Beyond Black and White
Discrimination, stereotypes, lack of mentors, and other challenges facing minority attorneys have been widely documented. This country—both in the legal world and the general population—is just beginning to understand that "minority" does not mean simply black versus white. In fact, today, one of the largest ethnic minorities is Hispanic, making up more than 13 percent of the population, according to 2002 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.1
Last year, advertisers spent $3.09 billion to market their products to U.S. Hispanics, which is an increase of 11 percent from 2003.2 Additionally, according to the National Organization for Diversity in Sales and Marketing, Hispanic buying power is predicted to rise from $686 billion to $992 billion.3 Given these numbers and predictions, why are the number of Hispanic attorneys so low? Is it because of myths and misconceptions?
In the legal profession, Hispanics have some of the lowest numbers of representation, even though they have increased over the past few decades. According to a 2003 Equal Opportunity Office Commission report "Diversity in Law Firms," since 1975, Hispanics in law firms increased from 0.7 percent to 2.9 percent. Law degrees among Hispanics increased from 2.3 percent in 1982 to 5.7 percent in 2002.4 According to data compiled by the American Bar Association, there were 1,204 Hispanics (including Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans) enrolled as full-time law students in 1990 and 2,329 enrolled in 2004. There are no specific numbers of Hispanic attorneys recorded for in-house law departments. But, according to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, within Fortune 1000 companies there are nine Hispanic general counsel—five in the Fortune 500 and four in the Fortune 501-1000.5
"The first and only question they asked was whether I was Mexican. I got a rejection letter the next day."
Increasing those numbers is a process, says Nelson A. Castillo, president-elect of the Hispanic National Bar Association. "Not too long ago, we were in the age where very few people of color were going to law school. The numbers continue to be small compared to the population at large, but the percentage of people of color within the Bar is rising," he says.
Many Hispanic attorneys are the first in their families or generations to go to college. Many of them either have immigrant parents or were immigrants themselves as children. And nine have landed at the top in the corporate world: as general counsel of major companies. Many Hispanic general counsel agree that despite challenges they faced rising through the ranks and their cultural upbringing, the opportunities they seized and the values instilled by their parents have helped them enjoy successful and fulfilling legal careers.
Law Carries Weight
John Huerta, general counsel of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, didn't know any Hispanic attorneys until after he graduated from University of California, Berkeley, Law School in 1968. "Growing up in South Central L.A.," he says wryly, "you didn't exactly run into any on a daily basis."
"Start with the primary challenge of being alone in a new, strange culture without being able to speak the language. That is a challenge a lot of Hispanics and other immigrants had to face."
But Huerta, whose father emigrated to the United States from Mexico as a child, learned early about injustice and the power of the law. He witnessed discrimination against Hispanics in housing and education, including against his father. "A real estate agent told him, 'We don't sell to Mexicans,'" Huerta recalls. "He came home in tears. He was crushed by that experience."
As a teenager, he says, he would often get frisked in front of dates—for no reason. After his high school attempted to expel him for exercising his rights to free speech, Huerta says he threatened to sue. School officials backed off, he recalls. "That showed me the law carried some weight."
At Berkeley, where he had a scholarship and was associate editor of the California Law Review, he was the only Hispanic in his class. He interviewed with a New York City law firm for a summer position. "The first and only question they asked was whether I was Mexican," Huerta recalls. "I got a rejection letter the next day."
But Huerta persisted and went on to work for several organizations that focused on civil rights for minorities, including the California Rural Legal Assistance, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty. In September 1977, then-Attorney General Griffin Bell named Huerta deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the administration of President Jimmy Carter. During his career, he has testified before Congress on numerous civil and human rights issues.
"As you become more senior, you understand the strength of your position and the challenge of how you're going to use that position judiciously."
Serving the underserved is inherent, he says. "It's part of the moral values instilled in me by my parents to try to do what's right and right what's wrong."
His pride—and the fact he saw so few Hispanic lawyers—led him to be a founding member in 1970 of the forerunner to what is now the Hispanic National Bar Association. "It was hard to do because there weren't a lot of Latino lawyers throughout the United States," says Huerta. But he also became active in the American Bar Association (ABA) Section on Individual Rights and Responsibilities, where he chaired the Committee on Minority Rights. "There was no consideration of Latinos at all. That has changed now, or at least people are conscious they should be considering [other groups]," he says.
Still today, Huerta is often the only Hispanic in the room. "How I perform carries a lot of weight in terms of stereotypes. I'd like to think I've knocked down some of those," he says. And what would those be? Rather than call out specific stereotypes, Huerta says the concern is "a person who tries to limit what you can do based on their preconceived notions of what someone of your background can do," he explains. Thankfully, now that he has risen to the highest levels, those around him have too. "Most of the people I interact with on a professional level," he says, "have enough experience in life that they don't carry around those stereotypes."
A Little Bit Different
Joaquin Carbonell had many challenges to overcome on his way to becoming executive vice president and general counsel of Cingular Wireless. In December 1961 at age nine, his parents sent him and his two older sisters from their native Cuba to a refugee camp in South Florida. The three young Carbonells were part of the Peter Pan Project, an initiative to disseminate 14,000 Cuban children throughout the United States. After six months in Florida, the siblings were sent to an orphanage/reformatory school in Green Bay, Wis., and lived with three different foster families in the small town of La Crosse, Wis., until their parents joined them from Cuba five years later.
"In companies that are dominated by white males, if they truly haven't put a structure and process around diversity as a core value, then it's not surprising that during the interview process, the interviewer might be inclined to prefer someone who looks more like him. And it may be subconscious."
-Anatolio Benedicto Cruz, III
The Carbonells were the only Hispanic family in the town, he recalls, but he did not experience hatred or discrimination. "There was some sense of people looking askance at someone who is maybe a little bit different or speaks differently," says Carbonell. "The name Joaquin in a small town in Wisconsin—that was different. But by and large, the people of Wisconsin are very nice."
Despite not knowing any Hispanic lawyers, Carbonell chose law because it provided discipline and opportunity. But he had limitations his peers did not. "Start with the primary challenge of being alone in a new, strange culture without being able to speak the language," he says. "That is a challenge a lot of Hispanics and other immigrants have had to face."
Many Hispanics share the philosophy that conquering those difficulties means anything is possible, conveys Carbonell. "No matter how difficult the business environment becomes, you have a sense that you can overcome almost any obstacle that is placed in your way."
His Cuban parents also stressed a strong work ethic and the importance of education. "The one thing that no Communist regime can take away from you is your education," Carbonell explains. "You can succeed even though the road may be difficult and you may have challenges."
For Linda Madrid, whose father was born in Mexico and immigrated to Arizona, it was most likely gender rather than her ethnicity that first challenged her as a lawyer. After working on a case for several years in the mid-1980s, Madrid's large Washington, DC, law firm at the time was planning a celebratory dinner after the case ended. "I had spent two solid years of working on the case. I'd been the one lawyer who'd been the constant on it," Madrid recalls.
But when the dinner invitations went out, she says, "no one had focused on the fact that they were doing this at a club that didn't admit women."
Madrid raised the issue with the organizers and was told it was impossible to find another place. So she was unable to participate. "Luckily, I think that club changed when Sandra Day O'Connor was named to the Supreme Court," Madrid speculates. But the memory of that slight stays with her. "That is probably one of the more poignant moments, the realization of being on the outside."
Today, Madrid is inside and holds the coveted position of the managing director, general counsel and corporate secretary of CarrAmerica Realty Corporation. But her gender and her ethnicity still make her different. "As I have elevated through a couple of corporations, I have found fewer women and fewer minorities, so that provides its own challenge. The folks you generally find at the senior levels of law firms are not that different from folks you find at the senior level of corporate America—white men who went to Ivy League schools and have more shared experiences."
Her college experience was what Madrid called "culture shock." She began college at Bowdoin College in Maine in 1977, where her brother five years earlier was the first Latino ever to attend. She believes she was the second. "That was a challenge for me to figure out how I fit into that world," Madrid remembers. "Kids would sit around and talk about what they did in high school, but nobody else had spent Saturday nights at quinceaneras," a Mexican religious ceremony for a young woman.
She transferred to Arizona State University, where there were more Hispanics and even a Chicano Studies program. She then graduated from Georgetown University Law Center and worked for three firms of various sizes, moving to the corporate side and working her way up to general counsel of what used to be Riggs Bank (recently acquired by PNC Bank) and joining CarrAmerica in 1998.
Madrid says she still finds herself the only representative of her Hispanic community in the senior ranks. "I often feel there is an expectation that I'm going to help others understand what it is like to be Hispanic or to be a woman," she says. "I embrace it as an opportunity. As you become more senior, you understand the strength of your position and the challenge of how you're going to use that position judiciously," she continues. "There should be no question that people are watching what you do and how you do it."
She leads by example with her endowment of the Al and Viola Madrid Scholarship at her alma mater for students who demonstrate financial need, leadership ability, and are part of the first generation in their families to go to college, like she was. "I feel incredibly fortunate that, although some doors were closed to or on me, enough of them were opened," says Madrid. "I believe it is my privilege to do what I can to keep the door open for those who follow."
As explained by Madrid, Hispanics deal with negative stereotypes as do other races and ethnicities. One is that those who come to this country add to the population of the poor and take Americans' jobs. Madrid says she has felt "various forms of discrimination." After a long pause, she continues, "I can't spend a lot of time dwelling on it because it will take my eye off of what I need to get done. If I dwelled on the closing of a door as opposed to looking at the others that are open and getting through them, I might stay kicking at that door."
"When I have felt a door has shut and locked," she adds, "it's not that I don't push and jiggle and even pound on it. But there comes a point where I have to find another door where I may be welcomed."
Best of Both Worlds
Miles Cortez, executive vice president, secretary and general counsel of AIMCO, says like most Americans, he's a "mutt." His father was Mexican-American; his mother, of German and Swedish descent. "Much of my personality and my love of life came from my Hispanic background. That has always been such a rich part of my life," he says. "I have the best of both worlds."
His hometown of San Antonio, Texas, had a large Hispanic population but few lawyers, let alone college graduates, Cortez recalls. But that did not stop him from pursuing his goals. "One of the great things for young people is to be a trailblazer," he says. "Successful lawyers are people who don't ask for every page to be turned for them. They're the ones who have a hunger for learning and hard work, and are prepared to be pioneers."
Cortez was a pioneer in his family, graduating from college and from Northwestern University law school in 1967. After living in Latin America for many years and serving in the Army, he spent 31 years in private practice at law firms. He was recruited by AIMCO, an apartment investment and management company that was also a client in 2001. While growing up and throughout his legal life, Cortez says he was always accepted. "All I ever wanted was the opportunity to compete and I had those opportunities," he says, citing his parents, good professors, his Army training, and colleagues in Latin America as role models. "I never found my background to be a factor."
In fact, his background was an advantage. His fluency in Spanish has allowed him to compete at a higher level in business, Cortez explains. "There is a great appreciation for a lawyer who can speak the language of the person you are dealing with. It shows a heart and an empathy in terms of wanting to communicate and make somebody feel comfortable by speaking their language."
Being bilingual will only help young Hispanics who want to be lawyers, he says. As businesses continue to expand and the Latino population continues to increase, more companies will need lawyers who know those communities well. "If I were a young Hispanic, I'd be considering one of my options to be a career in law," he says. "A legal education provides a rich framework for career opportunities."
Like Cortez, Anatolio Benedicto "A.B." Cruz III, senior vice president and general counsel at E.W. Scripps Company, spent years in the military—the Navy—after growing up in San Antonio. "I grew up with a lot more brown-skinned people than white people," he chuckles. His father's family traces its roots to Spain and his mother's to the Philippines. "Hispanic families are typically very close-knit, with several generations often living together or close by," he explains. "For a young Hispanic to venture from San Antonio to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis is big."
Often the extended families don't want their children to move far, Cruz explains, adding that he was lucky his parents encouraged him. "They instilled in me the knowledge that there was a world out there to conquer," he says.
But at his first military assignment after the Naval Academy, he was the only minority among 20 Naval officers. "That was my first experience of truly feeling I was different," Cruz recalls. "But I quickly realized I was a confident young man and could compete."
Entering the legal profession, he kept the same philosophy. "I didn't focus on diversity numbers back then," he says. "I just knew I wanted to be part of the action."
During law school at Catholic University, Cruz met the former Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Henry Rivera, who is now a partner at Vinson & Elkins. It was Rivera who introduced his young protégé to communications law and the opportunities it presented. Cruz worked at several Washington, DC, law firms before getting a call from Black Entertainment Television's general counsel, Byron Marchant, to move in-house. In early 2004, Cruz was asked to take Scripps' top legal post. During his career, he has seen attitudes about diversity change. "It's no longer simply an African American and white equation," he says. "If there are still organizations that focus on African Americans to the exclusion of others, they unfortunately don't understand what diversity is yet."
Cruz considers himself fortunate that at each stage of his career, a mentor stepped up and saw something positive in him. But he recognizes that other side of the coin. "Not everyone had that expectation or belief that I was capable of being the next general counsel of a Fortune 750 company," he says, admitting that it could be because of his ethnicity. "In companies that are dominated by white males, if they truly haven't put a structure and process around diversity as a core value, then it's not surprising that during the interview process, the interviewer might be inclined to prefer someone who looks more like him. And it may be subconscious."
Despite being different in some circles, Cruz says he has learned the "rules of thumb" for being a minority. "Put your best foot forward and know your strengths and weaknesses, and exploit those strengths and work on those weaknesses. Be internally confident and always exude that confidence. Seek out opportunities and be recognized as a doer," he advises. "And once you get there, don't forget where you came from and take care of the folks that aspire to be the next you."
To Elisa Garcia, general counsel of Domino's Pizza Inc., being Hispanic gives her an edge in corporate America. All of her grandparents are from Spain. Like Cortez, she finds her bilingualism an advantage. "My ethnicity has done nothing but help me," she says. When she worked for Philip Morris International's Latin America business in the late 1990s, "I spoke the language of my clients," who were Hispanic business executives, she says. "They were so happy they had a lawyer who could read and negotiate a contract in Spanish and not have to wait a week to get it translated."
In her work at Domino's, where many team members and customers are Hispanic, "It's great to be able to go into a store where you have a team that's largely Hispanic and speak to them in Spanish," Garcia exclaims. She recalls that at a worldwide rally this summer, the international and American managers of the year were both Hispanic. "As the only leadership team member who is Hispanic," she says proudly, "I was able to congratulate them in Spanish."
When Garcia's father died during her second year in college, she did not see the advantages she had. "He was one who said I could do anything," she says, adding that she was the first in her family to go to college. "When he passed away, I didn't know what I was going to do."
She went on to a joint master's program at State University of New York (SUNY) Stonybrook in policy and planning, which led her to becoming a developing company energy analyst and working overseas in Latin America and the Caribbean. She chose St. John's Law School as a way to enter politics, but enjoyed law on its own. After five years at Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, she entered the corporate world, landing at Domino's in 2000.
And throughout her life and career, her Spanish language skills have brought her along, including while working in the field at Domino's. "You learn a lot sitting with people and chatting with them," she says of the Hispanic employees at her pizza franchises across the country. "You get a different perspective."
That Hispanic perspective is what businesses—and corporate legal departments—are going for now and in the future, Garcia and other Hispanic general counsel agree. So while their culture may have inhibited them in some ways in the past, today it is a competitive advantage for the future. "It will only be a benefit to be Hispanic, because companies will want to hire people who look and think like their customers and can market to their customers," says Garcia, echoing several of her colleagues. "It's a great time to be Hispanic."
Melanie Lasoff Levs is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Ga.
- "The Hispanic Population in the United States: March 2002," U.S. Census Bureau, issued June 2003, at http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/p20-545.pdf.
- "Hispanic Advertising Rises 11 Percent to $3.09 Billion," Hispanic PR Wire, Dec. 2004, at http://www.hispanicprwire.com/print_in.php?id=3444&cha=14.
- See The National Organization for Diversity in Sales and Marketing, at http://www.minoritymarketshare.com/?id=facts.
- See 2003 Equal Opportunity Office Commission report "Diversity in Law Firms," at http://www.eeoc.gov/stats/reports/diversitylaw/lawfirms.pdf.
- "MCCA® Annual Report on General Counsel of Color Leading Fortune 500 Companies," Diversity & the Bar, May/June 2005.
From the September/October 2005 issue of Diversity & The Bar®