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Why I Avoid the Topic of Hispanic Lawyers

Vivia Chen

March 9, 2019

Question-People-Article-201902260103Not that long ago, a reader asked why I’m not writing about Hispanic lawyers. As this reader noted, I’ve written extensively about black lawyers (from black law firm leaders to black female lawyers to my current focus on new black partners), as well as Asian lawyers (Asian-American GC in the Fortune 500,  Asian female lawyers and bias issues).

But where’s my coverage on the challenges faced by Latino or Latina lawyers?

Am I dodging the whole issue?

Well, yes. To be perfectly honest.

Here’s the reason. I feel ill-equipped to deal with the issue, because I’m not sure how to define the group. I’m also skeptical of firms that get high diversity grades based on their Hispanic lawyer population, when some in the group are thoroughly European in origin. Indeed, I know plenty of people with Spanish surnames in Big Law and other professions who’d blend in easily in the WASPiest of country clubs.

The issue of who’s Hispanic is complicated, says Sandra Yamate, CEO of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. “Because it is an ethnic group, not a racial one.” And what makes it controversial is that “some people will identify as part of that group, but others will choose to avoid it.”

I asked a Latina partner at a major firm to help clarify how the group is defined, and she explained: “Generally attorneys from South America, Mexico and certain countries in the Caribbean like Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are considered Latino/a.”

That said, she added, “There’s no set criteria.”

Says one recruiter in New York, “The issue is fraught with racism and confusion. The whole thing has to do with color.”

To complicate the matter further, there’s debate over whether Hispanic or Latino(a) is the appropriate term. According to Slate, ”Hispanic” carries Eurocentric overtones because it is “an English word that originally referred to people from Spain and eventually expanded to include the populations of its colonies in South and Central America.”

In contrast, “Latino” or “Latina” is a Spanish word “that refers to people with roots in Latin America and generally excludes the Iberian Peninsula.” (Another fun fact: “Generally speaking, Democrats use ‘Latino’ more often than Republicans, who favor ‘Hispanic.’”)

But the current trend is to replace everything with “Latinx,” says a law firm diversity director, “because it’s gender-neutral.”

All this is to say there are a lot of sensitivity about the topic, which is why I find it tricky to cover. Right now, those with Spanish surnames or those who self-identify as part of the group are lumped together, making meaningful discourse about the challenges faced by certain segments within the group difficult. To me, we need to discern the differences within the group because race is already covered too superficially.

Yet, I agree that there should be more coverage of the Hispanic/Latino/Latina/Latinx legal community, but the question is how.

The better approach, says Yamate, is to look at who identifies vs. who qualifies. “Rather than worry about genetics, it’s better to focus on how people identify and if they’re tied to that community.”

Under that definition, Elizabeth Warren should qualify as a Native American, so long as she demonstrates that she’s been part of the community.

Yamate adds,  “But ‘community’ is also a loaded term.”

Oy.

vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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