The story of Garcia, Hernández, Sawhney & Bermudez, LLP can be told, at least preliminarily, through statistics. All of the California firm’s eight partners are people of color and nearly three-quarters of those partners are women. Home to 15 attorneys in three offices, Garcia, Hernández is one of the state’s largest minority-owned law firms. And the firm’s northernmost and southernmost branches are led by graduates of Stanford Law School.
Firm co-founder Mary T. Hernández, JD ’88, leads the Bay Area office. After graduating from Stanford Law School, where she had an externship in Australia and was president of the Stanford Judo Club, Hernández joined the corporate practice of a large San Francisco firm. On the side, she fed her hunger for advocacy work, serving on the board of the San Francisco Unified School District and as the youngest president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. But in founding Garcia, Hernández, she formally combined her passion for advocacy with a legal career. “My practice is a unique blend of public policy, advocacy, politics, and law,” says Hernández, an expert in board governance, student equity, and language rights, who represents public agencies, nonprofits, and businesses.
At Garcia, Hernández, sharing clients is not only encouraged but required. “Partners are expected to give away one client to a newer lawyer, which keeps us vital and growing. I had a $1 million book of business within about three years. It confirms our system works,” says Hernández, whose clients include the Gilroy, Hayward, and San Francisco unified school districts and the Fairview Fire Protection District. She also represented nine school districts in Coachella Valley Unified School District v. State of California, which challenged the state’s method of testing English learners’ academic achievement for purposes of No Child Left Behind.
Farther south, employment litigator and counselor Nadia P. Bermudez, JD ’01, heads the firm’s San Diego branch. Named by San Diego Metropolitan magazine as one of its Top 40 Under 40, Bermudez was recruited away from a big firm by Garcia, Hernández. “The attrition rates for women of color at large firms are awful and I didn’t see a future for myself there,” Bermudez says of her decision to leave. “This firm gave me a lot of opportunities.”
Specifically, Garcia, Hernández enabled her to build on her book of business. “It was an already established firm with institutional clients in the public and private sector so it was an easy sell to bring my clients over. The attorneys have top credentials, with law schools and experience similar to large firms,” explains Bermudez, who co-chaired the Stanford Latino Law Students Association and worked at the East Palo Alto Community Law Clinic while at Stanford Law School. She was also “very excited” about Garcia, Hernández’s distinctiveness: “There are very few Latino-owned firms larger than one office,” she explains. The firm’s practice areas include litigation, restaurant and hospitality law, finance and real estate law. Bermudez handles employment litigation, including discrimination and harassment claims, and counsels business owners and HR professionals in complying with labor laws. Her clients include publicly traded medical device companies as well as water and school districts.
And this firm takes seriously the challenges of work/life balance. In addition to allowing attorneys to periodically work from home, the firm also has a unique “flex-plan” that allows lawyers to work part time but enables them to get paid at a full-time level when they’re able to work full time. Thus the firm can accommodate lawyers with changing needs and family obligations. The plan, according to Hernández, has been used by both men and women. She said, “Our perspective has allowed us to maximize the potential of all of our attorneys, male and female, and our firm is stronger for it.”
Beyond their law practices, Garcia, Hernández lawyers serve in leadership roles in community organizations. Bermudez, for example, is past president of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, as was her sister, who is also a Garcia, Hernández partner. Bermudez served on the board of directors of the San Diego County Bar Association and currently co-chairs the Lawyers Club Diverse Women’s Committee, which focuses on promoting women of color in the profession. In working with business leaders in these capacities, Bermudez has found that, as California’s demographics shift, “businesses want diversity in their legal representation,” which is one reason Garcia, Hernández has proved successful, she says. “Diverse attorneys reflect the workforces of their clients and are able to relate to people of different backgrounds.”
But the firm looks at more than just diversity when adding lawyers. The Garcia, Hernández hiring motto is First-Rate Minds and First-Rate Hearts. “We insist on both,” Hernández says. And in return, the firm invests in its team. “We’re great lawyers who move fast and work hard, but we’re also very nurturing,” she explains. “We check in with our lawyers and ask, ‘What do you want for yourself and how can we help you get there?’ We hire the best and we want to keep them and have them reach their potential.” Contented attorneys translates into satisfied clients, Hernández adds, noting by example that she’s represented the National Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers for more than 25 years.
“The only thing we’re dying to do is recruit more Stanford students,” Hernández says. “We have two owners from Stanford but we’re outnumbered by Harvard graduates. We need to catch up.”