HHeather Tessmer, local attorney, is well known around the area for her billboards that cite “Ever argue with a woman?” Bringing a chuckle from most that read it, the statement has other meanings for Tessmer as much of her life has been forged from her tenacity and determination to achieve what she has. From rather humble beginnings on Lake LBJ to military travels with her husband Kevin, Tessmer has diligently sought her achievements over the decades and continues to grow her career, her law practice, and her life.
Growing up on the banks of Lake LBJ in the family owned hotel and small restaurant, Tessmer was waiting tables in the diner by the middle of 4th grade. An above average student throughout high school, Tessmer was ready to pursue the next chapters of life at the University of Texas.
She begins, “I went to UT and I graduated with 53 people in my high school class, so when I hit UT, I went nuts, and it took 2 semesters for me to get kicked out. I was just a General Studies major at the time because I didn’t know what I wanted to do honestly. I had to go to Austin Community College for a semester and cleaned up a bit, but my dad made me move home and I had to commute. After that, he said I could move out and I had enrolled at Angelo State and graduated on time with a Business Administration degree”.
Tessmer’s life was ready for yet another chapter as she was poised to meet her future husband. She laughs, “I told my dad I would never flip another burger and when I started my senior year I ended up going to Finnegan’s Bar and I met Kevin there. I was moving into my apartment and this friend of mine had me go out with her and I was very contemptuous of military and the whole bar was full of military guys. I went with a couple of friends and I said “I would dance with that guy” and sure enough he stood up and walked over and asked me to dance. I was cold to him and it was 6 months later that he was shipped out and we had a long distance romance and 6 months later he came back and we got married. It’ll be 30 years in September. It’s crazy to think that that was in 1989.”
With her husband working Intel in the military, the duo was quickly shipped to Germany and ultimately to Czechoslovakia. Tessmer continues, “When we got there there was a hiring freeze in the military so my first job was at Burger King. I figured I’d be Ms. Executive, but the only experience I had was restaurants, so I ended up at Burger King . Civil Services hired me in accounting eventually. The Officer’s Club manager figured out I had food service experience, and by the time we left I was the restaurant manager of the Officer’s Club.”
The Tessmer family was brought back to the States, and with Kevin in the top 2% of Intel officers, they were quickly shipped off to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA. Tessmer continues, “I knew we weren’t going to be there long so I really couldn’t get much of a job, so I worked in the garden area of a home improvement place. My parents were selling the resort at that time, so we came back to San Antonio early and they moved to Hawaii. I managed the resort for a while until the new owners could take over and I got a job doing catering in San Antonio as the Assistant Director of Operations.”
With a long-term placement in the San Antonio area, Tessmer began to map out her next career moves and how to get out of the food service industry. She explains, “When I was in high school I was the one girl that was chosen to go to Girl’s State and it was about government and I knew I was interested in the law so I took the LSAT entrance exam during that time. I knew it would get me out of food service, but I didn’t get in. I was then denied again after another try. Took it again, and I begged the Dean of Admission and argued my case, and I got wait listed the 3rd time I applied. About a week before school started they said ‘you’re in’. I said “I’m about to deliver my baby” so I had to wait another year and they wouldn’t guarantee I could get in. So I applied a 4th time and got wait listed again. It was three days before school and they called and said that I had gotten in to St Mary’s School of Law.”
Tessmer explains, “I liked criminal law when I started so I focused more on human rights, criminal, and procedural law, and I enjoyed it also until I learned what they pay District Attorneys. And it costs so much to go to school, so I knew that I’d be saddled with huge debt so that wouldn’t work. When you’re in law school, after the first year you go for Law Journal, and I got on that. The second year and part of my third year I was pregnant again. I had her the first day of finals in my third year. It was a traumatic birth and I was on huge pain killers and I took one of my finals, and I got a C and I was happy to get that. But it kicked me out of the top 10%. I should have waited, but I had to get it done.”
After graduation in 1999, the Tessmers were again shipped out by the military. This time, to San Angelo. Tessmer continues, “My first office was in San Angelo because Kevin was shipped back and we were there for three years. We figured we’d retire there, and we were happy with that. It worked out well because I was working for a firm in San Antonio before we left and when I told them I would probably be moving soon, so they fired me. I had a new baby, I spent the summer doing the Mom thing, so when the kid’s school started, I called a law firm there in town, and they let me jump right in and I started out just working from home with the kids. I was the #1 attorney in Texas for them when I left.”
Focusing primarily on Insurance Law, the firm that Tessmer worked asked her to come back to San Antonio to open a firm there. Relocating to Fair Oaks Ranch, Tessmer set up her office at the corner of Dietz Elkhorn and Fair Oaks Ranch Parkway, and a few years later had grown to take over almost the entire building. She explains, “It was wonderful because it was an easy gig – I could get the kids on the bus, go to the office in the golf cart, could work out during lunch, and then pick the kids up after school. The City of Fair Oaks owned that building and sold it. My lease was up and the rent was going way up, and I had two weeks to find new space. I found our San Antonio office space there on Callaghan and we’ve been there about five years now.”
She adds, “We had the system down with the insurance law. They sent a team of attorneys who were internal down to see me and see the office function, and we were working 800 cases a year. They wanted to see some of my files that were tougher than others and didn’t pan out perfectly like I liked. I was suspicious. I knew there was something bigger going on here, and I even asked them “Are you going to take this insurance work in house?” and they wouldn’t answer me. I knew it was going to dry up pretty quick. All my eggs were in that basket, and I knew I had to switch gears. I had 14 employees and I started coming up with ideas to get new business. My emphasis in school was on Marketing. It was a team effort and we came up with the slogan: Ever Argue with a Woman?”
One of the more iconic marketing campaigns in the San Antonio area, Tessmer and her team put their noses down and tried to rebuild the brand and the firm. “We bought several billboards and we used four variations of the slogans. Whatever came in for work, we’d try to help them. It became obvious that family law is where the most need was, and I learned everything I could as fast as I could. I was certified in 5 years, which was unheard of, but that’s the kind of volume that we got in. The billboards got attention, but what brought them in was seeing the billboard, going online, doing some research, and finding that I was actually good at what I was doing. Business was going crazy and I put a sticky note on a paralegal’s desk and said “Here’s how much we’re spending on billboards, and so we have to drag in this much” and we eclipsed that in the first month. The insurance company gave me 300 files that they knew I wasn’t going to get paid and they were clearing out their crap and dumping it on the attorneys. I said I can’t do it all, and instantly the insurance work was gone.”
With the insurance work gone, Tessmer focused on the other aspects to her practice and began to stabilize and grow the firm. “It started with me and one paralegal and now we’re at 4 attorneys, 3 paralegals, and a bunch of admin folks. I’m a bit OCD about billing so we have a lot of admin to help with that stuff. The 1st year we grossed more money without the insurance work and have steadily increased year over year. Most of our work is of course Bexar and Kendall counties, but I’ve done work in Galveston, Dallas, El Paso…I’ll go where I’m needed. We live in Fair Oaks still and we’ve been trying to grow. I’ve become more involved in the business aspects of being a lawyer and that’s not things that people can really teach you; you have to learn and study. We’re trying to scale this business, and selfishly, I want to be here more often in the Boerne area.”
The desire to be in the Boerne area has now borne their first satellite office almost across the street from the Kendall County Courthouse. She continues, “When the judge changed at the end of 2018, I was more hopeful about getting more work up here. I was getting a handle with having a manager in the San Antonio office, and so I’m enjoying the flexibility and freedom to be here in Boerne more. I can communicate with the office in San Antonio by Skype, can meet clients at either location, and I’m trying to focus more of the operation of the business. I’ve trained the attorneys that work for me and they’re fantastic and I’m comfortable leaving clients in their hands. It’s enable me to go to Alaska a few weeks ago, which is really the only second time I’ve been able to take a real vacation since starting all of this, so I remain optimistic that I can get more quality time away from the office as well.”
However, Tessmer is not focused on vacation. Rather, she continues to be focused on growth. “My goal is to be in New Braunfels in two years. We work in Comal and Hays and Travis counties, and that’s a good market for us. Both of my kids are at UT also so that gets me closer to them. Our daughter wants to go to law school also so she’ll be there for a while and I want to be closer.” Additionally, Tessmer maintains some emotional motivations for her clients. “I like the fact that we’re helping people get through one of the more traumatic things that some people will ever go through with family law. I’m concerned about their children and I tell my clients that we’re going to do whatever is in the best interests of their kids and I vet pretty heavily. I drop clients if I determine that my clients isn’t really looking out for the kids, and that’s not always easy to know, but I work hard at that. I’m lucky enough to be able to pick the clients I want to work with and I won’t do things that make me uncomfortable. The Texas Lawyer’s creed is something I lecture on – there are lawyers that don’t, and I treat them accordingly.”
As for being a woman in a primarily male-dominated industry, Tessmer has pushed through the obstacles in her typical way with determination and poise. She explains, “This is my 20th year in law, and we’ve come a long way. I’m not longer mistaken for the court reporter. I’ve become pretty well known, and so things are easier. I can’t throw on yoga pants and run to HEB anymore, because if I don’t know them, they might know me. My face is on 100 billboards. When I walked into a meeting of entrepreneurs the other day, there were 95 guys, and 5 women. A lot of times lawyers get into family law by default, and I’ve thrived in it. I try to bring young attorneys in, and I try to pick people that I know will ultimately leave me to do their own thing and grow their own business. It’s unusual for a family law firm to be as large as we are, and not a lot of women are running them. I’ve loved it. I’m not too sensitive, so if there are sexist comments, I usually take it as a complement and move on – it doesn’t phase me much. I also figure that if that’s what it takes to get what I need for my client, then I’ll do what I got to do. I’ve learned you get a lot more by being nice than being antagonistic.”
Son Chase is in his 2nd year in a PhD program for computational math and physics and daughter Abigail is in Honors College for Sociology. Adjusting to the empty nest has had its challenges, but Tessmer can adjust. “We were so heavily involved with Champion for past several years. That’s all we did – cheerleading and drum line. Our social calendar was filled with school stuff. When Abby left, it’s been a challenging transition to go to an empty nest. We have actually gotten into a habit of working all the time, and I need to stop doing that. Part of that is because I was so used to having my calendar full of kid activities and those are gone now. I used to be President of the Hill Country Women in Business, and I want to get back up here in Boerne so I can get more involved again. We’re also founding members for the Rotary of Fair Oaks and am now at the Downtown Rotary.”
Working with husband Kevin who now handles all of the financial aspects to the firm, and who retired from the military 6 years ago, the Tessmers continue to push forward into new and challenging areas of both law and business. She finishes, “My parents worked together as well. I knew how it worked, but Kevin offices two doors down from me in San Antonio but sometimes I don’t see him all day long – we actually have to make appointments to talk business because we refuse to do it when we’re not at work. Again, finding the life and work balance is very important to us. And I think we’re doing a pretty good job as we switch to some new chapters of life, and I’m so lucky to have him by my side as we continue our journey together.”
by Ben Schooley