According to the U.S Census Bureau, 19.1 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic or Latinx—nearly one in five people. It is problematic that the number of Latinx lawyers in the U.S. doesn’t reflect the group’s presence in the wider population. That’s why affinity groups like GW Law’s Latin American Law Student Association (LALSA) are so important.
According to the group’s co-president, Gabriela Soto Cotto, the latest statistics from the American Bar Association indicate that just 5.8 percent of lawyers in the U.S. are Hispanic or Latino. LALSA, she said, can make Latinx students feel a little more at home as they prepare to enter the legal profession.
“Law school can be very challenging,” Soto Cotto said. “And when you have this cultural barrier, having an organization like LALSA can be a place where you get to speak your own language, listen to your own music, eat the food you normally eat and connect with your culture and your identity. LALSA brings a little piece of home to GW Law.”
Latin America comprises 19 countries, most but not all of them Hispanic (Brazil, once a Portuguese colony, is a notable exception). At events hosted by LALSA, students can celebrate their heritage while also networking professionally and gaining access to mentors and academic support.
“We help others rise as we climb,” Soto Cotto said. “Soon enough I’ll be part of that 5.8 percent, and I’ll continue to do all I can to help students in law school and people who want to go to law school to get there and then make it through—so that 5.8 percent can continue to increase.”
Now in her third year at GW Law, Soto Cotto comes from Toa Baja, a small town in Puerto Rico not far from the capital city, San Juan. She was drawn to the law when she took an elective class in high school taught by a local lawyer. She enjoyed reading about cases and analyzing them. In her other classes, such as chemistry, there was one correct answer. But her introduction to law helped her develop critical thinking skills by learning the rules and then figuring out how to apply them to different sets of facts.
“I knew I wanted to go to law school no matter what,” Soto Cotto said, “and I applied to a lot of different schools. I ultimately chose GW because I thought it was the best place for a law student, right in the hub of everything and steps away from the White House and the Capitol. Right now, I'm doing an internship at the Department of Justice. GW offers opportunities that are not available elsewhere.”
At the first LALSA meeting of the current academic year, attended by perhaps three dozen people, Soto Cotto and other organization officers stressed that the group exists to help its members network, find mentors, write résumés, get help with studies and socialize.
Alumna Paulina Vera, B.A. ’12, J.D. ’15, now a professorial lecturer at GW Law, serves as LALSA’s faculty adviser. She is also the current president-elect of the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia (HBA-DC), which she encouraged students to join.
Vera invited students to sign up for HBA-DC’s mentorship program, which pairs Hispanic and Latinx law students with judges and attorneys from various practice areas. The group offers scholarships and other forms of assistance as well, she said. Vera also serves on the board of the GW Latino Law Alumni Association.
“I hope you’ll all consider me to be a resource,” Vera said, “whether it's in my capacity as HBA-DC president-elect or your LALSA faculty adviser. Or if you want to talk about immigration law or you just want to vent about how crazy law school is, those are all things I'm available for.”
Caroline Jaipaul, student director of the GW Law community legal clinics, also spoke at the meeting.
“We’re always looking for ways to make our clinic program more reflective of the communities that we serve and more inclusive of our community at GW,” Jaipaul said. “If there’s something that you want to see in our clinic program that you’re not seeing, let me know.”
Several students said they came to the meeting to network and make friends. Erica Lorenzana, a second-year law student, is interested in health law.
“I want to be able to give back to my community,” Lorenzana said. “I think LALSA does a great job of helping its members.”
One of several first-year law students attending their first LALSA meeting, Clarissa Brown, said she wanted to go into family law.
“In family law, particularly, women are very vulnerable, especially Hispanic and Latina women with power imbalance in their marriages,” Brown said. “It’s something I've seen in my own family. I want to protect those vulnerable women out there, especially the Hispanic and Latinas.”
Two other first-year law students, Sasha Silva and Wyatt Singer, also said they came to the meeting to network and find friends.
“I think this is a good way to network with similar people,” Silva said. “I think a lot of us come from very similar backgrounds.”
Singer is not a member of the Latinx community, he said, but attended the meeting to network.
“I have an interest in speaking Spanish, and I have an interest in trying to utilize Spanish in the workforce,” Singer said.