Celebrating Hispanic Attorneys: A Q&A with HLAI President Jennifer Crespo

jennifer crespo hispanic attorneys

Each year, National Hispanic Heritage Month pays tribute to the Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation.

This year we celebrate against the backdrop of a booming Hispanic population in the U.S., a growing community of immigrants in Illinois, and frequent arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers to the state.

According to the American Immigration Council, one in seven Illinois residents is an immigrant, and another one in seven residents is a native-born U.S. citizen with at least one immigrant parent. The top countries of origin for immigrants are Mexico (36%), India (10%), and Poland (7%).

However, the representation of Hispanic people in professional settings continues to lag. According to the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility, just 4% of senior executives at large U.S. companies are Hispanic.

And, in law firms, the number of Hispanic associates and partners increased by less than 0.5% in 2022, according to the National Association of Law Placement. This growth was primarily among Hispanic males.

We spoke to Jennifer L. Crespo, President of the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois (HLAI), about the challenges and opportunities for Hispanic attorneys in Illinois. You can find her Q&A below.

Why do you think the number of Hispanic lawyers is growing so slowly?

Expenses, discouragement, intimidation, and bias contribute to the hesitancy of Hispanics entering the legal profession. These things almost kept me away from becoming a lawyer.

Bias and intimidation tactics continue to affect the advancement of Hispanics who become lawyers. It was—and continues to be—common for women to experience sexual harassment and mistreatment in a profession that is still predominantly occupied by males who are white.

The process of becoming a successful Latina lawyer who can reach the apex of her career is wrought with struggle and requires an enormous amount of perseverance, commitment, and networking.

What barriers are preventing Hispanic attorneys from entering the profession?

Family, finances, and exposure. The process of becoming an attorney is a tolling one that demands significant time. It is also a particularly expensive endeavor that requires years of planning and saving or, in the alternative, an assumption of massive student loan debt.

Immigrant or migrant families living in multigenerational households where individuals care for one another and share resources may lack the financial reserves to pursue this profession.

The situation is cyclical; each generation that forgoes a law degree reinforces the belief of the next that becoming a lawyer is an unattainable goal. This is especially true for women in a world that encourages them to take on the roles of parenting, caretaking, and homemaking.

What can the legal profession do to better recruit, support, and provide equitable opportunities for Hispanic attorneys?

We have to be diligent, disciplined, and collaborative in our efforts to empathize with aspiring attorneys and identify resources that will influence their career trajectories early on.

For example, HLAI has created model programs for recruiting, supporting, and providing for Hispanic attorneys. Our Law School Pipeline Program organizes community film screenings about the impact of the law on people’s lives and invites students from local elementary and high schools to attend at no cost.

[Representatives from the program] also participate in panels and conferences organized for young adults and students to expose them to lawyers who share their culture, language, values, and lived experience.

Our JD Mentors Program connects law students with seasoned attorneys and judges who provide career guidance, professional references, and hands-on experience.

HLAI’s Latina Lawyers Committee champions mental health awareness and well-being and offers exercises in mindfulness. The Latina Lawyers Committee also regularly collaborates with colleagues from the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois to celebrate trailblazing Latinas who forge paths into formerly uncharted territories like the federal bench, collar county courts, and the tops of corporate ladders.

Do you think the legal profession recognizes the diverse experiences and cultures of lawyers within the Hispanic community?

I think certain segments of this country, like Illinois, have legal communities that recognize and value diversity in the legal profession, but this attitude is not uniformly shared across the nation.

The status quo is comforting to populations that have historically benefitted from “business as usual.” But the only constant in life is change, and when we silence voices from different cultures, we build up a resistance to life itself and cause unnecessary suffering to ourselves and others.

Illinois is fortunate to have a very dynamic, diverse, inclusive, and engaging legal community. This can be observed by attending almost any bar association event, especially those organized by HLAI, which attract attendees from various affinity bars like the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago and the LAGBAC – Chicago’s LGBTQ+ Bar Association, some of whom have even received awards from HLAI. We all benefit from exposure to new ideas, thoughts, and processes.

How have your mentors in the Hispanic legal community influenced your career?

I remember being a young lawyer practicing immigration law with a primary focus on asylum cases and feeling like I had to live on the brink of burning out.

My mentors from the Hispanic legal community encouraged me to learn that being a lawyer can involve so much more than just the practice of law and billable hours.

Because of the guidance and support I received from Hispanic men and women lawyers, I realized that my training, education, critical thinking skills, and analytical tools empowered me to be a leader.

Most importantly, their influence inspired me to become a mentor myself. I feel most fulfilled when young lawyers whom I helped guide surpass their own expectations.

How has your time working in immigration law influenced your career, especially concerning access to justice in Illinois?

As the daughter of a Filipina who came to the U.S. as a very young child with her four siblings and widowed mother, I have always been keyed into the harmful impacts of discrimination, intolerance, and prejudice.

Even before I embarked on my legal career, I was an investigative journalist and wrote stories about wrongful convictions and immigrant students at community colleges.

As a young lawyer, my immigration clients came primarily from Arabic-speaking countries like Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. Working with immigrants who spoke a language I had never studied, from countries I had never visited and had no familial roots, and to which I had no prior exposure, reinforced my understanding of how complicated and intimidating our immigration process is and how inaccessible resources are for new arrivals to America.

These experiences have led to my intentional involvement in specialized projects and efforts geared toward making our systems more equitable and accessible.

For example, today I am part of the Chicago Bar Association’s Library Access Steering Committee, which connects underserved populations with technology and resources to navigate the legal system.

Bilingual attorneys are often called upon to be translators for clients with limited English proficiency. How does this impact the careers of bilingual attorneys?

I am noticing a positive change in how bilingual attorneys are utilized and valued in our profession.

For example, the State of Illinois [Central Management Services Equal Employment Opportunity Office] has made substantial efforts to appropriately compensate attorneys who speak multiple languages, rather than pigeonholing [them] into work that specifically requires language assistance.

The Central Management Services Equal Employment Opportunity Office is responsible for implementing Language Access Plans, which include information on the use and compensation of bilingual staff in addition to other resources that might be available to assist those with limited English proficiency.

This shift will not only expand the opportunities available to bilingual professionals but [may] also encourage more professionals to become bilingual. I am looking forward to keeping this momentum going and expanding its reach to other employers and to other states.

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