HNBA’s honorees reflect upon their accomplishments, and discuss the importance of giving back.
By Franscisco Ramos, Jr.
Leader is paradoxical concept, in the sense that leaders are those who place others before themselves. They use innovation, ingenuity, and determination to find ways to make the lives of others better, and they do it without concern for the accolades they may amass. Such qualities are to be expected from seasoned professionals who have accumulated years of experience, but to witness it in the lives of younger men and women is noteworthy, which is why the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) has chosen to honor five Latino leaders.
The HNBA announced its 2010 Top Lawyers Under 40 Award recipients at its Mid-Year Conference in San Diego, California, this past March. Founded in California in 1972 as La Raza National Lawyers Association, the HNBA has grown to represent more than 100,000 Hispanic attorneys, judges, and law students across the country, and advocates for equal justice for more than 45 million Hispanics in the United States and Puerto Rico. Its mission is to advance equal access to justice, diversity, and inclusiveness by promoting Hispanic employment and advancement in the legal profession.
This year’s five recipients distinguished themselves in the legal profession and within their communities at a relatively early stage in their careers. As a group, these attorneys made their mark by winning major trials, fighting for human rights and employment rights, managing their own firms while paving the way for other women and Latino business owners, handling complicated commercial and corporate transactions, and by fighting for diversity in the profession. Each recipient has given back to the Latino community, and serves as an extraordinary role model.
The HNBA first created this award last year. According to Zuraya Tapia, HNBA’s executive director, “the award was created to celebrate and highlight the accomplishments and contributions of younger HNBA members. It honors lawyers who, in addition to having demonstrated professional excellence, show integrity, leadership, and commitment to the Hispanic community.”
Peter M. Reyes Jr., a senior intellectual property lawyer at Cargill, Inc., who served as chair of the selection committee, explains the rigorous vetting process. “The selection process comprised soliciting nominees from HNBA members [who] sent in nominations of people they thought met the criteria, including professional excellence, integrity, leadership, and commitment to the Latino community.” Deciding upon the best took time and thought. “We did not have a set number of recipients, but rather wanted to recognize those that stood out from the rest. The selection committee received all the information about all of the nominees [and] reviewed them, then we discussed each and every one of the nominees in detail,” he notes. “Although all of the nominees were outstanding, there were certain people who stood out. Each one of the recipients had a unique story to tell, in addition to meeting all of the criteria.”
Though only in its second year, the feedback the HNBA received from the recipients and nominators has been very positive. The association plans to continue recognizing their young lawyers in the years to come. Román D. Hernández, HNBA’s national president, cannot help but extol the accomplishments of these individuals. “The five award recipients represent the best and brightest attorneys in the country. While the HNBA received nominations for many exceptionally qualified attorneys, the recipients of this award have distinguished themselves for their professional endeavors [and] through their commitment and involvement in the Hispanic community, all at a relatively early stage of their careers.”
OPENING OUR BORDERS
Several recipients have left their impression by opening this country’s borders to welcome persecuted individuals. Carlos Cruz’s efforts secured asylum for a news reporter from Bangladesh. Mrs. Hasan and her family were persecuted after she wrote and published an article against a local chairman documenting his corruption and pattern of criminal behavior. As Cruz explains, “The Immigration Court and the Board of Immigration Appeals determined that Mrs. Hasan had been targeted merely for retaliation and revenge. I argued before the Ninth Circuit that a reporter may be targeted for multiple reasons. Although retaliation may have been a motivating factor, an equally important factor to consider was the political opinion that had been expressed and imputed upon this reporter following her article. The Ninth Circuit agreed, and for the first time reporters were officially recognized as a group of individuals that could benefit from political asylum.”
Likewise, Niza Motola has helped persecuted individuals to secure asylum in the U.S. Motola remains motivated by the memory of the difference she was able to make in the life of a Liberian citizen whose son had been killed during the civil war, and who had fled to the U.S. to avoid being killed himself. Having prevailed in an appeal of the initial denial of his petition, Motola reflects that “seeing his relief and gratitude for my assistance was immensely rewarding. I also assisted him in bringing [to the U.S.] his wife and his remaining children, who had lived through atrocious events during the civil war.”
Despite these successes, so many more individuals need help, but may be too frightened to seek it out. “Sometimes, undocumented Latinos do not seek help because they do not know their rights,” shares Monica Sanchez. “It is very frustrating to those of us who become lawyers to help people, and we are unable to do so because the public is scared of seeking help.” Carlos Cruz concurs, asserting that “as an immigration practitioner, I witness firsthand the many obstacles and challenges that the undocumented immigrant community faces on a daily basis.” These HNBA members and the rest of the organization continue with their efforts to provide such individuals a voice.
THE STRENGTH OF DIVERSITY
In addition to helping diverse individuals enjoy the freedoms of this country, this year’s awardees rely on their own diversity to better serve their clients. Luis Vilarin’s experience demonstrates that diversity serves as a strength: “One of my most interesting transactions was leading negotiations on behalf of Bristol-Myers Squibb, in connection with the company’s strategic decision to engage a South Korean biologics manufacturer to supply a key active ingredient for the company’s first marketed biologic product. Balancing the interests of the company with the interests of our Korean partner was an interesting challenge—and one that helped to amplify the importance of diversity and cultural sensitivity when conducting international negotiations.”
The recipients’ diverse backgrounds not only help them better serve their clients, but also help them have a greater appreciation of their clients’ struggles. “My heritage affects my work as an attorney in every possible way,” explains Carlos Cruz. “Given my heritage, I have an undeniable responsibility to assist those who come from the inner city and impoverished communities.”
Niza Motola concurs. “My heritage makes a big difference in my legal practice—from being able to communicate with witnesses and clients in Spanish, to appreciating cultural nuances in case preparation, to understanding the significance of diversity and inclusion. All of these unique attributes undoubtedly make me a more effective lawyer. My experience as an immigrant to this country, when my family fled the oppression of Castro’s regime has given me a passion for assisting political asylum applicants.”
Similarly, Monica Sanchez can relate to the challenges of these Latinos. “I can appreciate firsthand the struggles Latinos face when they first come to the States. I came here when I was 19 years old to study, and Spanish was my first language. I know what it feels not to be able to communicate fully, and not know the ‘American way.’ Studying law in a second language was not easy, and I faced many struggles until I mastered the English language. I think, however, that having been through those experiences myself lets me understand and relate to my clients’ fears, so that I can help them face those obstacles.”
IMPORTANCE OF MENTORING
The success of these recipients is due in no small part to their mentors. Ernestina Cruz shares that “my first mentor was Juan Flores, a partner at Sheehan, Sheehan and Stelzner in Albuquerque. Juan mentored me when I was law clerk at the firm, and he helped me understand the importance of professionalism and giving back to one’s community. Juan was instrumental in helping me organize and sustain projects while I served as president of the Mexican American Law Student Association at the University of New Mexico.”
Having been the beneficiary of a positive role model, Ernestina has made it a priority to serve in the same role for others. “As lawyers, we have plenty of opportunities to help students throughout the educational pipeline. While the achievement gap among Hispanic students may seem like an insurmountable issue, as Hispanic lawyers, we can make a difference in trying to address the issue on a smaller scale.”
LEADERS TODAY AND TOMORROW
HNBA’s Top Lawyers under 40 for 2010 continue to make an impact in their companies, law firms, and communities. Their diversity serves as an important professional and personal strength, as they bring their own experiences and background to the legal issues they face daily. As these outstanding attorneys continue to effect change, the HNBA looks forward to recognizing its next group of up-and-comers in 2011. DB
Francisco Ramos Jr., Esq., is a freelance writer and partner at the Miami-based offices of Clarke Silverglate Campbell.
From the July/August 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar ®