As the newly appointed Board President of San Antonio Legal Services Association (SALSA), Michael Gibbs steps into the spotlight for an exclusive interview. In it, Mike sheds light on his professional journey that brought him to this role, his motivations following the footsteps of his predecessor, and the upcoming projects that will shape the trajectory of SALSA. Here is a glimpse into the person steering the ship and the vision driving leadership:
- Can you share a bit about your professional background and how you got involved with SALSA?
I got my MBA from Emory University when I was 24 and worked in a variety of businesses. Along the way I had to deal with various lawyers and always felt I could do a better job advising business people. With my wife’s encouragement and support, I went to Wayne State University Law School in Detroit at age 38. I became Whataburger’s first General Counsel in 2005, retiring as Whataburger’s GC and EVP of Franchising and HR in May of 2022. When Whataburger moved its headquarters to San Antonio in 2009, I became very involved with the San Antonio chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), serving as president in 2013. Long before I joined ACC, the chapter had acknowledged a lawyer’s commitment to providing “pro bono” services to the poor and disadvantaged. It manifested that commitment in an annual fundraiser called the Ethics Follies, a musical parody written and directed by Lee Cusenbary that played at the Empire Theater for years. The majority of net proceeds were donated to the Community Justice Program (CJP) and later to SALSA before the show ended its run a couple years ago. I was on the board of CJP around 2012. But working full time at Whataburger and two kids in middle school prevented me from fulfilling all the obligations of a board member. Something I always regretted.
- What motivated you to take on the role of board president, particularly following Robert Soza, our former board president?
After I retired in 2022, Mary Stich, a SALSA board member and long-time friend from ACC days, called and asked how I was doing and how long since I retired. I told her about six months. She said that was long enough and I needed to get on the SALSA board. It was always my plan to reconnect with CJP, which was now SALSA. Mary just moved up the timetable. The story of the transition from CJP to SALSA in 2019 was inspiring. Now a standalone non-profit, with a dynamic Executive Director, Sarah Dingivan, and a committed, talented staff, I could not be more excited about being part of SALSA. Robert Soza is an amazing leader, who was critically responsible for the transition from CJP to SALSA. He and Sarah did an amazing job identifying our key constituents, revamping the programs to address the widest possible number of clients, and making it easier for local attorneys to volunteer their time with limited engagements. This year Robert will have been board president for almost five years. He has gone above and beyond his calling, and he asked me to step in. I worked for the Wayne State Law School’s free legal aid clinic during the summer between my first and second year. It remains one of the most rewarding, and at times emotional, experiences of my legal career. With Mary’s urging and the support of our distinguished board of directors I heartily accepted.
- Are there any upcoming projects or goals within SALSA that you find particularly exciting or noteworthy?
“Pro bono” is short for the Latin phrase “pro bono publico,” which means for the public good. Pro bono work involves providing free services to those in need, rather than cash or goods (like a food bank). Lawyers still like Latin phrases and “pro bono” typically refers to free legal services. The absence of a strong Pro Bono program leaves a painful hole in the broader charitable community. There are certain needs that can only be met with the help of a lawyer.
A successful Pro Bono community is built upon three pillars: programs, participants, and patrons.
- Programs. Identifying the needs of the broader community and developing programs to address those needs. SALSA has excelled in this responsibility, targeting Veterans, Housing (including tenant’s rights) and Homelessness, and Estates and Disabilities, and developing programs, “clinics,” to address those populations. At the same time, SALSA remains flexible enough to participate in “special projects” such as the Uvalde shooting and the “Don’t Bully Me Project.”
- Participants. SALSA’s clinics are designed to train volunteers and maximize the use of their time without long term commitments that discourage participation. SALSA staff and St. Mary’s law students play a big part in vetting clients and preparing the in-take folders so our volunteer lawyers know the issues and can immediately work to resolution.
- Patrons. All charities need long-term funding and SALSA is no exception. This goal will consume most of my time. Like most pro bono communities, we rely on individual and institutional giving. The free legal aid service in Austin derives almost 60% of its budget from recurring individual lawyer giving. This is compared to only about 10% of SALSA’s revenue. There are over 1,000 private foundations, with assets of almost $20 billion, which support various charities in San Antonio. It is incumbent upon me and the board to tell SALSA’s story, secure future funding, and grow the program pillar to build our San Antonio Pro Bono Community.
- On a lighter note, we’d love to know your favorite book or movie and how it inspires you.
One of my favorite books and a recent read is GRANT by Jean Edward Smith. He reconciles the conflicting assessments of Grant’s life and argues convincingly that Grant is greatly underrated as a president. After reading it I would have to agree. It was inspiring to witness Grant’s leadership as both the country’s first 4 star general and the only full two term president between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson.