Latina in charge of the PBA
As the first Latina president of the Pennsylvania Bar Assotiacion, Sharon López knows her duty well: making sure the organization keep its relevance in the upcoming years.
The popular saying says that most people don’t like lawyers. This is until they need one. And the truth is, as things are in this country, none of those present here is exempt from requiring at any time the services of a legal advisor.
That may be reason enough to want to know where to turn to in case of emergency: that is, if you need someone to fight for you in court, or someone to give you advice on starting a business; someone who convinces you it is not normal to feel abused by your boss or your tenant, or simply someone who gives you advice when dealing with a migratory problem that can be solved. There is not a person in the world without rights, and no one better than a lawyer to defend you.
In Pennsylvania there are about 50,000 lawyers in various branches of law: criminal, administrative, commercial, labor, nongovernmental and even activist: defender of human, environmental and civil rights. Building upon the last census, this gives us more or less one lawyer for every 256 inhabitants.
One of the organizations that brings together a good part of this community of experts in all kinds of laws is the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA), an entity with approximately 27,000 affiliated members, which makes it the state's largest jurisprudence organization, a kind of temple dedicated to the study and permanent development of science and the exercise of law.
As stated on its website, the purpose of the PBA is to promote "the professional excellence of lawyers in all areas of practice and in all corners of the state", a rather ambitious mission for a growing community (few universities in Philadelphia still do not have a law school).
It is in this context that the name of a Latina appears and resounds in the corridors of several schools. We’re talking about Sharon Lopez, a Mexican by birth, Latin American at heart and lawyer by conviction who this year took the reins of the PBA with a single objective: continue to promote the inclusion and diversity of voices in the world of laws, a world that in her words, is still perceived today as "a club of white men dressed in suits and ties."
What she says, a lawyer with more than 20 years of professional experience is no small thing. How is it possible that an increasingly heterogeneous society still lacks enough professionals to represent such multiplicity of cultural origins?
For Lopez that premise is half true. She explains that perception and reality are two very different things. And the reality for her is that all people are diverse in themselves because each one is crossed by different identities: one can be Latino, Afro-descendant, Catholic and homosexual at the same time. That makes the world look different.
In the field of lawyers that kind of diversity or ability to see the world in an integral way is fundamental.
"The role of lawyers is to ensure that the foundations of our constitution and our society remain just and correct. And that people, who have no voice, can be heard, even if they don’t have much money, " she says.
But when it comes to talking about those with a historical lack of a voice, then it is worthwhile to mention Hispanics and their "pool" of Latino lawyers. They live the way small towns live: everyone knows everybody. And it is not that the Hispanic community is precisely the smallest in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania, but it is that there are still very few Latinos who choose the path of jurisprudence to make a living.
Discrimination? Poverty? Lack of access to quality education? Possibly all of the above. Studying law today is not the same as three decades ago, and although all people are equal before the law, not everyone has the same conditions to study it.
Perhaps because of this, and because of the parochial air that persists in the different Latino communities of Philadelphia, it is relatively easy to review the history of their most illustrious children in the world of norms.
It was around 1965 that the first Latino lawyer, Juan Silva, was accepted into the Pennsylvania Bar. He was followed by Silvio Sanabria, in ‘69; Nelson Díaz - the first Latino judge in a Philadelphia court, and Mari Carmen Aponte, the first Puerto Rican accepted as a member of the same association.
Thus, with a few pioneers leading the way, the 70s, 80s and 90s passed by; decades in which a growing Latino community presented a greater need for quality legal services. That is also the historical context of the birth of Sharon López, born in Mexico, raised during the first years of her life in Uruguay and arrived at the age of five to Pennsylvania, where she took roots as an activist for the rights of LGBT communities, against the AIDS epidemic, civil rights, women's rights and workers' rights.
With a university degree in sociology and Spanish, and after having militated in social causes, López decided that she needed more tools to continue doing what she was so passionate about: trying to change the world.
She found those tools in the Widener University Law School, and since then, in the mid-1990s, she has litigated and advised on issues of gender, LGBT community, labor law, domestic violence - and others - at state and federal levels.
One of the first to celebrate López's nomination in the PBA was precisely Philadelphia's first Latino judge, Nelson Díaz, who asserted that:
"[Her arrival as president of the PBA] is a milestone for Pennsylvania since the Philadelphia Bar has never had such a leader and the Pennsylvania Bar was more willing to accept the breaking of the glass ceiling and historical discriminatory practices existing for lawyers of color. I'm proud of Sharon's accomplishments as the first Latino in Philadelphia to pass the bar and be a member of this Bar."
For her part, her colleague and friend, Caroline Cruz -Deputy City Solicitor- said she was happy about the role of López as head of the PBA. She says that as president-elect last year she initiated a series of efforts to increase the size and diversity of the organization.
"Sharon is a brilliant attorney who founded her own law firm and is a friend and mentor to attorneys throughout the State of Pennsylvania. As president-elect of the Pennsylvania Bar Association this past year, she has already formulated programing aimed and increasing membership and diversity in the legal profession and within the organization. She is also connecting the statewide organization to local bar associations. Expanding the professional access of attorneys generally, and Latina and Latino attorneys specifically is an ever necessary mission that Sharon is tackling head on."
This woman, mother, and advocate visited the AL DÍA office to talk about her presidency, and the present and the future of the PBA under her administration. This is what she said.
I think we are at a point in our society and our association where we recognize that change is coming and that we need to be ready for it. In some respects, when the association nominated me to be their vice president and ascend to leadership for presidency this year, they selected me because they knew that I could bring a change in a way that is inclusive, that helps everybody to have a voice at the table.
In terms of what do I bring to the association, I bring a sense of community, a sense of connection, I also bring a sense of positive future, that there is a place for this bar association and there is a place for every lawyer in this bar association.
No, we are very dignified. Most commonly there is just one person putting their name forward. Under most circumstances, people kind of work it out.
Every once in awhile we have a contested race, where the president is chosen between two different people.
Our process is not to have a plebiscite where everybody votes; our process is to send representative to a nominee committee.
So I had 33 members of the nominee committee when I decided to run. I had 5 points of communication, you know because when you are doing campaign you have to reach out to the voter about five times before they go “yeah, another person”. So I did emails, I did phone calls, I did letters, I did postcards and I also did visits: I drove all around the commonwealth to all these 33 people. I sat with them and asked them to tell me their concerns in order to tell them why I was the right person for this position.
There were three different issues they were concerned about: one was that I did not have any experience on the Board of Governors, in other words I was coming in as an outsider. I was a worker bee in the committees, I had done lots of work on the different committees: the minority bar committee, the gay and lesbians right committee, the membership committee… but I had not served on the big Board of Governors, so I tried to show them that kind of leadership ability or experience was not necessary for me to become president, that it was more about me being able to work with lawyers.
The second issue was geographic location. We’ve seen to have a lot of people coming out of the central part of Pennsylvania, but I made it very clear to them that I am a Pennsylvanian lawyer, I came back from this experience with the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, where I did regional training all around the Commonwealth, I live in Philadelphia, my office is in Lancaster, I mean, I have this perspective that is, I think is quite diverse, it is not just representing one area; plus I do federal practice.
The third concern was that I had never run for office before and that my competition had stated quite early that she wanted to run for the position, she was two times in the Board of Governors, etc.
So I let them know that I had a message: it was time to not only have another woman in leadership but it was time for somebody who had a perspective about change and being able to organize people and making people feel comfortable.
It is all about three main ideas: membership, mentoring and marketing.
[The Bar Association] is a voluntary association. There are about 60,000 lawyers in Pennsylvania, 40,000 are practicing here in the state, and out of those 40,000 we have about 27,000 that voluntarily signed up to be part of our association. In doing that they said “I want to be part of something bigger”.
My goal with membership is to make sure that we continue to inspire, to make ourselves bigger, better, and brighter. And assemble for the future what lawyers should be: providing opportunities, do process and equal access to justice. Lawyers are there to make sure the fabric of our Constitution and our society continues to be just and right. And people who have a little voice have an opportunity for advice, even if they don’t have a lot money.
The second thing is marketing the message of what lawyers are here to do. There are a lot of studies that talk about millennials, some of them are good, some not, but what we know is that millennials engage in a different way, they are collaborative and they really want to be part of something good, they want to do good deeds. [So] the whole thing is if we are marketing for the future, we are going to be able to sustain ourselves. So I want to put out that message that lawyers do amazing things for individuals, for society, for corporations… we do amazing things to keep our society going.
The last thing is mentoring. Even though mentoring is a word that kind of has a bad connotation, it’s really about connecting people with the right resources at the right time. Making sure that our association provides those connections and making sure that people view that as a resource. That is part of my motivation, getting people involved and asking them to participate even when they are a little bit away from the table.
The context of your question is what is happening with law schools and what’s happening with people choosing to become a lawyer and —also— how that impacts minorities, law school applicants and lawyers in the future.
I am a baby boomer, I went to law school when it was affordable —I had 90 people in my first year of class, then 38 graduated—, so in terms of what has changed, we had full classes and we had the promise of jobs no matter what. Now what we have is incredibly expensive law schools education, it is at least triple or quadruple of what I paid, and the competition for jobs is very different right now.
However, what I see is that baby boomers like me, we are going to be leaving the profession by passing on or retiring or just cutting back our hours.
So we have a lot of people that are looking at retiring in the next ten years. What does that mean for the profession? Well, demographically, we have a big dip in lawyers in Gen X and Gen Y, we have a big need, we won’t be able to fill all those vacancies, so there is going to be a big change happening and what happens after Gen Y’s? Millennials!, and that class is really big.
How does it impact minorities and the bar? Well, the first hurdle is getting into law school. There are very few law schools that really matter in terms of “where you graduate”, other than that it doesn't matter, what matters is that you are going to school and the state where you are going to practice.
So those law students that are going to be able to get in law school, are they going to be able to pay? That’s the next question.
I certainly don’t want my child to have a debt over his head.
Making those strategic decisions can have a huge impact on your future, because if you have tremendous debt hanging over your head, you’re going to think twice about what kind of job you can afford to take.
Then, taking it to the next step: what jobs would be available? I think that no matter how many baby boomers retire, the practice of law will be changing. What Uber did to taxi industry the same is going to happen with law, the uberization of law practice is coming. The question there is how do we handle that so we can provide for ethical, professional services to our clients, so we follow the rules of conduct, and how we make sure to reach out our local communities.
That’s the context of your question of what are we going to do to make sure we have minorities lawyers in practice. Very challenging no matter what background you come from.
We need to foster support for every young lawyer who wants to come in to the bar association, we need to make sure there is a pipeline that provides support for law students who are interested in practicing law, we need to make sure that high school students know there is a way to get from high school to college to law school. There is a lot of hurdles, lots of different hurdles.
There is room at the table for you, we need you to help make the future just and right and to make sure that lawyers are representing all of our community.