The HNBA At 40: Fostering Excellence In The Latino Legal Community

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - 16:46

Editor: Please tell us about your professional backgrounds.

Tejada: I am a litigator at Kaufman Dolowich Voluck & Gonzo LLP (KDVG), where I represent management and companies in employment defense matters. I’ve been practicing for over 12 years and my practice is largely in New Jersey and sometimes in New York

Lopez: I am presently deputy attorney general with the state of New Jersey and have been here for two years. Previously I was an associate at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett LLP in New York, where I worked as an associate. Prior to that I clerked for a federal judge in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey.

Pozo: I am a brand lawyer and litigation partner at Lowenstein Sandler in the Roseland, NJ office. Having been here for about 14 years, I represent mostly Fortune 500 companies in commercial litigation matters and also provide advice and counsel to clients in the high-end luxury goods industry on trademark and branding issues, including anti-counterfeiting and anti-gray marketing.

Portuondo: I am vice president and assistant general counsel in the legal and compliance department at JPMorgan Chase in the mortgage banking division. In addition to practicing in the state of New Jersey, I have been licensed in New York and the District of Columbia for the past 14 years.

Editor: What is the mission of the HNBA?

Portuondo: The Hispanic National Bar Association aims to represent Hispanic and Latino lawyers throughout the United States. Bar membership includes attorneys, judges, corporate counsel and practicing attorneys all over the country. With an emphasis on both networking and advocacy, the HNBA provides a forum for attorneys of Latino and Hispanic heritage to share ideas and reach consensus on issues that are important to all of us.

Pozo: 2012 is very important for us, as the organization turns 40 this year. We’re very excited about the midyear conference coming to New Jersey for the first time this March, when we will kick off our milestone year.

Editor: How does the HNBA assist attorneys in the development of their careers?

Portuondo: The national organization provides many varied resources for practicing attorneys nationwide, and attorneys can use them in countless ways. For instance, the career section  provides information about potential job openings, and when I was younger I took advantage of that. In addition, HNBA’s conferences, which take place in different states each year, provide a forum for networking. The Uvaldo Herrera National Moot Court Competition (a feature of the midyear conference this year) is an opportunity for students of Latino and Hispanic descent to grow their litigating skill sets and to meet Latino judges from across the U.S. The HNBA also publishes a fantastic journal called Noticias, which keeps us abreast of the latest developments in the law and profiles some of our prominent members. For anyone interested in leadership roles, there are plenty of opportunities to be involved in the organization in terms of representing districts, sitting on special committees and volunteering at various events.

Tejada: I serve as president of the New Jersey chapter of the HNBA. I am especially involved in a pilot program called the Executive Leadership Program for Latina Attorneys – the response to a study conducted by the Commission of Latina Attorneys, which focuses on the needs of Latina attorneys and strives to move them to the forefront of the profession. Their study revealed that many Latina attorneys lack the tools necessary to, say, make partner or bring in NBbusiness from in-house counsel. The Executive Leadership Program is an ongoing program in which 50 attorneys nationwide work in conjunction with the Association of Corporate Counsel to learn how to network effectively and develop relationships with in-house counsel.

Pozo: The HNBA, which represents the interests of about 100,000 legal professionals in the country, is broken up into 19 regions, of which New Jersey is Region III. For eight years I’ve served on the board of governors, which has 70 members – regional presidents from each of the 19 regions, 10 executive board members and representatives for each of the 41 affiliated Hispanic bar associations in the country. I am currently the national finance director for HNBA Region III.

One way the organization seeks to carry out its mission is by ensuring that Latinos are represented in state, local and federal government. We’re proud to have taken a leading role in advocating for the ascension of a Latino or Latina to the U.S. Supreme Court, and as you know Justice Sotomayor joined that bench almost three years ago. We testified before the Judiciary Committee in Congress and were very active in making sure the Justice got through the various hurdles, including the vetting process. We also advocate on Capitol Hill for issues of importance to the Latino community, most recently for the passage of the DREAM Act. We work hard on immigration reform and redistricting issues at both the state and federal level.

Editor: Where do you see challenges to recruitment and retention of Hispanic attorneys?

Portuondo: As a member of the diversity action group in mortgage banking at Chase, I’m very involved with recruitment and retention issues for minorities in general. Before Chase I was in charge of the diversity committee at my law firm. To recruit and especially to retain Hispanic attorneys, it is essential to develop a strong mentorship program. We need more individuals in leadership roles who are willing to mentor such that we create an environment for young attorneys to thrive and move into leadership roles themselves.

I marvel at some of the programs that are available in a corporation such as mine. We have a very robust diversity program that aims to retain and promote diverse individuals within our legal department. We understand implicitly that in the past 10 or 15 years we have made great strides in recruiting and retaining minority individuals at lower levels of authority, but going forward we need to enable individuals to take on leadership roles and greater management responsibility. That is the focus in my organization, and to that end we have programs that specifically address individuals at the VP or higher level.

Lopez: Retention is also difficult in government service, just as it is at law firms. I think setting benchmarks for young attorneys during the first five to ten years of practice is very important. I’ve seen some law firms moving in the direction of greater transparency: they let attorneys know where their skills should be within three to five years. These benchmarking programs will ultimately greatly benefit young attorneys who, knowing what is expected of them, will seek out opportunities to acquire those specific, important skills.

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Pozo: One thing that is somewhat lacking in our profession – and the bar association is no exception – is  an effective pipeline. Other professions seem to be out in front on this. According to a recent study, the number of students in law school is dropping across the board, but much more dramatically so among Mexicans (and African Americans, I should add), when for prior years, enrollment by Mexicans had been steadily rising. More Latinas are enrolling in law school, but fewer Latino males are, resulting in lower rates overall. We need to make sure that students are aware of opportunities in the legal profession and utilize our resources to create a better pipeline.

Editor: Do the law firms and corporations where you work support the HNBA? How so?

Portuondo: I joined the association early in my career, and for some years I focused on the New Jersey chapter, where Miguel recruited me to take on a more active role. My company is supporting the organization in two main ways: first, Chase has graciously allowed me the time to plan this conference, which is by no means insignificant; second, it is providing generous funding for the event.

Tejada: Similarly, KDVG has been very supportive of my participation with the Hispanic National Bar Association, both locally and nationally. Likewise, they contribute financially to both Region III and the national organization.

Pozo: I have been a member of the organization since I was in law school, and Lowenstein has consistently supported the organization, allowing me to bill my hours at the level I would otherwise bill if I were here every day. Along with many others, I was very vocal in sponsoring Jersey City as the site of the HNBA midyear conference, knowing full well that it would require a great deal of financial backing. My firm is coming in as a platinum-level sponsor for both the midyear conference and the annual convention. Lowenstein is deeply committed to ensuring the success of the conference.

Editor: Would you give us some of the highlights of the HNBA event March 28-31?

Portuondo: Certainly the Annual Uvaldo Herrera National Moot Court Competition, which ties in with the HNBA mission, is a highlight. We also have a significant component of CLE courses, with very prominent speakers being featured on at least 10 separate panels on a dual track. There will be networking opportunities at every step of the way, beginning with breakfast, through the afternoon and into the evening. On Friday evening, we will host a party on Ellis Island with Senator Menendez as our keynote speaker. It promises to be a poignant event: between visits to the Ellis Island Museum and the ferry trip around the Statue of Liberty, we will be reminded that in one way or another, we are all sons and daughters of immigrants.

Lopez: The HNBA moot court competition is a wonderful opportunity for law students, who should bear in mind what employers are looking for among potential new hires. Participation in the HNBA moot court competition indicates to a future employer that a student has gone above and beyond the standard law school curriculum. By participating in this national tournament, moot court competitors build essential legal skills that can benefit a potential employer. Public and private employers seek out this kind of diligent and motivated individual.

Tejada: On Thursday, the Corporate Speed Networking/Corporate Connection Pilot Program will facilitate focused, 20-minute interviews between HNBA members who are senior in-house counsel with specific practice and/or geographic needs and HNBA members who are law firm partners and leaders in their respective areas of practice.

On Saturday the annual Women’s Leadership Conference – which this year will coincide with the midyear conference – will address the issue of recruitment and retention of Latina attorneys in two sessions.

The first will focus on branding who you are as an attorney within the legal profession – an extremely important topic. This exciting event will help young attorneys determine how best to develop a brand for themselves and how to build a book of business. Male conference attendees are invited to attend as well. Cristina Benitez, the founder and president of Lazos Latinos, will moderate this session.

The second panel will speak about Latina attorneys in the House and Senate and will address the importance of having Latina attorneys in public office. The moderator, Zulima Farber, is a partner at Lowenstein Sandler and a pioneer for Latina attorneys in New Jersey.

Editor: Any closing thoughts?

Portuondo: We are proud to feature the state of New Jersey – especially Jersey City, with its close proximity to New York City – before a national audience, and we look forward to folding into the organization many of the companies located in our area that do not customarily participate in this event.  

Please email the interviewees at mr.carlos.a.lopez@gmail.com, nuris.e.portuondo@chase.com, mpozo@lowenstein.com or atejada@kdvglaw.com with questions about this interview.