Former Judge Marilea Lewis believes in strength—and also in being nice
Published in 2021 Texas Super Lawyers magazine on September 22, 2021
A few years ago, Marilea Lewis and T. Hunter Lewis, who practice family law together, were speaking on stage at the State Bar of Texas’ annual conference in Dallas. Hunter spoke first, referring to his colleague as Judge Lewis, a nod to her more than two decades on the bench in Dallas district courts. As he continued his speech, Hunter switched to Ms. Lewis, and then to Marilea. By the end of his talk, he had settled on another word: Mom.
Marilea Lewis laughs at the memory of sharing the podium with her son that day. She is also keenly aware of juggling all those names and roles. “I tell young women lawyers, ‘Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t be where you need to be at that exact moment,” she says. “Determine your priorities, set your priorities, and cut yourself some slack. You’ve got to have a life.’
“One day, you’re going to be 100% a great lawyer, and one day you’ll be 100% a great mom, but there are going to be very few where you’re 100% at both—because that’s 200% and we don’t have enough time in the day.”
In her sunlight-filled office at Duffy + Eitzen on a spring day, Lewis keeps tabs on her schedule, which includes several hearings, a mediation and a mock jury trial for an upcoming case. Dressed in vivid red, the 68-year-old Lewis projects poise and confidence as she chooses her words carefully and speaks deliberately. As she lifts her hand to pat down a wayward curl, she also reveals a pristine manicure in playful baby blue.
“She’s very ladylike, but she can be tenacious,” says Joseph H. Amberson of the Law Office of J.H. Amberson III. A friend and colleague for more than 30 years, Amberson has tried cases in Lewis’ court, worked with her as co-counsel, and gone against her as opposing counsel. “Marilea realizes that being civil and courteous is not a sign of weakness. She was brought up as a lady, but a lady can tell you to get screwed, too. In a nice way.”
Amberson recalls trying a case in Lewis’ court in which the judge began to write her opinion and opposing counsel, suspecting it would go in Amberson’s favor, confronted her. “He said, ‘Is this something that can be appealed?’ And Marilea didn’t even look up from writing her opinion,” says Amberson. “She said, ‘Sir, everything I do is subject to appeal.’ In other words, she was saying, ‘Go appeal whatever you want to appeal. That isn’t going to change a thing.’ She wasn’t rude, but it was very measured. It was kind of like a mother telling her child, ‘You will be going to school today.’”
Lewis’ father, Thomas Whatley, dreamed of pursuing a law degree after his service in World War II. But in order to support his family, he took a position with a building supply company and eventually became its vice president. Meanwhile, daughter Marilea, a fifth-generation Texan growing up in Waco during the 1960s, spent Saturday nights in front of the television with her mother, Della, a devoted Perry Mason fan (who shared a name with Mason’s secretary).
Now, of course, Lewis sees the program from another perspective. “I certainly enjoy it, but it’s always amazing to me how Perry can go to court with his pen and his legal pad—and that’s it. No exhibits, no files, nothing,” she says with a laugh.
Soon after Lewis left law school at Baylor University, she started thinking about becoming a judge. “If I were on the bench, I thought, I could see both sides of the argument, and then possibly fashion something that could bring both sides together to some extent.”
Her first job out of law school was at a plaintiff’s firm that focused on personal injury and workers’ comp cases, but she wound up working closely with a partner who was board-certified in family law. She found herself gravitating toward juvenile law. “You can have a direct impact on a 16-year-old if you take the time and make the effort, and that’s what I really enjoyed,” she says. “It became a natural segue into the broader area of family law.”
Former family law Judge Frances Harris had heard about Lewis before she saw her in her courtroom. She knew Lewis was smart but also knew that doesn’t always translate into being a good trial lawyer.
“It’s been my experience that really smart people may not be able to break facts down where they’re understandable to anyone other than themselves,” says Harris. Lewis, however, didn’t have that problem. “Marilea figures out the facts, and she tells a compelling story that makes sense and helps you remember.”
In 1985, Lewis and her husband, Dan, a security consultant, became the parents of twins: Hunter and his sister Sheridan, who now practices criminal defense at Udashen Anton in Dallas. “Dan’s favorite line,” says Lewis, is, ‘I was thinking we would have one. Marilea wanted two. Rather than argue about it, she went ahead and had twins.’” For Lewis, an appointment to the 305th District Court as an associate judge (then called a master) offered a more reliable schedule for a working mother. She also served as a referee—an associate judge who presides over juvenile matters involving children engaged in delinquent conduct.
As a master in the 305th, Lewis heard cases handled by Child Protective Services, which were predictably disturbing. She recalls one case involving a mother of three who was arrested for selling drugs. The officers who responded to the call were so traumatized by the state of the neglected children that they were unable to testify. Lewis can recall the graphic details of the case, such as malnourishment so severe that the children had to be carried from the apartment. “It was very tragic, and it was heartbreaking, and it changed those police officers and everybody involved,” says Lewis. One good thing came out of it: The children were adopted together.
In 1992, Lewis moved from the 305th to the 330th District Court, where she presided over family law matters as an associate judge. When the district judge with whom she was serving retired, Lewis was appointed to the seat by then-Gov. Rick Perry. In 2002 and again in 2006, she was elected to the bench. She served as co-chair of the Dallas Bar Association’s Bench Bar in 2005. In 2010, Lewis hung up her robe—but not before having the privilege of swearing in both her children as Texas attorneys.
When Lewis returned to private practice, she became a named shareholder at Godwin Lewis (now Godwin Bowman), heading up the firm’s family law area. One of her first cases involved a modification of child support and parenting time—and the case, says Lewis, “just seemed to never die.” The clients had divorced six years earlier, and the terms of support and leave had already been modified several times. “A very dear friend used to say, ‘They weren’t through with each other yet, and that’s why they kept coming back,’” Lewis says. “The animosity is there. People like to think the children are not aware of it, but that’s absurd. It’s not a healthy situation.” The couple kept coming back until, finally, the children aged out.
In 2015, Lewis moved to the smaller boutique firm Orsinger, Nelson, Downing & Anderson, where her son, Hunter, was practicing. She chaired the family law section of the Dallas Bar in 2017, having also served as secretary, treasurer and vice chair; and is a life fellow of the Dallas Bar Foundation.
In 2019, Lewis and Hunter joined Duffy + Eitzen. “We have a wonderful collaborative relationship,” says Hunter, 36, who was inspired to pursue family law because of his mother’s passion for her career. “We put our own perspectives in so we can give the clients not only the best representation possible, but give them multiple strategies.”
“They have the ability to play off one another that makes it very interesting to watch,” adds Harris. “They seem to have found a way to make all the different roles mesh. … They’re able to complement one another, rather than clash or overshadow one another.”
Lewis has lectured at the College for New Judges through the Texas Center for the Judiciary and spoken at judicial and state Bar conferences. She gives tips such as the importance of paying close attention to the numbers when dividing assets and allocating child support so as not to prevent a parent—particularly a single working mother—from receiving other types of assistance. She also offers practical tips: “Find shoes that you feel comfortable in, because you’re going to be on your feet a lot, and find a color of lipstick that you really like, preferably one that stays on for a long period of time, because you’re going to be talking a lot.”
Over the years, Lewis has witnessed several changes to her practice area, not all of which she has found productive. “The Texas family code seems to be fodder for amendment every legislative session, so they change things routinely,” she says. When new discovery rules went into effect at the start of this year’s session, for instance, dramatically reducing the timeframe for filing certain disclosures and supporting statements, she and her colleagues had to scramble to determine how to proceed in cases involving long-term marriages with valuable estates and extensive record-keeping.
“The parties have to file their 194 disclosures, with supporting documents, within 30 days after the answer is filed by the opposing party. So instead of three or four months, you have 30 days. So if you have a 27-year marriage, you have a lot of stuff to go through.”
Despite the changes, Lewis loves her practice area. “Family law has kind of morphed into something more like a general civil trial,” she says, “but I am still dealing with a person and not an entity. I enjoy that. It’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming.”
“Up until the pandemic, I was very reliant upon physical exercise as a means of stress reduction,” says Lewis. “I worked out like a banshee.”
Kickboxing, dancing—if it was active and a class, she was all in. When a friend suggested trying yoga, Lewis worried it wouldn’t be physical enough. Instead she got hooked, interspersing yoga sessions up to three times a week with her cardio workouts. “I noticed a tremendous difference in the way I slept, in the way I felt. For all its hype, yoga really did produce that kind of calm for me.”
She even became certified to teach, although she took the training mostly for herself. And it became a go-to stress reliever during lockdown. For Lewis, yoga’s flexibility—in more ways than one—makes it appealing: It can be done day or night, alone or with others, “anywhere you are.”