Diversity in the Legal Profession in Latin America

The Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice this year launched a pioneering program promoting diversity and inclusion in the Latin American legal profession for Indigenous and Afro-descendent lawyers: TotalLaw Prep. It redresses the historical and current imbalance in opportunity for legal education and professional advancement for a significant portion of the population of many countries in the region.

With Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico alone having 27 million Indigenous people, the region overall is eight percent Indigenous; however they constitute 14 percent of the poor and 17 percent of the extremely poor. Higher education is particularly imbalanced: in Brazil, only 0.6 percent of the Indigenous population participates vs. 10 percent of the White population; in Mexico, only one percent of Indigenous youth attend university, of whom one in five graduates; in Colombia, 3.5 percent of the Indigenous workforce are professionals vs. 10.5 percent overall.

Similar statistics regarding Afro-descendent populations are unavailable. However, their general living conditions, especially regarding basic and secondary education, suggest similar discrepancies in higher education.

This inequality is even greater in the Latin American legal profession. Law schools and law firms have few members of these populations and certainly do not reflect the percentages of Indigenous or Afro-descendant peoples in their countries.

Former Ambassador, Vance Center Committee member, and Winston & Strawn partner Julissa Reynoso in 2019 called on the Vance Center to address this shortcoming and specifically to develop a pipeline for Indigenous and Afro-descendent Latin American lawyers to work in the New York offices of international law firms through their post-LL.M. international associate programs. She also introduced as a partner Talento Total, a Colombian nonprofit organization mentoring Indigenous and Afro-descendent business school students.

TotalLaw Prep Program was born, and in March 2020, 44 applicants from Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Panama, and Venezuela underwent an initial review process and two competitive rounds of interviews. Almost 61 percent of the applicants were female, and 95 percent Afro-descendant. Afro-descendant and other lawyers from Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico volunteered to evaluate the candidates. Interviews followed by members of the Vance Center Committee and Lawyers Council for Civil and Economic Rights, including Antonia Stolper (Shearman & Sterling), Hunter Carter (Arent Fox), Jaime Trujillo (Baker McKenzie), Julissa Reynoso (Winston & Strawn), Lisa Vicens (Cleary), Luciana Tornosvky (Demarest Advogados), Ramon Arias (GALA), Ruti Smithline (Morrison & Foerster), Ted Maynard (Paul Weiss), Veronica Rodriguez (Paul Hastings), and Werner Ahlers (Sullivan & Cromwell).

TotalLaw Prep’s first class consists of eight “Candidates”: Álvaro Luis López Acosta (Panama), Anna Lyvia Ribeiro (Brazil), César Mauricio Gallardo (Colombia), Janne Yorley Perea Asprilla (Colombia), Karina Miranda (Brazil), Diego Angulo Marinez (Colombia), Maria M. Obeso (Colombia), Wilmer Gonzalez (Venezuela). They now are working with volunteer mentors from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and the United States, completing module assignments, holding mentoring meetings, and developing short- and long-term goals for their LL.M. applications. Mentors cover topics like LL.M. program selection, seeking letters of recommendation, personal statement development, and other factors to help develop the candidate’s narratives before and during the application process.

Several law schools, including Fordham, UCLA, UPenn, and Duke have conducted information sessions for the Candidates. Dean Toni Jaeger-Fine from Fordham Law School introduced them to the U.S. legal tradition. The Vance Center and TalentoTotal also held sessions to create and improve the candidate’s LinkedIn profiles.

The Vance Center recently recognized Julissa Reynoso at the annual Celebration of International Pro Bono Excellence for her commitment to diversity in conceptualizing and initiating TotalLaw Prep, and wished her well in her upcoming position as chief of staff to First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

Maria M. Obeso headshot
César Mauricio Gallardo headshot
Karina Miranda headshot
Álvaro Luis López Acosta headshot
Diego Angulo Marinez headshot
Janne Yorley Perea Asprilla headshot
Anna Lyvia Ribeiro headshot
Wilmer Gonzalez headshot
Maria M. Obeso (Colombia), César Mauricio Gallardo (Colombia), Karina Miranda (Brazil), Álvaro Luis López Acosta (Panama), Diego Angulo Marinez (Colombia), Janne Yorley Perea Asprilla (Colombia), Anna Lyvia Ribeiro (Brazil), Wilmer Gonzalez (Venezuela).