A Brief History of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, Inc., and the Puerto Rican Bar Association Scholarship Fund, Inc.
The Puerto Rican Bar Association, Inc. (PRBA) was founded in 1957 by a group of Puerto Rican and Latino attorneys who began gathering socially to offer one another both personal and professional support in an era when it was difficult for attorneys of color to be accepted as members in established bar associations. The PRBA at that time focused its efforts on addressing the concerns of a rapidly growing Latino community and the legal services it required. Today, the PRBA has grown from a handful of attorney to over 500 members representing the interests of attorneys, judges, law professors and students of Latino descent who share a common interest in fostering professional development in the legal community and addressing issues that are important to other Latino communities as a whole.
The idea of a bar association that would meet the needs of Latino attorneys existed many years prior to 1957. As early as 1934, a few practitioners servicing the Puerto Rican community began to organize and subsequently formed what was to be the earliest predecessor of today’s PRBA called the Pan-American Lawyers’ Association. Subsequently, in the mid 1940’s, a new organization called the Spanish-American Bar Association was organized which, in 1957, became the present day PRBA. The original incorporators of the PRBA were Rafael Descartes, Francisco Rodriguez Jr., Roberto Ortiz, Sixto Laureano, Demostenes Santiago Roque and Oscar Gonzalez Suarez. Among the members of the committee of the original bylaws were Felipe N. Torres, chairmen, who was the first Puerto Rican Family Court Judge and who previously had served as the first Puerto Rican Assemblyman from the Bronx; Oscar Garcia Rivera, the first Puerto Rican Assemblymen from New York City and the first President of the Puerto Rican Bar Association; Emilio Nunez, who later served as Justice of the Appellate Division, First Department; and Jose Quinones, Roberto Lebron, Luis Garcia and Manuel Nelson Zapata, all practicing attorneys.
The Puerto Rican Bar Association Scholarship Fund Inc.
In 1978, the Puerto Rican Bar Association Scholarship Fund, Inc. (the “PRBA Scholarship Fund”) was founded as a separate corporate entity registered under the New York State Not-For-Profit Corporation Law by the then-President of the PRBA, the late Donald Grajales, distinguished New York State Court of Claims Judge. The PRBA Scholarship Fund was created for the purpose of raising funds to award financial scholarships to deserving law students. Thanks to the generosity of corporate and member contributions at the Annual PRBA Scholarship Fund Gala Banquet, the PRBA Scholarship Fund has been able to award over $200,000 in scholarship awards. The PRBA is currently seeking to establish a foundation that will permanently fund these scholarships.
The Puerto Rican Bar Association of the New Millennium
Since its early beginning, the PRBA has grown to be one of the nation’s largest, oldest and most important Latino bar associations. In defining its role in the new century, the PRBA believes that it is now prepared to take a more proactive approach toward its involvement in community affairs and in particular, its involvement in not only reacting to law and policy that impacts the Latino community, but in helping to shape it. In furtherance of this goal, the PRBA has initiated a number of initiatives through the formation of various committees and is proud of their accomplishments.
The Work of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, Inc.
In recent years, the PRBA has developed a presence in the nation’s capital through the work of its Legislative Committee on various issues, including (i) opposing “English Only” through written policy statements to the United Sitates Judiciary Committee; (ii) testifying before Congress on the right of Puerto Rico’s self determination, (iii) advocating on behalf of federal judicial candidates before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and various U.S. Senators, and (iv) submitting amicus briefs to the United States Supreme Court. Given the extent of the PRBA’s active involvement in issues of national concern, in October 1999, the process of establishing a Washington D.C. Chapter of the PRBA was initiated by the PRBA, together with a group of 25 lawyers practicing in the Washington, D.C. area. The Formation of a Washington D.C. Chapter will insure the PRBA’s commitment toward continued and greater advocacy on behalf of important issues that impact not only the Latino community, but the nation as a whole. In addition to its legislative agenda, the PRBA continues to be committed to the issues that are important to its members, including professional development and community service.
An important part of the PRBA’s growth has been largely due to the growing influence and contribution of women to the PRBA and the legal profession. Women now constitute at least one half of the members of the PRBA and have assumed an important leadership role within the PRBA over the years, including the role of president. In fact, the Women’s Committee has grown into one of the most active committees of the PRBA through its advocacy regarding legislative and policy issues affecting Latinos and the development of numerous workshops focusing on issues that impact women in the legal profession. Another important committee of the PRBA dedicated to professional development is the Committee to Encourage Judicial Excellence. Through this committee, the PRBA advocates for diversity in the judiciary and mentors talented attorneys who are interested in judicial service. This committee also makes recommendations regarding the PRBA’s “Excellence in the Judiciary Award” which was last bestowed upon the Honorable Jose A. Cabranes, Judge of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In addition to professional development, the PRBA is dedicated toward promoting community service.
In 1997, the Community Out reach Committee introduced the “We the Jury Project”, an educational and mentorship program where students receive classroom instruction regarding the justice system and serve as mock jurors in a real courtroom with participating court staff, judges and trial attorneys. Moreover, the Student Outreach Committee works with a non-voting law student representative who serves on the Board of Directors to develop and implement workshops and programs to assist law students during the academic year. The Student Outreach Committee hosts an annual strategy session with the presidents of the Latino Law Student Associations at various law schools to discuss the needs of law students. In addition, the PRBA has partnered with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund to establish a mentoring program for law students. Furthermore, the Pro Bono Committee is dedicated to continuing the commitment of its founding members to address the need for effective legal services in the Latino community. The Pro Bono Committee works with bilingual lawyers and students to assist indigent individuals in need of advice on issues including healthcare, estates and family law.
The PRBA has recently sought to expand its membership even further so as to more effectively achieve its goals through the creation of a newsletter “Nuestra Voz, ” and the launching of its website www.prba.net which has generated interest in the PRBA nationally, throughout Latin America and as far away as Japan.
In 1960, the Honorable John Carro, former PRBA President and judge of the Appellate Division, First Department, stated in his inauguration speech:
…one need only look around at our emerging community to witness a myriad of problems confronting us – whether they be in housing, employment or education lawyers are generally in the forefront of such public issues, for it is they who shape the laws that give rise to society’s norms.
As we embark upon the challenges of the new millennium, the PRBA is committed to looking around at our emerging community. We hope that the range of issues being addressed by the committees described in this brief is a reflection of the problems confronting us, and we are dedicated to addressing those problems in an effort to shape the laws that give rise to society’s norms.