Nelson A. Diaz, Pennsylvania's First Latino Lawyer and Judge
The Honorable Nelson A. Diaz has been first in many things throughout his career. After turning down job offers in accounting to attend law school at Temple University, he became the first Latino to be admitted to the Bar Association in Pennsylvania. In 1981 he became the first Latino judge in the Commonwealth, sitting on the Court of Common Pleas in the First Judicial District until 1993, when he became the first non-white General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In the private sector, he became the first Latino partner in a “BigLaw” AMLAW 100 law firm when he began work with Blank Rome LLP.
Though much of Diaz’s career has been devoted to public service, business was his first love. In fact, he attributes his success in the law to his success in developing his business acumen.
“There’s very little support for one another in this profession,” Diaz said in a recent interview with AL DÍA.
“If you don’t have a mentor who can help you develop your business, it’s very hard to survive in a law firm, because having business is more important than being a great lawyer.”
Diaz has helped advance Latino business interests in Philadelphia by developing the Bloque de Oro and working to expand procurement opportunities for minority contractors. The current projects closest to Diaz’s heart are also business-focused; he chairs the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and is continuing a years-long fight to win more Latino representation on corporate boards.
According to Diaz, underrepresentation of Latino influencers in the private sector is not only a sign of continuing discrimination, but also a reflection of Latino lawyers’ sometimes self-defeating gravitation toward public service. “They don’t realize that you need to spend a lot of time on learning not only how to be a practicing attorney, but learning how you can market yourself so you can have your own clients,” said Díaz.
With these gaps in knowledge in mind, and drawing from his own (sometimes frustrating) experience of being the first in many fields, Diaz has been instrumental to the creation of various professional and political groups for Latinos. He helped to recruit Latino students for Temple Law and co-founded Pennsylvania’s Hispanic Bar Association. He created the Hispanic American Democrats, aided in the establishment of the White House’s Latino Office, and chaired the DNC Hispanic Caucus. He also founded HACE, the Hispanic Association of Corporate Enterprise, and the National Puerto Rican Coalition.
“Persistence is extremely important,” said Diaz. “The hardest part is to educate people about the fact that they have rights, and that the only way that America respects those rights is by advocating those rights. In order to exercise your rights, you have to enforce them. And if you enforce them, you make gains.”
Diaz is currently working in Center City as a partner at Dilworth Paxson LLP. His first book, an autobiography, is forthcoming.