Growing up, many Latina attorneys witnessed first-hand the injustices and inequities encountered by their immigrant families and Latino communities. These formative experiences often leave a lasting impression and serve to ignite a passion for public interest legal work. As one Latina public interest lawyer comments in a new national study examining the formative and career experiences of Latina public interest lawyers, “I witnessed and experienced many inequities that angered me. I felt that I had to do something to address some of the problems facing my community.”
The source of Latina attorneys’ passion for social and economic justice is one among several findings highlighted in La Voz de la Abogada Latina: Challenges and Rewards in Serving the Public Interest, authored by Cruz, Molina, and Rivera.1 The report was commissioned by the Hispanic National Bar Association Commission on Latinas in the Legal Profession (HNBA Commission).
The study, which included both focus groups and a national survey with more than 200 Latina public interest lawyers across the United States, examines the perceptions of, barriers overcome by, and experiences of Latina attorneys employed by public interest organizations, such as Legal Aid, public defenders’ offices, prosecutors’ offices, civil rights offices, and nonprofit organizations.
The professional challenges of the Latina segment of the U.S. legal profession have been largely unexamined. The new study responds to the call for additional research and provides a voice to those women who “have shaped United States legal jurisprudence in a variety of areas, including civil rights, immigrants’ rights, the rights of the accused, and consumer rights and have successfully protected and sought to expand constitutional rights and guarantees.”2
The new study comes on the heels of another HNBA Commission study, Few and Far Between: The Reality of Latina Lawyers, published in 2009.3
KEY RESEARCH FINDINGS
The key findings of La Voz de la Abogada Latina focus on the formative experiences impacting the participants’ career choices, and the rewards and challenges involved in fulfilling their public interest roles.
DESTINED FOR THE PUBLIC INTEREST
Commitment to Serving Others, Social Justice and Equal Access: The singular defining characteristic of Latina public interest attorneys is their commitment to serving others, and the pursuit of social and economic justice on behalf of marginalized individuals and communities who frequently have limited access to legal assistance. Many Latinas went to law school knowing they were destined for public interest jobs. As a result, many spent their law school careers supplementing their education with public interest-related work experiences, including internships and clinical assignments. For most, these experiences reinforced their career choices.
Family Influences on Career Decision: As was evident in the 2009 HNBA study, family influences and an emphasis on education were crucial factors compelling Latinas to go to law school and become public interest lawyers. Regardless of their parents’ educational experiences or access to financial and educational resources, many Latinas cited the values instilled during their upbringing—with a focus on being well-educated as a means to a better life—as key motivators for high academic achievement, the pursuit of law school and career success. Even in the absence of visible attorney role models or exposure to the legal profession during their formative years, the attorneys surveyed said family influences and strong female role models inspired them to become public interest lawyers.
REWARDS OF WORKING IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST SECTOR
High Levels of Career Satisfaction: Latina public interest attorneys are generally very satisfied with their careers, in large part because they believe they are providing meaningful services to underserved communities. These findings, which were also evident in the 2009 HNBA study, reveal that Latinas view their careers as a vehicle for pursuing their commitment to social justice and equal access.
Enhanced Work-Family Balance and Quality of Life: Latina attorneys believe the public interest sector to be more accommodating of family responsibilities and offers enhanced work-life balance more so than other sectors of the legal profession (i.e. private practice). This belief exists despite the paradoxical finding that the majority of the participants did not have children at home and believed that significant family-care responsibilities would negatively impact opportunities for career advancement.
Positive Valuation of their Cultural Identity and Skills: Most Latina public interest attorneys speak Spanish and derive great professional satisfaction from their ability to provide linguistically and culturally appropriate legal services to a large proportion of Latina/o clientele. While a key source of satisfaction, many Latinas believe their bilingual skills are not sufficiently recognized or rewarded by their employers; and that those bilingual skills create added nonattorney responsibilities that inhibit access to other opportunities for career advancement.
CHALLENGES IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST SECTOR
The Intersectionality of Ethnicity, Gender, and Race: Although graduating from top-tier law schools with high academic achievement, Latinas often encounter negative assumptions about their education, intellectual capabilities, legal skills, and career choices based on gender, racial, and ethnic stereotypes. Workplace challenges also include demeaning comments, harassment, frequently being misidentified as nonattorneys, and being confused with other women of color in their workplaces. As a result, Latinas believe they must continuously work harder than others to prove their competence and avoid limiting their career advancement.
Devaluation and Marginalization of Public Interest Work: Similar to the negative assumptions that prevail about Latinas’ credentials as attorneys in general, the public interest attorneys participating in the study described the negative perceptions and assumptions of public interest jobs held by their legal peers, and society at large. In this sense, they encountered the additional burden of public interest work being stereotyped as less challenging and less prestigious.
The Reality of Diversity in the Public Interest Sector: The Latina lawyers perceive a contradiction between their employers’ stated diversity goals and their own experiences of disparate treatment and access to advancement opportunities in their workplaces. While the 2009 HNBA study participants shared these experiences as well, this perception was especially discouraging for Latina attorneys in the public interest sector who expected to find a level playing field because of the sector’s espoused goals of equity and justice.
Few Opportunities for Advancement: Latina attorneys in the public interest sector believe there are fewer opportunities for them to advance within the sector due to the small number of supervisory jobs and the slow turnover in these positions. Furthermore, despite the larger proportion of women who work in public interest workplaces, men are more likely to be supervisors, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
Low Salaries: One of the greatest challenges cited by the Latinas in this study is the low salaries they earn in the public sector, especially those who are employed in legal services. These historically low salaries, amidst the attorneys’ sizable educational loan debt, significantly impact Latinas’ experiences and choices. Despite the great need for more Latina public interest attorneys, the challenging financial impact of this career choice dissuades many from pursuing or remaining in the sector.
In addition to supporting the recommendations advanced in the 2009 HNBA study, the new report recognizes the need to eliminate the unique barriers encountered by Latina public interest attorneys that may deter their entry, retention and advancement within their professional roles. As a way to reinforce the value of public interest work and the women who assume these roles, the legal profession must debunk the myth that public interest work is less meaningful, prestigious, and challenging.
As agents of social equality, public interest workplaces must foster a more diverse workforce free of gender, racial, and ethnic bias. An emphasis on diversity programming that focuses on antiracism and antisexism would improve diversity and equity within public interest organizations. Recognizing the limited financial resources and management opportunities currently available within public interest workplaces, creative opportunities should be provided to Latina attorneys allowing them to assume leadership roles inside and outside public interest organizations, serve on boards, associations or committees, projects, or even casework assignments that can provide them the skills that are necessary for them to advance in their respective roles.
Finally, additional research could provide persuasive information to create a legislative agenda that responds to the unique challenges faced by Latina attorneys in the public interest sector, narrows the significant salary disparity, and evaluates the true impact of educational debt-reduction programs on Latinas’ professional choices and retention. DB
1 Jill L. Cruz, Melinda S. Molina, and Jenny Rivera, Hispanic Nat’l Bar Ass’n, LA VOZ DE LA ABOGADA LATINA: CHALLENGES AND REWARDS IN SERVING THE PUBLIC INTEREST 2010
2 Id. at 7
3 Jill L. Cruz & Melinda S. Molina Hispanic Nat’l Bar Ass’n, FEW AND FAR BETWEEN: THE REALITY OF LATINA LAWYERS, 37 Pepp. L. Rev. 971 (2010).
From the November/December 2010 of Diversity & The Bar®