By Andrés Correa, ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE TEXAS LAWBOOK ON OCTOBER 22, 2017
In late 2016, I found myself making opening and closing arguments in front of a West Texas jury, asking them for more than $100 million in damages on behalf of our client, T. Boone Pickens. At the time, I was a seventh-year associate. My co-counsel – seasoned, highly accomplished trial lawyers Mike Lynn and Chrysta Castañeda – were watching closely, no doubt hoping I wouldn’t mess it up.
I was standing in front of the jury that day for several reasons, not least of which was because the folks in that jury box were nearly 100 percent Hispanic. I am a native of Chile, fluent in Spanish, who immigrated at age 11.
One of the most common worries of young minority lawyers is being trotted out in front of clients, judges or juries who share their ethnicity or race. So should I have worried?
A few weeks after the verdict, my firm welcomed me into its partnership. As I consider the challenges of business development, I wonder daily whether my “otherness” in America is an advantage as many believe – or an obstacle as it has been for hundreds of years. So once again I ask myself: should I worry?
There’s ample evidence for concern. It defies common sense to believe that America’s 200-year history with racism has no consequences today. Many of us are familiar with – or have directly experienced –the persistent biases against educated, professional members of a minority group when applying for a job or submitting their work for evaluation. I have been told to go back to my country, and that I’ve only succeeded thanks to affirmative action.
But that’s not the whole story. I was born in a humble neighborhood during a dictatorship. After immigrating, I lived in east New Orleans, where I witnessed stabbings and lost friends to gun violence. And yet today, here I am – – the first Hispanic partner at one of the top four litigation firms in Texas.
As a litigator, I have learned that no story is without its nuance. I firmly believe that, as an immigrant and a minority, I have to be better than my majority counterparts in order to be considered their equal. But those same majority counterparts have welcomed me into their fold. They have not just allowed me shine, they have shared the tools to succeed.
As minorities in the corporate world, we must walk a fine line. I cannot forget where I came from or look away from the injustices facing those who look and sound like me. I must also give my all to my clients, who come to the firm for solutions. I also have an obligation to help my business grow.
This balancing act is demanding, but we each have our own balancing acts, no matter our race or ethnicity. The best we can do is try to understand each other. Majority lawyers should do their best to understand the perspectives of their minority colleagues, while at the same time, minorities must tactfully share our experiences while listening to and acknowledging the perspectives of our majority colleagues.
All of this informed me – directly or indirectly – as I wrapped up my argument in that West Texas courtroom. With less than two hours of deliberation after a two-week trial, the jury awarded our client, Mr. Pickens, $146 million. It was not because of me. Our team – two well-known trial lawyers, preeminent appellate counsel, accomplished local counsel, and highly capable associates, as well as paralegals and secretaries – worked tirelessly for months to win, and we all played a role. Our client himself was the trial’s star witness.
That victory resulted from the hard work of a diverse team, which confirms what research has repeatedly shown: in business, a diverse team is the best team.
Before worrying too much about why it was me in front of the jury, I remind myself that I would have never set foot in that courtroom if I had not first earned my place in my high school, in undergrad, law school and within the ranks of my firm. And I know my team would have never thrown me into that challenge without the conviction that I could succeed.
Ultimately, excellence begins with your state of mind. No matter your race or origin, you must focus first on excellence, both as a lawyer and also as a person. Throw a little empathy and patience into the mix, and there should be nothing we cannot overcome as a team.
Andrés Correa is a partner at the law firm Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst.