Commission Report

National Study and Report
September 2009

Commission Rep Cover

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The historic appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the third woman and first Latina to serve on the nation’s highest court—and her story of overcoming tremendous obstacles—have resonated with many Latinas. But Latinas—who make up 7% of the total U.S. population and are part of the largest and fastest-growing ethnic and racial group in the United States—represent only 1.3% of the nation’s lawyers, the lowest representation of any racial or ethnic group as compared to their overall presence in the nation. Despite the focus on the underrepresentation of women and people of color in the legal profession, few studies have examined the experiences and issues unique to Latina attorneys, and none on a broad scale.

In response, the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), a national bar association committed to addressing the issues affecting Latinas/os in the legal profession, commissioned this National Study of the Status of Latinas in the Legal Profession, to understand the barriers and issues Latinas face as a result of their status as ethnically and racially diverse females, and how this intersection affects their experiences and career advancement. The overarching goal of this Study is to inform legal and business institutions about the unique issues and barriers Latina lawyers face in their legal careers, and how these may negatively affect their presence and advancement in the profession. Armed with this information, these institutions can develop strategies and take the necessary steps not only to remove the barriers that threaten their entry; but also to promote their presence and advancement in the legal profession.

This landmark Study is the first of its kind to provide both qualitative and quantitative data on the experiences and status of Latinas in the legal profession, on a national level and across all major legal sectors (including law firms, corporate counsel, government, the judiciary, and legal academia). The Study provides both a demographic and professional profile of more than 600 Latina attorneys and explores their experiences and how they have navigated their legal careers. This research is intended to help academic, legal, and business institutions better understand the issues and barriers that limit Latinas’ advancement within the legal profession and to develop strategies aimed at changing the status quo.

THE STUDY MAJOR FINDINGS

The major findings from this Study include

  1. a profile of the Latinas who participated in the Study
  2. the formative experiences that influenced Latina attorneys’ entry into the legal profession
  3. their professional experiences and its impact on their careers

Profile of the Latina Study Participants

The majority of the Latina attorneys in this Study are between the ages of 31-40 years. While the focus group participants had slightly over 10 years experience practicing law, the majority of survey participants had considerably fewer years in the profession. A majority are married, fewer than half have children living at home, and almost none have parents living in the home. A majority identify themselves as of Mexican descent and racially White; the ethnic and racial composition of the Latina attorneys closely mirrors that of the overall Latina population in the United States. Most are second- or third-generation Latinas and consider English their primary language, and more than half are bilingual in both English and Spanish.

Almost all of the Latinas work full-time. A majority are associates in law firms working in such areas as Litigation and Employment Law. The other main areas of employment are government, the judiciary, corporate counsel, and legal academia. The majority of corporate counsel and government sector attorneys work in non-supervisory positions. Latinas in legal academia primarily work as adjuncts and non-tenured law professors. The majority of those in the judiciary work as state court judges.

The findings from this Study suggest that Latinas are inadequately represented in leadership positions throughout the profession, and there is some indication that they may earn less than their non-Latina counterparts.

Formative Experiences Influencing Entry into the Legal Profession

The Importance of Strong Attorney and Latina Role Models
The vast majority of Latinas in the Study were not exposed to attorneys growing up. As a result, they did not consider a career in the legal profession until college or later. However, the relatively few Latinas who had access to attorneys in their families during their formative years emphasized how this early exposure to attorney role models positively influenced their decision to pursue a legal career, by inspiring and serving as an example of what they could achieve. These women also credit other strong Latina role models in their lives, especially their mothers, who encouraged them to pursue their educational and career-oriented goals, and who counteracted the gender and cultural inhibitors the Latinas often faced.

Parental Support for Education
The parents of the Latinas in the Study placed a high value on being well-educated as a means to a better life; this was an important factor in the Latinas’ ability to overcome significant educational barriers, including institutionalized discouragement. The path to law school was indirect and serendipitous for most of the Latinas in this Study. However, the high value their parents placed on education served as a catalyst for them to eventually pursue this route.

The Law School Cultural Divide
The Latinas in the Study were often one of the very few Latinas—or the only Latina—in their law schools. This minority status led to feelings of isolation and alienation, exacerbated by a significant cultural divide that distanced them socially and academically from their non-Latina peers. This contributed to feelings of self-doubt and the belief that they needed to work harder than others to fit in and succeed.

Professional Experiences and Their Impact on the Latinas’ Careers

The Intersection of Gender, Ethnicity, and Race
As ethnically and racially diverse females, the Latinas appear to have encountered a multi-layered glass ceiling that acts as a three-way threat to their careers. Although gender, ethnicity, and race are intertwined, gender bias and stereotyping appear to be the greatest obstacle to their retention and career advancement. At their workplaces, the Latinas have confronted gender and cultural expectations and assumptions about their roles as attorneys. They have been subjected to overt sexism, lacked influential mentors, and struggled with the conflicting demands of career and motherhood.

Devaluation of Qualifications and Abilities
The Latinas believe their legitimacy, qualifications, and abilities as attorneys are often questioned or devalued by their employers, coworkers, clients, and the general population. For example, they are often mistaken for someone other than the attorney (e.g., court reporter, interpreter, or paralegal) both in the workplace and in court. Moreover, from admission into law school and throughout their careers, their place within the legal profession is questioned and devalued. Their accomplishments are attributed to undeserved “affirmative action” benefits, rather than achievements based on merit and ability. These lingering assumptions and perceptions undermine Latinas’ self-confidence in their ability to be successful.

Isolation in the Workplace
The lack of Latina attorneys in the legal profession contributes to their feelings of isolation and alienation, as one of the few or only Latinas in their workplaces. They are often placed in token positions and burdened by additional diversity-related roles and responsibilities. Their sense of “otherness” compels many to mask or disavow their Latina identity to assimilate within the dominant culture of their workplaces.

Race Matters
Latinas’ experiences in the legal profession have varied according to others’ perceptions of their racial identity. The Latinas who believe they can “pass as White” acknowledge that they are treated better and afforded more opportunities in the legal profession than darker-skinned Latinas.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR INCREASING LATINA REPRESENTATION AND SUCCESS IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION

  • Support and sponsor mentoring programs and opportunities for Latinas at all phases of their educational and career development.
  • Increase the visibility of Latina role models to inspire and encourage others.
  • Reach out to Latina youth at an early age.
  • Support and encourage the creation of Latina networks and support systems.
  • Support gender neutral and family supportive workplaces.
  • Support additional research on Latinas in the legal profession.
  • Educate the legal profession about Latina underrepresentation.
  • Monitor Latina progress.

STUDY METHODOLOGY
More than 600 Latina attorneys participated in this Study, which was conducted in two distinct phases over a period of 7 months, from December 2008 through June 2009. The first phase consisted of focus groups of 121 Latina attorneys in 11 cities throughout the United States to explore their formative, educational, and career-related experiences and perceptions. The second phase used a national survey of current Latina members of the HNBA and/or the HNBA Affiliate bar associations (to which 543 Latina attorneys responded), to provide a more detailed demographic profile and professional data on Latina attorneys across all major legal sectors, and to assess the congruency between the major themes identified through the focus groups.

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