As of 2016, Latinos make up 16.8 percent – 26.8 million – of the workforce in the United States. While there are plenty of statistics about the industries (tech, legal, STEM, and many more) where our communities are sorely underrepresented and how the wage gap disproportionately affects Latinas (and other women of color), we wanted to learn more about what it’s like to pursue your career goals as a Latino today.
That’s why we’re launching Latinx Career Diaries. A few times a month, we’ll offer you a peek into what it’s like to work a certain job as a Latino. The goal is to give you an idea of what people with your similar experiences earn, help you pick up some negotiation tactics, and provide guidance if you’re embarking on your career.
These responses have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Background: Panamanian, Mexican
Preferred Pronoun: She
Job Title: Senior Attorney
Years at Current Job: 8
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Years of Experience: 8 years
Salary: $57,000. I’m not paid what I’m worth. While I knew going in the legal aid doesn’t pay much (or much compared to salaries in big law), the lower salary wouldn’t be so difficult to accept if we weren’t inundated with student loan debt. Law school is extraordinarily expensive (much more than it’s actually worth). The extreme cost is really about keeping it exclusive so that only the same type of people are able to access it. If law school was more affordable, I think I would feel more comfortable about my salary.
Negotiation Process: My agency is unionized, so my salary was determined based on a crediting scale. I really am appreciative of that because as a new attorney/new professional/young woman (at the time), I don’t think I would have had the skills to really push for a higher salary when they gave me an offer. Second, it was the recession, so everyone would just take what they could get. If there was no union, they could have really low-balled me and I would have accepted. With the union, they had to go based on the agreed-upon scale, which put me on better ground. Now that I’m more experienced, if I were going somewhere else, I would feel more confident and secure in negotiating a good deal for me.
Benefits: 403b match, insurance, sick leave (including for family), three weeks vacation (though I have four weeks now as it accumulates), paid holidays, and the biggest perk is any parent is able to take six months leave if they have a child (birth/adoption) and can come back part-time for the first three years of the child’s life. That is a major, major perk (done through one of the union contract negotiations).
Cost of living in your city based on your salary: I can and can’t afford the cost of living. A legal aid salary is always going to be low compared to other attorneys, but my firm is unionized, which keeps our salaries and benefits a little higher than other non-profits and so I can live pretty comfortably. Even still, wage increases aren’t frequent and coupled with student loan debt, it can be feel overwhelming.
How I Broke In: I wanted to be a lawyer since I was a young child. I went straight from undergrad and was able to have a somewhat “traditional” law school experience that allowed me to get my first job. However, I graduated at the height of the recession so my experience was quite different than attorneys before me. Usually, a law student gets a job offer by the third year and starts after they take the bar that summer. However, by my 2L year (’08/’09), large law firms stopped hiring and rescinded offers to many students. This created an even more competitive field for those interested in public interest (my track). I was able to get a job through the AmeriCrops program and after a year and half, I was hired as a full-time staff attorney.
Why I’m here today: Having a steady history of internships helped land my first job. I showed I had a passion for public interest, but my experience was diverse enough to bring something new to the table. In school, I did a lot of immigration and criminal law-based internships.
Responsibilities: I directly represent survivors of serious violent crimes seeking immigration relief.
What I like Most/Least: What I like most is working directly with clients. I help them navigate through a scary, complicated legal system and get them to the other side. Getting status for a person/family changes the entire trajectory of their lives, and I’m so proud to help people in that way. What I like least is having to frequently code switch to be taken seriously in this very conservative/stuffy profession.
Diversity: I’m often one of the few women of color. There are very few Latinx people in management. It can be difficult to navigate around the micro aggressions that happen and keep on smiling/being professional.
Growth Potential: I am hopeful that there is space for me. No firm is perfect, and I had to really take stock of how I wanted my career to grow and be honest about whether it could grow at my current job. Thankfully, I see that there are opportunities for me, and I’m invested in continuing my career where I currently am.
What I wish I Knew Before: So much! In fact, I started a blog about it (latinasuprising.com) to help other Latinx and women of color learn the ropes of law school/your early years of practice. Breaking into the legal field is tricky because there are so few of us in the profession (Latinx make up about 3 percent of the profession) and the rules are so traditional and purposefully exclusive. This is a profession with a lot of power, so they don’t make it easy. I wish I had known that going in because it took me a long time to realize that.
Final Thoughts: Being an attorney is a joy. It really should feel like a calling, and the difference you can make with this degree is beyond what you can imagine. It’s not just the difference to clients, but your family/future family, your community, etc., all benefit from you becoming a lawyer.