Eva Plaza never dreamed of becoming a lawyer or owning a business. But the sudden loss of her father when she was just 8 dramatically changed her life.
Born in Torreon, Mexico, Plaza and her three young siblings were reared by a single mom in El Paso, Texas. Her father died tragically at 33, without seeing a doctor, from a ruptured peptic ulcer. Without role models, Plaza overcame long odds, paved her own way, and became a partner in a top Los Angeles law firm.
“When my father passed away, we lost our home, and we had to move into public housing,” Plaza said. “Security, or lack of security, colored what I was going to do.”
As the eldest child, she felt responsible for supporting her working- class family. “The usual answers were doctor or lawyer,” she said. “I thought I would be a better lawyer.”
But becoming a lawyer — let alone a partner — in a predominantly white, male-dominated industry was no easy feat for a female Mexican immigrant. “Nobody took me under their wings,” said Plaza. “I learned by doing and not being afraid. And not accepting ‘no’ for an answer.”
Plaza’s accomplishments are rare. Fewer than 35 percent of all American attorneys are women, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. “The legal industry is nearly dead last in hiring and retaining women and minority lawyers,” said Joel Stern, CEO of the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms. “Less than 2 percent are partners.”
These disparities help explain why minority lawyers increasingly launch their own firms. “There are a lot of barriers, images and stereotypes that women have to push through, like women are not aggressive enough nor strong litigators and/or too combative and will not be good managers,” Stern said. Despite these obstacles, Plaza graduated from U.C. Berkeley Law School in 1984. She served the U.S. Justice Department as a trial counselor and later oversaw enforcement of the Fair Housing Act as an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C.
After two decades, Plaza left her secure and comfortable federal career. For family reasons, and a strong desire to reinvent herself and follow intellectual pursuits, Plaza moved to Los Angeles to start her own law practice.
“An easier path would have been to remain in politics,” Plaza said. “But that would have been more of the same. [The transition] took a lot from me, a lot of energy, my money and uncompensated time. This was not the road most easily traveled.” She opened the Plaza Law Group, which thrived. Plaza soon thereafter met Gerry Fox, founder of Gerald Fox Law, who offered her a partnership.
“Eva is a fearless litigator,” said Fox, “but the most important thing about Eva is that she treats everyone with honor and dignity. Her presence is a role model for younger lawyers to learn how to act.” Plaza sits on non-profit boards including that of the Latino Donor Collaborative, where she met Luis de La Cruz, owner of Andale Construction, now her client.
“I am very proud to know Eva’s background,” said de La Cruz. Coming “from El Paso with limited…resources demonstrated that she is an awesome intellectual person. And being in a man’s world, she demonstrated that Si, se puede [Yes, you can] concept is still alive.” Beyond handling Fox’s large cases, Plaza’s pro-bono work helps low-income families. She also advances minority attorneys as co-chair of the Lawyers Committee of Compton, a non-profit that provides free legal services.
“Eva is paving the way for new attorneys, like myself,” said Ingrid McCall, the groups’ interim executive director. “Her mentorship has been invaluable. I encourage other lawyers to do the same and start to volunteer.”
But law firms are businesses, too. Successful partners need to attract clients continually, which Plaza does.
“You need to have a method for bringing and serving clients, or you have to have a special skill that will help keep or attract new clients” said Francisco Montero, managing partner at Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth.
Montero also has seen technology transform the law business.
“The speed-of-response and expectation levels for lawyers has grown exponentially,” Montero said. “You are expected to respond at all hours to emails, social media and blogs.”
Robert White of the California Minority Counsel Program applauded Plaza. “It’s great to see someone like Eva succeed, who has persisted, who has done the marketing, put in the miles and developed her own business,” White said. “Eva epitomizes what goes best in the legal field. We need more people like her.”
Eva Plaza’s journey confirms Alexander Graham Bell’s observation: “When one door closes, another one opens.”