Hispanics make up about 16% of the U.S. population, but are proportionally underrepresented in policymaking bodies and professions such as the law, according to the Hispanic National Bar Association.
What’s more, the U.S. Census Bureau projects the Hispanic population to grow to 29% by 2050. With the face of America changing, some wonder how the lack of Hispanics working in the legal system will affect how legal issues important to Hispanics will be represented in court.
The lack of Hispanic representation in the legal system did not go unnoticed by Stephen Zack, former president of the American Bar Association and the first Hispanic-American to serve in that position. While president, Zack asked the American Bar Association to form the Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights & Responsibilities.
Among its 30 members, the Commission counts a wide array of national and local leaders from the judiciary, government, civil rights, education, and private sectors. The Commission investigates legal issues affecting the Hispanic community, including voting rights, civil rights, and immigration.
“It is extremely important to have diversity in the legal profession and even more important depending upon where you live,” says Doris Rachles, online director of Legal Studies for South University. “You have to understand the culture that your clients come from in order to adequately represent them.”
Hispanic National Bar Association
The Hispanic National Bar Association’s mission includes promoting networking and education of Hispanic students and legal professionals and supporting the appointment of more Hispanic judges to federal and state court benches, says Emily Bengtson, communications manager for the Hispanic National Bar Association.
You have to understand the culture that your clients come from in order to adequately represent them.
“In general, the Hispanic National Bar Association works to increase the participation in the legal profession by Latino people,” she says. “Our organization is a huge, national network of Hispanic lawyers, judges, and students, many of whom engage in community service and work that promotes this goal.”
The organization has implemented a wide range of programs to educate the Hispanic community about the American legal system, mentor students from high school through law school, and voice support for Hispanic candidates to various positions in the federal and state courts.
“If it’s appropriate for professionals, it is especially important for the students we are training to go out and work in an environment of diversity,” Rachles says.
Through advocacy and litigation, civil rights organization LatinoJustice PRLDEF focuses on cultivating Latino leaders and increasing civic participation. One of the organization’s major efforts is educational outreach – encouraging Latino and minority students to enter the legal field.
“Most of the students I advise are the first generation to either go to college or professional school; some are even the first generation here in the United States,” says Sonji Patrick, education director for LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “Many are not related to lawyers or know of any in their communities. If you do not know anyone who has gone down the road you are taking it can be difficult.”
In addition, Patrick says future legal professionals must overcome a series of educational challenges in the pursuit of their careers. These hurdles include admission to college programs, retention, graduation, and if pursuing a career as a lawyer, law school and bar exam passage.
“Students need to be better educated about what it means to go to law school or professional school in general,” Patrick says. “LatinoJustice focuses on getting students into law school.”
LatinoJustice PRLDEF offers pre- and post-admission programs, including pre-law counseling services, Law School Admission Test (LSAT) preparation courses, and mentoring relationships.
Legal Services and the Community
A legal education not only benefits those in legal professions, but can also be a socioeconomic tool for helping underrepresented groups voice their interests and strengthen their political power.
“In addition to immigrant rights, we deal with civil rights and redistricting,” says John Garcia, redistricting manager for LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “The government is rewriting their political lines and there has been a huge growth in the country’s Latino population. The Latino community wants to ensure they get equitable representation and voter rights.”
Rachles says legal services organizations also support their larger communities in many ways, including by offering legal services to those unable to pay. According to Rule 6.1 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, “a lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”
“This often means helping new immigrants,” Rachles says. “I used to work for a law firm that represented many migrant workers from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean Islands. We often represented people who could not pay for legal services, but we did not turn them away. They brought baskets of fruit for payment.”
Rachles says those new immigrants she worked with had a great respect for the legal system based on the belief that the United States is a land of justice.
“The work was very fulfilling and even if the salary was not huge, the fresh fruit and vegetables and the feeling that someone who needed help was able to get it went a long way toward job satisfaction,” she adds. “This is what practicing law is all about in my book and I try to get that message across to my students.”
Author: Darice Britt