Luminating Latina Lawyers: Minding the representation gap

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Latinx culture is quite well-known for being family oriented; and these community values impact the career decisions of many Latina lawyers, often conflicting with career desires to reach the top echelons of the legal profession. Indeed, for many Hispanic women, the priority on family begins with how far away from family they can go to attend law school.

Irene Oria, a Partner at the law firm FisherBroyles and President of the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), knows first-hand about this dilemma, having made critical career decisions because of her life and family circumstances. The first big decision came two years after law school when she moved her practice as a commercial litigation attorney at a large law firm in New York to Miami to be closer to family. The second was waiting to do a clerkship for a Cuban-American judge, who had recently been confirmed to the federal bench, because of finances. Oria, who also is Cuban-American, got the interview with the new federal judge through a referral from her large law experience, and it has been this federal judge who has served as Oria’s mentor to this day, pushing her when she needed a nudge.

Based on these experiences and with her involvement in the HNBA for her entire career, Oria says she has seen the implications that are reflected in the low representation of Hispanics at senior ranks of the legal industry.

Influence of family & finances

For Latino lawyers, family considerations occur at every stage in their careers, according to Oria. In her own experience, she had to get grants and scholarships for law school; and even though her parents did help her with the cost of her education, a big motivation for earning her first law firm job was to help them and not continue to be a financial burden.

In addition, many Latinas cannot afford to attend top law schools and will opt for going to a less prestigious law school in order to stay close to family. For Oria, her legal career was also impacted by family resources, which led to her two-year postponement of a clerk’s job because she could not afford to do it right after law school.

Because her parents were already in the Northeast, Oria’s decision to attend Cornell University was not as daunting because it allowed her to remain within driving distance of her parents. Despite this, finances continued to drive professional decisions even after she finished her clerkship, Oria says. She returned to private practice after serving in the civil division of the U.S. attorney’s office for two years after the birth of her first child.


Irene Oria, President of the Hispanic National Bar Association

“In the Latino culture, we have a very hard time justifying thinking about ourselves — thinking what’s best for me.”

 

“We look out for what’s best for all of us and other people, especially other family members.”

 

 


Oria says she enjoyed her stint in public service because she was able to run cases from start to finish, something she had not been able to do during her first time working for a large law firm.

Factors impacting Hispanic representation

There are critical factors that are impacting Latinas’ advancement within the legal profession, particularly among large law firms where Oria spent the majority of her 20-year legal career. Further, with her involvement in the HNBA, she has been able to observe these factors up-close.

Critical work assignments — For Latina lawyers, like other women from underrepresented groups, gaining access to large cases involving important clients is a challenge. “It is a battle to get the same work and the same hands-on experience that my non-Hispanic male colleagues are getting,” Oria notes, adding that the role of sexism, particularly for “Black and Latina women” plays a strong part.

“Management or the powers-that-be don’t think that we have what it takes to work on these big cases for these important clients regardless of the work product that we actually produce.”

Wage gap — The lack of access to critical, career-enhancing cases drives a resulting divide in compensation. The pay gap between Hispanic women and non-Hispanic men and between male and female Hispanic attorneys are both problematic. Exacerbating that problem is that Latinas have not been good at negotiating salaries because of cultural influences. “In the Latino culture, we have a very hard time justifying thinking about ourselves — thinking what’s best for me,” she explains. “We look out for what’s best for all of us and other people, especially other family members.”

The HNBA makes salary negotiation a priority, but Oria admits that “the firms and the powers-that-be are certainly not giving us the help we need to fight for equal compensation.”

Disparities in influential positions of leadership — Oria also notes that the lack of visible Latina role models in leadership at law firms and corporations is another big factor. “You can practically count on your hand the number of Latinas that have been part of executive committees, compensation committees, and all the important management positions at these law firms and at corporations,” she says. (The Cuban-American judge Oria clerked for was the first and only female Hispanic lawyer for whom she has worked.)

Oria was the only Latina in her class at Cornell law school, and she encountered only two other Latinas at in law school during her three years in the early 2000s. The number of in-coming Hispanic lawyers has gotten modestly better since she graduated, and she proudly noted that the current dean of Cornell law school is Latino.

Overall, the initial lack of access to critical work ultimately drives the gaps in leadership and pay. One disparity begets the others, she says.

Addressing the under-representation of Latinas

Despite the multifaceted factors in the representation gap, Oria thinks the way to improve it is simple — accountability of the buy-side and the sell-side. She admits, however, it will not be easy.

“On the law firm side, they need to be held accountable for not doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” she states, adding that if corporations are telling their law firms that diverse associates need to be working on their matters and the firms are failing to do so, those firms should be held accountable. “Yet, it’s rare for a big, prominent law firm to be fired by a corporate client on those grounds.”

Legal employers too can work to increase representation at leadership levels, for example, by offering mentoring, educational, and career development opportunities — and there are pitfalls for employers that do not. “If there’s no one that looks like you at the higher rank, it’s very hard for you to sustain motivation to rise within such a company or law firm,” Oria explains. “That’s why we have retention issues, because nobody looks like you and you can’t really relate to anybody.”