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Women in Bar Leadership Spotlight Series: Samantha Torres ’13 and Brittny Mandarino ’20

Home Law School News Women in Bar Leadership Spotlight Series: Samantha Torres ’13 and Brittny Mandarino ’20

South Texas Law alumnae currently serve or have served in a number of key positions with the Houston Bar Association (HBA), State Bar of Texas, and Houston Young Lawyers Association (HYLA). This series of stories in honor of Women’s History Month will feature four women who have blazed trails of their own, in a variety of ways: Lynne Liberato ’81Amy Dunn Taylor ’82, Samantha Torres ’13 and Brittny Mandarino ’20.


Associate, Okin Adams Bartlett Curry LLP

As one of the youngest members of the Houston Bar Association Board of Directors, Samantha Torres ’13 has enjoyed connecting with fellow leaders who are passionate about bar leadership and receptive to new ideas.

Torres, who has served on the HBA Board since 2022, recently proposed a new permanent Wellness Committee. The recommendation was embraced and approved by the HBA Board, building on the success of the ad hoc Wellness Committee that she previously led.

Physical and mental wellness are high priorities for Torres — a marathon runner and mental health advocate who has shared publicly about her recovery from an eating disorder. She found it particularly important to focus on her mental health while serving as a prosecutor. “Being in front of a jury, it was vital to have my mental and physical health in order because they are so intertwined and connected to overall wellness.”

She honored her leadership skills with the Houston Young Lawyers Association, serving as president in 2019-20. When she was planning for her year as president, she settled on the theme of mental health for her focus.

“As a prosecutor, things weigh on your mental health — the jury feedback, the disturbing and tragic pictures of the victims, the details of abuse and sex offenses… it all takes a toll,” she said. “We had an office with a lot of women, and we tried to keep the office energy light and check on one another because it was essential.”

Under Torres’ leadership, HYLA implemented Passport to Fitness — including educational and interactive activities — to help lawyers develop proactive tools to enhance their personal and professional well-being as well as their law practice. The program eventually received local, state, and national awards.

“People still refer to it and talk to us about it,” she said. “Some tell me that after the conversations about mental and physical health through the year, they were inspired to go to therapy or to change their eating and exercise habits. There are no words for what that means to me… when you realize what a difference you’re making.”

Torres, who won South Texas College of Law Houston’s Young Alumni of the Year Award in 2023, realized early that volunteer work was important to her — but her first professional priority was to be a good lawyer.

After almost three years as a prosecutor with the Special Prosecution Unit for the State of Texas where she gained extensive first-chair jury trial experience, Torres entered private practice in 2017. She has served as an associate for Okin Adams Bartlett Curry LLP since 2020. Aside from professional goals, she strives to continue her involvement with non-profit leadership.

“The great thing about a J.D. is that it offers so many possibilities,” Torres said. “I share with younger attorneys that they should stay open to the many opportunities that cross their paths.”

Torres learned to be flexible as part of an Army family, but she missed the traditional high school leadership roles as she attended three different high schools. She was an honor student at The University of Texas at Austin, applying the strong work ethic she saw demonstrated by her mom and dad.

Moving around so often meant that family support was and continues to be essential, and her mom has always been one of Torres’ strongest encouragers.

“She’d say, ‘Be yourself, be the strong person you are,'” Torres recalled. While she has an older brother and sister, Torres was always the leader. Even to this day, she said, “I am the organized one; the one who handles things though many goals are accomplished because of their support and encouragement… and these qualities translate well to bar leadership.”

Torres, a first-generation attorney with an Hispanic and Filipino heritage, pushed herself through law school. She particularly enjoyed her work with STCL Houston’s Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics. “I recall the people we helped who couldn’t afford legal services on their own. I got great fulfillment from that… helping them with estate planning, which has an impact on them and their families. I still carry that with me.”

She recently had the opportunity to talk with current law students and future first-generation lawyers through the new D.I.N.E. with a J.D. program, co-sponsored by the Career Resource Center and the Office of Advancement and Alumni Engagement.

Her advice for new lawyers is to “find something you’re interested in and are passionate about and take a chance. Show up. Just showing up is everything. Get involved; work hard; serve. The rest will come.”


Assistant Public Defender, Holistic Division

Harris County Public Defender’s Office

Brittny Mandarino ’20, president of the Houston Young Lawyers Association (HYLA), realized early in life that “there’s something magical about saying ‘yes’ when opportunities come your way.”

At 32, while successfully serving as the principal and director of early childhood programming for a Montessori school in Houston’s East End that served low-income families, Mandarino said “yes” to attending South Texas College of Law Houston.

“The great majority of my career to that point was in education, and my passion was always social justice, access to education, access to resources,” she said. “It was very hard to leave that school, but I knew it was the best thing for me… to prepare me to be an advocate, to fight for what’s right.”

Law school was a new and foreign experience for Mandarino, and she is grateful to a former HYLA president and South Texas Law alumna Samantha Torres ’13 for almost immediately introducing her to the HYLA network, at her first-year orientation.

“Sam is a great person, a mentor, a guiding light,” Mandarino said. “Early on, she encouraged me to join the HYLA board. She said, ‘Brittny, we want your voice at the table,’ and she was the first to appoint me to the board — as a second-year law student. That was six years ago; now they can’t get rid of me!”

She appreciates the opportunities HYLA creates for new attorneys, opening doors for leadership experience and helping them network, understand the nature of Bar work, and serve the profession in significant ways. Mandarino started attending events while in law school, and even served as co-chair for a HYLA Diversity & Inclusion Speed Networking event.

Because HYLA is so valuable to attorneys who recently graduated, serving as a great lead-in to engagement with the Houston Bar Association, the organization recently dropped its age limit for membership — previously 36. Now, the focus is on years of practice versus age.

Sometimes, Brittny can’t believe how much “life” she has already experienced before she turns 40 next year. She’s earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a J.D., and completed post-graduate studies. She was an educator of young children for years, an adjunct instructor for the University of Houston, a legal intern or law clerk in a variety of settings, and a full-time staff attorney with Houston Volunteer Lawyers before joining the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in August 2021.

“My life is serendipitous; it’s crazy and wonderful to be 39 and have done all this,” Mandarino said. “I am so blessed.”

She has a passion for the work she does now, as assistant public defender in the Holistic Division of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office. The “holistic” aspect means that for individuals who can’t afford an attorney, Mandarino provides legal advocacy, with the recognition that for many low-income people arrested and charged with a crime, other legal and non-legal underlying issues are often a catalyst to their entanglement with the justice system.

Before working in this division, Mandarino worked on juvenile cases, which also touched her heart. During law school, some of her favorite classes connected to the Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics, focused on family law and on capital defense.

“Dean Burnett was one of my faculty advisors and is a long-time mentor,” Mandarino said. “The clinics were a wonderful way to diversify my experience. I didn’t know I’d ever end up doing this kind of work, but the clinics prepared me so well for my current role. Saying ‘yes’ to clinic work broadened my opportunities and my mindset.”

Mandarino also values her law school experience learning about mediation and arbitration, even earning a certificate in mediation before graduating. “Professor Berman saw I could excel there, and I am truly grateful to her for encouraging me to gain these valuable skills.”

Mentors are important to Mandarino — having them and being one to others. She was raised by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in Buffalo, New York, and though the family went through some challenges, her mom always ensured Mandarino didn’t miss out on learning opportunities.

“I was raised by women, strong women,” she said. “We moved a lot of places as a child, and lived sheltered and unsheltered, which I think now was a blessing. I have empathy for the struggles my clients face. We didn’t have the privileges and resources some people have to make life a little easier, but I attended good schools with gifted and talented programs; I took up violin in the second grade; and I studied French in fourth grade. I was always a learner, inquisitive. I earned my GED, and that has not impeded my career. I can help my clients envision a brighter future.”

Mandarino believes some people, including her clients, really need someone to simply tell them they can.

“They can live full lives with a GED. They can have a life past a conviction. They can go to college. They can create a better life. I have been blessed by so many people telling me I can — my family, the faculty and my friends at South Texas and through HYLA and the Houston Bar, people I have worked for.…. That encouragement has made all the difference. Through my work and my volunteer service, I just want to pass that on. I want to encourage people to say ‘yes’ and step out there, even if they don’t exactly know where that first step leads.”

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