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From Farmworker to Attorney: Growing a Legal Career

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Two weeks before he headed off to college, Román D. Hernández was harvesting onions for 16 cents a bushel in rural eastern Oregon.

“Now the process is automated,” he says. “Back then, people worked bent over close to the ground or on their knees.”

Hernández is the youngest of eight children; their parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico and were migrant farmworkers in Texas, Michigan, and Ohio before they settled in Oregon.

“My parents had very little formal education, but they were hardworking and intelligent,” he says. “They instilled in us the value of education as a means to success.”

Hernández has parlayed those lessons into a stellar law career. He is an attorney practicing employment law, labor law, and business litigation with the Portland firm of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. He is also president of the Hispanic National Bar Association and a board member of Oregon Health & Science University.

Growing up, Hernández didn’t know any lawyers or judges. “A career in law never crossed my mind until I entered the military,” he says. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1992 after earning his bachelor’s degree from Oregon State University with the help of an ROTC scholarship.

Hernández served as squadron section commander of a New Mexico–based fighter squadron. In that role, he took part in the administration of nonjudicial punishment and also served as a jury member during a court martial.

“I saw lawyers as key players. They helped determine what crimes had been committed and assessed the scope of punishment,” he says.

On the advice of an Air Force Judge Advocate General officer—who happened to be the first Latino lawyer he had ever met—Hernández applied to law school. He says that the military helped him to mature and develop professionally, which served him well when he entered Lewis & Clark Law School in 1997. He credits Henry Drummonds, professor of law, with his choice of law practice.

“Employment law integrates the full spectrum of legal theories—contractual, constitutional, and regulatory— that govern the employer-employee relationship,” he says.

At Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, Hernández advises employers on effective policies and procedures and defends his clients in court. “In this economic downturn, wrongful termination lawsuits have spiked significantly,” he says.

His enthusiasm about his law career is matched by his passion for his role in the Hispanic National Bar Association. Having participated in the association’s moot court proceedings during law school, he joined the HNBA in 2000. In September 2009, he took the helm as the organization’s national president.

Since then, Hernández has been diligently moving forward on a number of professional development and membership programs, including:

■ Continuing legal education classes that feature HNBA members as speakers

■ A corporate counsel conference that encourages the development of business relationships between members and in-house counsel

■ Mock trial programs that reach disadvantaged high school youth

■ Advocating for increased judicial appointments of HNBA members with members of Congress and with the White House

“HNBA was the only national Latino organization to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he says. “She’s an exceptional jurist whose appointment, while long overdue, epitomizes the American dream. It’s a story I’ll tell my 4-year-old son when he’s a little older.”

Hernández’ pride and gratitude extend to his own law firm. “Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt is a leader in recruiting, retaining, and promoting ethnic minorities and women,” he says. “Without the firm’s support, I would not have the opportunity to lead a national organization.”

—by Pattie Pace

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