When Leticia Mason’s husband was transferred by his employer Caterpillar Financial from Mexico City to Nashville, Leticia wasn’t worried. They didn’t have children then and as a lawyer she knew she could get a job; they saw it as an adventure. “I didn’t give it a big thought,” she says. “When a lawyer moves from the U.S. to Mexico he may not be able to go to the courts but would be able to get a good job, making money as an attorney.”
She was practicing corporate law in Mexico with the antitrust division of the Mexican government, with a law degree plus a masters in corporate law. But upon arrival she learned it didn’t work that way here.
“It was a shock and very discouraging,” she says. She found out that she could not practice, so she applied to take the bar exam. “I was so naïve. They didn’t let me take the bar — they said ‘Where is your bachelor’s degree?’” She hadn’t known the U.S. requirements. In Mexico, a person goes straight from high school to five years of law school.
“No one was interested in me.” So she worked in an immigration law firm as a paralegal. “All those years of law school … It was very hard for me. Constantly they would tell me, ‘Stop talking like a lawyer; you’re not a lawyer.’” She got so tired of hearing that she decided to do whatever she had to do to be a lawyer again.
“I don’t want anyone to ever tell me again I’m not a lawyer.”
She applied and was admitted to Nashville School of Law in 2002, while also by that time working as a Spanish interpreter in Davidson County Criminal Courts, which she loved doing.
She loved law school too. “I learned the system; it is very different from Mexico.” She explains that Mexican law is based on Roman law: “Everything is codified; there is case law but not as much as here.” Mason also says she couldn’t believe “that a neighbor would sue a neighbor or a daughter would sue a mother-in-law. Those don’t happen in Mexico because no one has the money to do that.” She had an adjustment to make culturally, especially in personal injury cases, that “it’s okay to get money from this. I would think, ‘It’s an accident, so how could you get money from that?’ That kind of thinking, that it’s okay to ask for money even if it wasn’t anyone’s fault, is very different.”
And while juggling both law school and her job as an interpreter, she became pregnant with a son and then a year and a half later, with her daughter.
“My husband would come home from work and I would leave for school,” she laughs about their routine. “It is a four-year program, but I finished in six.”
“I never studied so much in my life before the bar exam — for two months, eight hours every day! I didn’t want to fail because I thought, ‘I’m not doing this again!’”
Back when she was a court interpreter, she had met an attorney in private practice, Glenn Funk. After she passed the bar (first try, and don’t forget it was not in her native language) and was licensed, he offered her a job. Most of her clients were Hispanic or from other foreign countries. Her practice today is mostly criminal, immigration and some family law. “In the U.S. my market is Spanish speakers, not corporate like it was in Mexico,” she says. Another challenge she still faces today is her accent: “Some people don’t care, but some people don’t like it.”
Three years into her law practice, her husband was again transferred, this time to Santiago, Chile. She soon learned that if she was going to practice law there she would have to go back to law school again.
“I said NO to that.” Instead, she volunteered her time and settled in to the life of a stay-at-home mom, helping her kids, then six and seven, navigate the new country.
When they moved back to Nashville three years later, she contacted Funk, who was then the District Attorney. He hired her, which is where she worked for about four years, in a part-time position in General Sessions Court. Then earlier this year a friend she had met in law school, Joseph Fuson, asked her to come work at Freeman & Fuson, which she did. “It was super hard to leave the DA’s office,” she says. “I appreciate the opportunity he gave me.”
Mason, now 46, shies away from the idea that she overcame a lot to be a lawyer in the U.S. “It’s not a big deal,” she insists. Although many people in her path were kind to her in her quest, notably the NSL law dean and several judges, she didn’t have a lot of help to figure out the system.
“I did what I had to do — just me and the internet and telephone,” she says, pausing. “Well, now that I think about it, I guess it is a big deal.”
Suzanne Robertson is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.