By Paula Edgar • March 23, 2010•Writers in Residence
I hope that her Esquisite Path will help you to define yours.
- Name: Jenny Rivera
- Employer: CUNY School of Law
- Title: Professor of Law / Director Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality
- Favorite NY Restaurant: Café Blossom (Organic/Vegan)
- Favorite Legal Themed Movie: 12 Angry Men
- Full Bio
Paula Edgar: What made you decide to become an attorney?
Jenny Rivera: I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since the fifth grade. I saw lawyers on TV and they looked like they were helping people and I wanted to help people. I also had observed a lawyer help someone in the family when I was a child and it struck me that that was someone who could help people. My mother had always told me to do whatever I want, so I thought I could do it.
Paula Edgar: What do you do in your down time?
Jenny Rivera: I bike, I try and jog, I like being outdoors. I love to travel and I actually do like to watch TV. As a child I really grew up, watching a lot of TV which is in part where I got a certain defined type of vocabulary and exposure – to a culture that was not my culture, not my upbringing. I grew up very poor and in a predominantly Latino community and so TV was really a way to see these other worlds and to learn how people engaged and talked.
Paula Edgar: What TV shows do you like watching?
Jenny Rivera: I like stuff that involves lawyers because I can really compare that to the practice and say, boy, that's really not accurate at all or oh, that's catching a little bit of what goes on in legal practice.
Paula Edgar: You mentioned that you like to travel. What's the place that you've traveled to that you like the most?
Jenny Rivera: I've traveled often to Puerto Rico… I have family there; I enjoy what Puerto Rico has to offer and I enjoy that trip because when I'm traveling there and traveling back, I'm always thinking about the choice that my mother made to come to the United States and to come to New York. She was afraid of flying and in fact came on a boat the first time but so she made many choices not to go back. She made a choice to come to a place where she didn't know people and at the time English was not her first language. I think about that choice as I'm in that plane and when I get to Puerto Rico and how different Puerto Rico is from what it was when she made those choices in the '40s and so there's something about that that I really enjoy.
Paula Edgar: I think there's something special about being an attorney in New York and as opposed to any place else, so I wanted to know, what is it about being in New York City for you that's special as an attorney practicing here?
Jenny Rivera: I think in a certain way what makes practice in New York exciting and unique and challenging and thrilling are the same things that are true for someone who's not a lawyer, just someone who lives here and, and works here or has raised their family here, which is that New York is a place that has so many different people.
It just has so much history. It's an old city in many ways and it's had so many different groups come in, start out with nothing and make their way in this city and so it makes people resilient. I think that's true of [law] practitioners: very resilient, always something new, always something exciting. Also, we often get issues that perhaps are not as frequently part of the practice in other parts of the country. The other thing about New York is you have very vibrant state and federal practice, which I think makes it very interesting.
Paula Edgar: What's your favorite place to visit in New York City?
Jenny Rivera: Oh, wow. There are so many great places to visit in New York City. Well, I love my home base, the Lower East side, but that has become so gentrified that I now look for little pockets that still express the Lower East side to me and that's getting harder and harder to find. I really enjoy the Museum of Natural History and it goes back again to my childhood. I used to go there on school trips and my mother used to take me there and it just brings back these great memories and it was a way to see a world that I didn't know anything about. It's like you're escaping to 20 million other worlds when you walk in there.
Paula Edgar: That's a great quote. They should use that.
Paula Edgar: Why do you believe women of color are not advancing in the legal profession?
Jenny Rivera: Wow. I think that one of the reasons for that is that we are still perceived as not equally competent as men in the profession. So many things have gotta change. I think first and, and foremost people who – the attorneys who are in hiring positions – the attorneys who are in policy-making positions have to themselves take public positions recognizing and saying, not just recognizing, but saying that women of color are equally competent, bring great value to their own offices, and that they themselves have learned from women of color because I think all of that is true but I don't think people say it.
Paula Edgar: What is something that you still struggle with professionally and personally?
Jenny Rivera: I still struggle with balancing all of these things that I take on and that I have to do. I mean, I really do wish I had many more hours in the day. So I struggle with it professionally because I always feel like there's so much work that's gotta be done and I've gotta do this or that. Saying no is something that I encourage people to do and I need to take my own directive on that one because it's hard to say no sometimes and in my personal life that's also true. I often don’t have enough time for everything that I want to do. It's balancing that – the few hours we have in a day – to make it all happen.
Paula Edgar: What was your lowest point professionally thus far and how did you recover from it?
Jenny Rivera: Okay. So I think this will surprise people. When I first started teaching property – it was a very challenging course. Not only in terms of the material, but it's a challenging course to teach and to learn. The students were really having a rough time and they felt that I was not an effective teacher in the classroom.
So I worked very hard on that, but I say this and I have no qualms about you writing this because I think it's really important for us all as individuals to face those demons or to face when you're not doing so well and what do you do about that. I was a little defensive up front and then I had to face the music and say, you know what, if a good number of students really think this, there's gotta be something in this and maybe some of it is what's going on the student's side, maybe there's an equal blame on both sides here.
I put in a lot of effort to figure this out. I talked to colleagues who were senior. I talked to people who taught the material. I observed a very beloved teacher in this area so I could really see what he was doing. I asked him to come to my class. When he couldn't I taped it and I gave him the tapes. I showed my tape to someone who is very well versed and an expert on presentation skills and I sat through being told things that most people would find very difficult to hear about my style and the way I came to things. At some point I had to say I can either wallow in this or I can really work hard to make this work. I'm very pleased with the way I made a turn-around in that and I think that was only possible because I was willing to reach out to others.
Well, I know I came out a better teacher as a result of that. I will say it made me love that course, because it is challenging for the students and because I think I've got some success in being able to get students through that material, so I love being able to do that for students.
Paula Edgar: Well, having sat through your property class I definitely know that the work that you put into it made a difference – so on behalf of your students, thank you.
Jenny Rivera: I appreciate that. It was one of those things where I really felt like I invested in doing a better job and that paid off, not just for me and my career obviously, but for the students on other end.
Paula Edgar: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a similar career as yours or be in the position that you're in right now?
Jenny Rivera: Find out as much as you can about what this job entails so that you really have a sense of whether or not you're going to love it, have passion for it and it's going to make you happy. I think you will love it, but I think people should know what they're getting into. Find out as much as you can about what the process is to get the job. I learned this very close to when I had to go through the process so I think if people find out sooner and think about it and start positioning themselves, how do they make themselves really most attractive to get hired for a teaching position. I would say that and I would also say that you need to really be flexible. I say that about any job you want. You need to be open and flexible. There are plans that you make – I'm really a believer in making plans, five-year plans, ten-year plans, but there are just times when something happens or something is put in front of you on this journey that you're on and it wasn't expected or maybe that was part of the ten-year plan, not this year's plan. You really have to be open and flexible and look at it and say what does this mean, how can I use this now, what am I to learn from this?
Paula Edgar: What was your most victorious moment as an attorney?
Jenny Rivera: I was at Legal Aid and I was working with the Homeless Family Rights Project. I was part of a team that filed a class action and when we first submitted those papers, it was like Christmas Eve and the judge was not very open to this filing. He didn't like the timing, he thought it was a ploy, but he took a break, he read the papers and the papers really affected him. They made him much more receptive to the argument and so although there were other victories along the way in that litigation -- that moment of knowing that all that hard work that the whole team had done collaboratively had paid off. I was very proud that that document we produced which was also speaking to that judge in the voice of the clients that were being represented, had an impact. I've never forgotten that and I try to share things like that with my students that the document isn't merely going through the steps and just kind of putting things there. You can actually affect a way of thinking about your client and about that case through the way you tell that story. So that really affected me and I was very proud to be part of that team. So in that sense I would say that was a victory that I still carry with me.
Paula Edgar: Who was your most instrumental mentor and why?
Jenny Rivera: I've spoken publicly about our new Justice Sonia Sotomayor and she really is an incredible person. I think being in that one-year experience as her clerk really watching someone who does an incredible job and who expects so much, it really makes you reach for the best that you can be. I really learned from that experience about that and the rewards of that both professionally and personally. My mother was also an incredible role model and mentor – choices that she made that I look back and say I don't know how I could have done that. It's sort of her choice about coming to the states when you don't know anyone and it's cold in so many ways, not just temperature. Learning that you've got to make these choices and you've gotta get through hard times. I’ve been mentored by many people along the road. I've been very blessed.
Paula Edgar: You touched upon the fact that our new Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor was one of your mentors. How did you feel when she was sworn in? Can you capture that for me?
Jenny Rivera: In that moment, I yelled and I cried for a variety of reasons. One is I was so absolutely thrilled for her as a professional individual because she's a great judge. You know, her history as a judge and so many years being on district court, circuit court and she loves being a judge. I thought oh my God, this person has achieved something that, only nine people at a time get to do and she's so great at it and this is so wonderful for her. I just felt so happy for her and then I yelled and I cried because I thought I would not see in my lifetime that there would finally be… I was always optimistic but I just didn't think I would see it in my lifetime that someone who was from the Latino community and who recognized themselves as Latino to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. I just didn't think I would see it. So it was the exhilaration of it and as a teacher I thought oh my goodness how many children now will hopefully see a different future for themselves. I was so very proud for her and for our community and what it might mean in the future.
Paula Edgar: Okay. I just got misty eyed hearing the emotion in your voice.
Paula Edgar: What makes it all worth it for you at the end of the night?
Jenny Rivera: Well, I got another toughie. Knowing that I am part – I really do love my job. Knowing that I'm part of someone else's journey for them to achieve and to attain the goals that they have in their life in the same way that I'm very happy and have really attained so many of the goals that I have in my life plan.
Paula’s Two Cents on Overcoming Challenges
The theme of paths was very prevalent through this interview. Jenny’s own path as a Latina attorney, her mother’s path as a new New Yorker, and my own path from law student to attorney. Recently Jenny and I were featured as panelists in the Bar None: Women of Color in Leadership Symposium. The event featured a host of women attorneys discussing the status of women of color in the legal profession. To be sitting on the same panel of a woman I’d looked up to as a law student (and still do) was very surreal and also fulfilling.
My subject’s experience with surmounting difficulties was great lesson. In a situation where others may have become defensive or acquiesced to mediocrity, Jenny engaged her network and utilized their resources to make herself better as a professor. My two cents: Use a challenging situation to make you better. Instead of folding to obstacles and giving up, rise to the occasion.
Totally unrelated side note: I feel a little less guilty about watching TV because I know that Jenny does, although I’m sure she’s not watching Real Housewives of New York City…
Esquisitely Yours, Paula.