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LALSA student group fosters involvement, leadership in profession

August 30, 2012

By Jenny Chung C’12, G’12

A version of this article previously appeared in the Penn Law Journal Summer 2012 issue.

In his rousing keynote address, delivered at the close of the 17th Annual LALSA Conference, attorney and columnist Raul A. Reyes averred that the Latino constituency will have increased by 26 percent by election time, with a record 12.2 million Hispanic-Americans slated to vote.

No longer the “sleeping giant” overlooked by lawmakers of yore, Latinos are now assuming unprecedented political power. In spite of their mounting influence, however, Latinos remain underrepresented in the legal profession and at elite law schools nationwide. The Hispanic population rose by 43 percent over the last decade, but the proportion of Hispanic lawyers only grew from 3.4 percent to 3.7 percent.

Penn Law’s Latin American Law Students Association (LALSA) –which is changing its name this year to Latino Law Students Association—aims to address these concerns by offering mentorship, networking opportunities and general support to incoming law students of Hispanic origin.

According to Alumni Chair Pablo Rubinstein Ize 3L, LALSA was once known chiefly for its social events, but has evolved in recent years to unite its focus on fun with “stronger academic support, networking and mentoring components.” Correspondingly, La Gran Fiesta—LALSA’s much-anticipated annual celebration—was held for the last time as a social function in 2005, assuming thereafter its present form as a scholarly conference followed by festivities. The group’s core objectives now center on the retention and success of Latino law students, in conjunction with vigorous recruitment efforts to increase their numbers at Penn Law School. LALSA has also bolstered its alumni outreach programs in hopes of expanding its network.

Rubinstein Ize identified the “deficit of [Latino] representation” in the legal profession as one of the principal challenges LALSA confronts. He spoke to the need for fostering Latino involvement and leadership within the legal profession.

LALSA runs two mentorship programs, schedules routine socials, hosts educational and occupational panels, coordinates events in collaboration with other affinity groups and conducts outreach initiatives targeting prospective and admitted students.

In addition to helping members achieve professional success, LALSA also aims to cultivate a “supportive environment” in which students can share private insecurities and doubts. “Penn Law attracts some of the top students in the country, so [admitted] students should feel confident,” Rubinstein Ize explained. “But social pressure develops when you’re one of the few in a stigmatized or underrepresented group. LALSA creates a space for students who … are unsure they should be here and start to second-guess.”

Daniel Mateo L’93, newly installed president of the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey, considers his involvement in LALSA while at Penn “an amazing experience.” “I remember going into the LALSA office often during class breaks — there was always somebody else there,” he recalled. “It was a great opportunity to connect and debrief.”

Not only did the group offer “great networking opportunities,” Mateo said, “it always felt like a safe place where you could have an honest conversation about whatever was going on, law school-related or not.”

For Mateo, who had been raised in inner-city Camden, entering law school was nothing short of “daunting.” “I didn’t have any role models, didn’t know what to expect, and didn’t have any mentors,” he said. “While the Law School was certainly welcoming, I felt very out of place.”

Mateo credits LALSA with easing the transition by providing access to other students “who may have had, if not exactly the same upbringing, at least the same cultural background.“ “It made me feel more comfortable asking questions and seeking out mentors,” he said, adding that the guidance of a “good mentor” can be crucial to success in the legal field.

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