Jill Lynch Cruz
On October 6, 2009, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina and the third woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation and appointment are an inspiring answer to many women of color, especially Latinas, who wonder how far their legal careers can take them.
Although Justice Sotomayor’s story is indeed a motivating exemplar, the grim reality is that Latinas remain scarce members of the bar and bench. One of the largest and fastest-growing groups in the U.S., Latinas comprise more than 7% of the population1 , but a scant 1.3% of this country’s lawyers.2 In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Latinas were a mere 13,000 of the more than 1 million attorneys employed in the U.S. in 2008.3 This reality is striking when compared to the attorney populations of other racial and ethnic groups relative to their overall representation in the U.S. population.
Today, Latinas are woefully underrepresented in each of the primary legal sectors (law firms, corporate law departments, the judiciary, and academia). This paucity is more acute when the focus turns to the leadership ranks of these professional categories. For example, the National Association of Legal Placement found that Latinas make up only 1.9% of the associates and 0.4% of the partners in law firms, the lowest rate of any racial or ethnic group.4 Similarly, Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s 2009 survey of women general counsel found that Latinas make up only 0.4% of the general counsel of Fortune 1000 companies. 5And although 3.5% of all law school professors in the country are Latinas,6 currently only two Latinas serve as deans of a law school.7
See Few and Far Between: The Reality of Latina Lawyers, (2009). Statistical calculations on relative attorney representation based on 2006-2009 population and occupational data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Whites (regardless of gender) are 66% of the total U.S. population, with white male attorneys representing 62% and white female attorneys representing 30% of all U.S. attorneys. Latinas/os are 15% of the U.S. population, with Latinos representing 2.6% and Latinas representing 1.3% of all U.S. attorneys. Blacks represent 13.5% of the U.S. population, with black males representing 2% and black females representing 2.7% of all U.S. attorneys. Asians make up only 5% of the U.S. population, with Asian males representing 1.3% and Asian females 1.7% of the U.S. attorney population
In an attempt to better understand and begin to address the dearth of Latina attorneys, the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), under the leadership of then-president Ramona Romero, established the Commission on the Status of Latinas in the Legal Profession, co-chaired by Dolores Atencio and Clarissa Cerda. A fundamental part of the Commission’s charge was to conduct a national study to identify the issues and barriers contributing to their continued underrepresentation. This study, which was conducted earlier this year over a nine-month period, culminated in the release of a recent report detailing the study’s findings.
Entitled Few and Far Between: The Reality of Latina Attorneys, the report shines light on the underrepresentation of Latinas in the legal profession by providing both quantitative and qualitative data from more than 600 Latina attorneys throughout the U.S. and across all major legal sectors. This landmark report suggests that Latinas’ formative and career-related experiences may have impeded their entry, retention, and advancement within the legal profession, thus contributing to their underrepresentation.
Major Research Findings
The HNBA report found that the underrepresentation of Latinas in the legal profession is due in large part to unique issues and barriers related to their status as racially and ethnically diverse women. The results provide insight into some of the critical success factors that have influenced some Latina attorneys as they pursue and achieve their educational- and career-related goals, as well as the obstacles many encounter in their professional lives.
Barriers To Educational And Career Attainment
It is well documented that Latinas face significant barriers that can impede their educational and career attainment. The HNBA study confirmed that many Latinas may not consider careers in the law or enter the legal profession because of factors related to their formative experiences and barriers along their educational path. Some of these barriers include the following.
- Lack of Attorney Role Models: Because Latinas lack early exposure to the legal profession and visible attorney role models, they often do not consider or prepare for careers in the legal profession during their formative years.
- Gender and Cultural Inhibitors: Many Latinas are socialized to show deference, reverence, and passivity, and to adhere to traditional family- and career-related roles for women in their culture. This value is often incongruent with the values and roles of non-traditional careers, such as those in the legal profession.
- Institutionalized Discouragement: Gender and ethnic stereotyping, frequently exhibited by educators, stymies the pursuit of competitive educational goals, which works to undermine self-confidence and ambition.
- Bridging a Cultural Divide: In the college setting, the few Latinas on campus often feel alienated and disadvantaged, both socially and academically, from their non-Latina peers.
Despite these barriers, those who have succeeded in the legal profession believe that key ingredients to that success are a strong education and strong female role models in their early lives and throughout their educational path. Encouragement and support from these role models is often critical to helping Latinas achieve their educational and career goals.
Barriers To Career Retention And Advancement
The HNBA study found that Latina attorneys are poorly represented in leadership positions across all major legal sectors, appear to have a relatively high rate of attrition, and may be compensated at a lower rate than their non-Latina counterparts. Additionally, the study found that Latinas do not believe that others have a positive perception of them as attorneys, and they are not afforded the same opportunities to advance in their careers. Some of the study’s key findings regarding barriers to Latina career retention and advancement include the following.
- Intersection of Gender, Ethnicity, and Race: Latina attorneys appear to encounter a multi-layered “glass ceiling” that acts as a “triple threat” to their careers. Latinas confront gender and cultural expectations and assumptions about their roles as attorneys, are subjected to overt sexism, often lack influential mentors, and struggle with the conflicting demands of career and motherhood. Latina experiences in the legal profession also vary according to others’ perceptions of their racial identity. Latinas who believe they can “pass as white” acknowledge that they are treated better and afforded more advancement opportunities in the legal profession than darker-skinned Latinas.
- Devaluation of Qualifications: The Latinas also believe their legitimacy, qualifications, and abilities as attorneys are often questioned or devalued by their employers, coworkers, clients, and the general population. Often mistaken for someone other than the attorney (e.g., an interpreter or court reporter), their accomplishments are attributed to undeserved “affirmative action” benefits, rather than achievements based on merit and ability.
- Isolation and Alienation: Latinas also report being viewed as outsiders or foreigners in their workplaces. Some even confront strong anti-immigrant sentiments, in which their very presence in this country is questioned. These ethnic barriers foster feelings of isolation that further alienate Latinas from their colleagues and workplaces. Their sense of “otherness” compels many to mask or disavow their Latina identities in order to better assimilate within the dominant culture of their workplaces.
- Tokenism: The lack of Latinas in the legal profession also places an enormous burden on Latina lawyers to take on additional responsibility to educate others about their ethnicity, participate in diversity-related programs and activities, and even to serve as representatives or tokens for the Latina/o community.
Latinas participating in this study offered several strategies for increasing the representation and success of Latinas in the legal profession.
- Educate Latina Youth and Provide Visible Role Models: A critical first step in developing the legal pipeline is to expose and educate Latina youth about the various career opportunities that are available in the legal profession. Visible role models provide Latina youth with tangible examples that they, too, can succeed in the law.
- Create Informal Mentoring Opportunities: An enormous need exists for mentoring programs during all phases of Latinas’ educational and career development. Latina mentors, especially informal ones, can help provide the necessary guidance and support to help younger aspirants more effectively navigate their educational and professional development.
- Cultivate Latina Networking and Support Systems: To combat the feelings of isolation and ease the challenges Latinas often experience on their college campuses and in their workplaces, the legal profession must foster opportunities for Latinas to network with and develop relationships with other women of color, especially other Latinas.
- Enhance Gender-Neutral and Family-Supportive Workplaces: The dual role of a legal career and motherhood is perhaps one of the biggest challenges to Latina retention and success in the legal profession. Additionally, familialism (the centrality of the immediate and extended family) is an important value in the Hispanic culture, and defined gender and cultural roles reinforce the expectation that women personally assume the primary-caregiver role for their families. The current perception is that law offices remain relatively inhospitable to those with significant family-care responsibilities. To combat this barrier, employers need to develop and implement institutional cultures, structures, and policies that are gender-neutral and family-supportive.
- Encourage Continued Research: The legal profession has not kept pace regarding research on the issues and barriers unique to Latina attorneys. Further research is crucial to providing a deeper understanding of the complexity of these issues, so that legal and corporate leaders will better address this problem.
- Educate the Legal Profession: As the Latina population continues to grow, so does the need for legal institutions to serve and work within Latina communities. In order to capture this burgeoning market for legal services, legal and business leaders need to advocate the business case that supports a more-diverse attorney workforce, including greater Latina representation. To do so, the legal profession and business industry must identify and communicate best practices for attracting, retaining, and advancing Latinas in the profession.
- Monitor Latina Progress: To increase the representation of Latinas in the law and to grow the number of Latinas in leadership positions, progress must be monitored over the long run. Measuring progress with respect to Latina recruitment, retention, and advancement, as compared to other groups, will promote accountability and awareness. The resulting analysis should provide a roadmap for developing and adjusting diversity goals and initiatives.
The HNBA study provides organizations and decision-makers within and outside the legal profession with information to better understand and appreciate the unique issues and barriers that limit the educational and career achievements of Latina attorneys. This information can be a catalyst for the development and implementation of strategies to obliterate those barriers, so that each Latina reaches her fullest potential
For information on obtaining a copy of this report, Few and Far Between:The Reality of Latina Lawyers, please visit the Hispanic National Bar Association website at hnba.com or contact the HNBA national office at 202-223-4777. DB
Jill Lynch Cruz co-authored the HNBA study that forms the basis for this article with Research Professor Melinda S. Molina of St. Johns University School of Law. Cruz is a doctoral candidate and strategic human resource & diversity consultant who is inspired every day by her two young children, Ben and Ana.
1See Jill L. Cruz And Melinda S. Molina, Few And Far Between: The Reality Of Latina Lawyers (2009). U.S. Latina population statistics calculated using 2006 population data from the U.S. Census.
2Id. Latina attorney population statistics calculated using unpublished 2008 occupational data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (on file with author and MCCA).
4 See Nat’l Ass’n for Law Placement (NALP), Women and Minorities in Law Firms by Race and Ethnicity, NALP BULL., Jan. 2009, available at nalp.org/jan2009womenminorities.
5See 2009 Survey of Fortune 500 Women General Counsel, DIVERSITY & THE BAR, July/August 2009, at 14.
6See Ass’n Of Am. Law School, Statistical Report On Law Faculty (2007–2008), available at www.aals.org/statistics/report-07-08.pdf.
7See Few And Far Between, supra note 1. The two Latina deans referenced here are Leticia Diaz at Barry University School of Law and Jennifer Rosato at Northern Illinois University.
From the November/December 2009 issue of Diversity & The Bar®