With 14 years of diverse legal experience, Houston attorney, mediator, and judge Fransheneka “Fran” Watson is vying to bring her expertise back to the courtroom.
Watson, a staunch LGBTQ advocate, is running in the March 5 primary election for Harris County Probate Court No. 5 judge. Having represented clients in private practice, served as associate municipal judge for the City of Houston, and is now working as a staff attorney for Probate Court No. 2, Watson believes she is uniquely qualified for the position.
“I am the only candidate in this race that has judicial experience,” Watson says. “I have presided over a myriad of different proceedings. Now, as a staff attorney, I review different types of cases, do briefings, and have gained even more knowledge about the Texas Estates Code. It will be a seamless transition for me to move into Probate Court No. 5. Should I be elected, I can preside over cases on day one.”
Harris County’s probate courts handle wills, estates, guardianships, and conservatorships. Probate Court No. 5 is one of the county’s newest courts. Last year, Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3474, the Court Omnibus Bill, which created the new probate court last September.
“I really thank Judge Simoneaux, Judge Cox, the Commissioners Court, and the folks in the Texas Legislature for working to get this court together,” Watson says. “Our population in Harris County has grown so much over the past 10 years. We have had three times the amount of filings in the courts, but only four courts to take all of those filings in. The new Court No. 5 is essential to providing relief, especially for our aging population.”
Watson graduated with honors from Thurgood Marshall School of Law in 2009 and passed the Texas Bar Exam that same year. Upon graduation, members of her LGBTQ-affirming church, Community Gospel, sparked her passion for estate planning, probate, and guardianship issues.
“After I got my license, people began coming to me in need of estate planning services,” Watson recalls. “This was before marriage equality, so they wanted to get their wills in order because their marriages were not recognized. There were stories of people who had been together for 20 years [at the time of a partner’s death, and the surviving partner] would have no inheritance rights. I started helping queer couples and families put their plans in place [to protect the family’s and partner’s inheritance rights].”
As time went on and Watson’s clients began aging, they began needing help with probating wills—the legal process of settling a loved one’s estate after they pass away. “People started passing away, and I realized I didn’t practice probate, the step after estate planning,” Watson says. “I started taking a bunch of continuing legal education courses and got knowledgeable about getting wills through the courts.”
Watson’s work in probate then led to her work in guardianship law.
In 2019, Watson was appointed Associate Municipal Judge for the City of Houston by Mayor Sylvester Turner. She served for a total of four years, presiding over hundreds of proceedings from arraignments to inability-to-pay hearings to property seizures.
“My judicial experience taught me about courtroom management and setting the tone of the courtroom,” Watson says. “There were so many times where people would say, ‘Wow, I’ve never felt like this in a courtroom. This was such a pleasant experience.’ I wasn’t always giving them the outcome they desired, either. I made sure to listen to them, hear their point of view, and then explain what the process would be.”
Last year, Watson decided to move out of private practice to become a staff attorney for Probate Court No. 2. She wanted to learn even more about the Texas Estates Code.
“I had already been working in the Code as a private practitioner and as a volunteer with Houston Volunteer Lawyers. I thought this would be an opportunity to understand scenarios or matters that I hadn’t already seen in my practice,” Watson says. “The Code is very technical, but the more you study it, the better you become as an attorney.”
Never one to shy away from learning more, Watson had a nontraditional path to joining the legal profession. After losing her mother to substance abuse when she was 14 years old, Watson became the caretaker for her family, which resulted in being expelled from school for too many absences.
After leaving high school and working in fast food, Watson decided to take the GED at the University of Houston Downtown (UHD) so that she could qualify to become a restaurant manager. After she achieved a high score on the test, a testing agent at the school encouraged her to seek a college scholarship.
In 2005, Watson began attending UHD, where she graduated with a degree in psychology. A legal psychology class had also inspired her to pursue a law degree. She became the first attorney in her family after graduating and passing the Bar exam in 2009.
Watson now lives in Southwest Houston with her wife, to whom she is especially grateful for the help and encouragement during her judicial campaign. “She has always supported me in everything that I do. She’s always with me when I go out to get votes, and she always makes sure dinner is warmed up for me when I come home from events,” Watson laughs.
OutSmart readers who are interested in contributing to Watson’s campaign can help block walk, phone bank, or simply make a donation. “I’m so grateful for all of the support I’ve received thus far, and I’ll be continually grateful,” she says. “Twelve-year-old me would never have thought that I would be in the position I’m in today.”
To volunteer or donate to Fran Watson’s campaign, visit franwatsonforjudge.com.