By Patricia Jjemba • January 05, 2017•Writers in Residence, Careers, Nonprofits and the Public Interest, Other Career Issues, Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
NAME: ELIZABETH RIOS
PROFESSIONAL TITLE: MANAGING ATTORNEY FOR LEGAL SERVICES OF SOUTH CENTRAL MICHIGAN
Law School: University of Michigan Law School
Years Practicing Law: 10 years
Sector: Public Service-Nonprofit
Specialization: Housing Law
Extra Tid Bit: “God Bless and Go Blue!”
“I do it because I love it and I feel privileged everyday to be able to do this work.”
What ultimately sparked your interest in becoming a lawyer? I first decided to become a lawyer as an undergraduate at The University of Michigan. The affirmative action lawsuits were being litigated and it was so clear the power and impact that legal advocacy could have on access to elite institutions of higher learning, like U of M, which to me represented opportunity. I had become involved in several social justice student organizations and felt I had found my calling to continue to pursue social justice through legal advocacy.
Is what sparked your interest in becoming a lawyer what has kept you in the practice of law? Yes, my initial passion for social justice through legal advocacy has continued to this day. I have never regretted not working for a big firm, though I doubt I will ever make six figures doing what I do. I do it because I love it and I feel privileged every day to be able to do this work.
“I felt like I was fighting against being grouped as a statistical failure.”
Can you describe a moment or series of moments on your journey to becoming a lawyer where you faced personal, professional, or academic “failure?" First, during the end of my first year of law school I became pregnant, which made the remainder of an already very difficult law school journey, even harder. And second, I failed the bar exam the first time I took it.
Why do you think you perceived these moments as failures? I felt like I was fighting against being grouped as a statistical failure. I was a young unmarried Latina and now I was pregnant. That is a statistical group I was not happy to be included in. I think society expected that I would drop out of school. And it wasn’t just any school. UM Law School was HARD. Really hard. And I went and added to the difficulty level by being a single mom. In my life I have tried to make the right decisions to try to give myself the best chance possible to succeed. In this I had failed. And as far as the bar exam, it was the literal definition of failure. I FAILED the bar exam.
What impact did this have on you personally, professionally, mentally, spiritually or otherwise both when it occurred and in the long run? It had tremendous impact on me. In the short term I questioned myself and my judgment and my intelligence and my ability to become a lawyer at all. In the long run it has made me stronger and more confident. I believe people who overcome hardship and rise are not easily broken thereafter.
How did you move past this period in your life and did you learn anything about yourself? I got past it because I just kept going. I remembered that my father grew up working in the fields and my mother was the 9th of 12 children and the first to graduate from college. I have found that we are equipped to handle almost anything that comes at us. I learned that I was stronger than I thought. I also learned that no one succeeds on their own. I owe my success to the people who have loved me all my life, especially my parents. And I learned that children are inspirational. I learned that it was important that the work I do which causes me to be away from my daughter has to be work worth doing; it has to be meaningful. I learned that having a child under difficult circumstances creates a closeness and bond that I have never again experienced.
Now that you have evolved, what advice what would you give the younger you who was going through those experiences? I would tell myself that I am on the right path. That having my daughter at that time was such a blessing, which it was. If I had waited and planned it who knows when I would have found the time?! Lol. As it is I have had the great fortune to have my daughter with me at every turn and witness my journey, which has become OUR journey. She came with me as a 6 year old to do voter protection in Indiana and then drove with me to Grant Park to witness the election of our first Black president. She comes with me to court. She came with me to work. She is a badass in the making. Now she’s 14 and wants to go fewer places with me, but that’s the brakes I guess.
“If this is what you truly want, keep going, keep fighting and you will rise.”
Do you think women experience failure differently than men, particularly in the legal profession? I think failure is difficult for both men and women. However, I think failure is more acceptable for women in some senses and therefore a much greater pitfall. If we look for an excuse, society might give us one. I also think failure is more devastating for women in that it is harder to come back from. Being a successful lawyer is harder in my opinion for women, especially women of color. We have fewer chances and when we fail it is harder to rise.
What piece of advice would you give another woman embarking on her own legal career that has just recently faced or may soon face failure of her own? I would say you are stronger than you know. If this is what you truly want, keep going, keep fighting and you will rise. I would also encourage young women lawyers to reach out to more experienced women lawyers to help along their legal journey. It is and should be a sisterhood.