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Latina lawyer learned law at Harvard, gains wisdom in Compton

June 3, 2009 | 11:15 am

Hector toba head Columnist Hector Tobar: Attorney Luz Herrera hopes that Sonia Sotomayor, if confirmed to the Supreme Court, can get across the message that the Latino experience is already 'a part of the fabric of U.S. society.'

I made a pilgrimage to Compton last week in search of wisdom, to a little storefront with bars over the windows and a liquor-grocer next door.

Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court nominee, set me off on this quest with her oft-repeated observation that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male ... "

Southern California is home, arguably, to more wise Latinas than any other place in the United States. The only Latina in Obama's cabinet (Labor Secretary Hilda Solis) is from here. And I personally know dozens more, starting with my mother, my wife, my mother-in-law and assorted professors, activists and sharp-minded stay-at-home moms.

But Judge Sotomayor was referring, specifically, to the law. So I thought I should go find a smart Latina attorney and ask her if she thought that was true. Does American jurisprudence look different though a Latina woman's eyes, and if so, what does she see in the United States that a wise "white male" does not?

Until recently, Luz Herrera, 36, ran a solo law practice in Compton. She was born in Tijuana to Mexican parents and raised in heavily Latino neighborhoods of unincorporated West Whittier. But she'll be the first to tell you that her background alone didn't make her wise. Neither, she says, did Harvard Law School, from which she graduated in 1999.

Luz herrera "I learned to think like a lawyer there," she said of Harvard. "I learned how to be a lawyer here. That's what Compton gave me."

For much of the last seven years, Herrera was the only full-time, Spanish-speaking lawyer with an office in Compton, a community with more than 50,000 Latino residents. She was more than a lawyer, she said, to many of her clients, most of whom were working people who needed a bit of "hand holding" along with a legal brief or two.

What Sotomayor can bring to American justice, Herrera told me, is something that Herrera longs for every day: the understanding that the Latino experience is already "a part of the fabric of U.S. society" and that this truth should be reflected in our legal system.

I first read about Herrera in the Los Angeles Daily Journal in March. Columnist Martin Berg called a visit to her Compton offices "a little jolt of hope and inspiration" in the gloom of an economic crisis that's hit the legal community hard.

Herrera traveled from West Whittier to Stanford, and then from Stanford to Harvard to Compton, because she's a proud Latina. Her journey is one of those American stories that reminds us that American wisdom is, by definition, a book written by people of many different colors, faiths and outlooks.

"I went into law because I wanted to represent people from my community," said Herrera, who graduated, as I did, from Pioneer High School in Whittier.

Hard work took Herrera to Harvard, where the grads, she said, think of their law degrees as "golden tickets." Herrera cashed in too, with a six-figure salary right out of law school. But during two years as a "corporate drone," she never entered a courtroom.

In law school she had discovered that the traditional path for Mexican American legal warriors -- civil-rights litigation -- wasn't her passion either. She wanted to do work that put her in touch with regular working people.

So in 2002 she set up a solo practice in the offices of a retiring attorney in Compton. Like Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Herrera hung up her shingle and took on the kinds of cases that typically are the bread and butter of small-town attorneys -- divorce and child custody, bankruptcy, probate and real estate transactions.

"I was scared and I was learning as I went along," she said.You might think of Compton as part of the big city, but in the eyes of the legal community it's in the boondocks, Herrera said. "People think that if you're working here you must not be a good lawyer."

But legal wisdom came, she said, in the unglamorous unfolding of cases in the satellite courthouses of Compton and Long Beach. And also in the East Los Angeles Small Claims Court, federal Bankruptcy Court and too many other places to mention.

Many of her clients were people like her own immigrant parents -- entrepreneurial, with some money to pay for a lawyer, but distrustful of the law.

There were a lot of people, she said, who were "freaked out" by the legal process. Often they ignored the summonses and legal documents that arrived in their mailboxes, hoping that the problems would just go away.

In this place, looked down upon by some of her fellow law school graduates, she saved people's homes and rescued their businesses.

"I thought, 'This is what I was meant to do,' " she said. "It's been a coming home."

At first, she said, she was surprised by the sheer number of people calling her office. Eventually, she began to see a truth about working-class Southern California that many others in the legal community either don't see or prefer not to talk about.

"There's only a system [of legal representation] for the well-off and for the very, very poor," Herrera said. Legal Aid helps the poorest people -- but your average middle- or working-class family would have to go into debt to pay the $300 hourly fee typically charged by many lawyers.

Herrera has become a leading voice in the "low bono" movement for affordable legal services. These days, she's winding down her private practice and opening a new nonprofit in Compton called Community Lawyers. She runs it with three other Latinas on her board, and together they hope to help change the way legal services are provided to Los Angeles County's working people.

"Ninety percent of the population needs a new model for legal services," Herrera said. She sees Community Lawyers as an "incubator" that will bring attorneys to places like Compton at rates residents can afford.

Herrera and attorneys like her are fighting to keep the people of Compton and places like it from being priced out of the U.S. legal system. They're trying to breathe new life into the principle known as equality before the law.

That's why she finds it so thrilling that a "Nuyorican" may be on the cusp of joining the highest court in the land.

"Latinas aren't any less American than anyone else," said Herrera, who also teaches at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.

Diversity on the Supreme Court isn't about putting tokens on the bench. It's about reflecting a new America that already exists all around us.

Go to the traffic courts of Huntington Park, to the small claims court of East Los Angeles, and you will find people who long for American justice. They carry the simple hope that the courts and the laws belong to them too.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

Read the comments on this column here.

Photo: Compton lawyer Luz Herrera hopes that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor shows that the Latino experience is already a part of U.S. society. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

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