Hispanic Bar Group Sees Need For More Progress

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Erick Diaz
Erick Diaz

There are dozens of reasons why someone chooses to become a lawyer. For Milagros Cruz, it was being "born here," in the mainland United States, that influenced her decision to go to law school.

Her parents were from Puerto Rico and their story was an inspiration. "My mom made the trip here and she instilled in me the desire to push myself in everything I do," Cruz said.

Even though Cruz, who was born in Manhattan, has been working as an attorney in Connecticut for about 25 years, she considers herself part of a relatively "new wave" of Hispanic lawyers.

According to the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association, which Cruz helped organize in 1993, of the estimated 20,000 attorneys practicing in the state, some 300 are Latino. Although that's double the number of two decades ago, it's a modest increase of about 50 attorneys since 2004.

In fact, Hispanic attorneys make up only about 1.5 percent of the state bar, significantly lower than the 3.7 percent of lawyers nationwide who identify themselves as Hispanic.

Erick Diaz, an attorney with the Hayber Law Firm in Hartford and president of the CHBA, isn't exactly sure what to make of the Connecticut statistics.

"There are always people who choose not to self-identify" as Hispanic, he said. "And I'm not aware of any organization that tracks that kind of data." Nonetheless, Diaz continued, "it is safe to say that Hispanic attorneys are clearly underrepresented in the legal field, especially when compared to the fact that 14 percent of Connecticut's general population is Hispanic."

The Hispanic bar group, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next month, has made it a priority improve those numbers and to raise awareness about the need for more diversity among Connecticut's state judges.

The bar group also has been vocal on issues of importance to the Latino community as a whole. Earlier this year, the group wrote a letter to Gov. Dannel Malloy in support of an initiative to allow undocumented immigrants to get drivers' licenses. The group also wrote a letter to the Connecticut U.S. attorney in support of sanctions against East Haven police officers accused of violating Latinos' civil rights.

In addition, the bar group organizes pro bono efforts to benefit the Hispanic community, including holding seminars for undocumented workers on gaining citizenship and housing. These efforts have the dual purpose of bringing together CHBA members from different practice areas and allowing them to network.

Finally, the group has strengthened its ties to diversity committees at some of the state's larger firms, including Day Pitney, in hopes of expanding hiring opportunities for its members. Diaz said the last goal is an important one.

"The number of Hispanic partners in Connecticut's large firms can probably be counted with the fingers on both hands," he said.

Speaking as a lawyer who pays attention to diversity issues and not on behalf of the CHBA, Diaz said Connecticut law firms as well as companies that hire lawyers "need to make a renewed commitment to increasing the diversity of their attorneys."

While he has heard of some corporations taking diversity statistics of law firms into account when hiring outside counsel, Diaz said it's not enough.

"I think there is a need to explore ways to hold employers of legal professionals accountable in improving diversity," he said.

Staying in State

Cruz, a solo practitioner with an immigration practice in Hartford, said progress may be slow but improvements have been seen. For example, she said, an increasing number of Hispanic attorneys who graduate from the state's three law schools—as well as those who attend Western New England School of Law in nearby Springfield, Mass.—are choosing to stay in Connecticut. And much of that trend, she said, can be linked to the efforts of the CHBA.

When she first became involved in the bar group, Cruz said most of the original 65 members worked for nonprofits or government agencies. "One of the goals was to increase hiring at the larger firms, and that's happened," she said.

Cruz said she is not sure why so many Hispanic lawyers continue to work in the typically lower paying government sector. Nationally, about 8 percent of Hispanic lawyers work for the federal government, compared to 4 percent of non-Hispanics. But Cruz said time will bring change, drawing more Hispanic lawyers into big firms and solo practices.

"Look, it's only been 20 years," she said. "It took 10 years to get the numbers up in the larger firms, and now we're seeing that progress. It just takes time and patience."

Cruz grew up the Bronx, where her father owned a florist business. Other relatives were entrepreneurs, which Cruz said taught her to take risks. After she moved out of New York City, first to attend Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and then to the University of Connecticut School of Law, she often found herself the only Hispanic in the room.

That did not change when she got her first job at Connecticut Legal Services in Waterbury. "I was the only Hispanic lawyer there," she said.

In 1993, Cruz put her energies to work to improve the professional lives of the state's Hispanic lawyers by helping to create the CHBA. The bar group now has 146 members.

"When we started, we wanted to increase the number of [Latino] law students who stayed in Connecticut and we did it," Cruz said. "We wanted to help set up court service centers and improve interpretation services in the courts, and we did that too."

In the Pipeline

A new generation of Hispanic lawyers is now filling the ranks of CHBA leadership positions.

Walter Menjivar, a commercial litigation attorney at Day Pitney's Hartford office, is among them. He is the bar group's treasurer.

Menjivar, whose parents immigrated from El Salvador before he was born, grew up in Florida and attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

While studying in Tennessee, Menjivar helped organize a program to raise awareness of the economic contributions made by immigrants. He followed his now-wife to Connecticut a few years later when she went to dental school at the University of Connecticut and he attended the university's law school.

At UConn, Menjivar said he joined the Latino Law Student Association, which led to his "getting in the pipeline for the CHBA."

He said the law school collaborates with the CHBA to help increase the number of Hispanic graduates who stay in Connecticut.

"We have an informal structure, where the second-year law students who are on the board of the Latino Law Student Association are placed on the board of the CHBA," he said.

As a result of the social and professional connections he made at the Hispanic bar, Menjivar said he was open to being recruited by Day Pitney as a summer associate.

"CHBA was the reason I decided to stay in Connecticut," he said. "We have a small [Latino] bar, but everyone was very welcoming. It was great, and the people really care about each other."

Alfredo Fernandez of Shipman & Goodwin, another new CHBA member, was elected earlier this year as director of communications, a board position.

While working as an aerospace engineer for United Technologies, Fernandez attended UConn's night law school program while working full time. With his technical background, Fernandez said he had many options when he graduated. He found the right fit in the internal investigations and international trade practices at Shipman. He said he also found like-minded Hispanic lawyers at both the CHBA and the Connecticut Bar Association, where he is active with the Young Lawyers Section.

"Growing up in middle class white suburbia, I stood out because no one else had a name like Alfredo Fernandez," he said. "I used that as a self-motivator, to make sure I was the top at everything I was involved in."

Fernandez said that now that he's found success, he would like to help others do the same.

"I've gotten all the support I can ask for in regards to the CHBA," he said. "Now the charge we're seeing is to push our members into the partnership level." •

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