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Seyfarth Partner Shares Paths He and Father Faced as Hispanic Lawyers

Dec. 15, 2021, 9:00 AM

My name is John Yslas, and I am a labor and employment partner in the Los Angeles office of Seyfarth Shaw and I have the privilege of being the chair of our firm’s Hispanic Affinity Group.

My father, Stephen Yslas, is former general counsel of Northrop Grumman, and now is a senior adviser in the Pittsburgh office of the law firm of Spilman, Thomas & Battle.

Our experiences in the legal profession—during different decades—have been similar in some ways and different in others. We recently shared our thoughts during national Hispanic Heritage Month in a Seyfarth webinar. I hope this insight reflects our discussion and experiences.

Our Backgrounds

My father’s family came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s. My paternal grandfather was a Mexican citizen who ultimately gained American citizenship to serve in World War II, and my paternal grandmother was born in El Paso, Texas.

My dad and I were born in Los Angeles—he in 1947 and I in 1968. My dad is entirely Mexican American, and I am half (the other half is German-American). My dad’s skin color is darker, mine is lighter, such that my dad has been identified by some as fitting a Mexican-origin stereotype.

As explained more below, while seldom and certainly improving over these many years, this stereotyping has resulted at times in assumptions and comments made directly to my dad. On the other hand, my experience has involved hearing candid comments from those not realizing my background or other times believing I was somehow not “really” Hispanic.

My dad spent the first several years of his life growing up in an integrated Los Angeles inner-city neighborhood before moving to a somewhat integrated but plurality White suburb. He eventually attended a nearby high school where more than a quarter of students were Hispanic.

Except for one year at an inner-city school as part of a busing program, I grew up in and attended schools in a largely White area. We both graduated from UCLA Law School, he in 1972 and I in 1996.

My dad spent most of his career at a Fortune 100 corporation, culminating in becoming general counsel. I’ve spent my entire career in law firms— first at a small, largely Hispanic law firm, and ultimately as a partner at major international law firms, at times in leadership roles.

My Father’s Journey in the 1970s and 1980s

My dad came of age during the 1960s civil rights movement. He marched in East Los Angeles during the Chicano Moratorium in 1970—a movement of anti-war and other activists that brought together a coalition of Mexican American community groups.

When he graduated from law school in 1972, there were few Hispanics in the legal profession and even fewer in leadership positions. He can recall few if any Mexican American corporate leaders or major law firm partners. Organizations such as the Hispanic National Bar Association, HNBA, founded in 1972, were just starting. It was difficult for him to find the type of organizational support and community that now exists.

On occasion, he endured hearing openly disparaging remarks, appallingly and wrongly suggesting that Hispanics were somehow less intelligent and untrustworthy and then sometimes belatedly and lamely identifying him as an exception to that stereotype. My dad put his head down and stayed focused, while still pushing back when necessary.

As the years went by, my dad steadily found allies and ways to give back to the Hispanic community. While recognizing the frustratingly inadequate numbers that still exist (particularly in corporate leadership), my dad saw the number of Hispanic attorneys slowly but steadily rise, organizations such as HNBA thrive, and our community build and grow stronger.

He saw ways to participate on boards and contribute to these advances. He saw opportunities to mentor others. He saw hope and progress.

My Journey Entering Law in 1990s

I came of age in the 1980s during a time of excess, a different time than my dad’s time in the 1960s.

Not knowing my background, a very small chorus of some (quite far from all) occasionally made disparaging remarks or felt the liberty to make crude jokes to me about Hispanics. Most others were kind and supportive.

As I matured, my voice became strong and proud. This pride manifested physically during college, with a tattoo of the Mexican flag emblem on my arm, and I became a counselor at my college Chicano Counseling Center. In retrospect, it was also my way of permanently altering my appearance to make my Hispanic roots clearly and unmistakably identifiable and demonstrate my deep desire to be accepted by other Hispanics as part of our community.

When I graduated from law school in 1996, the number of Hispanic attorneys had grown enough that I was able to land a job with a small law firm owned by Hispanics. I felt a sense of family and community at that firm. They introduced me to diversity organizations.

As I transitioned into Big Law, there were still few, but a growing number of Hispanic partners. Organizations such as HNBA became an essential part of my feeling of community and purpose. This included networking events, sharing of contacts and resources, and a growing number of intentional connections to other Hispanics.

And I have seen steady improvement in corporate efforts to increase diversity in hiring of attorneys within and as outside counsel. For instance, many corporations now demand diversity by teams proposing outside counsel and even grade them on their success in that regard.

Looking to the Future

There has been change since my father came out of law school, and although our representation is still far from where it should be, there are more Hispanic attorneys and law firms, more organizations, more community, more networks, more mentorship, more sponsorship, more platforms for a stronger and louder voice.

According to the latest data available from the American Bar Association, Hispanic lawyers comprise only 4.8% of attorneys in 2021. While this represents nearly a one percentage increase from 3.9% a decade ago, the U.S. population is 18.5% Hispanic. About 10.2% of all partners were Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American or mixed race in 2020, up from 6% in 2009, according to statistics from the National Association for Law Placement.

We’ve both participated heavily in civic and diversity efforts. For instance, my dad served on the Los Angeles Police Commission and boards such as the MLK Community Hospital Foundation, and I on the Los Angeles Civil Service Commission and currently as Southern California Regional President for the HNBA.

Unlike my dad’s era, where he was sometimes the first Mexican American to serve in some capacity, my generation has the expectation that civic, law firm and corporate positions are available. There have been more direct efforts to increase diversity at law firms, corporations and in government. We both now look to a time when it will be the norm that Hispanics routinely hold management positions at the highest levels.

Along the way, we have been so uplifted by many good, decent, and diverse allies and partners who celebrate our unique heritage and valuable contributions. And I feel a deep and personal responsibility that gives me great joy to seek justice, to mentor others, to foster community connections, and to do my humble part in hopefully opening doors for others.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

John Yslas is a partner in Seyfarth’s Labor & Employment department in Los Angeles. He serves as Southern California regional president for the Hispanic National Bar Association and as a trustee for the Mexican American Bar Foundation.

Stephen Yslas has practiced law from the early 1970s. He spent most of his career at Northrop Grumman (a Fortune 100 company) culminating in his ascension as general counsel, and now serves as senior adviser in the Pittsburgh office of Spilman, Thomas & Battle. He has served on boards promoting diversity and in volunteer civic roles, such as the Los Angeles Police Commission.