl who's interested in law, and who asks her teacher what it is you need to do to become a lawyer, and why lawyers are important. In essence, it teaches everything about becoming a lawyer, for third- and fourth-graders. We'll get it published by next year so we can use it next spring in the Law Day activities. [Law Day is observed nationwide annually on May 1 to "reserve a special day of celebration by the American people in appreciation of their liberties and to provide an occasion for rededication to the ideas of equality and justice under law."] I teach children as often as I can, I teach lawyers through continuing education, and I teach at the law school whenever they invite me to go speak. I envision myself going back to the law school atmosphere and teaching as I get older and retire from litigation.
HO: Do you have any thoughts or advice for Hispanic students who are considering postsecondary education?
Agosto: I really believe in the education of all people, but particularly the Latino community. We have 17.2 million Latinos in this country that are under the age of 18 - so we have a lot of young Latinos and Latinas that are coming up through the ranks. When we look into the studies that the American Bar Association has put out on education, we realize that the Latino community is just not getting that postsecondary education. So we have to educate our youth that high school is not the crest of their education - that they have to go to college and think further about advanced degrees. I tell the young Latinos and Latinas that I meet that their dream needs to be really high - that they need to shoot for the stars, because even if they don't reach that dream, they're still going to end up at a high spot. My father used to say, "Your education is something nobody will ever take away from you." Getting an education is like putting money in the bank; once you save it there, it's yours. Your education is an investment in your future.
HO: Thank you very much for your thoughts and your time.
Agosto: Thank you. I appreciate it.