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Hispanics/Latinos in Legal Careers

Hispanics/Latinos in Legal Careers

Not every lawyer's career is the same. Many freshly minted attorneys use their degrees as a gateway to different kinds of legal careers.

Three typical paths, as illustrated here by a trio of Hispanic/Latino lawyers, are partnership in an established law firm, nonprofit work or setting up an entrepreneurial practice. Each has found a niche by focusing on issues of concern to Hispanics/Latinos. 

  • Oliver Armas, a Cuban American born in New Jersey and a graduate of New York University Law School, is a partner in a large New York firm, Thacher Proffitt & Wood, where he concentrates mainly on litigation and arbitration. A lead attorney in his firm's Latin American Practice Group, he deals with Hispanic/Latino clients. 
      
  • Nina Perales, a US-born Puerto Rican and Columbia University Law School graduate, serves as regional counsel for the nonprofit Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) in Austin. She oversees attorneys in nine states focusing on immigration law, defense of affirmative action and voting rights.  
     
  • Nelson Castillo, who came to the US with his family from El Salvador when he was 11, represents a third type of legal career. The first professional in his family, he graduated from St. John's University Law School and now has a one-man office on Long Island, where he grew up. His work focuses mainly on real estate and immigration.  

“With a law degree, the sky's the limit,” says Armas. “Whether you're interested in politics, administration, teaching at the college level or almost anything except for a very few, very narrow technical fields, as a lawyer you can do anything.”

Salaries and Challenges Vary

These three career paths offer different challenges and rewards. By far, the top earners are partners in large corporate firms. According to Armas, a new law school graduate with no experience can expect a starting salary at Thacher Proffitt of $125,000, and a senior associate, working under one or more partners, can make $200,000. At his firm, he was the only one of 10 new hires to make it “from associate hell to partner heaven,” as he puts it with a laugh. “Partner heaven” means more independence and, instead of a salary, a share of the firm's total profit. Depending on the firm, a partner's share is likely to be $400,000 or more.

In contrast, nonprofit civil rights work “is probably one of the lowest-paid sectors of the law,” says Perales. A new attorney might start at $40,000, and top salaries for directors range from $100,000 to $250,000. But that doesn't make the field easy to get into, she warns. “Because our sector is so small, we can be very particular about who we take in,” she says. She looks for people with experience as aggressive litigators and a demonstrated commitment to the Hispanic/Latino community. MALDEF rarely hires recent law graduates.

The incomes of attorneys in small offices like Castillo's are usually in the middle, but there are other rewards for being able to choose one's own cases. Castillo, who interned at the General Counsel's office of the New York Mercantile Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange, says his current job is now “much more fulfilling than government or corporate work.”

Professional Organizations and Internships Help

All three lawyers stress the value of internships and externships (similar to internships, but based in law school rather than in a law office) during school. Castillo's internships greatly expanded his knowledge of finance law. Internships and fellowships enabled Perales to gain experience in civil rights law, which was not stressed in her school.

Castillo, New York regional president of the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), says the HNBA's mentoring program for newer graduates and its Law Student Division are also helpful.

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