#CivilityChat with HLAI President Janneth Lanini

photo of Janneth LaniniEach year, National Hispanic Heritage Month honors the cultures and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans and celebrates their influence on the history, culture, and achievements of the U.S.

We spoke with Janneth Lanini, president of the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois (HLAI), about her work with the HLAI, the challenges Hispanic and Latino attorneys face, and how the profession can better support diverse attorneys.

What unique challenges do Hispanic attorneys face, especially during COVID-19?

Working remotely has brought unique challenges to legal professionals in general and the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois membership has been particularly impacted by those challenges.

As you know, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected minority communities, and particularly Hispanic and Latino communities, across the Chicagoland area and the state of Illinois but also in the country as a whole. When the clients that we serve have limited access to the technology necessary to be adequately represented in the courts, the Hispanic and Latino attorneys that represent them are faced with additional challenges to ensure that their legal representation meets the needs of the problem at hand.

In addition, Hispanic and Latino attorneys are faced with navigating challenging family situations disproportionately affecting peoples of color including multigenerational households and, too often, being the sole or primary resources for their extended families.

The NALP 2019 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms shows that while the number of Hispanic attorneys is growing, the growth is minimal and primarily among Hispanic males. What can the profession do to better recruit and support Hispanic attorneys?

It is disconcerting that, while estimates of Hispanic and Latino individuals in the U.S. nears 17% (until 2020 Census data becomes available), as noted by the ABA, diverse individuals’ representation in the U.S. remains disproportionate with representation in the legal profession.

The problem is multifactorial, but choosing one approach, it is incumbent on current decision-makers and influencers to build relationships with Hispanic and Latino resources beyond job postings and speaking engagements. The same holds true for increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the law for individuals from all backgrounds. Action needs to follow from individuals in positions of influence to recruit and promote Hispanic and Latino attorneys.

If you don’t know where to start, know that there is a level of simplicity to this action. Commit to making three phone calls or set up a few short video conferences (whether cold or by reference from a colleague) to learn about the resources that are available to you to diversify your law firm, law department, or office. If you work in-house then require the law firms working for you to staff your work with diverse attorneys and ensure diverse attorneys receive credit for bringing in new work.

The Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois is available by contacting the HLAI president or communications secretary to begin any such discussion. Furthermore, we have developed the HLAI Latina Lawyers Commission as a tool to better serve our Latina members by providing them with tailored programming and mentoring for women. Our Board, which is made up of 10 Latina attorneys and 3 Latino attorneys, is the best evidence that we have exceptional talent in leadership from our women members.

The viewpoint that low Hispanic and Latino attorney representation in the law is not my problem, or worse, that one diverse attorney group is sufficient to represent all diverse attorney groups, simply cannot persist among lawyers tasked with maintaining the integrity and prosperity of our legal system.

Judge Franklin Valderrama was recently confirmed to the bench for the Northern District of Illinois, making him the fourth Latino judge for the district and the first Panamanian-American federal judge in the country. Why is it important for the bench to reflect the diversity of the communities it serves?

The Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois could not be more proud of our member, Judge Valderrama, and his achievements. We again extend our appreciation for his service on the bench in Illinois thus far and believe that he will continue that excellence in service on the federal bench.

The importance of diversity on the bench, particularly for Latino communities, cannot be overstated. Increasing the number of Latino judges on the state and federal benches to, at the very least, reflect the populations they serve will help ameliorate the issues confronted by those communities when they enter a courtroom. Most notably, Latino communities face unique challenges in the criminal justice system, which has been a subject of reform discussion but is not by any means resolved.

Only with diverse representation on the bench by Latino judges can Latino communities rest assured that their particular challenges will be recognized and addressed. The HLAI firmly believes that a bench that is reflective of the community it serves makes for a judicial system that is more fair and just.

How is the HLAI staying connected to its membership during COVID-19?

We have launched several initiatives, including the formation of a Special Committee on Racial Justice, and we are providing our members with an opportunity to meet virtually and engage about the topics that are of importance to HLAI’s membership and the legal community at large. Each of our individual committees has been tirelessly developing programming and collaborative meetings to better serve our members during these difficult times.

We recently hosted a CLE event coordinated by our Latina Lawyers Commission that centered around mindfulness and navigating the challenging remote work environment. We have also hosted several virtual events for young lawyers and law students to network, and we are working on several initiatives for our members to reconnect virtually in a more casual virtual environment.

The HLAI recently celebrated its 25th Anniversary and Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 9. The virtual event was an opportunity for us to celebrate the strides the organization has made in the last 25 years and to look forward to the next quarter-century.

Tell us about HLAI’s JD Mentoring Program. Why is it unique?

The JD Mentors program is one of HLAI’s most prized initiatives. The program provides students with meaningful opportunities to network and find a mentor, and also to solidify life-long relationships. The program is not only geared toward providing networking opportunities but also to ensuring that our students successfully navigate law school and find support in our community of attorneys.

Many of our Latino law students are first-generation law students and in many instances first-generation college graduates. This is our effort to support the next generation of Latino attorneys and increase the pipeline of Latinos in the practice of law. What is most unique about the program is that many members of our current leadership, including myself, were at one point a mentee in the program.

Beyond providing career advice and networking opportunities, the program provides the participants with the opportunity to connect with attorneys that share their same background and experience. And, given the positive influence of past mentor-mentee relationships, we are proud to note that the support shown to law students years ago has led to leaders at HLAI paying it forward today.

What are your priorities as HLAI president?

My presidency is not what I had envisioned when I was elected to be the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois’s president this term. My tenure as president is marked with COVID-19 pandemic challenges as well as challenges our nation is facing regarding racial inequality. However, it is only through challenges that we can grow as an organization, and these particular difficulties have positively impacted my relationships with the HLAI board, the leadership of other bar associations, and community groups of every diverse background.

I am grateful for the opportunity to build relationships with others to work toward a better, more just world in which we may live. It is my goal to usher HLAI into a new era, so to speak, capitalizing on our growth over the last 25 years with a view toward peace, equity, diversity, and inclusion. But, the work is not yet done and I invite others to reach out to me and HLAI to foster new relationships and help better the world around us.

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