By Andrew Cohen
Quyen Ta ’03, called it “a passion project born out of my own experience.” Ernesto Rojas ’21 called it “an important step in helping us feel like we truly belong.” Maria Sanchez ’21 called it “an opportunity to help build a community that will support me throughout my career.”
Another thing they called Berkeley Law’s inaugural First Generation Professionals Private Sector Institute: A heartening success.
The co-head of Boies Schiller Flexner’s San Francisco office, Ta and Nasrina Bargzie ’05 (counsel there) coordinated the recent event and hosted it at the firm. Designed for first generation professional 2Ls and 3Ls who intend to practice in the private sector, the Institute offered helpful advice, support, and networking with area law-firm partners, in-house counsel, judges, and clients—including prominent alumni across those sectors.
“I remember how disorienting it was to navigate law school early in my legal career,” says Ta, a Vietnamese refugee who grew up in subsidized housing in San Jose. “It’s not easy when you don’t have anyone in your family or economic circle to guide you and you’re adjusting to a whole new culture. When I was a young associate, people would talk about vacations skiing in Vail or diving in Morocco and I’d think, ‘I don’t even know how to ski or swim.’”
With 26 Berkeley Law FGP students on hand, panels with Ta and fellow alumni Khari Tillery ’01 (Keker, Van Nest & Peters), Anhthu Le ’04 (Ramar Foods), Demian Pay ’97 (Chevron Corporation), and Eric Alderete ’97 (Molina Healthcare) shared tips for succeeding at firms, in-house, and other private-sector workplaces.
Ta, Berkeley Law’s 2018 Young Alumni Award winner, described the impact of uncertainties regarding networking, wardrobe, topics of conversation, and even what to eat during lunch meetings. “Now, having supervised more than 100 associates and having worked hard to recruit, hire, and retain top diverse legal talent, I see how first-generation professionals still contend with issues of socialization and isolation,” she says.
That led Ta and Bargzie to contact Eric Stern, deputy director of Berkeley Law’s Career Development Office, to brainstorm how to combat class issues that can fuel the attrition of first-generation lawyers. They reached out to Rojas, co-leader of Berkeley Law’s growing First Generation Professionals (FGP) group, and the Institute soon emerged.
Sharing stories, building support
Rojas, whose parents came to the U.S. from El Salvador and Mexico, notes that many first generation students feel added pressure from being the first in their family or neighborhood to pursue a legal career.
“While there are many things law students can take for granted if they’ve had a family member in this type of space, for those of us who are first generation professionals it’s new terrain and you don’t know if something on your mind is a dumb question or not,” he says. “FGP and the Institute create a space where people feel supported and heard.”
Another panel featured Northern District of California federal judges Donna Ryu ’86 and Haywood Gilliam, and Alameda County Superior Court judges Victor Rodriguez ’03 and Eumi Lee. Discussing strategies for pursuing clerkships and interacting with jurists, they also described their own paths to the bench—and their challenges and triumphs along the way.
Raised by farmworkers, Rodriguez shared how his first interaction with lawyers was helping his parents clean a local courthouse as janitors. Ryu noted the importance of early mentors she met as a young lawyer at a major firm. Gilliam talked about the formative experience of being a mentee and law clerk of Judge Thelton Henderson ’62. Lee touted the importance of finding support from minority bar organizations, such as the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area.
“A lot of these students are already on track for jobs at clerkships, firms, or other opportunities in the private sector, but how do we keep them in the room? How do we ensure they have a seat at the table?” Rojas says. “Programs like this provide critical support to help make that happen.”
Panelists also shared approaches for bringing in business and maintaining client relationships, building on an FGP networking program last month sponsored by Perkins Coie and presented by attorney Paul Navarro. A mentorship group listserv emerged from the Institute, and FGP sends weekly emails to a growing recipient list that offers an online forum for questions, concerns, and insights.
A common dilemma among first generation lawyers in the private sector is how to pursue a rewarding career while also giving back to the community. Legal nonprofit executive directors Chris Punongbayon (Change Lawyers), Aarti Kohli (Asian Americans Advance Justice-Asian Law Caucus), and Joan Graff (Legal Aid at Work) explained that it’s not an either-or proposition, conveying concrete ways to balance financial need with altruistic intention.
“What attracted me to FGP is that it’s not just one ethnicity or race confronting these issues,” Rojas says. “At the Institute, hearing from a diverse range of now hugely successful lawyers who faced the same doubts we have, it built confidence and brought people together.”
The program resonated with Maria Sanchez ’21. Born and raised in Los Angeles County to Mexican immigrant parents with a grade school education, she has had to “create my own path and be proactive in seeking information and resources.”
“In law school, where networking is key, as a first generation student that sometimes is a daunting experience because it can be difficult building relationships with people in the profession who typically come from very different backgrounds,” she says. “That’s why I really appreciate the FGP mentorship program that Eric Stern helps facilitate.”
Through that program, Sanchez gained “a great mentor that I was really able to connect with” who helped her navigate the on-campus interview process and ultimately land a summer associate position. As a result, she relished the chance to attend the Institute.
“I enjoyed getting to learn about the panelists’ amazing career trajectories,” Sanchez says. “It was inspiring to hear where they are now and see the confidence they exude despite all the obstacles they faced along the way. It really made me feel like that could be me in a few years.”
The Institute and expanding presence of Berkeley Law’s FGP student group has impressed alumni such as Alderete.
“People talk about the pipeline, but it must keep getting fed after students come through the door,” he says. “Programs like the Institute teach important lessons about law-firm culture—ways to succeed and pitfalls to avoid. Partners often instinctively help people who look like and remind themselves of them, and FGP students headed to firms have to understand that’s part of the environment they’ll be joining.”
Students and alumni alike emphasize that the Institute is a launching point, not a stand-alone event.
“This Institute will grow and expand the ways in which we help first generation students move the needle more quickly,” Ta says. “In time, there will be more diverse and first generation lawyers in positions of power who can bring in business, assign work, and teach others how to navigate the legal system. By paying it forward, the process and the Institute will fuel itself.”