Shortly after graduating from law school I became interested in education law. I’ve always been a big believer in the power of public education. The chance to help make the field better really appealed to me.
When I got the chance to work on a case for a local school board early on in my career, I took to it like a dog to a bone. I was so excited and eager to please. I got proactive, called the client, and when he said he was going to come by the office, I practically jumped out of my chair to greet him.
We had an excellent meeting and I was on top of the world. Until my partner called me into his office the next day. “What do you think you’re doing?” he said, after hearing about the meeting. “You are not supposed to interact with the client!”
I was so confused. I thought helping manage client interactions was one of the reasons I was put on the case. How else would I grow my education law skills? I was also perplexed because other people on the team — all white men, some just as new to education law as myself — were allowed to interact with the client.
At the time, I didn’t think my partner singled me out because I was the only minority woman on the case. Even to this day, I have no proof that my race or gender affected his decision.
But the experience got me thinking.
It made me reflect on the people in my law school classes. Not many of them looked like me.
Same for the colleagues at my first job.
I remember there were five or six of us, all fresh out of law school and eager to learn the ropes. Everyone was successful at finding a mentor at the firm. Except me. There was not a single Hispanic woman in higher management. There was no one with whom I felt a cultural connection; no one who struck me as “my people.”
I ended up leaving that firm, in part because I didn’t have an anchor there, and eventually landed at the firm where I met my husband. This firm was unique in that the leadership team included a Hispanic man and an African-American man (no minority women, but hey, I’ll take what I can get). They mentored me. They helped me learn how to manage the corporate politics, and, more important, how to master the power of the billable hour without burning myself out.
As I grew as a professional, I was reminded of that time my former partner called me into his office every time I looked through a roundup of the country’s best lawyers and saw mostly white men smiling back at me. Or when my husband, Carlos, said he felt some employers asked him to meet with clients because they thought having a Hispanic man on the team would help them win the case.
We need diversity — and I’m talking about real diversity — in the legal profession. We need it to break the status quo. We need it to give our clients the best possible outcomes. Only by bringing in people from all backgrounds, all experiences, can we fully start to tap the full spectrum of possible solutions to any given problem.
It’s something I see every day in my practice. In employment law, we often meet with people who have lost their jobs and are struggling financially. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck and wonder how you’re going to pay for your kid’s next meal. I understand the emotional fallout, the shame and the way a job loss can threaten to tear a family apart.
Whether we’re representing these people or helping them reach an agreement with our clients, I believe my experience — and the diversity of experiences everyone at my firm brings to the table — helps our clients receive better, more holistic results. We’re not just focused on money; we’re focused on the emotional well-being of all involved.
Diversity is not just important in the legal field. We need it in politics, medicine, the media. Every profession can benefit from more perspectives, more people from different backgrounds chiming in on how to develop and implement solutions to the challenges we face as a nation and as a world.
I don’t know how to get there. But I do know that by mentoring more people who look like me (and more people who don’t), I can help make my corner of the legal field more inclusive, more diverse. I know that by encouraging more people from more backgrounds to start businesses, run for office and pursue goals they previously thought were impossible, we can all make a difference in our communities.
Though we may not see it in today’s roundups of the country’s top lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs, I believe the workforce is changing. And that more — and better — solutions to our problems are on the way.