Latina Lawyers: Underrepresented and Overqualified

By Cleo Hernandez
Associate Editor, Volume 23
Editor-in-Chief, Volume 24

In 2009, Justice Sotomayor became the first ever Latina to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

Gender violence, sexual harassment, and feminism have all been dancing around on the center stage of world politics lately, as displayed by the traction that the #MeToo movement has gained on both social and mainstream media platforms. And indeed, immense bravery is required of every woman and man that speaks out as a victim of sexual harassment or domestic violence. However, packaging these complex issues into a hashtag, or a sound bite, or a news article has inevitably erased the nuances that define modern day feminism, and that affects women of color. In addition, the current national controversy about immigration has become overtly racialized and criminalized putting certain racial and ethnic groups in the spotlight. These national moods compound to make today a particularly tough time to be a Latina in America. Especially if one is a Latina in a profession with few peers of a similar racial and gender identity. Latinas comprise less than two percent of attorneys in the United States.[1]

Even without the recent publicity surrounding these new political conversations, a Latina lawyer faces a career path filled with race, class, and gender-based obstacles.[2] A lack of role models and financial resources can be a barrier for Latinas to even begin to consider attending law school.[3] Once in law school and as an attorney, the lack of Latinas in the profession can feel isolating, and can create low self-esteem in Latinas.[4] There is hardship involved when assimilating and fitting into the law school culture, being tokenized, and being afraid to be labeled as either too passive, or as a “fiery” or “hot-headed” Latina.[5] Furthermore, microaggressions and overt racism can make it difficult to navigate courtrooms and law firms.[6] Latina lawyers report oftentimes being misidentified in the courtroom as the bailiff, the interpreter, the secretary, or the defendant.[7] Additionally, when a Latina lawyer is promoted, she will perceive (or hear directly from others) that her coworkers see her as not qualified for the new position, and believe that she only received the promotion because she was a minority or a woman.[8]

Other difficulties with navigating the legal profession as a Latina are not always quite so obvious. The Latina/o identity has multiple dimensions.[9] Not all Latinas speak Spanish. The Latin identity labels individuals from a host of different nations covering a huge geographic area. There is variation within the Latin identity in regard to skin color, hair color, eye color, and every other feature of physical appearance. The American racial conception, in scholarship and in society, largely follows a black/white binary, excluding those groups that do not fit into either group, like Latinas.[10]

All of these obstacles can culminate into an effect where Latinas have to outperform all of the competition around them in order to move ahead.[11] One particularly poignant example of this phenomenon are the 2009 confirmation hearings of now Justice Sonia Sotomayor.[12] Justice Sotomayor’s nomination was thought to be inevitable at first, because of her extensive qualifications.[13] She had served seventeen years on the bench and had more judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee of the past ten years.[14] However, she had to fend off criticisms that she was “anti-white” and that she did not have the temperament required of a Supreme Court Justice during her confirmation hearings in the Senate.[15] Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings were starkly differently, not only from those of the previously appointed female justices, but also from those of the appointed African American justices.[16]

These challenges for Latinas in the legal profession can seem quite daunting. It is also daunting to draw attention to these difficulties. Asking for help can be seen as admitting to weakness. When the Latina community asks for an equal opportunity, all too easily that request can be twisted by others into appearing as a statement admitting that Latinas are not successful lawyer material. This particular barrier, however, might best be overcome if the narrative surrounding Latina lawyering shifts towards a strengths-based story. If Latina lawyers and professionals emphasize their successes and how they have risen above all the obstacles they have faced, Latinas around the nation could feel empowered to pursue similar paths. Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World is one example of how empowering for the audience personal storytelling can be. Shifting towards this strengths-focused style could likely help combat society’s traditional conception of a successful lawyer as only being white and/or male.

There is precedent for re-framing this narrative. Latina studies research has uncovered an understanding about Latin family structures and cultures as providing an irreplaceable support network to Latina lawyers, despite cultural norms restricting Latinas to the home sphere.[17] Additionally, Latina experiences with family members or themselves with immigration and criminal legal systems can enhance their ability to empathize, communicate, and advocate for clients.[18] Furthermore, some Latina lawyers have reported using their identity as a courtroom strategy, or a “secret weapon.”[19] Opposing counsel and/or judges who do not expect high quality Latina lawyering, are caught off guard and are gotten the better of when the Latina lawyer appears in court extra prepared and highly articulate, with phenomenally written briefs.[20] Finally, in 2008, Latina law professors compiled a Dirty Dozen list, which was a list of the top twelve law schools, in areas with high Latina populations, that did not include a single Latina among the law school faculty.[21] These kind of bold strategies that question legal institutions can help draw attention to Latina strengths in addition to pointing out barriers Latinas face like institutional racism and sexism.

The obstacles and barriers to success for Latina lawyers are real, and it is important to draw attention to them to advocate for change. But developing a positive image of a powerful professional Latina as successful is more important now than ever. The #MeToo movement is not perfect, but perhaps it provides an opening in the national discourse for female lawyers and Latina lawyers to stand up, speak out, and redefine legal epitomes of success. Perhaps it is time to re-frame the experiences of Latina lawyers, so it is no longer quite so focused on “I am a victim of racism and sexism” but instead “I am a survivor of the organized institutional forces of oppression that have tried to hold me back, and those forces have failed.”

[1] Jil L. Cruz and Melinda S. Molina. Hispanic National Bar Association National Study on the Status of Latinas in the Legal Profession Few and Far Between: The Reality of Latina Lawyers. 37 Pepp. L Rev 971, 974-76; 986-87 (2010) (describing the most recent available statistics about Latina representation in the legal field from the 2010 census, and also describing the structural forces that will ensure that any increase in the number of Latina lawyers over time will be marginal).

[2] Id. at 1004-23.

[3] Id. at 1004-1006.

[4] Id. at 1009; 1026.

[5] Id. at 1013; 1018.

[6] Id. at 1014-1015.

[7] Id. at 1011.

[8] Id.

[9] Alfredo Mirande, Light But Not White: A Race/Plus Model of Latina/o Subordination. 12 Seattle J. Soc. Just. 947, 947 (2014).

[10] Id. at 948.

[11] This phenomenon has been labeled as the Jackie Robinson effect for African American males, and the Jill Robinson effect for white females. See generally Sarah F. Anzia and Christopher R. Berry, The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Ourperform Congressmen?, 55 Am. J. Pol. Sci. 478 (2011).

[12] See Kevin R. Johnson, An Essay on the Nomination and Confirmation of the First Latina Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court: The Assimilation Demand at Work, 30 Chicana/o-Latina/o L. Rev. 97, 100-01 (2011).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 102.

[16] Id. 105-07.

[17] See Cruz, supra note 1, at 1020.

[18] Id. at 1024.

[19] Id. at 1011.

[20] Id.

[21] Ediberto Roman and Christopher B. Carbot, Freeriders and Diversity in the Legal Academy: A New Dirty Dozen List, 83 Ind. L.J. 1235, 1238-39 (2008).