This is another installment of the series, Spotlight On! A series where we showcase Latina lawyers and learn about the successes in their early careers.
Today we hear from Talia Rodriguez, based in Buffalo, NY, who coordinates a legal aid clinic and shows what it’s like to do legal work that has a direct impact in your own local community. Talia is also a powerhouse and community leader, having recently recognized by the Minority Bar Association of WNY!
1. When did you start practicing?
I am not admitted to the NYS Bar. I have passed two of three qualifying examinations and am awaiting from results from the UBE.
I started managing school based legal clinics two months after I graduated from SUNY Buffalo Law School in 2015. My project is part of state wide initiative to provide access to civil legal services to residents of our state.
I am actively pursuing admission but I am equally as proud of my present work as I would be practicing.
2. What and Where do you practice?
I am a project manager of a school based legal clinic, staffed by pro bono attorneys, located in Buffalo Public Schools in Buffalo, New York sponsored by a local education focused not for profit. I build relationships with local school officials, law firms, community organizations and individual clients. My work is to connect all these parties toward the achievement of linking clients to legal services agencies, the private bar, and or any other governmental or community service necessary so that they may solve their legal problem.
I oversee the entire project in every detail and report to a Legal Taskforce, organized by my sponsoring not for profit. The Taskforce is comprised of judges, pro bono partners from our legal services providers, and other members.
3. What is a typical day like?
A typical day for me starts with reading emails, the NY Times, the local news, and listening to voicemails. I close client files from the clinic the previous day. I prepare for my present legal clinic. I then collect my materials drive to the school site for the day and set up the legal clinic. While at the clinic site I conduct grass roots outreach, talk to parents and students, and await clients and or my attorney volunteer for the day.
On a day to day basis, I facilitate the legal clinics in each individual school. I assist clients in preparing for their consultation with our volunteer attorneys. The legal clinics are free on a first come first serve basis. I support the volunteer attorneys and provide follow up to our clients.
We are open four days a week, in five locations across the city to serve the civil legal needs of Buffalo Public School families. We do not answer immigration or criminal questions, but we do assist clients with a whole host of other issues such as divorce, child support, tax, bankruptcy, employment related questions, etc. There is no income eligibility for the clinic and clients can return as many times as they would like.
4. How did you get started in this area?
Previous to graduating I started my job search. At the time I was working in the foster care system and was extremely inspired by the children. I have a Masters in Public Policy and really wanted to work on something innovative that I felt had a wide impact. I wanted to merge my legal work with my passion for helping others. I didn’t necessarily see practicing law as my only option. I kept an open mind.
I applied to many jobs, and by the grace of god before graduating I was offered a job. I actually turned down a governmental fellowship to work on this project and it has been full steam ahead ever since then.
5. What do you like most about your current position?
What I love about my current position is that there is some level of adventure to every day. When you open up shop, you don’t really know who is going to come to the legal clinic or what their legal question/problem will be. I also enjoy working alongside community organizations and actively searching for resources for my clients. Whether it’s spending the morning looking for legal guides translated in Burmese, or surfing government agency websites searching for publications, my job is to seek information out, condense it, and make it available to those clients who need it after meeting with their attorney. I also love meeting my attorney volunteers who come from amazing firms. I have met partners, associates, paralegals and they all are passionate about helping others. I also get to pick their brain, ask about their practice areas, what they are passionate about and get to meet fellow members of our legal community. I am most proud of the work that I do alongside the education not for profit which sponsors my legal clinic, Say Yes to Education. This organization has not only changed my life for the better by creating this legal clinic and allowing me to serve my neighbors, it’s also effected the lives of countless inner city residents. They do so much, I am humbled to a part of their initiative and have complete faith in the sincerity of their mission statement and ability to create change in my hometown. I am without a doubt part of the Say Yes Buffalo family and proud of it.
6. What is your best survival tip for current law students?
My best survival tip for current law students is keep pace, you will get through law school, you will graduate, you will sit for the bar, it can all be done but in the mean time think meaningful about how you what motivates you. I would also say, spend as much time shadowing attorneys that you respect and admire.
7. For Latinas considering law school, what advice would you give them?
My advice for Latinas considering law school is threefold.
(a) trust yourself and do not listen to anyone who tells you, you cannot do it.
(b) Shadow a law school class, even if its not the law school you plan or hope to attend, shadowing a law school class is the best way to get a feel for the entire idea.
(c) Be an informed consumer; choosing a law school is like choosing a product. Do your research! The ABA, NCBE, and other reputable sources keep extremely accurate records on the number of Latino graduates, and other graduates who are POC. Look for diversity amongst professors, look for scholarships from the school, programming and supports for latinos, visit the website, look for notable alumni who are latino. Read anything and everything on the schools you consider. When you receive an offer, bargain, you know your worth. If you are admitted to a law school and you receive a $10,000 scholarship and your first choice school has not offered you any financial scholarship, write a letter to dean. Don’t be shy about letting admissions offices know, in a professional manner of course, that you know that you have much to contribute to their incoming class and you would like them to match that offer!
When you, as a Latina, decide that you are going to interject yourself in a space where few Latinas have traveled before, remind yourself, you are special.
You are going to have work twice as hard, you may struggle, you may feel isolated but there are safe spaces like Latinas Uprising and like the National Latino Law Students Association which are created for people like you. Serving as Vice Chair and as Executive Secretary on the national board for NLLSA was one of my saving graces in law school.
Last thing, your self worth is not defined by a grade, if you do not earn a high grade on a legal memo or on an exam that does that mean you are not worthy or that law school is not for you. It just means you have to work a little harder and you can do that. I am confident of it.
8. At Latinas Uprising, we focus on living a life well-lived. What’s something you do (or try to do) to help reduce the stress in your life and create a healthy lifestyle?
I ask my grandma for advice, I drink lots of water, eat a lot of Puerto Rican food (Rice and Beans at minimum), deep breaths, and go to church when I can. Anytime I feel overwhelmed, I put all my worries and concerns to god. I try to stay grounded and feel grateful. I do all that and run about three miles a day after work
One of the things I also try to do keep a healthy perspective. My story has humble beginnings and did not begin with me. My source of inspiration is my paternal grandmother has a third grade education, worked as a house maid and servant her entire adult life in Puerto Rico. When she moved to New York City she participated in the civil rights movement, attended the March on Washington and marched with Dr. Martin Lurther King Jr. She is 93 years old, does not speak English, and has limited education yet she is one the wisest people I know.