Sebastian Sanchez, a senior associate at White & Case and new member of the Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color’s Advisory Board, persevered to earn his way into Big Law. While growing up in Puerto Rico, he credits his parents and sister for the discipline and rigor he gave to his studies and for the social and community values they instilled in him.
While an undergrad at Harvard University, he became passionate for the study of liberal arts. After graduating from the college, he worked at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) there, where he enjoyed collaborating with academics and students who were devoted to the study of Latin America and the Latino community.
After completing his law school at the University of Puerto Rico, Sebastian decided to choose an uncommon legal career path for most young Puerto Rican attorneys — one in corporate law rather than the more common path of becoming a litigator.
He made his decision after failing to land a state or federal clerkship or an interview at the big law firms in the U.S. and Europe, deciding to earn his way up gradually. Sebastian eventually accepted a job offer in his hometown with Pietrantoni Méndez & Alvarez (PMA), a top law firm in San Juan.
After working in PMA’s corporate group for two years, he found himself wanting to specialize further. He then applied to New York University’s Master of Laws (LLM) program in corporate law; and once he was accepted, he did not hesitate one moment. From the moment he arrived, he immediately began networking at the law school and applying for associate positions within Big Law.
Unfortunately, he started to run into some road blocks. Knowing he wanted to work at one of the larger law firms, he found himself in a unique no man’s land as an attorney with a J.D. degree from Puerto Rico studying an LLM. Indeed, the NYU Office of Career Services informed him that as a U.S.‑trained attorney from Puerto Rico in the LLM program, he could neither participate in the International Student Interview Program (ISIP) for foreign-trained LLMs, nor in the law school’s interview process for J.D. students.
Being in this unexpected limbo only fueled Sebastian to try harder. “I decided that even though I might not be able to land a job in Big Law, working hard and staying committed to the LLM would in the end pay off,” he says.
Eventually, Sebastian landed an associate position with White & Case after reaching out to Don Baker, then-head of the São Paulo office and the Latin American practice at the firm. It was Sebastian’s tenacity in continuously searching, telling his story, and networking to make a connection that translated into a job offer. Baker noticed Sebastian’s law experience, language skills, and potential and connected him with colleagues in the firm’s New York office. Baker is still a sponsor for Sebastian to this day and ensures that Sebastian works with the firm’s key clients and their many deals.
As Sebastian reflects on his career, he is proud of his journey and eager to mentor others wishing to follow in his footsteps. “When I look back four-to-five years ago when people were telling me, ‘You’re just going to end up coming back to Puerto Rico with tons of debt,’ I am proud of having believed in myself and taken the risks I took with the odds stacked against me,” Sebastian explains. “I did not know anyone who had done it before coming from Puerto Rico.” His perseverance can certainly be captured by his simple statement: “The worst thing that you can do is to say no to yourself.”
Sebastian also offered some insight into other valuable lessons he has learned:
It Takes Commitment from Multiple Partners to Retain Diverse Attorneys of Color
Sebastian’s experience at White & Case underscores the importance of having multiple partners and influencers working together to retain lawyers of color. Indeed, Sebastian works mainly with partners who are male and white; but he’s encouraged by the fact that these partners “are keenly interested in hiring, developing, retaining, and getting people of color into the ranks.”
Sebastian has been successful at building connections with partners whom, he says, “show their commitment to my work and development by constantly asking if I want to be part of their deals.” To Sebastian’s credit, he works the long hours that are required in Big Law because, from his perspective, “as long as the transactions involve learning and greater development, I am all for it.”
Building Rapport Across Difference: Ask for Feedback and Learn from Mistakes
When it comes to his own efforts of building connections across difference, Sebastian acknowledges the challenge for lawyers of color, “particularly when speaking a different language and coming into an environment which is completely foreign.” He advises associates to first understand what is expected of them. “For me, the first year-and-a-half was focused on doing the best work I could.”
Sebastian asserts that he made mistakes along the way but used them as opportunities for learning by showing that he valued the feedback he received and the chance to improve his work product. Over time, Sebastian noticed that those attorneys providing the feedback recognized his growth. And as a result, Sebastian feels that he has earned their respect and trust.
In moments of frustration after making mistakes, Sebastian says he had to “put aside all pride and suck it up” and remember that “making mistakes provides an opportunity to learn and develop as an attorney.” He suggests that associates “be grateful when somebody points out your mistakes because that person, in contrast to maybe others, has taken the time to provide you with feedback on how to improve yourself and your work product.”
The Importance of Diverse Attorneys Seeing “Themselves” in Senior Ranks
When it comes to suggested actions that legal employers should take to accelerate the advancement of lawyers of color, Sebastian urges employers to increase access to opportunities that give lawyers of color the chance to thrive and succeed.
It is crucial for young attorneys of color to see examples of themselves who have made it, he explains. For instance, young female colleagues will “keenly notice and value seeing other female associates being promoted to partner; it provides them an opportunity to be encouraged to strive higher and say, ‘She was able to do it. I want to reach her level of sophistication as an attorney and recognition in the legal community.’ But when you don’t see that, it becomes harder.”
Sebastian credits White & Case for making diversity a priority, citing several recent examples where diverse attorneys were promoted to partner or to other leadership roles within the firm. Such actions by the firm — offering clear evidence of its rewarding hard work and commitment from minorities — speak louder than the word diversity can or ever will.