Inclusion: A generation of progress
Reasonable people disagree on how much progress the Illinois State Bar Association has achieved in its efforts to see the Illinois’ legal profession reflect the diverse communities we serve. Perhaps one’s perspective is based on their own personal experiences in assessing the state of affairs in 2017. From this writer’s perspective, we have made substantial progress from even a generation ago, yet our efforts remain a work in progress.
I had the good fortune of being born to two parents who were the children of Mexican immigrants. My mother earned her college degree in the late 1940s at a time when it was rare for any Mexican-American to attend college, much less a female. My father, Honoratus Lopez, was one of the first Latinos to earn a law degree in Illinois, having graduated from DePaul University College of Law in 1954. He also attended DePaul University and earned undergraduate credits, but never completed a Bachelor’s degree. He was admitted to DePaul’s law school after he was encouraged to do so by school administrators.
He shared with me his own experiences and experiences of his fellow minorities new to the legal profession. They were subjected to overt racism, which thankfully, is not as commonplace today. For example, my late father worked for a major insurance company as a claims adjustor post law school. After being admitted to the Illinois bar, he applied for a position as a staff attorney. Management told him bluntly that “we don’t hire Mexicans as attorneys in this company.”
Another example of the racist atmosphere that existed at the time occurred with the City of Chicago. My father was a product of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood and grew up as a neighbor of Richard J. Daley. When he advised Mayor Daley of his admission to the bar, the Mayor congratulated him and instructed him to contact his hiring chief. The Mayor’s hiring chief promptly referred him, not to the City’s Corporation Counsel Office as the Mayor had intended, but instead to the Department of Streets and Sanitation for a position as a garbage man. The hiring staff could not imagine that the Mayor would send someone of Mexican ancestry to them for an attorney position. Having too much pride to return and tell the Mayor what happened, my father concluded that the only way to make it in the legal profession was to hang out a shingle and do it himself. After a couple of more years as a claims adjuster, he began his first associate attorney position with the firm of Magoni & Cascio on Chicago’s west side. In 1961, he opened his own law office on 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, where he practiced law until his death in 2002.
I was privileged to have met many of his contemporaries who shared similar stories with me of their arduous journeys to begin their legal practice. I was also mentored by many of them and able to witness the building of their practices and their search to find their place in the legal profession.
When my father received his law degree in 1954, it was still 20 years prior to the organization of the first Latino bar association in Illinois. At that time, few ethnic bar associations existed to assist their own in finding their way into the legal profession but there were a few. The Bohemian Law Society of Chicago was founded in 1911 and the Cook County Bar Association incorporated a few years later in 1914 by and for Black attorneys. The Italian legal community founded the Justinian Society of Lawyers in 1921, the Jewish community the Decalogue Society of Lawyers in 1934, and the Polish legal community the Advocates Society of Lawyers in 1940. Sullivan’s Law Directory lists the Nordic Law Club of Chicago and the Lithuanian American Lawyers Association as early as 1933. My father was a founding member of the Mexican-American Lawyers Association in 1974 which was immediately followed by the formation of the Latin American Bar Association later that year. These two Latino bar associations merged in 1995 to form the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois.
My father had one Latino classmate in law school: the future Illinois Appellate Court Justice David Cerda, who has been my lifelong mentor. This is in stark contrast to the makeup of today’s law school classes, which more closely reflects the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the population in the Chicago area. I would say that this is progress. My father often told me that when he graduated from law school, he literally did not know where the courthouse was located. Today, the Chicago area schools utilize the Daley Center in downtown Chicago for trial advocacy classes, moot court practices, and mock trials, which provide the students with opportunities to learn and hone trial and advocacy skills, and to teach them to navigate the courthouse long before they graduate.
In 2017, there is a bar association for virtually every ethnic identity represented in the legal community. The Illinois State Bar Association, Chicago Bar Association, American Bar Association, and Women’s Bar Association have all developed programs and committees to promote diversity within the legal profession. Every law student and lawyer can take advantage of opportunities such as mentor/mentee relationships, judicial externships, and law clerk positions at law firms, both large and small. These institutions also provide their membership the opportunity to learn more about any area of practice in which they may have an interest and provide all members the ability to write legal articles of interest to them, the opportunity to teach CLEs, and to share their knowledge and advice with general membership. Some bar associations even have outreach of their membership to areas colleges, and even high schools, to encourage students to consider a career in law. Large law firms and corporate America routinely have designated employees responsible for identifying candidates, with diversity in mind, to groom for their future hires.
My father instilled in me and other young attorneys, the privilege being a member of the legal profession and as lawyers we have a responsibility through our practice and public service activities to improve the profession. I was fortunate I was when I graduated from law school in 1983 that the atmosphere was much improved for ethnic minorities beginning their legal careers. When I reflect on the progress that has been made in 2017 compared to my late father’s experiences, I see continued forward progress toward a richly diverse legal community welcoming to all.