A Local Attorney’s Reflections on Last Month’s Tragedies
**This essay on the intersection of Legal Ethics and Race evolved from a private Facebook post that I had written on July 8, 2016 after a night of tears due to the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and four Latino males killed in traffic stops and, of course, after watching the news coverage of the five Dallas police officers who were killed during a #BlackLivesMatter protest. It is very personal as I not only write about my thoughts on race, OUR justice system and legal ethics, but I also share facts about my life that shape me and directly impact my worldview as an attorney.
I spent much of Friday July 8th very upset about the state of affairs in OUR great country. I felt helpless and overwhelmed with anger, fear and mostly sadness. As I sat in my office, I thought about my role as an ethics attorney and my personal goal to positively impact race relations in OUR country.
A little background on myself, and how I came to be an attorney. I am a first generation everything, meaning my father is a Mexican immigrant, I am the first female in my family to attend a four-year college and the first lawyer in the family. My father legally emigrated from Mexico when he was just 8 years old; he is a former gang member, a Vietnam Vet, a retired firefighter, my family’s first college graduate and now a small business owner. My mother, Mexican-American, put all of us through college, my dad, my brothers and myself, setting aside her own dreams of higher education. I went to law school in 2004. At the time, I was a learning disabled single mother to a 3 year old little girl freshly diagnosed with epilepsy (now healthy and in remission). I share all of this very private information about myself to give you context with regard to my essay, because my life experience and identity have shaped me as an attorney.
I am in a unique position, being a woman of color with far more education than most women, who look like me or with my background. I recognized the privilege that came with education and ran to this opportunity to become a lawyer and a member of OUR justice system. I know that my access to the justice system is far different from many others who look like me and different from my elders, who made my position possible. So, I never take my position for granted. When I took my oath to follow the laws of California and the Constitution of OUR United States, I secretly added an additional promise to use my privilege for good and not evil.
I sat in my office at the end of a week of shocking violence and I looked at my client work and wondered if I was doing enough to help change the status of OUR race relations in OUR country, in my community.
I went to law school believing that I was going to fight for justice and pick a cause that would positively impact lives of the disadvantaged and change them for the better. I thought that I would work for a nonprofit or for some other social justice matter to make a difference. But instead, I fell in love with legal ethics, where I advise lawyers and law students about their legal matters. In many ways, I am in an ivory tower offering my thoughts on what is the ethical thing to do in order to advance my client’s position. I have friends and clients who are “in the trenches” and I know that I don’t want to do what they do. So I take phone calls and share what I think is ethical.
Yet as an ethicist, I wonder am I doing enough to cause change?
I don’t know the answer to this question. I don’t know the answer to how to stop this madness, the hatred, the fear and all the -isms that are leading to the violence that we have seen recently. What I can say is that I have worked with attorneys from all walks of life and their voice, life experience, and worldview directly impact justice and how justice is served. Justice is a slow process and painful as hell to change, but without a diverse group of lawyers from all walks of life, justice cannot be properly served.
So reflecting on my practice, I think about my law student applicants trying to get their license to practice law. These clients have reformed their lives for a shot at furthering justice. My clients are recovering addicts, former homeless, reformed prostitutes, ex-convicts, and the list goes on. I love when I get to tell them that they get to become a lawyer, partly because their success is my success, but mostly, because their life experience becomes a part of the diaspora of OUR legal community. They will carry their personal history into OUR justice system and, God willing, their personal history will help shape justice for someone else in need.
My essay is not a self-congratulatory piece; rather, it is a call to my fellow attorney friends. I implore you to please put time and effort into supporting someone, anyone who wants to join OUR club but may not have the superficial credentials to be a lawyer. I didn’t fit the mold–a learning disabled single mother of color to toddler with epilepsy. I had many people tell me that I couldn’t join the club, but I am forever in debt to ones who dared me to dream and invited me to the table.
My only solution to what we are seeing right now is to help bring more people who are disenfranchised into OUR profession. To mentor OUR youth and encourage them to dream, and tell them that they have a place at the table, if they wish. It is not enough to teach OUR children of color how to behave with police officers. Rather we need to teach OUR children that they can be police officers too, that they can be judges and their voice matters and is essential to OUR justice and without their voice in OUR justice system, we will not have real justice.