Each 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 Andrea Belard, president of the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois (HLAI), about creating a sense of belonging in the legal profession, how law firms can better recruit and retain Latino lawyers, and how allies can help amplify the voices of Latino attorneys in Illinois.
According to the 2021 ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, 4.8% of all lawyers are Hispanic, up just one percentage point from 3.9% a decade earlier. The U.S. population is 18.5% Hispanic. Why do you think the legal profession has been so slow to diversify?
Three things come to mind immediately: access to opportunities, lack of representation, and, like it or not, financial concerns.
Unfortunately, irrespective of the growth in our community over the past decade, the data shows Latino students are still lacking in opportunities for academic attainment, specifically at the collegiate level.
To attend law school, you need a four-year bachelor’s degree and to take the LSAT, all before you try to figure out if you can even afford to pay for it. For most Latino families this is a luxury they cannot undertake, so then comes the major decision of incurring debt or just abandoning the idea of law school and joining the workforce.
Add to that the damage the pandemic has had on the economy and we have a recipe for disaster in our numbers.
We know that Latinos and other marginalized communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a major regression in the gains we’ve made through the decades worth of work toward more inclusion and representation in the profession.
Do you think Latino lawyers feel a sense of belonging in the legal profession?
My general answer would be no, but, of course, it doesn’t apply to everyone. A sense of belonging starts years before the person becomes a lawyer and goes back to their opportunities beginning in high school, with students believing they can achieve something.
We’ve heard so many stories of students being told by their counselors in high school and college that they’re not meant to be a lawyer, or they couldn’t pass the LSAT, or they couldn’t afford law school and they should try to be “X” instead, with “X” being whatever you wish to fill in the blank with as long as it’s not a lawyer or a doctor.
The perception that Latino youth aren’t capable of becoming their best selves is a societal problem that unfortunately is outside of our control. The change needs to be systemic, and that’s why representation matters.
Why does representation matter?
It matters that you see others like you in a position you want to be in so that you [stop listening] to messages that tell you about everything you can’t be or can’t do.
I don’t doubt that every Latino lawyer is proud of their accomplishments, but that doesn’t mean they feel like they belong.
My six-year-old daughter, who is growing up with two Latino attorneys as parents, wouldn’t doubt that she can become an attorney if she wants to, but not all Latino children have attorneys in their families to look up to.
Of course, my daughter doesn’t need to know of the dozens of times I have been asked if I’m the interpreter or the court reporter. That’s what we have to change. When students look around and see a Latino lawyer speaking to their class, or a Latino judge, or turn on the TV and see a Latina Supreme Court Justice, then they start to feel like it’s normal and they belong.
We have to be there to counteract bad counseling and make sure we encourage students to follow their passions with the fortitude and commitment needed to succeed.
This isn’t an issue that can be attacked with a quick-fix campaign. That’s exactly why organizations like HLAI are important because we’re here for the long haul and we will continue to maintain our focus on diversity and representation, no matter how slow progress may seem.
As we say, Latinos are not a monolith and, in the same way, neither is the legal profession.
How can law firms better recruit and retain Latino attorneys?
At the very least, ensuring equal opportunity to grow within the field. According to the ABA 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession, in 2019 only 10% of law firm partners were people of color.
I think law firms may benefit by moving away from their traditional mode of recruitment, and that means meeting Latino law students and attorneys where they are. It’s not enough to recruit these attorneys, but then not provide the structural support to keep them or the appropriate culture for them to thrive.
That means firms cannot just look at recruitment as bolstering their numbers but rather as a long-term investment.
Most of the Latino lawyers who I know, if they’re not working in government, are solo practitioners or have opened their own firms.
At some point, they realized that the road to make partner is too long and not a good economic decision and they decided to hang their own shingle.
With the growth of the Latino population in our country, being a Latino lawyer (an added plus if you speak Spanish) has become an asset for firms in attracting clients.
What can Latino attorneys and allies do to help amplify the voices of Latino lawyers in less diverse areas of our state?
This has been a challenge for a long time. However, I do think that social media and virtual platforms have created more opportunities than were available in the past for law schools and bar associations to coordinate, get together, and share opportunities and support systems. Information travels faster today, and we use our platforms exactly in that way.
Moreover, put your money where your mouth is: if you’re a Latino lawyer or an ally in a position of power, donate to organizations that help our minorities achieve their dreams so that we can increase our numbers.
A great example is what we try to do through HLAI Charities, which awards scholarships to college students studying for the LSAT and bar exam preparation.
Allies can help us by funding those scholarships; they do make a huge difference.
Are there any other HLAI initiatives you would like to highlight?
I’m very proud of the JD Mentors Program. It goes right to the core of what I was saying about taking care of the pipeline.
Right now, JD Mentors pairs law students with an attorney. However, our goal is to expand the program so that the same law student becomes a mentor to a college student, and the college student mentors someone in high school. We’re not there yet, but we will be; I know we will.
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