Los Angeles US Attorney Sells Diverse Lawyers on Jobs in Office
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Los Angeles US Attorney Sells Diverse Lawyers on Jobs in Office

Martin Estrada, the new US attorney in Los Angeles, is trying to tackle the barriers of convincing lawyers of color to join his office as prosecutors.

The former federal line attorney, whose parents immigrated to the US from Guatemala, said in an interview he’s “very cognizant” of the “skepticism” toward prosecutors in communities of color.

“I see that as something that is healthy and often appropriate, but something that I need to work on overcoming through education,” said Estrada, 45, who was a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson before being sworn in last September.

Estrada has in his first month on the job routinely brought his recruiting pitch for the Central District of California—the nation’s most popular jurisdiction—to minority bar associations, law schools, and other forums.

He touts a focus on high-impact cases against the most aggressive offenders, including those who prey on victims of color. He’s also said his office won’t be targeting low-level offenders for drug crimes.

The outreach is earning accolades from the city’s minority legal community, including former attorneys in the office. Still, they caution it’s a hard sell, given discomfort about how law enforcement targets people of color.

“That’s a heavy one. If you are a person of color, that’s a deep-seeded philosophical question,” said Terrence Jones, founding partner at Cameron Jones LLP, who worked alongside Estrada when both were federal prosecutors in Los Angeles. “How do you feel about changing something from the inside? Is it in your personal constitution” to “make an effort—while sometimes having to bang your head against the wall—to try to prompt systemic change?”

‘Looked Badly Upon’

Estrada cites high profile white-collar cases he hopes can attract diverse applicants such as the fraud indictment earlier this month against Thomas Girardi and other attorneys accused of stealing more than $15 million from clients.

Yet new assistant US attorneys are more likely to handle lower-level crimes, including drug trafficking cases that can carry mandatory minimum sentences and raise concerns about racial bias.

“You don’t want to be put in a position where your entire responsibility in the job would be to prosecute Black and Brown people, particularly in relation to drug crimes, and particularly small drug crimes that have sometimes draconian results and penalties,” said Byron McLain, a former deputy chief of the Los Angeles office.

“That is a significant hurdle for Martin to overcome, but I also think that he is in a prime position to be the type of person who is willing and able to do that,” said McLain, now a partner at Foley & Lardner. He’s impressed with Estrada’s “assertive” outreach to minority legal organizations.

Minority Prosecutors

The Central district jurisdiction covers 20 million people and employs more attorneys than all but one of the 94 US attorney offices nationwide. It expects to hire more than two dozen lawyers in 2023, said office spokesman Ciaran McEvoy.

He declined to provide statistics on the district’s current racial breakdown. Internal Justice Department data from fiscal 2021 obtained by Bloomberg Law shows minorities accounted for 19.9% ​​of the 6,398 lawyers at all US attorney offices nationwide.

Estrada said diversifying the legal profession has been a career-long passion.

As the district’s chief prosecutor, he was appointed by the White House and served at the direction of Attorney General Merrick Garland. But he has autonomy to set policies that meet local needs, including hiring goals.

In this instance, his mission dovetails with the Biden administration’s emphasis on diversity, and he joins a list of more than two dozen other Biden-nominated minority US attorneys.

Non-Prison Alternatives

Diversifying the lower echelons of US attorney offices can be harder. Former federal prosecutors of color in LA said it’s critical to explain to applicants that prosecutors are empowered to do far more than put people behind bars.

“Sometimes justice means finding a non-prison alternative to sentencing, and sometimes it means dismissing a case, sometimes it means not filing and going forward with a case at all,” said Marina Torres, who as a former federal prosecutor served on the LA district’s hiring and diversity committee.

“The more that we get that out there to diverse communities, it’s been my experience that it really shifts the dynamics,” said Torres, now a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher.

Young lawyers of color inspired to address racial inequities in their work tend to gravitate to jobs as public defenders, said Rasha Gerges Shields, a Jones Day partner who was hired as a federal prosecutor in LA the same day as Estrada in 2007.

They’re inclined to view US attorney slots as reserved for a pipeline of Big Law associates or Ivy Leaguers, several lawyers said

“I try to convince them that they should basically not self-segregate out of positions of power,” said Gerges Shields, the immediate past chair of the Arab American Lawyers Association in Southern California.

Estrada sent an encouraging signal to minority lawyers in his recent selection of Mack Jenkins, a Black man, as criminal chief. The veteran prosecutor brings a reputation as “very fair” and open-minded, which should give his prosecutors more power to speak up about pursing leniency, Gerges Shields said.

Silvia Argueta, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said Estrada’s engagement with her office and others has her ready to endorse the move if one of her attorneys was contemplating it.

“I would say, it’s a new day over there in many ways. And I would encourage it, as much as I’d like to keep my lawyers,” Argueta said. “If you’re really set on doing this, this is the time to do it.”

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