Attorney at Law Magazine recently spoke with Hannah Hembree Bell, a family law attorney and the founder of Hembree Bell Law Firm PLLC. We discussed the origins of her career and the life changes that prompted her to shift from an up-and-coming Big Law employment lawyer to a family law attorney.
AALM: What drew you to a career in the law?
HHB: I got to the legal field from left field, I guess you could say. When I was in high school and college, I was on the debate team. People would often tell me, “You should be a lawyer!” I would laugh and tell them, “Yeah right! I hate arguing. After I finish college, that’s the last school for me, ever!” (I often say things and later have to eat my words).
After college, I had several different jobs and ended up building a successful little recruiting business. I enjoyed it fine, but I didn’t feel like it was my calling. I wanted to LOVE my job, not just tolerate it.
So, when my kids were still really little, I decided to go back to school. I worked at my recruiting firm during the day and on my MBA in the evenings. It was a wild time. In a twist of fate, one of my classes was a business law course, taught by a lawyer for the business school. I ate it up. I would read the assigned text, explaining what a “tort” was, then go read the factual background of the assigned case. To test myself, I’d sit and think through what I would argue if I was the Petitioner, then the Respondent, then how I’d rule as the judge. To my surprise, I nailed it most of the time. I realized there was something in me that just “got” it. I loved (and still do) the way people came to the court with a problem, the court would hear both sides, and then apply certain rules to solve their problem for them. I thought it was amazing that lawyers got to help people solve problems and get relief as their actual job. So, I pushed aside all the fear and doubt of going to law school at 30 with three kids in tow. And that, that has made all the difference.
I realized there was something in me that just ‘got’ it.
AALM: Tell us a little about your philosophy when it comes to your practice. Do you have a personal motto?
HHB: The philosophy of our firm is to approach real people with real solutions to real problems. You won’t find me talking over people’s heads or acting like I’m better because I have a law degree. I tell clients all the time, “I’m a real person who happens to be a lawyer, not the other way around.” We meet people where they are and try to break down the legal process in a way that’s understandable and approachable. I guess that goes hand-in-hand with my personal motto: If not me, who? I’ve always had a strong sense of responsibility, courage, and compassion. I hope each client, opposing party, judge, process server, lawyer—you name it—that we interact with leaves with that impression.
AALM: Tell us about one of the most important lessons you learned from a personal or professional mentor.
HHB: This one is easy. When I worked in employment law at a big firm in San Antonio, my boss (and now personal friend) Donna McElroy, would always say, “When you get what you want in the courtroom, get the [heck] out of there!” If the judge says anything that resembles “motion granted,” Donna is the first one out the door—with me running along right behind her. You don’t want to give the judge a chance to go back on their obviously astute decision!
AALM: What is the most important lesson your parents taught you?
HHB: My dad has always been full of little mantras. One that echoes in my head at least once a day is: “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” From sweeping the back porch as a teenager to handling a big filing for a pro bono case, I try to bring my whole, best self to everything I do.
AALM: How is your practice today different from how you envisioned it in law school?
HHB: Completely different. When I first graduated from law school, I worked at a large firm in San Antonio doing employment law. I had visions of someday becoming managing partner and attending fun fancy lawyer parties in big, tall buildings. Life had other plans. I loved my time at the big firm and the lifelong friends I made there, but it wasn’t the right path for me long-term. I needed room to spread my wings and approach the practice of law from a different vantage point. I’m a hustler and like to be the boss of myself too much to be at a big firm. 🙂
AALM: What drew you to practice family law?
HHB: Between my second and third year of law school, I went through a difficult and messy divorce. I borrowed against my then-paid off car to piece together enough money for a retainer. The money ran out fast. I ended up accepting bad terms in the divorce and was uninformed about the consequences of that decision. Those consequences led to a multi-year custody modification that required more of me than I can probably convey in a magazine article.
Even though I had graduated law school by then, it was hard to find a lawyer who was up to the task of dealing with my situation. I tried to handle it by myself (with the help of some friends) at first, but it became pretty clear that I was out of my depth. Fortunately, my kids’ therapist sent me to an amazing lawyer who lead us through a seven-day jury trial that resulted in my kids moving to San Antonio with me. If I hadn’t found my lawyer, Hector Mendez, the jury never would have heard mine and my kids’ story. They never would have understood what had happened and why the change was essential.
After it was over and a little time had passed, I realized that I had no other choice but to become the lawyer I’d wished I had from the beginning. It was my duty to help explain to other women (and good guys!) what I didn’t understand about the divorce and custody process; I had to encourage them and help them avoid the mistakes I’d made along the way. Everyone thought I was crazy for leaving the big firm to jump into the family law deep end. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it.
AALM: How would you describe the culture of your firm?
HHB: I am so lucky to be surrounded by such an amazing group of people. We are approachable and relatable. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, even though we do serious work.
You won’t hear us talk a lot about “boundaries” at our firm. We throw our whole selves into everything we do, each and every one of us. I guess it’s a job requirement.
We are a tight-knit squad who supports each other, no matter what. Basically, if you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.
AALM: Tell us about a single case that has significantly impacted you personally or professionally?
HHB: As is often the case, [Jennifer] came to me unexpectedly. Her stepmother called me on a probate matter, and we realized what she really needed was a family lawyer for her stepdaughter.
[Jennifer] had it rough from a young age. By the time she was in her 20s and pregnant with her daughter, drugs had taken hold of her future. [Jennifer]’s daughter ended up removed by CPS and then in the sole custody of [Jennifer]’s ex, who relocated out-of-state.
By the time the baby was 3 years old, [Jennifer] had turned her life around. She was engaged to be married to a nice guy, working, and sober. Notwithstanding, the child’s father refused to allow [Jennifer] access to her child. The paternal aunt even filed an out-of-state lawsuit trying to take custody of the child from both parents (?!). I entered the case on a limited basis to try and stop the out-of-state proceeding (famous last words!). But, allegations surfaced that the paternal grandfather had been sexually abusing the child.
Business-minded lawyers would have advised me to withdraw immediately. This case was getting complicated, fast. But—I couldn’t walk away. If not me, who?
This case was getting complicated, fast. But—I couldn’t walk away. If not me, who?
After a bit of luck and some creative lawyering, we got [Jennifer]’s daughter back to Texas, safely with [Jennifer] and her family. The child went from primarily nonverbal to thriving at preschool. [Jennifer] was mature enough not to do her ex what he had done to her. She encouraged his involvement in the little girls’ life, to the point that Dad recently relocated back to Texas to co-parent with [Jennifer]: a family law happy ending.
I often think—what if I hadn’t taken that case? What would have continued to happen to that little girl? On long days when I feel like throwing in the towel, I remember [Jennifer] and her sweet girl.
I’m so honored to do this work.
AALM: What are some of the challenges you see negatively impacting the judicial system?
HHB: Accessibility. Pursuing justice is an expensive proposition. I don’t have the answers, but it’s a problem. People can make a good living, work hard, and still not be able to afford pursuing or defending their legal rights. Justice shouldn’t be pay-to-play. And, I think a lot of people are trying to curb that. For example, our firm remains sincerely committed to offering pro-bono legal services. Every attorney serves in legal clinics and takes cases to do our part to bridge the accessibility gap.
AALM: Tell us about a book, movie or event that changed your perspective on the practice of law or your approach to life.
HHB: One of the most influential books I have ever read is The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle. I think it was the first text that brought thoughts of consciousness, being, and presence to my attention. I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to be awake to all life has to offer rather than rushing from one thing to the next.
AALM: Tell us about your ambitions for your career.
HHB: I love our team. I am all-in on creating the absolute best firm we can. To that end, we are working hard on nailing down systems and streamlining services. I plan to keep on keeping on! I’d like to do some more speaking things down the line, too, but I’m pretty busy/happy just where I am. I honestly pinch myself every day!
AALM: What are you most proud of professionally and personally?
HHB: Professionally, I am proud of the firm we are building. We started with just me (the lawyer) and my sister (legal assistant/office manager/doer of all things). I never dreamed I’d be the leader of a pretty amazing motley crew of people who love each other and what we do every single day. It’s a dream come true.
Personally, a lot of people may not know this, but when I was first divorced my children did not live with me primarily, like they do now. So, I have been on both sides of the custody fence. I learned so much through that process. Humility is a brutal teacher.
I learned so much through that process. Humility is a brutal teacher.
I could have dipped my head and been embarrassed. I did not. I held my head high. I did not drop my chin. I marched forward, I did not sit around and mope. I had things to do, a life to live. I am most proud that I never gave up, even when things seemed very dark.
I am proud that even when it was really hard and a lot of people would have given up and accepted defeat—thrown in the towel, relented, or ran scared—that I preserved; I persisted. I always did the right thing; I made the next right decision I could make, minute to minute.
AALM: Tell us about your life outside the law.
HHB: I have the three best kids and my relationship with each of them is better than it’s ever been. They are the crown jewels of my entire life and made it all worth it. I got remarried, and I have the most amazing, supportive, brainiac husband. We also have the cutest Havanese puppy, Hector, our Firm’s Chief Happiness Officer!
I love to read, travel, kayak, and hike. I am most at home with I am outside, feeling small.
AALM: Tell us about your community involvement.
HHB: I was honored to be selected to the Austin Young Lawyer’s Leadership Academy this year. I serve weekly with Volunteer Legal Services, offering pro-bono advice to low income families in Central Texas. I am constantly working on pro-bono cases. I am a proud Pop Warner Football Board Member and love my Crossfit Central community.
AALM: At the end of the day, what makes you happiest professionally and personally?
HHB: I am happiest when I am surrounded by the people I love, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. I was born brave. My voice does not quake (anymore). I am happiest when I can use it to defend, to lead, to encourage, to inspire, to comfort, to question, to reflect, to call for change … particularly for those who cannot.
AALM: What do you wish you would have known sooner? What advice would you share with others?
HHB: When I think about my story, I would tell people don’t count yourself out. Don’t sell yourself short.
You need to know who are you are and confirm to yourself what you are worth. If you are good with you, that’s all that matters. Ultimately, you are all you have.
Do not let people into your life who do not treat you as if you are a little bit magic, because you are. Don’t let people make you feel like you aren’t worth what you know inside you really are. You need to protect your worth at all costs. Listen to that little part of you that fights back when someone demeans you, degrades you, belittles you—listen to that part of you that says wait a minute, that’s not right! Only let people into your life who deserve to be there—who are worthy of you. It’s better to be alone than in the company of those who would tear you down. I promise.
I wish I would have learned that lesson a long time ago.
I am a girl from Van, Texas. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I married the wrong person at 21. I got divorced. My kids didn’t live with me for years. But, look at me now. If I can do it, I want everyone to be encouraged that so can you.
Blown away by our similarities and so inspired by you, your story, and your words, Hannah! Thanks so much for sharing, AALM!