Carlos Pastrana of MWH Law Group sits in his office between a poster
of Puerto Rico-born, baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente and a
photo of his mother as a young girl. Photo: Kevin Harnack
Why Wisconsin? How does someone from the Caribbean end up in the upper Midwest?
Well, it sure isn’t because of the weather! As I’m sure most people know by now, Puerto Rico is going through a very rough patch socially, politically, and economically. After nine years at my old firm of Goldman, Antonetti & Cordova in San Juan, where I had just made partner, I realized that if I didn’t hit the “reset” button on my career then, I would never be able to leave. I mean, the next step in my career path there was shareholder, and it would have been much more difficult to start fresh as an associate, after being a shareholder in another jurisdiction.
My wife and I have family here, and whenever we came up to visit them, we saw firsthand that the whole “Midwestern values” cliché had a whole lot of truth to it. We thought this would be a wonderful place to raise our daughters, and we were right.
What area of labor and employment law in Wisconsin did you find most different from Puerto Rican law?
Puerto Rico is, as far as I know, the only U.S. jurisdiction that does not have at-will employment. In Puerto Rico, if an employer wants to terminate an employee, generally it must follow progressive discipline. That makes representing employers, which is what I do for a living, much more difficult there than in Wisconsin. While at my old firm, I used to speak about recent developments in Puerto Rican labor and employment law at National Retail Federation events, and even the lawyers from California, which is a notoriously pro-employee jurisdiction, would be shocked at how tough we had it in Puerto Rico.
What was the most difficult adjustment you had to make when you moved to Wisconsin?
Wow. Where to begin? There are certainly huge cultural differences that I had admittedly underestimated when relocating here. The interactions at Puerto Rican firms are certainly more open and informal than they are in the Midwest, even in the larger firms. I found a very steep learning curve in learning how to litigate in state agencies and courts, and even federal practice before Wisconsin federal courts and the Seventh Circuit [Court of Appeals] had a lot of nuances that were very different from federal practice in Puerto Rico and the First Circuit.
If I had to choose a biggest challenge, however, it would have to be the legal writing. Puerto Rico is a bilingual jurisdiction. When you write a brief in Spanish, you tend to be a little verbose and rhetorical, because that is seen as more persuasive. It’s also a vestige of the way legal writing is done in Spain. In Puerto Rico, you tend to write briefs in English in that same general style.
In Wisconsin, as in the rest of the United States, legal writing is more succinct and direct in general. There are even lawyers who, as a rule, refuse to use adverbs or who limit their adjective usage. In short, legal writing is seen as a discipline that must be learned and mastered. It took me three to four years, and stacks upon stacks of red ink-stained drafts, to learn and master it.
Current practice: Litigator, MWH Law Group, Milwaukee
Years in practice: (Mostly lucky) 13
Most recent positions: Senior Associate at Gonzalez, Saggio & Harlan; Senior Associate at MWH Law Group
Law school: University of Puerto Rico, 2002
Favorite quote: “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.” – Roberto Clemente
Favorite recent book: Bobby Tanzilo’s Hidden History of Milwaukee helped me gain an appreciation for how change and history are deeply rooted in every corner of our beautiful city, even the places we take for granted.
A favorite place in Wisconsin: I am in love with the village of Shorewood, where I live and where my daughters have become “Sconnies.” It is a place of great diversity and is only a bike ride away from downtown Milwaukee.
Hobbies: Reading, exploring and taking photos of Milwaukee, collecting vinyl LPs
What was the easiest adjustment?
Being a good communicator and fast on one’s feet is a skill that is admired and valued in lawyers in Puerto Rico. Within months of passing the Puerto Rico bar exam, I was already taking depositions and appearing at hearings. Two years into my career, I was already first-chairing cases. Although I have met some really good in-person litigators here, I think that more of a premium is placed on motion practice, particularly for people recruited straight out of law school, so it is not terribly hard to stand out as a good communicator, both before courts and agencies and when interacting with clients or opposing counsel.
What do you think you bring to the Wisconsin legal community that it lacks?
I litigated for nine years at a very high level in the only U.S. jurisdiction that is fully bilingual and in one of the few jurisdictions in which Latin American businesses routinely decide to set up shop. There might be another attorney in this state who has vast experience trying cases in Spanish and advising corporate clients in, say, Colombian or Panamanian law, but I highly doubt it.
Unfortunately, a lot of people think that if you studied Spanish in high school or college, or if you lived in Spain or Mexico for a couple of years, or if your parents are Mexican or Puerto Rican, you can communicate fluently with Latino or Latin American clients, and that is a gross oversimplification. Besides being professional level and natively bilingual (we speak Spanish exclusively at my house), I also have the cultural fluency that comes with being Latino and growing up in a place that is, culturally if not politically, “Latin American.” As our state continues to attract more and more Latinos and to make inroads in the Latin American business market, that is an advantage that I intend to put to good use.
What does diversity mean to you?
I would be lying if I did not admit that the concept of diversity is very personal to me, as a Latino who came here at a relatively advanced stage of my life and my career. To me, it is not abstract or foreign, or something in my family tree that I want to recapture; it is who I am, who my wife is, and who my daughters are. By being on the board of La Casa de Esperanza in Waukesha, and by joining or supporting organizations that promote diversity and opportunities for minorities, such as the United Community Center, Milwaukee Achiever, and the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee, I have tried to help build thriving diverse communities that will hopefully someday produce professionals who will have access to leadership roles in Wisconsin.
Carlos Pastrana and daughters Olivia (left) and Daniella (right) share a favorite pastime, gazing at the Atlantic
Ocean, during Easter vacation in 2009 at a place called Palmas del Mar in the town of Humacao, Puerto Rico.
What champions for diversity in our legal community have you met since you moved here?
There are many great people fighting the good fight in Milwaukee, and the legal community is not the exception. José Olivieri, at Michael Best & Friedrich, was the first person here who believed I could contribute to our legal community. He’s also the president of the board at the United Community Center and might very well know every single Latino in this town. He has done so much for this community. I will always consider him a friend and mentor.
After working with José, I have been blessed to know and work with Emery Harlan, who helped grow González, Saggio & Harlan into the biggest minority-owned firm in the nation, and who gave minority-owned firms throughout the country a great forum in the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF). I think that Emery and I share a great passion for proving that there is a lot of great talent among minority attorneys in this nation, particularly the Midwest, and I look forward to helping him continue to promote diversity in the legal community, in our work together at MWH Law Group.
What do you find most disappointing in the Milwaukee legal community from the standpoint of diversity?
I feel that the legal community in Milwaukee has been relatively homogeneous for a long time and that a bit of a closed mindset has been the norm, which has made things rough for minority and women lawyers. However, I truly believe that Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, are becoming more and more diverse as time goes by, and that this process is irreversible. Someday, we will attract more professionals from far-off places like Puerto Rico, and they will not face the challenges that the people coming in are facing now.
What would you say to people who believe law firms should hire the best talent out there, without regard for ethnic or racial background?
In theory, that sounds like a relatively noncontroversial statement, doesn’t it? So many firms and companies have “diversity programs,” but so few walk the walk, unfortunately. The proof is in the pudding, and a lot of law firms in town remain homogeneous and somewhat clueless about how to make diverse lawyers feel welcome and understood. I don’t think this is done on purpose; I think it’s the painful part of a long process that will someday bring about real diversity in our profession.
There are many talented lawyers of all races and ethnicities, and law school GPA is sometimes a poor indicator of how good someone will be at practicing law. Culture is a very important factor that should not be trivialized as “political correctness.” Diverse voices enrich the fabric of Wisconsin by bringing in experiences and viewpoints that would not otherwise grow organically here. Places that do not value that, and that do not provide diverse individuals with opportunities to succeed, do not thrive. It’s as simple as that.
Do you have any advice for other Puerto Rican attorneys planning to switch to Wisconsin mid-career?
Give yourself time to learn how things are done here. Be humble and willing to start from scratch if need be, but don’t ever compromise who you are. And buy at least one warm coat.