As a young girl helping her parents run their Brooklyn bodega, Damaris Hernández would not have dared to dream that she would one day become a lawyer, let alone a partner in one of world’s most rarefied legal firms.
But Ms. Hernández was recently promoted to the job , making her the first Latina to reach that coveted spot at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
That achievement is an acknowledgment of her talent and hard work. But the story of her route to the top also reveals how much more complex the journey is for minorities and women than for the white men who overwhelmingly dominate the firms. Skill is only one of the keys. Being able to navigate unspoken rules is at least as important.
“When I was the only one of color or the only woman in the room, I had the confidence to believe in my ability,” said Ms. Hernández, 36, describing the advantages of the program to her. “When you are the first, you need someone to have your back.”
Over the last decade and a half, she and 100 others who attended the New York University School of Law received that support from a scholarship program that paid their full tuition and also gave them access to a network of luminaries including federal judges, law firm partners and even Supreme Court justices.
Graduates, who typically are the first in their families to seek a professional or graduate degree, have gone on to jobs at elite law firms such as Davis Polk & Wardwell or Shearman & Sterling, as well as public interest jobs. The scholarships – which each provide about $175,000 for three years of legal education – are for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, said the program’s founder, Anthony Welters, a 1977 N.Y.U. law school graduate who is executive vice president of the health care company the UnitedHealth Group.
“The program aims at economic diversity,” said Mr. Welters, 60, an African-American who grew up in Harlem and was the first in his family to pursue an advanced degree. After stints as a Capitol Hill aide and securities lawyer, he made his fortune when AmeriChoice, the Medicaid services provider he founded, later merged with UnitedHealth.
“It’s not just giving cash,” he said of the program, which he and his wife, Beatrice, a former American ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, founded in 1998. They called it AnBryce, a name derived from the first initial of each family member’s name. “It’s more than academic credentials. It takes a hell of a lot to become a successful lawyer. These students can compete; they just have to know the rules of the road.”
Those rules are crucial to securing jobs at premier law firms, which can pay their partners salaries in the millions of dollars but ……
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