Long-time HBA Executive Director to Retire

By James B. Sales

Kay Sim HeadshotIn 1995, Kay Sim allowed a rare interview as she celebrated her 20th anniversary with the Houston Bar Association. When asked about her work ethic, Kay responded, “My guide in life has always been to fulfill each of my commitments and responsibilities to the best of my ability.” She listed honesty, loyalty and commitment among the qualities she valued most.

Twenty-three years later, Kay has announced that she will retire as Executive Director of the Houston Bar Association on March 1, 2019. Throughout her 43 years of unparalleled service, Kay’s commitment to the HBA has never faltered or waivered. Loyalty, honesty, responsibility and an abiding commitment both to the legal profession and to the greater Houston community have continued to guide her and represent her brilliant and enduring legacy to our association.

Initially, Kay was employed by the Houston Bar Association in 1975 for the purpose of establishing the Juvenile Justice Mock Trial Program for 8th grade students throughout the Houston area. This program was designed to provide students an opportunity to view firsthand how a trial is conducted, the roles that are performed in a legal process and the critical importance of the jury system to our form of government. This program remains strong and vibrant, serving in excess of 44,000 students.

In 1981, Kay was selected as the executive director of the Houston Bar Association. She took over at the beginning of an unprecedented period of growth. It was also a time of daunting challenge. The Houston Bar Association, which was organized in 1870 primarily as a fraternal organization for lawyers, had just began recreating and transforming itself into a professional organization focused on providing sophisticated programs and state-of-the-art services for lawyers and judges, while contemporaneously seeking to develop and operate programs that would provide critically important services for the needs of the broader Houston community. This represented a period of unprecedented growth in the association membership and in development of network programs.

It was during this time that the HBA established several seminal programs that today provide access to justice for literally thousands of working poor Houstonians each year. These include the Dispute Resolution Center, the Houston Volunteer Lawyers, and the Houston Bar Foundation. As executive director, Kay was immediately tasked with the formidable responsibility of formulating ongoing operational guidelines for the Dispute Resolution Center, of implementing development of an operating structure for the Houston Volunteer Lawyers, and of assisting in development of the Houston Bar Foundation to fund the pro bono effort.

When Kay assumed the position of executive director in 1981, the HBA had 5,872 members. Today, that number exceeds 11,000 members. While there were 11 established and functioning sections in 1981, today, there are 26 active, functioning sections. Additionally, today there are 34-four active HBA committees sponsoring an expansive variety of programs and activities.

In the year she became executive director, Kay inherited an annual budget of $539,802. Today, that budget approaches $2.5 million. In 1981, the HBA had eight staff members. Today, the HBA, remarkably, operates with only 13 total staff who are responsible for administering programs that have more than doubled and, in many cases, have tripled in size over the years. Most metropolitan bar associations utilize significantly larger staffs to deliver similar levels of services.

Kay has been the driving force behind many of the HBA’s enduring programs that serve both our members as well as the greater Houston community. These include the spectrum of activities serving lawyers and judges as well as programs designed to help the less fortunate of the community.

For almost four decades Kay has been at the forefront in helping transform the Houston Bar Association into the critically important professional organization that exists today. Her indefatigable work ethic, her unrelenting dedication to excellence in all things, large or small and her unwavering commitment to the HBA are indelibly imprinted in the fabric of her service. She will be leaving the HBA with a legacy of a 38-year record of unsurpassed accomplishment. As members of the association and of the Houston community, we have all been enriched by the fact that Kay Sim passed our way and made a difference.

James B. Sales, of counsel, Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP, served as president of the Houston Bar Association in 1980-1981, when the HBA board approved Kay as the new HBA executive director.