Leading Ladies: Judge Maria A. Salas-Mendoza

What an honor and a privilege to hear from leaders in our profession on the topic of Diversity.  This week, TYLA Director Raymond Baeza interviewed the Honorable Maria A. Salas-Mendoza, Judge for the 120th Judicial District Court of Texas.

Thank you Judge Salas-Mendoza for contributing this week.

* Why is diversity important in the legal profession?

Diversity is very important in the legal profession because there is greater lack of information about the legal system, lack of trust in lawyers and the system and lack of time and resources among diverse populations, including racial and ethnic minorities and poor people.  Our system is even more intimidating when these individuals cannot find anyone within the system that even looks like them or is empathetic to their unique circumstances.

There are many barriers to access and not having diversity in prospective lawyers and the bench only heightens distrust among people who most need legal assistance.  Recent research by the American Bar Foundation found that blacks are 2.5 times more likely than white plaintiffs to file employment discrimination cases pro se; Hispanics and Asians are 1.9 times more likely to file pro se.

In the criminal area, not only is there an ever-increasing disparity between the number of minorities prosecuted and their representation in the general population, but also historically, the bench and bar have not been diverse.  Having diversity among the Bar and judiciary influences the perception of a fair system and can aid the trust and confidence among those with the most distrust and who perceive the system as biased.

We need competent, zealous, professional lawyers and judges of all walks of life because the community seeking the access our system of justice is increasingly diverse and we have an obligation to address disparities in representation, perceived bias and distrust of our system.

* Can you share a story about a female attorney you admire?

I have been fortunate enough to meet many wonderful women lawyers, but I most admire Adelfa Callejo who recently passed.  She was a civil rights warrior and paved the way for many behind her.  While I did not see her in the courtroom (I met her when she was already a legend!), I was moved by how passionate she was about all her civil rights work.  She impressed upon me how important it is to care about what we do; it is not enough to know the law and use it to help our clients (and hopefully, our community).  We need to care about the work, our clients and to respect the law.

* How have you seen the attitude toward women attorneys changed since you became licensed?

I do not believe there has been much change.  Women are still not valued in the same way; they are not trying as many cases as the male associates; they are not paid equally.  I have listened to many jurors perceive women differently–to fixate on their clothes and the tones of their voices much more than that of their male counterparts.

* How do you find balance between your personal and professional life?

There is no such thing.  When I am at work, I am not present for my family and when I am home, I am often working.  The only balance is accepting that I cannot do it all ALL of the time.

*What is your favorite thing to do when you are not practicing law?

I am involved in numerous community service projects with various Bar associations from working with 5th graders and aged-out foster youth and with my Lions Club, currently supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation, mentoring young women at the Job Corps, creating a closet of professional clothing for female probationers and supporting local food pantries.

The Honorable Maria A. Salas-Mendoza currently serves as the District Court Judge for the 120th Judicial District Court, in El Paso, Texas.
In addition to her service on the bench, Judge Salas-Mendoza is an active member of the legal community on the state and local level. She is a former officer of the El Paso Bar Association, and currently serves as a Board Member for the Judicial Section Council for the State Bar of Texas, and the Texas Women Lawyers. She has also been a featured speaker at a number of CLE events, including the Women on the Bench CLE, Texas Women Lawyers Annual Conference, the State Bar College, and the Advanced Evidence and Discovery CLE.
Judge Salas-Mendoza is also devoted to projects that serve the community, her projects include working with fifth graders and youth who are aging out of the foster care system, assisting female probationers with obtaining professional clothing, and supporting local food pantries.

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