Minority lawyers operating in white-dominated spaces face unique challenges as they navigate careers in the legal profession. As negative stereotypes assault them from without, self-doubt and imposter syndrome can develop within. DeMario Thornton welcomes Michael Nava, a gay, Mexican-American author and attorney, to gain insights from his remarkable career and hear his thoughts on overcoming discrimination and supporting diversity in the legal world.
Michael Nava is the author of an acclaimed series of seven crime novels featuring gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios. Michael spent many years working as an attorney in California and retired from the law in July 2016.
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Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You’re listening to the Legal Talk Network.
DeMario Thorinton: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Legal Talk Network, and this is the ABA’s Law Student Podcast. I am your host, DeMario Thorinton. I’m a three L at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. You heard that right, three L, that means I’m almost out of here okay. But in my spare time, I like to do this podcast so we have an exciting episode for you today. So, today we Michael Nava. He is an attorney. He’s a writer. He’s worked on the staff for the California Supreme Court and ran for the Superior Court position in 2010. He is the author of the “Henry Rios” book series. It’s a 10-volume mystery. It’s about an openly gay protagonist who is a criminal defense lawyer. So, his novels have received multiple awards. He has received multiple awards and he is one of the leading activists in the Latin X community. So, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, please welcome Mr. Michael Nava. How are you today?
Michael Nava: I’m great. Nice to see you DeMario.
DeMario Thorinton: Nice to see you as well. So, if you could just give us a little background. How did you get to this point today?
Michael Nava: I’m a third generation Californian. My great grandparents came up from Mexico in the 1920s to escape the Mexican revolution, so they were refugees. I am the first person in my family to go to college and to have any kind of higher education. My family is blue collar, Mexican-American. I got a scholarship to a little school called Colorado College where I did my undergraduate work. I got my law degree at Stanford and I’ve started writing when I was a teenager so that’s been a long-time interest of mine. After I graduated from law school, I moved to LA where I was a prosecutor for a while. Then I was briefly in private practice before I went to go work as a research attorney at the California Court of Appeal, where I worked for a Judge named Arley Woods, who was the first African-American woman appointed to the California Court of Appeal. When she retired, I moved up to San Francisco and I worked at the California Supreme Court where among other things, I was a research attorney for Justice Carlos Moreno, who was only the third Latino ever appointed at the California Supreme. So, I’ve spent my life, my legal career as an appellate attorney working mostly at the courts. And I also wrote a series of these novels, the “Rios” novels. The protagonist is, as you say, he’s a gay Mexican American criminal defense lawyer and the first one was published long before you were born to DeMario, in 1986.
DeMario Thorinton: Well, it wasn’t long before. It was only two years before.
Michael Nava: Okay, but you couldn’t have read it.
DeMario Thorinton: I could not have read it. You are correct.
Michael Nava: And the most recent one came out just last year. So, I pursued both writing and law and they in fact complimented each other because they’re often involve the same themes of marginalization, and just how people of color and LGBTQ people navigate a world in which they are not only a minority, but frequently the object of discrimination.
DeMario Thorinton: And I definitely understand.
Michael Nava: Yeah, I’m sure.
DeMario Thorinton: So, I just want to tell you, Michael that the work that you’ve done is so ahead of your time. Like I just want to know already coming into the legal profession, being a Mexican American, you’re already a minority. But then to actually be comfortable enough to be an out gay men, was that ever a struggle for you or it was something that you were just like, this is me and I’m just going to go with the flow?
Michael Nava: Well, you know, I’ve been out since I was 17 and of course, being out is a relative thing because not out of any sense of shame about being gay, but just for my own safety.
There were some situations in which I did not come out. For example, when I was prosecuting cases in Los Angeles, most of my witnesses and investigators were members of the LAPD, and yeah, I didn’t come out to them because LAPD then and now was a pretty militaristic and homophobic, and racist institution. So, just for my own safety and to maintain a professional relationship with them, I kept my personal stuff out. But at every job I’ve had as a lawyer, I came out. It was very important to me that my employers know I was gay just because it was already stressful enough being a lawyer in the situations without having to carry around a secret. And also, I didn’t want to work for people for whom that would be a problem. So, yeah, I’ve always been out on the job.
DeMario Thorinton: Okay, I definitely understand that. So, do you believe that it was harder being a first-generation law student or being a minority law student?
Michael Nava: Well, I definitely think that being a person of color was more difficult. Although, I mean when you look at me, obviously, I can pass for white. I mean, I don’t have the classic Mexican features so a lot of my classmates didn’t understand and they didn’t know Nava was a Spanish last name. In fact, one of my Jewish law school friends, when she heard my last name, she said, “Oh, Nava. What was it before it was shortened.” I had to explain to her, I didn’t come in through Ellis Island and it wasn’t shortened. But I mean, in and of itself, that was a kind of a racial right? Because I was surrounded by, at Stanford, mostly overwhelmingly white student population who weren’t necessarily even aware that there were people among their missed who weren’t white, except for the handful of African American students we had, I mean, obviously they were minority students. And in this essay, I wrote for the ABA Student magazine, I point out at the time I was sitting in the courtyard at Stanford and two of my white classmates were talking about minority students, and one of them said to the other one, “Oh, they’re all affirmative action admits.” So, I think that was also a prevailing attitude is that those us who were students of color had come in, were in some ways intellectually inferior and had been admitted for political reasons not because of our ability.
DeMario Thorinton: Yeah. I was actually going to bring up your essay, but since you brought it up, I’m ready to get into it.
Michael Nava: Yeah, let’s talk about that.
DeMario Thorinton: So, you wrote an essay entitled, I Wish I’d Known, and basically the essay talks about a specific instance which I’m sure you’ve had more than one of these instances, but a specific instance where you overheard two white counterparts in law school and they basically discounted why you were there. And I just want to say to you, before I read your bio, before anything, I read this essay and I have had this exact same experience. So, I am a three L in law school. I’ve summered at some of the top law firms in the country, and my experience is, I was number one in my class my first year and when I got to these law firms, I genuinely felt that people thought that I was some type of lottery ticket, some type of, I guess token where I wasn’t as qualified as them. However, because I am black and I check off a certain box, I was just given this opportunity. Tell me more about it.
Michael Nava: Yeah, I think that’s the preconception that we all labor under and it’s infuriating really but that is the very definition of white supremacy, right? And, we think of white supremacy in terms of sort of these mega trampers who are openly racist and disparaging the people of color. But actually, it permeates the entire establishment including the legal establishment and these firms we’re talking about where these people, these white attorneys who undoubtedly might call, think of themselves as being progressive people politically.
They are also infected because when a white partner at a big law firm sees a black summer associate at some level in their heads, they’re thinking, “Oh, I know why we got. I know why we have her here. We need a little color in the office.” That’s kind of be the first thing they think about rather than if they see a white summer associate, they’re obviously not going to, there’s going to be no question in their mind about the qualifications of that person to be there. But if they see a black summer associate or an associate with a Latino last name, they’re going to think at some level that we are there to fulfill some sort of diversity quote and not because we deserve to be there. And part of my essay was about, yeah, we sure as hell deserve to be there but this is, one of the currents we have to fight is these pre-conceptions.
DeMario Thorinton: So, I have a great response to that but we are going to take a quick break and pay for this podcast.
All right, so we are back with Mr. Michael Nava and we are discussing his essay entitled, I Wish I’d Known, and he made an excellent point about the qualifications and being a minority in white spaces in the legal profession. And I actually want to say to you, sometimes while they think that we are just checking off boxes, we have to be almost more than qualified just to even be in the spaces. And it’s almost an internal, I guess, like I’m always beating myself up. It’s like I can never relax. I always have to be on because I am being watched at all times, and I have to be at a certain threshold just to exist in these spaces.
Michael Nava: Well, it’s not simply that you’re being watched DeMario, it’s also that you are being evaluated in a way that your white counterparts aren’t being evaluated. I mean, I’m not saying that this is universally true and certainly, I’ve been mentored by white lawyers and some of my closest friends, they’ve been my white colleagues. So, I’m not making a general statement about white people but I am saying that as you know and I know that frequently white people in the legal profession will look at us and they will assume without knowing anything about us that we’re less qualified than our white counterparts. And so, when they evaluate us, they’re already assuming, well you can’t do the job. And so, yeah, we do internalize that. I mean, that’s internalized racism and it’s a poison that we’re all infected with, and a lot of us suffer from what’s called the imposter syndrome, where we’re constantly having, we’re doubting ourselves, we’re doubting our abilities and we’re fearful of making mistakes, mistakes our white counterparts make without a second thought, because when we make mistakes, it may have more serious consequences. It sorts of confirms the bias that people already have that we can’t do the job. So, I totally understand where you’re coming from and I’ve mentored law students of color and undergrads of color, many of them like me first generation in college and law school and this is a constant, this sort of lack of self-confidence is a constant. And I encouraged them I say, “Look, whatever people may think of you, you know you’re here because you deserve to be here. And that’s what you got to hang onto. And you got to find a community that will support you in that belief.”
DeMario Thorinton: And speaking of support, I have actually experienced the entire spectrum. I worked at a firm that I truly believe valued my differences and wanted to include me into their tribe, and they wanted to know just my background. They wanted to understand me and I definitely believe that was inclusive. While on the other spectrum, I worked at a firm where I did check a box and because I checked the box, there was no inclusion whatsoever. But like you said, there are valuable parts of this profession because I attend a historically black college and university and I believe that my institution really boosts my confidence in classes and it’s an incubator in order for me to go out and handle these situations. The work that you’re doing with mentoring, do you believe that that’s important to boost their self-esteem so that when they do interact with these things, they will prepared.
Michael Nava: It’s absolutely vital and I know that the Mexican American Bar Association here in San Francisco, they have a mentoring program where they connect law students with practicing lawyers because again, so many of us are first generation. I mean, I didn’t meet any lawyers until I went to law school and my law school professors. So, it’s very important to see people who are succeeding, have already succeeding that the thing you want to do and who can talk to you about these extra burdens that we have to deal with and people to whom you can be honest, because like you’re saying DeMario, I mean often, we have to put on a certain face when we’re in these white spaces and we can’t really let our vulnerabilities show. And so, we need someone that we can just vent with and just say, what’s with these people. And someone who’s been through it and who can sort of help us understand what those spaces are about and how to navigate them. So, mentorship is absolutely crucial.
DeMario Thorinton: Do you have a feeling, I guess since you exist in the legal profession, do you have a feeling that you are changing the profession for the better or do you feel that you’ve just become part of the status quo?
Michael Nava: Well, that’s a very insightful question and I think the answer is yes and yes. For example, I spent the last 19 years of my legal career working at the California Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court has a huge staff of lawyers. And there are at least a hundred of us working for the justices and working for various specialized staffs. And there were, I think maybe two black lawyers and I think there were maybe three next lawyers. And this is at the highest court in California that’s making decisions that are impacting the lives of Californians which is — you know, California is a state in which white people are no longer majority. So, I think just by being there, by being a visible member of the Latino community and by being a lawyer who was obviously competent and respected by his peers, that does have some impact on people when they think about issues that affect the Latino community. You know, you can’t stay wedded to your stereotypes and biases about black people or Latino people if one of them is sitting next to you in your office and doing the same work you are and doing it well. So, I do think that just by our presence and our professionalism that we do, change the perceptions of those who are in our immediate vicinity. But it’s true, we’ve become part of the system and it is a system that has some real problems when it comes to the communities that we come from.
DeMario Thorinton: Coming into law school, my sole purpose was to be a public defender. That’s what I wanted to be. That’s what I wanted to do. You could not speak to me about any other type of law matter of fact, I just wanted to take criminal law every semester and that was that. After working at my first summer firm, I was like, okay I think I might need the resources and I think that I really like this civil litigation route. But the struggle, the internal struggle that I was having was, am I being a sellout for not working in the public interest arena and just by working in like the corporate world. Do you feel that’s normal?
Michael Nava: I know that’s normal and that’s part of the kind of internalize doubt that we have about ourselves, that so many of us feel that it’s a binary choice where either working in public interest or we’re selling out. But that’s not true. You should absolutely be a partner at a big firm because we need to be everywhere because, for better or worse, this is the system that we’re entering where much of the power and the influence of the legal profession is in those firms and we need to be there.
We don’t all need to go into public service or become public defenders. We need to be partners at big law firms. We need to be like me working behind the scenes at the court. We need to be everywhere and you should feel absolutely no guilt about that. And also, I will say in terms of building a resume, it is valuable for us to do more than one thing. I mean, I was in private practice for a couple of years. I was a prosecutor for a few years and then I worked at the courts. I also briefly did some criminal defense work as an appellate lawyer. So, the more varied experiences you have, the more credible you are as a lawyer and you should end up on the federal bench because we really need judges too. So, no, absolutely. I mean, I understand the conflict but you should go where your interests take you and not feel any shame about making those. There are lots of people who want to be PDAs.
DeMario Thorinton: Good deal. Well, we’re going to take a break and we’ll be back for some final thoughts with Mr. Nava.
All right, we are back with the novelist, Mr. Nava. Have you heard that before?
Michael Nava: Yes.
DeMario Thorinton: Of course, you have.
Michael Nava: Michael Novel.
DeMario Thorinton: So, some final thoughts, I just want to know, I believe watching the news and watching this entire political theater that we see on a daily, sometimes we can become distracted. Do you feel like it’s getting better with the diversity and the way people are thinking in the profession, or it’s just a race?
Michael Nava: That’s another difficult question to ask. I would say, because I’m an old man now, I’m going to turn 68 this month, but when I passed the board in 81, there was not even much discussion about diversity. It was just assumed that the legal profession was a profession dominated by straight white guys. So, what I’ve seen is a greater and growing sensitivity to the need to diversify the profession not for some reason of political correctness, but just because the demographics of our population are changing, right? And it just looks bad when you have profession dominated by straight white guys and the population is increasingly a population of color in this country. So, I would say it’s better in the sense that there is greater consciousness and awareness, and that there are some serious initiatives. But I will also say it hasn’t changed that much. I mean, California where I live, the profession is still over 80% white. The judiciary is still over 80% white. And so, the consciousness has changed but the actual concrete changes have been very slow and incremental.
DeMario Thorinton: Well, Mr. Nava, I want to thank you so much for this in-depth conversation, this discussion. Where can people find you on social media?
Michael Nava: I’m not on social media.
DeMario Thorinton: Okay. Well, if people want to find you or find your works.
Michael Nava: So, you could find my work just by googling, Michael Nava, and I’ll come up all over the place and you could reach me through. I do have a website, michaelnavawriter.com. Or honestly, if anyone listening to this program, any law student or young lawyer wants to talk to me, email me. My email address is [email protected]. I’m happy to talk to anyone about these issues.
DeMario Thorinton: Well, I want to thank you so much, Michael, for joining us and I want to thank the listeners for joining us. If you just happen to stumble upon our podcast, make sure to follow, rate and review, and we hope that you come back next month as we will have another exciting conversation with someone else. So, thanks again and we’ll see you next time.
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