New class tries to make the law a better fit for the minority community

Fernando Flores, facing camera, gets to know the students in his new class at Be

Fernando Flores, facing camera, gets to know the students in his new class at Berkeley Law. (UC Berkeley photo by Jeremy Snowden)

Fernando Flores has no trouble pinpointing the moment he knew he wanted to become a lawyer.

Born in Chicago but living in Mexico until he was 8, Flores found himself the product of two worlds. When he was 12, he was hit by a car, breaking his femur. It was a paycheck-to-paycheck time for his family, and the medical bills savagely stretched family finances.

"I was one of eight people hit by a woman driving under the influence, and I was one of the two most severely injured," Flores says. "I had a pin through my knee and I had to lay flat for 30 days, then wear a cast from the stomach to the ankle for seven weeks."

Through it all, he had nothing but time to watch what was going on around him. He was particularly impressed by the attorney who got things done for the family, making the situation as easy as possible under difficult circumstances.

"I didn’t know and my family didn’t know if I was going to come back healthy," Flores says."I had already seen in my life injustice and discrimination, but this attorney showed me something different."

Flores went on to get an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, then a law degree from UC Davis. He’s been practicing law for about a dozen years now, branching out into high-performance coaching for lawyers, podcasting and writing. And now, he’s a new lecturer at Berkeley Law.

His every-other-Wednesday class is one Berkeley hasn’t seen before and one that Flores says "I don’t know exists in the United States." The course is called "Representing Spanish-Speaking Clients: Language, Culture and Emotional Intelligence." And while he says he’s actually more comfortable speaking English, he’s teaching the course in Spanish.

"It’s wild to be coming back to Berkeley," Flores said. "I couldn’t be more excited about teaching this class. It’s a reflection of the work I’ve been doing the last few years. For me, this ties into the work that I have been doing and how I can go about continuing to support professionals.

"I’ve been working with low-income immigrant communities where most of the people don’t speak English. They speak Spanish, Hindi, Tagalog or Chinese, and you have to learn to connect beyond language. You are going to trial arguing on behalf of your client, and you have to have the best information to do things right. In this class, I don’t want to just teach you language. I want to help you effectively represent some of the most vulnerable communities in California."

Molly Van Houweling, the Berkeley Law associate dean who hired Flores and helped put the class together, said that while the law school has had occasional classes taught in Spanish, this course is breaking other barriers at Berkeley.

"One way we gauge innovation is based on student interest, and a number of students have expressed an interest in a class conducted in Spanish," Van Houweling said. "And I was interested in Fernando’s interest in teaching many different ways to relate to clients beyond language. I hope it will be a very relevant class.

"He had ideas for teaching having to do with emotional intelligence, making sure the clients are comfortable with the legal system and get past having anxiety."

Students had to profess to having a working knowledge of Spanish to take part, but there still is learning to be done. Whether in English or in Spanish, the legal system has very specific and peculiar verbiage, and the chore will be what Van Houweling calls "explaining competitive legalese into words that everyone can understand."

Toward that end, Flores said the class will have a series of mock courtroom situations where students learn by role playing. Van Houweling is interested enough that she plans on dropping in on one of the sessions if she can, just to see it at work.

Before coming to Berkeley, Flores had been tutoring lawyers on emotional wellness, had been a staff attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and had founded iMater Now, a program designed, he says, "to promote wellness in the legal profession." Toward that end, he has created a series of podcasts at http://imaternow.com/attorney-heart-podcast/.

"I saw there was a need for wellness in the legal profession," he says. "For years I did not nourish my well-being. Once I did, that’s when I started to thrive as an advocate for my clients. And I want students from this class to come out of it feeling like effective advocates for this community that so badly needs them."

According to statistics from the Hispanic National Bar Association (NHBA), Latinos are 18 percent of the U.S. population but just 4 percent of American lawyers. Latinas count for less than 2 percent of U.S. lawyers.

Until those figures change - the numbers in California are somewhat better than the national figures - most Latinos, and most other minorities, will be represented by non-Latinos. And it’s here that Flores hopes to have an impact, starting with his new class.

This class is the first salvo being fired in what Berkeley Law is calling its Human Centered Lawyering Initiative. Van Houweling says the hope is the program will be an umbrella that will allow law school students to develop skills to help them connect with others as well as to understand their own needs in terms of wellness, health and balance with the hope of avoiding burnout.

In addition to Flores’ class, there will be a series of lunches open to Berkeley Law students this spring, the first of which is titled "Happiness in Law and Law School." It will be held Tuesday, Jan. 15.


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