Licenciada: A Latina’s Perspective on Entering the Legal Community

Two years ago, I had my first experience with what I call the Stupid White Male ("SWM"), a creature not limited to the legal community, but often prevalent in it. At the time, I was working as a legal secretary on a temporary basis, as my admission to law school had been deferred for a year. The SWM was a summer associate who had just finished his 1L year, and after I explained to him how to use the office copier, I mentioned my admission to the law school. His response was something to the effect of, "oh yeah, well you're a minority and female, so of course they'd take you."

I proceeded to reveal my LSAT scores, numerous extracurriculars and job experience as well as my grades, all in an effort to make him eat his words. By then, though, he'd lost interest. He felt satisfied that his explanation was the right one, and nothing I could say could prove him wrong. Meantime, I was fuming, feeling more humiliated and angry than I had ever felt in my life. What right did he have to make me feel this way, when I'd worked so hard for so long to get here?

It may be surprising to think that a "double-minority" like me could be shocked by the blatant sexism, racism and disrespect shown by a member of the majority, but I grew up in Chicago, and my race and gender had never been an issue for me. My education in Magnet and gifted programs had made me believe that everyone would look right past my tan skin and curves and judge me for my abilities and accomplishments. This SWM single-handedly proved to me that schooling doesn't cure stupidity.

I started law school that fall and was not surprised that I was one of only four Latinas in our class of nearly 200. There is no Latino/Hispanic faculty at our law school, but that is the norm almost everywhere outside of the Southwest and California. The NALP profiles I've seen when researching potential employers have revealed that few larger firms with offices in the Midwest have Latina associates, and even less have Latina partners. Hispanic bar associations and mentorship programs are limited, since the members often lack the resources to maintain them. Overall, there are very few role models for Latinas entering the legal profession.

In addition to the usual stigma associated with women entering a professional field, Latinas training to be lawyers face additional obstacles. Many of us are the first in our families to be born in the United States and the first to go to college. This means we don't have older relatives and law school alumni offering the necessary pearls of wisdom the moment we are accepted into law school. We hail from working class families who struggled to put food on the table, and now have to find the money to fund a legal education as well. Law schools, unlike many public undergraduate schools, don't offer scholarships to encourage minority applicants. And, despite my SWM's mistaken beliefs, Latinas still have to try just as hard as everyone else, if not harder, to get good grades and the experience employers want, because there won't be an outpouring of job offers upon graduation based solely on our race/gender combo.

Now here I am, two-thirds of the way through law school, still striving to prove to myself that I can make it on my own merits. Over the years, I've found mentors in the only place I can, among my employers, all members of the majority. After all, the best way to learn the tricks of the trade is from those who have been doing it the longest.

I have clerked for a year at a small law office and seen clerks like the SWM, cocky and unimpressive, come and go, and not be invited back. I have also worked with clerks who have put in the same time and effort as me, but have reaped the many benefits of the "good old boys" lifestyle, of which I can have no part. Instead of being discouraged, I just try harder, work more hours, and try to show the partners that I am not only as good as any of the boys, but better.

This summer, for a change of pace, I worked at the Illinois Human Rights Commission, which serves as the state forum for allegations of civil rights violations. The staff is charming, and I got to ride an elevator up to my cubicle like so many other summer associates all over Chicago. Here, I realize how rare a specimen I am, because I was one of five summer interns, and while 4 of us were female, all but me were white.

Working at the Commission, I learned to truly appreciate the opportunities that have been available to me. Daily, the Commission receives complaints of gender and race discrimination, sexual harassment, discrimination in housing and accommodations and retaliation for opposing such acts. Many women complain that they are paid less than their male counterparts or are harassed until they resign.

Examples of the truly horrible things women go through make my experience with the SWM pale by comparison. More importantly, they remind me that the reason I chose to become a lawyer is not to prove to the world that I am just as capable as any man, but to be the best lawyer I can be, regardless of my race or sex. If I can achieve that, then maybe someday a little girl will point to me and say "I want to be a 'licenciada' just like her."



I completely empathize with your experience.  Even in Sothern California, these experiences of racism and discrimination are prevalent.  I think people are quick to say that these types of experiences are a thing of the past, but the truth is they are still here, but more nuanced and more accepted towards minority women.  These sly comments like you described above, seem to be made out of hate and ignorance.  I find it important to pick your battles.  If this guy was a hiring partner, I would be concerned, but he means nothing to the bigger scheme of things and odds are that this is only one of the stupid things he has said to people. So then the question arises, when do you know it is a battle you should fight? For example,  I think it becomes difficult when this type of man is a partner or associate who only gives assignments to the other white male associates.  So then this sort of discrimination is nuanced and difficult to prove. Often the people at the bottom of the assignment line are the minority women.  That <u>is</u> when you fight the battle… when it affects the work you do and the opportunities you have earned. Thanks for raising this issue as these feelings apply to many women.  Women who are minorities within the female population in a law firm often feel isolated and alone, but dialogue like this can help build a larger community of support among all women fighting to gain acceptance and respect in the legal community.

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